haunted house

Death House’s Brilliant Foreshadowing: DM Tips for D&D 5e Curse of Strahd

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**Spoiler warning for the D&D 5e Curse of Strahd adventure module**

Curse of Strahd is the widely popular module of D&D 5e’s gothic horror genre. The module allows for DM creativity and player agency to the extreme, and the theme is classic. The success and popularity of CoS have naturally lead to a lore book for the Demiplanes of Dread and expanded history of Barovia in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft (which I’m excited to purchase).

Each point in the CoS story allows DMs to create as new content as they wish or stick to the already compelling adventure as written. One interesting point in the story is designed for the beginning, the Death House dungeon. Curse of Strahd’s Death House is a treasure trove of storytelling setups.

Death House Infamy

Durst Manor is an infamous dungeon for first-level characters to acclimate to Barovia. Deemed ‘Death House’ for its haunted, murderous nature, this sentient domicile contains details that DMs should not miss. But there is more to Death House than meets the eye; it’s the perfect place to foreshadow narratives, themes, and events expected to occur during the campaign.

Foreshadowing is a literary tool to indicate what is to come, a hint of future events. Death House’s design is inherently useful for foreshadowing. I’ll explain every detail of Death House that I’ve noticed to be a form of foreshadowing. My notes cover the module plus common CoS community customizations. I’m not claiming foreshadowing was intended with the points I make, but you can make your story more meaningful by nailing the foreshadowing of your campaign plans early on in Death House.

The Mists around Death House and Barovia

Death House pulls players in as the mists encircle them to make all things disappear until only the Durst Manor remains. Corralled in by the eerie mists, characters trapped inside Death House feel they’ve been transported somewhere different. The manor is like its own demiplane inside the Demiplane of Dread that is Barovia. Players can have their minds primed for the discovery that they’re in an inescapable demiplane if they are not already aware. Given how the fog and manor resemble Barovia’s situation and plight, players may subconsciously begin to understand their own circumstances and predict how things will end.

Children Suffer Most

Death House’s history reveals that adults are monsters, and children are victims. The Dursts were part of an evil cult that sacrificed villagers and worshipped an indifferent Strahd. Rosavalda and Thornboldt were locked in their room to shelter them from their parents’ wickedness.

Youth doesn’t last long in Barovia. Children must grow up (like Victor and Arabelle) or die young. Babies can be born with no souls. Barovia is a bleak place for a child. At the heart of Death House is the illegitimate stillborn baby of Mr. Durst.

Strahd’s obsession with youth and aging partially leads to his evil pact and ritual of slaying his brother Sergei. Sergei represents youth (even if he wasn’t a child in the story). Queen Ravenovia, Strahd’s mother, kept Sergei safe from the warmongering of his father and brother. Sergei was a man untainted by wars and violence. Strahd sacrificed Sergei for his evil goal to live forever.

Tatyana similarly represented youth to Strahd. While Sergei represented the affection Strahd desired from his mother and the youth that had slipped away from Strahd, Tatyana represented the youth he could yet have.

There will be many children suffering in Barovia outside of Death House: the werewolf recruits, the pies of Morgantha, Arabelle’s entrapment by Bluto, Udo in the Vallaki burgomaster’s mansion, and more. Players should prepare themselves for true horrors.

Art of Death House

Barovia is a place where everyone seems to harbor dark secrets or perverse motivations, but they’re regular people on the surface. Barovia’s history also perverts what used to be a beautiful place. Strahd took over Barovia because of its beauty and as a tribute to his family.

Sergei, Strahd’s brother, was described as a pure person. Tatyana was similarly described as youthful, beautiful, and desirable. The two of them represent innocence, and Strahd represents guilt and perversion. Closer inspection of art and decor within Death House will reveal that depictions of happiness and fancy are actually horrific displays of children being stalked, forests promising secrets, and evil critters lurking. The art truly sets the campaign’s tone.

Appeals to Malevolent Entities

The Dursts and their former cult sacrificed people in bizarre rituals and hosted morbid banquets to feast on their corpses like a fancier version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They did this in an attempt to summon evil extraplanar entities, but their efforts always failed. Strahd’s arrival in Barovia redirected their adorations toward him.

Strahd told the Durst’s cult that they were pathetic worms in his earth, even mocking the stillborn baby of Gustav and the manor’s nursemaid. Ironically, Strahd also communed with malevolent entities to gain his eternal life. He did not relate to their pleas for greater power, killing them once they killed the wrong adventurers before he could play with them.

The evidence of the Dursts’ appeal to evil entities is a foreshadowing of the reveal that Strahd made a pact with Vampyr.

If you’re open to expansion of the source material, the Durst cult could be described as obsessed with immortality and youth as Strahd was (credit to Lunch Break Heroes for that idea). Perhaps Strahd projects himself onto the cultists and takes his anger out on them because of it. Instead of wiping them from Barovia entirely, Strahd grants the cult immortality in putrid undeath, just… like… him…

The undead fate of the cultists can be echoed as the potential fate of the player characters should they lose to Strahd. They may become his vampire spawns who do his bidding and attack future adventurers.

Old Bonegrinder Windmill

Death House almost hypnotizes players to want to visit Old Bonegrinder after making it out of Death House alive. They can find a deed to the windmill. The artwork and iconography of the windmill are present throughout the house, especially at its beginning. The fact that the painting of the windmill is present in the first large room of Durst Manor is indicative that the players will encounter it early (either from afar on the Svalich Road or up close in subliminal peril).

Old Bonegrinder is a poignant example of children suffering in Barovia, so it’s natural to discover its horrible secrets soon after leaving the village of Barovia.


The Durst’s lead a cult that worshipped Strahd and implored him to notice them, senpai. There are several cults of Strahd’s personality that players encounter in Barovia.

The druids of Yester Hill worship Strahd as he has become the land. They’ve devolved into the Svalich Woods’ wild folk, but their primitive obsession with the land draws them together. Yester Hill has an effigy of Strahd, resembling the statue of worship in the Death House basement.

Fiona Wachter leads a ‘book club’ of Strahd devil worshippers. The Wachters have long since been allies of Strahd, though they haven’t received what they believe to be their right: rulership of Vallaki. Fiona has three children of the same gender mix as the Durst children (if you count stillborn baby Walter).

A case could be made the werewolves in northwest Barovia are cultists of Mother Night. Their behavior is mostly independent of their shrine worship, and their devotion to Strahd is more compulsory and opportunistic.

The Destroyed Death House Will Return

Escaping Death House requires a hasty escape. The house’s sentience becomes apparent as the walls, doors, fireplaces, and more attempt to trap and kill the player characters. Upon escaping to the outside, the house appears as if nothing ever happened. Death House rebuilds itself if burned down.

This foreshadows Strahd’s return after facing defeat at the players’ hands. Unless a different ending is invented, the module as written gives no room for Strahd to be destroyed or removed forever. Durst Manor’s return from its ashes should be a hint about the module’s ending, right at the beginning of the campaign.

“One Must Die” in Death House

Death House doesn’t spring all its traps at first. It waits until the players reach the basement ritual room, and only if they fail to make a sacrifice. The house has a goal, and that goal is sacrifice. “One must die, one must die.” You can relate the chant that one must die to Vampyr prompting Strahd to kill his brother, or to the Dark Powers cruelly causing reincarnated Tatyana to die.

Alternatively, the house’s goal of a sacrifice is indicative of Strahd’s goal to find a replacement for him, someone to rule Barovia. “One must die” could be reinterpreted as “one must always rule Barovia in misery.” Strahd always deems everyone but himself unworthy to rule.

In the end, most players choose to not kill someone in the basement. Death House becomes hostile at that point, just like Strahd when the campaign matures. Strahd becomes tired and annoyed with his latest playthings, deciding to destroy the player characters.

Players often come to the conclusion that they’ll try to kill Strahd. Their goal literally becomes “One must die” in order to escape Barovia, just like the decision they faced to escape Death House.

Ravenloft Architecture Echoes in Death House

Death House is probably the most comparable place to Ravenloft Castle. Durst Manor has four main floors and two subterranean levels. This is very similar to Castle Ravenloft.

Durst Manor is the only structure in Barovia with a dumbwaiter (unless I missed one somewhere). Interestingly, Ravenloft has an elevator trap. Like a dumbwaiter delivering food to the master, the elevator trap delivers characters to Strahd above.

Death House’s basement is the only place in Barovia outside of Castle Ravenloft with crypts. This experience can prime the players to later discover the much larger crypts of Ravenloft.

There’s a fair share of secret doors and passages in Death House, a common trope in a horror campaign. Barovia’s structures will commonly have similar false walls and hidden gateways. Castle Ravenloft will be the most infamous example of a structure laden with deceptive architecture.

Death House has several sets of spiral staircases as Ravenloft does. I like how the Durst staircase is red. I enjoy describing this staircase like the elevator of blood scene from The Shining before the players realize they’re hallucinating.

The lowest level of Death House is waterlogged just like the dungeon of Castle Ravenloft.

Danger Levels

There are several portions of Death House that are extremely dangerous. If players aren’t careful, their characters will perish. This foreshadows much of the CoS module’s danger levels. Death House should set the tone for players. Their expectation should be that if they’re not careful, Barovia will wipe them out.

Hostile, Deceptive Armor

A single animated suit of armor exists in Death House. It lays in wait for players to split up or put themselves in a vulnerable position. The armor strikes at an opportune moment, attempting to shove a character down the stairs.

There is one other notable suit of armor in Barovia: Strahd’s animated armor. Under Vasili von Holtz’s guise, Strahd can arrange for the player characters to find or receive Strahd’s loyal armor. If a player wears the armor, they’ll be protected until the point when it’s time for Strahd to strike. At that point, the player will regret wearing that armor. In this way, the suit of armor in Death House should hint to players that they should beware of armor.

Family, Jealousy, Betrayal

The Dursts were not strangers to jealousy. Strahd’s malice towards Sergei is reflected in Elisabeth Durst. Her jealousy and spite festered toward Gustav and the nursemaid for their affair. While not an equivalent situation, Elisabeth’s actions against the nursemaid rhyme with Strahd murdering Sergei. Elisabeth Durst is like Strahd sacrificing a loved one to gain immortality, motivated by someone she loves being with someone else (assuming Elisabeth had any affection for the nursemaid).

Both occasions of bloodlust and blood spilled occur on occasions that would normally be happy: a child’s birth and young lovers’ wedding. Happy occasions should make players skeptical in Barovia. Players should meet festivals, rescues, and the defeat of Strahd with skepticism.

Handwriting and Phrasing

Perceptive players discover a letter from Strahd in Death House. One of Strahd’s best zingers is found in the letter, “You are but worms writhing in my earth.” In addition to this being another example of Strahd’s handwriting, it provides some phrases that Strahd may use in common conversation.

Handwriting can later reveal Vasili von Holtz to be an alias of Strahd, but phrasing could be his downfall as well. Vasili von Holtz may use a similar phrase to Strahd’s letter. He might describe the people of Barovia with pity, comparing them to worms writhing in Strahd’s corrupted earth. Players who are paying attention will have their ears perk up at that phrasing.

Dead Adventurer by a Prize

Castle Ravenloft holds the remains of a former adventurer in its chapel. He attempted to claim the Icon of Ravenloft, but his wickedness made him deserving of divine punishment. The adventurer died for his blasphemous thievery.

A similar body lays in Gustav’s secret study. The adventurer in the study died of a dart trap while on his knees. This could cause perceptive players to think twice about picking up the Icon of Ravenloft if they recall the adventurer’s corpse in Durst Manor.

Names Rose and Thorn

Every rose has its thorn, or so the song goes. The names Rose and Thorn are clearly meant to elicit a conscious understanding of the beauty that has a violent, tragic side. This refers to Tatyana/Ireena, whom the players will likely meet right after dealing with Death House.

Ireena is no pushover, though her stats make her seem otherwise. She’s strong and inspiring. Her beauty matches her indomitable spirit. She is a rose with thorns.

However, my preferred interpretation is that she is a rose because she is beautiful, but with thorns because of the tragedy of her past that she still suffers for. She is Strahd’s greatest weakness, yet he is obsessed with her. Ireena/Tatyana demands Strahd’s attention.

Roses are also dark red like blood. Thorns can be similar to vampire fangs.

The Durst Name

The name Durst is akin to a Germanic nickname for a heavy drinker or a name for a habitational farmer in a dry location. (Source: Dictionary of American Family Names ©2013, Oxford University Press via Ancestry.com)

I think this is an interesting detail that could foreshadow the vampire lord’s inability to sate his thirst (possess Tatyana). Vampires could be described as heavy drinkers of blood instead of alcohol. It’s just an interesting detail I noticed. Names often are chosen with a purpose in Curse of Strahd.

The Unnamed Nursemaid & My Tatyana Conspiracy

I like to think the nameless nursemaid could have been an unwitting Tatyana incarnation, but that’s just my headcanon. Think about it though; Strahd wiped out the cultists because they angered him. By the book, this was because of the cult killing adventurers, but what if the real reason was that he found out Tatyana was living there and they killed her.

Also, I find it odd that the nursemaid’s room has a balcony. Of all the rooms in the house to have one, why that one? If the nursemaid has been an incarnation of Tatyana, I like to think the balcony covered in the fog was an homage to Tatyana’s original death when she leaped from the walls of Castle Ravenloft to her death.

Den of Wolves

Werewolves clearly have a role to play in Barovia. By the book, one option for getting the player characters to Barovia is an adventure hook involving the werewolves. The den on the ground floor of Death House has several stuffed wolves that cause many players to be unnerved. Tension built up in this room can foreshadow the dealings with werewolves and dire wolves bound to occur later in the adventure.

Trinkets in the Death House Basement

A common DM liberty is taken to add more items to the Death House Reliquary at area 35. This is a prime placement for little hints of things to come. Here are examples of ways to foreshadow what players can expect from Barovia:

  • Feather as long as the tallest player character is tall. (Roc of Tsolenka Pass)
  • Jar of pickled toads. (Hags of Old Bonegrinder)
  • Wolf jawbone. (Werewolves)
  • An effigy doll made of sticks resembling a man. (Yester Hill)
  • Broken raven egg. (The Order of the Feather losing their family to Baba Lysaga’s scarecrows)
  • Vampire bat encased in amber. (Amber Temple and Vampyr)
  • Albino iguana dried and preserved. (Argynvost)
  • Anything else you can come up with!


The curious case of Rose and Thorn possessing a dollhouse of their own home sounds very familiar. The Amber Temple similarly has a model of Castle Ravenloft within it, and some playthroughs will have a Fortune of Ravenloft resolved in the Amber Temple’s model. If your players draw the Elementalist cart (five of stars) in their Tarokka reading, you can describe how the card’s hint reminds your players of Thorn and Rose’s dollhouse. The amber giants will turn their gaze to seek something similar in the Amber Temple once they learn of it.

The Children’s Bedroom

Rose and Thorn can represent Tatyana and Sergei. Their souls can be put to rest if the players help them. Rose and Thorn can escape the Death House, even if the Death House constantly rebuilds itself. Strahd can be destroyed, but he’ll be back. However, Sergei and Tatyana can become free if the module playthrough goes that way.

Blood Elemental and Vampyr (Homebrew)

I homebrewed the creature in the basement of Death House to be an elemental of blood. I also prepared a way for players to bind Vampyr after defeating Strahd (thanks again to Lunch Break Heroes for the idea). Vampyr’s avatar is made of blood, highly resembling the first boss monster Barovia had to offer my players. You can bet the players ran like crazy to escape the Death House blood elemental, but with the ritual to bind Vampyr, you can bet they’ll stick around. They’ll finally be strong enough to fight something that strongly resembles that early blood elemental. This similarity should evoke a sense of closure and even nostalgia for the campaign as it comes to a close.

Tigers in Death House and Barovia

There is a notable tiger-skin rug in Gustav and Elisabeth Durst’s master suite. There is no evidence that tigers are native to Barovia. The tiger rug’s presence underneath the Durst couple’s portrait alludes to their predatory nature. This can also allude to the predatory nature of Strahd.

More directly, the tiger rug foreshadows the tiger within Rictavio’s wagon in the Arasek stockyard. Two tigers in Barovia! The two tigers could be a veiled reference to the short story “Tiger! Tiger!” (it’s certainly not a reference, but I tried).

Music Room

Several events in CoS are accompanied (pun intended) by musical instruments. Death House’s conservatory is a juxtaposition of happy music and gothic horror. The Abbey of St. Markovia has string instrument music. Strahd (or his illusion) will play the organ in Castle Ravenloft.

The conservatory is an excellent place to insert a ghostly tune. Perhaps the love song of Gustav and Elisabeth Durst. I think it would be an interesting touch to make this same tune being played at the Abbey of St. Markovia by Clovin Belview.

Feigned Nobility and Upperclass

The Death House spends much of its RAW descriptions on artwork. That artwork would seem to depict happy times, but they show darker stories upon closer inspection. Nobles dancing, children playing, and other depictions will show players that this noble house had a darker side that overcame and corrupted it.

Strahd’s castle is the same. There were once happy times among his family, particularly the wedding planned for Tatyana and Sergei. Death House alludes to a dark, tragic history of a noble family, just like the von Zarovich line.

The dining room similarly reflects the house’s deception as it creates a scene of opulent food, drink, and fine décor. Its illustrious meal is actually rotten and poisonous. This can foreshadow the “fine dining” opportunities within Barovia that have subtexts of intrigue and danger: meal with Fiona Wachter, dinner with Strahd, Morgantha’s pies.

Death House Summary

Death House is an excellent place to start your party in Barovia. I’ve run it three times now and enjoyed it differently in every instance. The manor has room for customization to make it yours. Players continuously surprise me in how they interact with the haunted house.

Dread is achievable in this house! Take your time and you’ll see your players react to the horror and suspense. Play your cards right so you can subconsciously sow the seeds of things to come in your Curse of Strahd playthrough.

Have you noticed other opportunities to foreshadow in Curse of Strahd? Cast Sending in the comments below and pray that Strahd doesn’t intercept your message. I love talking D&D in general, but I really like to talk about Curse of Strahd these days. Watch for more Ravenloft as I finish up several CoS campaigns and prepare for Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. Happy adventuring to you!

Here are all of Flutes Loot’s articles on Curse of Strahd, and here is DragnaCarta’s review of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.

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