How to Run Death House Without Killing All the PCs

Image Copyright Wizards of the Coast

Image Copyright Wizards of the Coast

WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Death House, which is the introductory adventure for Curse of Strahd. If you may play in this adventure, you want to avoid these spoilers. However, if you’re going to be DMing this adventure, read on.

Check out my extensive review of Curse of Strahd on the Game Master's Journey podcast. 

You can also check out my list of milestones for Curse of Strahd.

Ironically, Wizards of the Coast seems to make adventures that aren’t properly balanced and will result in a TPK for the unwary DM (Lost Mine of Phandelver anyone?). On a recent episode of Game Master’s Journey I discussed how D&D’s encounter xp system doesn’t add up. Perhaps Wizards needs to start checking their math....

If you’re planning to run this adventure, there are a few possible problem areas you’ll want to be aware of. I will list these by the encounter number in the adventure, along with suggestions on how to fix the encounters. If you want to TPK your party, then by all means run the adventure as written. However, if you’re planning to use this to kick off Curse of Strahd, you may want the PCs to actually survive this introductory adventure.

You can download the free pdf of the adventure.

20. Two Ghosts:  If the PCs play their cards right, this should not result in a combat. However, if the PCs end up fighting the two ghosts, this is an extremely deadly encounter. ONE of these ghosts would be a deadly encounter (they’re each CR 3).

29. Four Ghouls:  This encounter is super-deadly, even for a group of 6 PCs. These ghouls fight until destroyed. If you run the encounter as written, there’s a good chance the PCs will be surprised, which will make it even more difficult. My recommendation is to reduce the number of ghouls, and don’t allow for the opportunity of the PCs being surprised. Here is the adjustment for various group sizes.

3 PCs: 1 Ghoul (Easy)
4 PCs: 2 Ghouls (Hard)
5 PCs: 2 Ghouls (Medium)
6 PCs: 3 Ghouls (Hard)

31. Five Shadows:  This encounter is Deadly as written unless you have 6 PCs. These shadows chase PCs who try to flee. If you feel touching the statue or taking the crystal orb is a crime worthy of a TPK, then feel free to leave the encounter as is. Otherwise, I’d make the following adjustments to the number of shadows.

3 PCs: 2 Shadows (Medium)
4 PCs: 3 Shadows (Medium)
5 PCs: 3 Shadows (Medium)
6 PCs: 5 Shadows (Medium)

34. Two Ghasts:  This is another deadly encounter if you have fewer than 6 PCs. If you think the PCs should earn a TPK for taking something from the footlockers, feel free to leave it as is. Otherwise, make the following adjustments.

3 PCs: 1 Ghast (Hard)
4 PCs: 1 Ghast (Medium)
5 PCs: 1 Ghast (Easy)
6 PCs: 2 Ghasts (Hard)

38. Shambling Mound:  The shambling mound is a CR 5 creature. This is a deadly encounter, no matter the size of your party. If the PCs make the sacrifice (which I’d say is an evil act requiring a Powers Check), then they won’t have to face the shambling mound. However, if the PCs have some scruples and balk at sacrificing a life, they will be rewarded by facing a monster they can’t beat. Even if the PCs instantly realize they should run away, they will still have to evade the shambling mound long enough to get out of the basement level.

Once they've gotten back up to the house, the PCs still have to deal with poisonous smoke, blade barrier-filled doors and possibly swarms of rats. I can’t imagine how this could end in anything other than a TPK. I also can’t imagine why a DM would want to punish the PCs for doing the right thing. Unless you're running a one-shot, a TPK punishes everyone at the table, including the DM. 

My fix for this is to make it clear to the players that they should run from the shambling mound. Come right out and tell them if they don’t figure it out for themselves. I would also not have the shambling mound pursue them beyond area 38. The poisonous smoke, whirling blades and swarms of rats will be more than enough to challenge your PCs on their way out of the house. 

UPDATE

I am running Curse of Strahd with my own group. I have actual play videos of the campaign, which you can find here on YouTube. I began the campaign with Death House, however I started the PCs at level 3, and they gained level 4 upon completing Death House. I ran Death House as written, and with a party of four level 3 PCs, it went great. There was enough suspense, tension and danger to make it exciting, and we had some close calls, but no TPK.