Famine has swept the land of Barovia and its noble families have become cannibals! Learn the true meaning of hunger as you lead players from level 1 to level 3 through this introductory adventure to Curse of Strahd!
Names have Power
As stated previously, this section of Curse of Strahd is called “Death House.” It is recommended that you and any NPC present in the adventure refer to this location as “Durst Manor.” At no point should players hear the name “Death House,” as that could dissuade them from entering the location entirely.
An Alternate History
As written, the Durst family are stock-and-standard cultists who worship Strahd and engage in ritualistic cannibalism. While this is a fine history for cultists who serve as nothing more than window dressing in a campaign, the Durst family is your party’s introduction to the module. As such, they should have a background suitably fleshed-out and fitting with the tone of the adventure.
In this guide, Gustav and Elisabeth Durst were once wealthy land owners and agricultural merchants. In addition to their own manor house, located on a fully staffed plantation to the east of the Village of Barovia, they also owned the local mill and several other businesses. All of this made them one of the wealthiest and most well-connected families in the entire valley.
The Durst family’s prosperity was not to last, however. Their good fortune, and their fate, changed on the night that Strahd became a vampire and the mysterious mists enshrouded the land.
A Tasty Morsel
When the mists rose and full sunlight became a mere memory, famine swept the land as plant life began to wither and die. The Durst’s agricultural fortune all but disappeared. Their remaining gold and lines of credit became worthless. Most of the family’s staff left to attend to their own affairs, or to forage on their own. The Dursts were ruined, and on the verge of starving just like everyone else.
In order to sustain their family, Elisabeth and Gustav called a midnight meeting with their remaining friends. Long into the morning, the attending nobles and ex-merchants schemed and argued about how best to survive. None of their ideas were feasible. The prospect of starvation hung like a pall over them all. At last, Elisabeth gathered her courage and put forth a simple, yet unthinkable idea: cannibalism.
As soon as she suggested it, a mysterious zeal took hold in her heart. Her hesitant words turned to fervent proselytizing, and swayed even the most soft-hearted of those in the meeting. Soon, it was decided. The Dursts and their friends would sustain themselves on the flesh of the living.
Not being complete monsters, Gustav and Elisabeth decided to keep their two young children and their nursemaid, Anya, ignorant of their activities. Work began in earnest on an expansion to the mansion’s basement and family crypt, where they planned to commit their heinous acts of survival in secret.
The group’s first victims were members of the Durst’s remaining plantation staff. In the weeks afterward, they began to lure wayward travelers whom they believed would not be missed.
A Cult is Born
Weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. Hundreds of Barovians died in the famine, but eventually the land and its people became accustomed to the oppressive mists and lack of sunlight. Hardier crops dotted the land and filled the bellies of the people. The threat of famine became a memory.
Yet the Dursts and their ilk continued their vile deeds underneath the manor house. The dark and bitter crops that now sustained the rest of Barovia did not satiate their distorted palates. Their desire for human flesh had only grown.
In addition to their deviant dining habits, the Dursts and their inner circle developed another dark fixation, born from rumors about their lord Strahd: eternal life.
Using goods and funds stolen from their victims, the Dursts and their fellow fanatics acquired many unsavory tomes. Within their pages were details on rites and rituals that promised to drain the life and vitality from a victim and transfer it to the caster. A cult of ritual killers was born, and the cellar was expanded further to include a ceremonial chamber and prison.
While Elisabeth and the other cultists ramped up their grisly activities, Gustav’s disillusionment grew, and he began to search for a different kind of satisfaction. He eventually found it in the arms of the children’s nursemaid.
Their union, although brief, resulted in Anya’s pregnancy. It also resulted in the unadulterated ire of Elisabeth Durst, which came to a head after the birth of Gustav and Anya’s son, Walter.
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A Cursed Family
The night after Walter’s birth, Elisabeth sent Gustav away on an errand in the village. After he was gone, she locked their children in their attic bedroom before stealing into Anya’s room one floor below. There, she brutally murdered the nursemaid and snatched Walter from his crib.
With the baby in her blood-covered arms, Elisabeth descended into the earthen halls underneath the manor. Within the ritual chamber, she placed the wailing child upon the cold stone of the altar and took hold of a nearby sacrificial knife. Without hesitation, she plunged the knife into the infant boy’s heart.
In that moment, the Dark Powers took notice of Elisabeth and her abhorrent cult. With a twisting pain, she and everyone inside the house who had tasted human flesh felt themselves changing from the inside out. The immortality that they had sought for so long would be granted to them in the form of undeath. They would hunger for flesh forevermore within a house that would never let them leave.
Rose and Thorn
As the party makes their way from the gates of Barovia toward the village, they will come to a crossroad. An overgrown wagon trail leads northward toward a small mansion flanked by several outbuildings. Standing at the crossroad are the Durst’s two children, Rosavalda (“Rose”) and Thornboldt (“Thorn”).
As written, the versions of Rose and Thorn encountered here are creations of the manor house. Run the encounter as written in the module. If you wish to add some visual foreshadowing, Rose can carry a lantern on the end of a curved rod—much like the lure of an angler fish.
Unlike the module, the mists of Barovia are surrounding Durst Manor, and do not force the characters inside. The remoteness of the manor house, combined with the fact that it is the first sign of civilization that the party will see in Barovia, may be motivation enough to go inside. Barring that, darkness, inclement weather, and distant howling of wolves will likely serve to convince characters to go inside.
Should your party still skirt around the lure of Durst Manor and make their way onward, let them. Player agency is an important part of the game, and it should be honored. You may choose to let your party go through the module at a handicap of three levels, or you may add additional milestones for leveling up as you see fit.
Areas of the House
This section will cover revisions to the various areas of Durst Manor. Any area not listed here should be run as it is written in the module, or as modified to your liking.
2. Main Hall
When characters search the wall of the room for secret doors, they won’t find carved images of serpents and skulls. Instead, they find carved images of famine and death—starving men, women, and children.
3. Den of Wolves
Until characters reach the third floor of the manor, this room remains as-written. Afterward, however, one of the stuffed wolves becomes a real wolf. Driven by a hunger that mirrors the famine that started it all, the wolf will stalk characters through the manor house and attack the weakest looking character.
4. Kitchen and Pantry
The kitchen is neat and tidy, as written. However, both the kitchen and pantry are completely bare of any food. The shelves of the pantry are lined, instead, by empty burlap sacks that used to contain flour and grain of various sorts.
Hanging on the walls of the kitchen and inside drawers are various cooking implements that could serve as improvised weapons. Meat cleavers, butcher knives, and iron pans are available in abundance here.
The emaciated body of a rat can be found behind a crate on a successful DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check.
5. Dining Room
Within the dining room, characters find a resplendent feast of meats, fruits, and cheeses laid out upon the table. In front of each of the table’s eight high-backed chairs is a place setting. Every plate holds morsels of food, and each shows signs of having recently been eaten. It looks as if the dinner party left mid meal.
The food is an illusion created by the house in order to lure in and weaken its prey. A Detect Magic spell reveals the food’s illusory nature.
Characters who partake of the table’s feast suffer no immediate ill effects. Instead, the food is delicious and they feel satiated.
It is only when the party ascends to the third floor and above—when the house reveals its true nature—that the food’s effect is felt. Any character who ate food from the dining room must succeed on a DC 12 Constitution saving throw. On a failure, affected characters suddenly feel extreme hunger pangs and gain one level of exhaustion.
6. Upper Hall
After a character reaches the third floor and the house reveals its true nature, the suits of armor here will begin to change poses and placements around the hall when no one is looking. They are otherwise harmless.
Upon close inspect, the carvings on the wall depict emaciated children begging for food.
In addition to the other items on the desk is a small framed oil painting of a dog. Its pose is regal, and the painting goes to great lengths to detail the luster of the dog’s dark fur. At the bottom of the painting is written the name “Sophaxis.”
Sophaxis was the Durst family dog at the time of their curse, and can be found in area 34.
9. Secret Room
The bookshelves of this room no longer contain books on fiend-summoning. Instead, the books deal mostly with the subject of eternal life and rituals to steal the life force of others through means such as bloodletting, magical spells, and cannibalism.
Just as in the module, characters can determine the false nature of the rituals after studying the books for one hour and making a DC 12 Intelligence (Arcana) check.
The letter, clutched in the hands of a dead adventurer, reads:
My most pathetic servants,
I allow you and your pathetic band of miscreants to exist in my land only for my own amusement. I am not your messiah, and have not come to lead you on a path to immortality.
Continue your farcical rituals and have your meals of flesh. Carve my visage into every stone you see. Sire as many bastards as you wish. I care not. You are all worms writhing in my earth, and I shall not save you from your wretchedness. I much prefer you as you are.
Your dread lord and master,
Strahd von Zarovich
Upon a character reaching the third floor balcony, the house will reveal its sinister nature. All lamps and fires within the house will extinguish. The highly polished wood paneling on the walls and floors will lose their luster, age, and crack. Cobwebs and dust will appear on surfaces and walls.
On the outside of the house, bricks will appear and cover up the windows and doors, so as to trap the party inside the manor house.
If the version of Rose and Thorn that lured the characters to the house have been coaxed inside, they will crumble to dust.
12. Master Suite
In this room, the dessicated body of Gustav Durst can be found hanging from the canopy of the bed. A makeshift noose, made from a bed sheet, is fastened around his neck. Gustav committed suicide when he returned home to find the grisly remains of Anya, as well as the undead forms of his wife and fellow cultists. He never discovered the bodies of his children, having assumed the worst.
A hastily-written suicide note sits on the table in the parlor on the south end of the room.
My dearest children,
The darkness takes us, and I am sorry that your mother and I have brought it upon you. What began as survival turned into our obsession, and now to our downfall. In my final moments, I see clear. We are anathema, and are being punished. We deserve it, but I regret that your fates are tied to ours.
I love you both with all my heart. No amount of darkness and death will ever change that. May all of our souls find peace.
Your loving father,
14. Storage Room
The broom located here is an ordinary one.
15a. Nursemaid’s Suite
Any character who looks at the mirror on the wall sees a skeletally thin reflection of themselves, as if they were near to starving.
17. Spare Bedroom
This dusty room looks exactly as it is written in the module. However, the doll in the northern window box will appear randomly around the attic space after the characters have left the room. The doll is harmless, and is used by the house to fray the characters’ nerves.
23b. Walter’s Crypt
In addition to being a bastard, Walter was killed the day after he was born. As such, he would not have a crypt. Instead of bearing Walter’s name, this crypt is empty and unmarked.
25. Well and Cultist Quarters
Three skeletally thin ghouls are in this area. One is in area A, one is in area B, and the third is in the well. The ghoul in the well will grab the first character to venture within five feet of its hiding place, and attempt to drag them in.
26. Hidden Spiked Pit
Given that only cult members were meant to access these earthen halls, it makes little sense for a spiked pit to be present. Remove this hazard from the dungeon.
Instead of a grick, this area contains a stunted carrion crawler. It is smaller than its full-sized brethren due to a lack of prey, and is a medium-sized creature as a result. In addition, its tentacle attack only has a reach of 5 feet.
29. Ghoulish Encounter
Due to the presence of ghouls in area 25, reduce the number of ghouls in this encounter from 4 to 2.
33. Cult Leaders’ Den
Remove the mimic encounter from this area, as it makes little sense for such a creature to be in this area.
34. Cult Leaders’ Quarters
No ghasts are hidden in this area. Instead, a death dog lies in wait behind the bed and will attack any character that draws near.
The death dog was once the Durst family pet, Sophaxis, whom Gustav fed human flesh. If addressed by name, Sophaxis will cease attacking the party and may be convinced to accompany them with a successful DC 15 Wisdom (Animal Handling) check.
If Sophaxis is taken outside of the manor house, it will die and crumble to dust.
As written, this area contains various relics that the Dursts’ cult had collected. At your discretion, you may replace those useless relics with items that foreshadow the coming adventure. While this may sacrifice verisimilitude, it can add a wonderful twist in your players’ hindsight.
If you choose to replace the items in the module with more meaningful ones, the following items are found in the niches along the wall:
- A vial of coagulated blood
- A lock of auburn hair, woven into a figure eight
- A hag’s severed finger
- A sun symbol made from woven wicker
- A patch of dried human skin
- A vial of murky swamp water
- The severed claw of a raven
- A black twig with blood-red thorns
- A dragon’s tooth wrapped in silver wire
- The tattered remains of a large bird feather
- A shard of amber
- A dried bouquet of wolf’s bane
- The desiccated ear of an elf
38. Ritual Chamber
The monster in this area is not a shambling mound, but is instead a gibbering mouther. The gibbering mouther is Elisabeth Durst’s cursed form, intermixed with all of the victims that have wandered into the manor house over the centuries.
If the characters refuse to offer up a sacrifice on the altar, or if they try to escape the room, the ghostly cultists will chant, “The end is nigh! Flesh will be taken!” At the same time, the gibbering mouther will slither out of the southern alcove and swim under the water toward the altar, preparing to attack. Characters with a Passive Perception score of 15 or higher notice the mouther’s disturbances on the surface of the filth-ridden water.
A Sacrifice is Made
If the party makes a sacrifice on the altar in area 38, then the house and the spirits of the cult are appeased. The portcullis raises up on its own, and the survivors are free to leave the ritual chamber. Characters who linger can hear (or see if they’re close enough) the gibbering mouther emerge from the water and devour the corpse.
Although the party will have been allowed to leave the ritual chamber, Durst Manor will not allow them to leave so easily. The house has removed and sealed up the staircase in area 22. This forces the characters to find an alternate escape route (area 32) or face the prospect of starving to death.
The House Remains Hungry
If the party does not make a sacrifice, and either destroy the gibbering mouther or escape from it, Durst Manor attacks them as they try to leave. You may run this escape sequence as written, or optionally as a skill challenge.
Skill Challenge Escape
If you choose to run the escape sequence as a skill challenge, have your players roll for initiative. Their initiative order dictates which character is fastest and which is slowest.
Obstacles that the house throws in the party’s path can be overcome through the use of a relevant skill check. Players must choose the skill, and narrate how their characters use it to overcome the obstacle. One check is sufficient for the entire party to advance beyond an obstacle, regardless if the check passes or fails. Failed skill checks result in a setback, typically in the form of lost time.
In order to escape the manor house, the party must accrue five successes before they accrue three failures. Usage of appropriate spells can count as an automatic success.
If the party accrues three failures before they escape the house, the last character in the initiative order does not escape—they are lost to the house’s threats. Every failure beyond that is a character that does not make it out alive.
The following challenges are examples of obstacles that you can set in the path of the characters along with a skill that might be used to overcome it. Creativity is encouraged, however. If a player proposes a different skill and an appropriate use for it, consider allowing them to make the check with that skill.
Challenge 1: Rocks begin to fall from the ceiling of the ritual chamber. A DC 10 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check can be used to avoid the falling rocks.
Challenge 2: The manor is holding the portcullis closed. A DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check can be used to lift it.
Challenge 3: The cultist quarters (area 25) has flooded and the water is filled with body parts and garbage. A DC 12 Strength (Athletics) check can be used to swim through the room.
Challenge 4: The bones in the dining hall (area 27) are flying through the air in a whirlwind. A DC 10 Wisdom (Perception) check can be used to spot a gap in the whirling bones to run through.
Challenge 5: The steps in spiral staircase (area 21) have angled to create a slide. A DC 12 Strength (Athletics) check can be used to climb the slide to the attic.
Challenge 6: Black smoke fills the attic. A DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) check can lead the party through the smoke to the lower floor.
Challenge 7: Whirling blades fill up the doorway leading from the nursemaid’s suite (area 15a) to the balcony (area 11). A DC 15 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check can be used to dart through without being cut.
Challenge 8: The front door of the house is bricked over, but it looks weak. A DC 20 Strength (Athletics) check can be used to break through.
Outside the Manor
Characters who make it out of Durst Manor alive find a picnic basket at the crossroads where they met the house’s version of Rose and Thorn. Inside the basket is a bottle of Red Dragon Crush, a mixture of bread and fruit. The food and drink is real and not poisoned. There is no indication as to who may have left the basket.