Last time, I wrote about preparing a module – specifically, so that you can run it at a convention. Most of the post was quite general, so I thought I’d follow up with a specific example. This is based on advice I gave somebody about adapting Death House as a four-hour convention game.
Even if you aren’t running it at a convention, you can use these suggestions to prepare any one-shot or published adventure or module. Hopefully, some of these suggestions will prove useful, even if you use it for a different module.
TL;DR Start with the ending you want, and work your way backwards. Mostly, if you are running a published adventure, don’t be afraid to jettison whole sections if you can think of a better way to do it.
First, some context. I’ve run Death House three times so far. First I used it exactly as written, because that’s my first instinct. That means following the layout of the whole house as presented in the module’s map and using the descriptions pretty much to the letter. The second time, I tried to adapt it for play during a single session. (Specifically, for one of the games nights at CLAWs.) Most recently, I slotted it into an ongoing campaign that I’m running online.
The second time I ran this module, it went reasonably well, although I still wasn’t happy with it. (You can read my initial thoughts about that here.) At the very least, we managed to finish the module and reach a clear conclusion for the story.
So I was incredibly pleased when someone at CLAWs asked for advice about how to run it. I mean, that’s why I’m doing this blog in the first place. It gave me an excuse to think about completely redesigning the module, which is what I would do if I had to run it again. It was also a great opportunity to think through the process of adapting a module to serve your purposes.
If you read my suggestions below, you will notice that I’ve described several options, rather than one specific solution. The idea is to decide what you like about the module, and then build your own version based on that. That way, you run the version that most appeals to you, and you don’t keep anything that doesn’t fit.
Be aware, though, that everything below this contains spoilers.
Building a better Death House
In terms of timing this specific module, two things take up a lot of game time: exploring the house and running the combats.
Let’s start with the module’s biggest problem – the house itself is kinda boring, until it starts trying to kill you. Especially if your players insist on going through every. single. door. And if they approach it like a dungeon crawl, that’s exactly what they will do. (It’s also what the game system encourages them to do.)
The house itself has four floors and a basement, which has two levels. One of the basement levels is big enough that it could easily take four hours on its own.
The module also includes regular combats, that get more frequent as the players go further into the house. (Again, that is kind of what this game system does.) However, in a four-hour game, you don’t want to spend three hours in combat mode when you could be describing creepy little details everywhere. Unless you do. But then you have to be prepared for that. But constant combat gets boring quickly.
As I said before, I don’t think that there is enough content in the module as written to make a room-by-room search enjoyable for the players or the GM. So in this case I would suggest that you decide to focus on the house or the basement, or alter the maps for both.
For example, you could move everything upstairs and skip the basement entirely, or you could encourage them to race them through the house if you need to get them downstairs. You could also ‘move’ rooms between floors to consolidate the map, and perhaps leave out a floor or two. Or you could simply say that parts of the basement have collapsed and they can’t get in.
Skipping the basement may seem desperate, but in hindsight I would argue that it’s the best way to improve the module. Why leave all the fun bits for the basement, an hour or two into the game?
Choose your ending/endings
Begin by thinking about which kind of ending or endings you like. Then you can decide what – and how much – of the module to change.
The module can end in several ways. The ‘default’ option is for them to kill the Final Boss, possibly on the altar itself, as a tribute to the house. That can be fun, so long as the players feel that you gave them enough of a clue about killing something on the actual altar.
Another way to end it is if they find the bones of the ghost children and decide to get them buried somewhere.
The most satisfying is if the house tries to kill the PCs as they’re trying to leave, because it’s a pretty unique aspect of the module.
Having thought about it, and having run this sevral times, I think there are two main ways to end the module:
Default ending: You may need to give the players a clue about the altar. If you’re using the werewolf, you can have the wolf try to kill each of them on the altar. Alternatively, if you use ghouls/zombies, you could remind them about the chanting apparitions.
Alternative ending: The house could try to kill the PCs once the players decide to have the children’s remains buried somewhere. They don’t need to be buried in the house itself, so let them do a Religion check or something to realise that there is probably a church with a cemetery in town.
Choose your opening carefully
Once you know how you would like the adventure to end, you can figure out where to start and what to leave out.
You need to really hit the ground running with this adventure, so I recommend having an opening narration that you can read out. Ideally, the adventure itself should start with the PCs at the doors to Death House. You may want to have an interlude with them travelling to Barovia, though, so that they have a clear idea that they are in a very strange, unsettling place.
Personally, I would use the werewolf opening from the Curse of Strahd book. (The players are all hired by factions to investigate werewolf attacks.) It is very much in keeping with the setting, and you can then use a wounded werewolf as the final boss.
Changes to the house
The easiest way to speed things up is to reveal the whole map for each floor as they go up each level. You should also consider leaving out one of the four floors, and/or one of the dungeon levels. The house is super confusing, and you’re not going to have time to let them explore and get lost following loose ends/false trails.
Fun fact: If you print out each of the floors on an A3 page, you can pretty much use them as a battle grid.
When you’re preparing the module, read it through a few times and note down everything that you like best. It might be a particular detail or description, or a piece of the backstory. Keep a separate note of all of these things. Your players won’t get to all the rooms in the house, so it’s likely that they will miss some of the best stuff. Having these things as a separate list means you can add them in as descriptions whenever the players ask specific questions about what they see.
Pro tip: Make a bulleted list on a separate sheet of paper or separate document. Once this list is complete, order them from “least disturbing” to most disturbing”. That way you can start off with relatively innocuous details and then ramp it up as the adventure goes on.
You need to find a way to let the players discover the secret of the cultists and the family intrigue with the maid, if you are using that. I recommend printing out a copy of Strahd’s letter to the cultists, and just putting it on the body of any of the ghouls, ghasts, or zombies that the players kill and loot. (Just be sure to explain that they suddenly recognize the dead things’ face as being that of the father.)
If you leave out basement level 2, you can move the final showdown to the room with the statue of Strahd. Then you can use the items from the reliquery as random items to drop into various places throughout the house.
Nothing stops you from replacing the prison “cells” on basement level 2 with the sleeping quarters from level 1. (Simply tell them that the corridor/tunnel has collapsed.) Similarly, you can replace it with the family crypts, if you decide to use them, or any other room that fits your specific take on the adventure.
Changes to the combat
There are a lot of relatively random encounters spread out across the adventure, but for a convention game you’ll only have time for 1, maybe 2 substantial fights. Which means that the other combats would need to be pretty quick and eas. Either way, you should plan for the final battle and escape from the house to take an hour.
I would use ghouls or ghasts for the final boss battle, rather than an angry shrub creature. The Shambling Mound was the first thing I ditched. It’s a dumb end boss that doesn’t belong there. But you can keep it if you feel strongly about it. (It vaguely fits in with a screwed up Druid Circle who live in Barovia, but … yes.)
Alternatively, if you end up using the werewolf opening, you can let them find the werewolf downstairs, surrounded by the corpses of monsters. Remember to adjust its challenge rating – reduce its hit points by half, and either reduce the damage from one of its attacks or reduce its AC. (This would be as result of previous battles with the inhabitants of the house).
For the rest of the combat sequences, I suggest that you prepare a list of monsters you can slip into play if they end racing through the game. That way, it doesn’t matter which room they’re in when a fight breaks out. Try to avoid monsters that don’t add to the feeling of dread, or figure out a way to use them appropriately. So skip the door mimic, unless you can use it as a jump scare. I like the Strahd zombies especially, because they are unique to the setting. But the shadows ghouls and ghasts are fun too.
About those PCs…
One final note on the subject of the player characters.
Some TTRPG systems make it easy to create characters quickly. Unfortunately, it could easily take four hours to create characters for four people from scratch in this particular system, so I created a few pregens (pregenerated characters). I already wrote about creating characters for a one-shot (here), but I also created a few pregens specifically for this particular module.
If you are creating pregens specifically for a module, you can customise them quite a bit. Just be sure to give them some options, so that they have some choice in the kind of character they want to play. For this module, I created nine different characters for the players, even though I wouldn’t allow more than four players. Additional players means that everything takes longer, especially combat; they also make it much harder to maintain a sense of danger.
If you want the players to have a few interesting abilities, you will also need to start them at a higher level. But be aware that higher levels and better abilities means that you’ll need to explain more rules, so just be prepared for questions. Factor rules explanations into your timing – generally about half an hour for 4-5 characters. Although it does mean you can use more interesting monsters.
All of this should be enough to show you that using a published adventure can be a lot of work – often as much as one you come up with yourself. That said, reading and using published adventures may help you find your feet, and figure out what you like and dislike. It could also serve as inspiration to build your own, better adventures. Have fun!