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I've recently been trying to give D&D another go after terrible experiences with 4e. I've been really enthralled with Curse of Strahd, and recently set up a group with which we plan on running an adventure in the Ravenloft setting.

My group is new to D&D and will be running level 1 characters. Which of these would be a better introductory experience taking in consideration we plan on running Curse of Strahd and why?

  1. Run Death House first.
  2. Start running Curse of Strahd from Chapter 1: Into The Mists with level 3 characters.
  3. Run through the old Phandelvers first.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you talked to your players about where to begin in this adventure? What did they say? We can't tell you what your group would prefer, answers will only come up with different opinions on where to begin. \$\endgroup\$
    – daze413
    Jan 14 '17 at 23:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ My players only know they want to run Ravenloft. Where to begin is a choice we will make, but one that should be informed by experience on what is a better introductory adventure. That is not subjective. \$\endgroup\$
    – Althis
    Jan 15 '17 at 2:44
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Run Death House

Death House serves much better as an introduction to CoS over Phandelver. Phandelver is a great adventure, and I started as a player with it, but it would serve you better later if you want to run a classic D&D adventure, with less gothic horror elements. I'm DMing Curse of Strahd now and started my group with Death House.

Death House will teach you certain DM skills, and it will reinforce the skills necessary for the PCs to survive Curse of Strahd. Here's my justification:

Introduce with Roleplay and dread

Curse of Strahd is a roleplay-heavy campaign — there are lots of situations you don't want to bash your way through. Additionally, Death House will, if played correctly, teach you as DM to foreshadow threats and create a sense of dread that will help with the rest of the campaign on both sides of the table.

For example, the desolate streets of Barovia, with only a single house on the outskirts lit up, with smoke pouring out of the chimneys will draw the players in, but also give them the eerie feeling something is wrong. You'll have to play the children correctly to bait the players in, but you can always use the mists to railroad them as necessary. Once they're in the house, you'll be able to hook them in.

This introduction is much more in-line with the tone and nature of the rest of the campaign.

Take time to describe the environment

This is critical with Death House, but less emphasized with Phandelver. With Death House, you'll need to take time in each room, describing the blazing hearths, the strange wolf-helm armor, everything. It's all important, because it also teaches the players to pay attention to the environment. When

the blazing hearths pour out poison smoke in the 2nd phase,

they'll get a good idea of how Barovia works. You'll have plenty of chances to have them roll Investigation, Perception, and Insight during the buildup, and therefore teach them some fundamental rules, and fundamental survival skills for later.

Toss a bit of combat in after

The first fight will likely occur later,

on the 3rd floor.

This will be after the players have had the run of the house for a bit, and will give you plenty of time to switch from warm, but empty house, to

the dusty, old, decrepit 3rd floor.

Using that buildup, when something bad happens like

the armored statue punching a player in the face,

the players will be alert to such changes. It's also an easy fight to run, but will introduce damage resistance and basic combat rules.

Phandelver starts you off with a goblin ambush, which is fine, but Curse of Strahd places the emphasis on the fact that the players can walk into dangerous areas — Phandelver's goblin ambush is more of a device used to spur the plot along (perhaps much like the mists). Death House will give you a chance to explore first. Having the combat after emphasizes where the priorities should be in this campaign, I think.

Ramp up the danger

Death House is notorious for how lethal it can get — your players can absolutely TPK against

the Shadows, or the Shambling Mound in the basement.

However, much of the campaign is like this — you'll get to make the decision of how hard to beat them over the head with their impending doom, or how to fail forward. You'll learn from your players what they expect out of a campaign with this kind of tone, and it'll get everyone on the same basis. Starting with Phandelver, I think you stand the danger of letting them be the big damn heroes and then taking that away from them.

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Run an introductory adventure starting at level 1

Which introductory adventure you choose, however, will depend on your group and your own goals.

Death House is designed to jump characters up quickly from level 1 to level 3, so that they can begin Curse of Strahd proper, which itself is designed to begin at level 3. It is also very useful for introducing players to the theme, danger, and recurring threats in Barovia. Run this if you prefer the dark setting, and want players immersed in it as soon as possible.

However, Phandelver is designed to be a bit longer, taking players up to level 5 or higher. It doesn't introduce the themes and dangers of Barovia, as Death House does, but it does involve players significantly more in traditional D&D tropes, and may be a much better introduction to roleplay in general. Run this if you want your players to learn the ropes of the game a bit more slowly, including things such as racial and class abilities, which may take some getting used to. This option may take also take some tweaking in order to make the power level of players appropriately fit the story.

Alternatively, you can skip an introductory adventure.

This options begins at level 3, the intended starting point for CoS. Player will likely need some time to ensure they understand all their character's abilities, as well as the rules of the game. Your party will be strong enough to begin the intended story immediately this way, but there will be some learning curve, which may include rules confusion and players unhappy with what their characters can actually do.

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Consider running another introductory Ravenloft adventure.

I'm going to offer a frame challenge, here: both Death House and Lost Mines of Phandelver are adventures with notoriously lethal encounters, such as the goblin ambush or the shambling mound in the basement. Perhaps a better option would be trying one of the many Ravenloft adventures that can be found on the DM's Guild (some of which were designed to be suitable for playing with 1st level characters), running the adventure House of Lament found in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft, or creating your own introductory Ravenloft adventure using the advice on creating and running horror adventures found in Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft.

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We can't tell you what your group would prefer

It is a matter of the group's preference, and answers here may not even be a good fit for your group. The best way to know what they want is to ask them straight up about what the different options are.

I had a similar experience with my group as we started "Out of the Abyss". Though this particular campaign does not have multiple starting points as it would seem Curse of Strahd has (I've really only played CoS once in AL, and I don't have a copy of the book), it does allow for the group to start at higher levels, and it creates a similar environment where the DM can choose the sort of difficulty to start the campaign.

I could have said that we started at 1st-level, and be done with it, but I wanted to get the group's opinion (it's their game too!). So, I simply asked them if they preferred to start the adventure at level 1 (Hardcore!), 2 (Very Hard), or 3 (Hard). Ask your group. Of course, I explained to them what the options meant, but didn't get into a lot of details, like:

Me: OK, guys, I've read this book through and through and I think it's really tough, especially in the beginning. You're supposed to start the game without any equipment and imprisoned. I wanted to get your opinion on what level we should start; the book says we can start anywhere in 1st to 3rd level.

At 1st level, you have to be super clever, I will run this campaign deadly. At this power level, there's not many options for you but to run from any conflict, the way you start with nothing. I prefer this level, as it forces players to think on their feet and improvise a lot of challenges that they could ,under normal circumstances, overcome.

At 2nd level, you have a few more options but not much, it won't be too hard and won't be easy. I recommend this level because I know all of your styles.

At 3rd, you can fight back at this level, but not for very long. This level makes the game way less deadly than 1st but still deadly if you aren't careful. I'd recommend this level for a newer group but since we're all sophomores to the hobby, we can do better than this.

So, where do you want to start?

Surprisingly, my players wanted to start at 1st-level and the first session started out great.

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IF your players are new to D&D 5e, and especially if they are new to D&D AT ALL, I would run an alternate-dimension starting adventure, whether home-brewed or something you find online, to take them through from 1st to 3rd level, and a little bit of playtime at 3rd level.

Then, when you're ready to take them "Into the Mists," you can let them take those same characters, but "from an alternate dimension," so that they are not exactly the same.

Hear me out. Learning D&D 5e takes a bit of a learning curve. Those first few levels are the ideal time to learn the rules and how everything works, while dealing with low-stress obstacles. Let them learn HOW to play, HOW to use their spells, HOW to use their abilities.

I saw a cool story on one of those Reddit Read videos, about a DM whose players did nothing but hack and slash, so he set up a puzzle room, where they were locked in and the only way to open the path to the exit was to lift one panel for each PC. Each panel had a symbol on it to correspond to the PC. So, the Bard had a harp, the Fighter had a Sword, the Cleric had a holy symbol, that sort of thing. There were 4 skeletons that shouted "Freedom Takes All You Have!" before attacking the party. After the last skeleton fell, the DM started a count, and a minute later, they rose again to fight some more.

It was an easy enough battle, but since it kept happening over and over, they would eventually be worn down, if they didn't get that door open.

They started using some abilities, such as Cure Wounds or Second Wind. When the first PC had used THREE of his abilities, other than pure hack and slash, his panel opened. Then, the other PCs realized that they had to think outside the box, and use some of their abilities, too. Eventually, everyone had used at least THREE of their race/class abilities. They explored their options. They used items to help them. The bard gave Bardic Inspiration to his team-mates. They figured out how those abilities WORKED.

I used this in my own game, with a reward at the end, and it was cool, because due to a deadline, we had to stop in the middle of the battle, so they spent a week or two debating over how to solve this puzzle, and they strategized together, out of character, and really got to know their PC's abilities.

Add in a trapped hallway, and another puzzle room where the puzzle was simply "say the name of the Goddess whose face is on the decoration in the room," to open the door. Just to encourage them to talk, in character, and role-play a bit.

After that, they were in a "Sanctuary," where they were magically sealed until morning, with lots of fun stuff to do, and role-play time, where they learned about short rests and long rests, and just chatting in character for role play, and how to do card games or dice games or playing darts, or whatnot. The next morning, they left the Sanctuary with some prizes from the God, and went on their way, refreshed and ready to start the new day, and with some experience and some better knowledge of their characters.

Anyway, you can come up with whatever you want, but I encourage you to give them both time to learn how their characters work, and to learn who their characters are, and also to play-test a few of those early choices. They may want to CHANGE things, when they get to level 3.

Then, you take them to the "alternate dimension," where they are not quite the same. Let them decide if they want to change their characters up a bit. Maybe they love them as is, but it's also possible the bard may regret their spell choices, and unlike the sorcerer, they can't swap spells at level up. But this time, they can, and they have a better feel for how they mean to play the character, and what works best FOR THEM.

Then, you take them "Into the Mists," and let them go with their "new and improved" characters at level 3, and a full (or at least more extensive) knowledge of how to play the game, and what they want from it.

That said, I would definitely use the home-brew part of this beginning adventure to foreshadow some stuff to come. Such as encouraging them to have a cleric in the group. Throw some undead at them. Throw some lore at them. use your NPCs to give them a heads-up, in a roundabout way. Maybe tell some "ghost stories" around the campfire, just to get a bit of that scary vibe going, just to see how the players react.

Seriously, if you have horror-haters in your group, don't spring COS on them, without some warning. They may not want to go there. Some people don't like gothic, and that's fair.

Anyway, have fun! Use the beginning adventure to teach your players, and teach yourself, and foreshadow some stuff, and give them a chance to correct their beginners' mistakes before you toss them into Curse of Strahd. It's very sandboxy, and it's very challenging, as well. Shopping is a challenge, with the stores selling only items up to 25gp in value, but charging double the prices, so letting them start with some gear already is good, too.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Do you have a link to the original Reddit thread that the video you mention in your answer is based on? \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    Jun 18 at 4:06

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