Let me get the short version of the review out of the way: Death House is hard but not in a good way, and is not an exciting module without serious DM modification.
Death House suffers from the “roll x to advance” gateway that many modules have. That is, you have to perform a certain check with a certain DC in order to go through the module. Parts of the module literally do not exist until they pass those skill checks or check a certain area. What’s worse is that they are the worst kind of checks: perception checks. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against perception in general, but the way Death House does it really encourages the mindset of rolling dice to do basic human tasks to advance.
It reminds me of a certain type of DM … you’ve all played with the DM who had you roll for everything. EVERYTHING. You know the one:
Player: “I want to look around the room.”
DM: “Okay, roll perception.”
Player: “… I got a 5.”
DM: “You don’t see anything interesting.”
Other Player: “What about me? I got a 18.”
DM: “You notice that there are clay pots around the area. There is a bookshelf containing several multi-colored books. Over in the corner you can see a chest by a large bed…”
Was the player blind? Could he really not see objects sitting in the room? Why spend the time to do this? Does this actually benefit the game? No.
Death House suffers from this a lot where there are many perception checks required to even notice particular things in the room and sometimes it only lets you notice if you specifically check a certain object. Some very, very important details can and will be lost due to this. Combined with the 2-5 paragraphs (yes, you read that right) of description text for almost every room means that your players eyes will be glazing over and they will have forgotten everything that was in the room by the time you are done. There is too much irrelevant information given freely and not enough vital information given without rolling. Some players may like that, but in my experience, the vast majority don’t care about listening to you talk on and on about what wood the bedpost is made of.
Once they get past the perception gateway, the real fun begins. By fun I mean your players dying horribly while they curse your name. This adventure is designed for a party of five 1st level adventurers. By “designed” they mean “intended to kill.” The average group at level one will die to a lot of the encounters. As a matter of fact, mine did. Not through any fault of their own, but because the monsters are too incredibly strong for them to take on. Even with three healing capable classes/feat takers, at least half of the party was down during every fight. On three of the encounters I had to seriously downplay monster abilities in order to prevent a TPK. Each individual monster is more than capable of taking down a level 1 character in a single hit, tanking multiple hits, and have enough secondary effects to put someone out of the fight if they happen to survive the damage. It is incredibly overtuned.
Now, if this was an adventure designed to challenge veteran players I can understand. These encounters are beatable as written, but you have to understand the rules very well, create optimized characters, use tactics, and be very genre savvy. But, this is not what the module is marketed as. It’s marketed as an introduction to the new season, which means new players. Getting pounded into the ground on your first day is not very fun.
There is a good story here, don’t get me wrong, but the actual game gets in the way of it. The first half of the module is an incredibly pointless amount of perception rolling until you find the specific room to use that specific perception roll on, and then the second half is a slaughterhouse. If I ever run this again, not incredibly likely, I will need to make serious changes to the module. I could tell the players were getting bored during the first portion and getting tired of the constant beatdowns in the second half.
Here are some changes I’d recommend for the module:
- Room descriptions: cut down the description of the rooms. Players don’t need to hear 4 paragraphs of description when you can say “it’s an elegantly furnished dining room.” Sure, they may not be imaging “A crystal chandelier hangs above the table, which is covered with resplendent silverware and crystalware polished to a dazzling shine” but it really doesn’t matter one bit that they’re imaging that specifically in their heads. You can convey the same image with many fewer words. Especially when there’s absolutely nothing for them to discover in that room. Pointless rooms make me shake my head, but that’s another rant for another time.
- Level advancement: the module recommends using milestones, although that’s contrary to the official Adventure League rules and what it says in the DMG about breaking the pace. I avoided doing the “level up in the middle of a session” thing at that exact point since they really breaks the flow of the game to have them stop and level up while they’re walking down some stairs after looking in some rooms. They leveled up once they reached a good stopping point in the dungeon while taking a rest.
- Inspiration: give them inspiration once they reach the dungeon rather than the specifically mentioned point in the adventure. That can come at the very end and be useless to them.
- Secrets: just include all the DC 12 check descriptions and information if they’re looking around the room. There’s no point in making them roll for these.
- Monsters in general: give the players some roleplaying opportunities with the various undead denizens. It’s boring that everything just immediately attacks if they see the players and cannot be avoided. I did this with several of the encounters and they had a lot more fun than beating down the ghost of someone they don’t care about.
- Area 20: have this door be bolted from the outside and operable without anything special. Locking essential story and advancement away behind hard DCs or one specific item that they specifically have to look in a certain piece of furniture for is not cool.
- Dungeon monsters: fudge their numbers or abilities. You will seriously need to do this for almost every encounter if you want an average party to survive or not be on the brink of death all the time.