Curse of Strahd is widely considered one of the best Dungeons & Dragons adventures of all time. And nestled in the back of the book, Death House is an optional mini-adventure designed for 1st-level characters to introduce them to Barovia and advance them to 3rd level. I’ve run Death House a few times myself, and played it several more. Most recently I played in a pick-up game proposed by DM Elise on Twitter. The experience was inspiring, and after a lengthy conversation with a friend I started to wonder, is Death House a great 5E D&D starter adventure, or the greatest starter adventure? Let’s get into it and don’t worry — only the mildest of spoilers ahead.
What makes Death House a great starter adventure
Essentially a haunted house, Death House hooks characters from the get go when they encounter two children, frightened and crying in front of an old row house in the village of Barovia. The eerie mists surrounding the land and binding the inhabitants there closes in around the party, herding them to the adventure location. From there, characters enter the house and navigate the creepy as hell mansion. Along the way characters discover sinister secrets of the house’s owners and desperately attempt to escape.
Death House begins with powerful elements to help draw characters in and give the Dungeon Master a great deal of control over the situation without being too heavy handed. The mists make a compelling reason to take shelter at Death House, because it is willfully attempting to control the party’s movement. This is quite a boon for a new DM especially, providing a practical reason for getting the characters to the adventure location.
Once the party is in the right place, they’re confronted by scared children looking for help. There’s a monster in the house, and the children are too frightened to go back inside. Presumably the heroic adventurers offer to help, head into the house and the adventure proper ensues. There’s plenty of rooms to explore and dangers to avoid or overcome. Curious adventurers uncover mysteries and hidden details reveal the nature of Death House and the inhabitants.
And there’s a dungeon! Every great 5E D&D starter adventure ought to have either a dungeon or a dragon, right? A monster waits at the end — classic D&D. There’s treasure to find and a great twists along the way. Character level advancement is built in too. All of Death House comes neatly packaged in 10 pages including a full page map. When the adventurers complete Death House they’ll be 3rd level characters ready to continue the larger Curse of Strahd adventure.
Greatest 5E D&D starter adventure!As a starter adventure any DM can run this with minimal prep time and reasonably assume players will stay in the contained environment. Characters remain relatively safe, because they’ll be actively uncovering dangers. No monster patrols or random encounters threaten the party, giving characters opportunity to rest when needed. And they’ll need it because 1st level characters are in mortal danger in any encounter. Death is a real possibility y’all.
But there’s something else going on with Death House. These basic elements of Death House, stripped of details, elevate it from being a great starter adventure to the greatest starter adventure for 5E D&D.
- Clear adventure location
- Compelling hook
- Contained environment
- Simple plot
- Active adventuring
- Exploration rewarded
- Boss monster
- Clever twist
- Milestone advancement
These elements make Death House the greatest starter adventure because a DM can swap out any of the details to make it their own. Because it’s a short adventure, Death House is great for a one shot or a couple of game sessions. Changing up a few details keeps it fresh and exciting for a DM who runs it more than once and players who’ve gone on the adventure before, including players who might’ve run it themselves. Scaling the adventure up for higher level characters is super easy too.
Here’s a few examples of different Death Houses I’ve come across. Along with the differences I’ll mention how the experience was different.
- Higher level characters, different monsters, rooms and floors of Death House configured differently but the same content, dungeon condensed
- Combat a bit more relaxed because characters were more survivable and capable (but more serious too because the monsters were more powerful), game time was about half typical time to play (intentional — it was a three hour one shot), particularly interesting for people familiar with Death House to see what things were changed around.
- Different environment, “certain circumstances” detailed in adventure considered met upon start
- House swapped for a mine shaft, children swapped for injured miners, mists swapped for terrible weather but otherwise elements were the same. This was interested to play and wonder how various things would be represented by the DM. Turns out it’s not too hard to turn a mansion into a mine shaft.
- Same characters, different boss monster, different plot details
- Death House isn’t just a normal house so characters were very curious (and frightened) to come across the same exact house again later in the campaign. Many things were eerily the same including the circumstances of the boss monster (but with a different monster).
One of the fun things about running and player published adventures is sharing stories of your experience with other players. My friend and I spent a while chatting about Death House and how many times we’d run or played it ourselves. We borrowed ideas from each other for the next time we ran it too, and I’m certain we both will do so in the future.
Death House is so easy to modify and keep fresh while still keeping the structure of it the same. It’s reasonable to assume characters will take the adventure hook, although it can’t hurt to pitch players ahead of time about playing a haunted house adventure. Scaling is no problem, and characters can engage with the location at their own pace without feeling constant pressure or threat. The short length makes it ideal for a one shot or for a couple of sessions, or to start a brand new campaign and continue with Curse of Strahd or literally anything your group wants to do next.
Have you played or run Death House? How many times? What changes did you make to make it your own? Seriously, I want to know so I can steal them for the next time I run the adventure. Do you agree that it’s the greatest 5E D&D starter adventure? Or do I have a random form of indefinite madness brought on by the realization that my spirit is trapped in Barovia, likely forever?