Last weekend I played solo through the adventure Death House from Curse of Stahd. I‘d like to share some of the tweaks that made it more enjoyable and balanced for solo play.
My playthrough lasted a bit under three hours, and a nice, macabre soundtrack was a perfect fit. When playing solo, immersing yourself in the sights, smells, and sounds of the adventure is something you can lean into. I haven’t tried it yet, but trying something more interactive like Syrinscape could be really interesting to experiment with.
If, like I did, you start Death House at level one, you’ll want some additional NPCs to round out your party. My favorite combo for solo play these days is a PC (you), a Sidekick, and an Animal Companion. Having a party of three spreads out the damage and balances the action econony to where it's close to a ’normal‘ feel for D&D.
If you are playing a balanced, jack-of-all trades class (I was playing a Paladin) I recommend either the a Warrior or Expert Sidekick (available on D&D Beyond via the Dragon’s of Icespire Peak adventure) as a buddy. I initially liked the Expert, which can perform Help as a bonus action, but found the Warrior, which gives enemies disadvantage to hit you, almost as good as Help but for a debuff with better damage output. Plus, I think you may want your solo PC to be the face of the party, where adding an Expert makes a bit less sense. I haven’t tried the Spellcaster Sidekick yet, but I’m guessing if you wanted to play a straight-up Fighter or Barbarian, you might want a Healer Spellcaster as a party NPC.
As for the Animal Companion, I went with a Wolf reskinned as a dog. I followed the rules outlined in the Unearthed Arcana for Ranger Animal Companions that can level up with you. I really enjoyed having the Unicorn Mooncolor join my party when playing through Descent Into Avernus, so I’m hoping the dog fits a similar bill in terms of a simple extra party member that still leaves room to add a more complex NPC as a temporary party member later during the adventure.
In my first playthrough of Death House I decided to add Rose as a party member (making Rose and Thorn actual ghosts in the first scene instead of merely projections of the ghosts in the attic). Having a party of two — the PC and Rose — worked pretty well and I only almost died one time (more on that in a bit). That said, when I played through it a second time with a Sidekick and an Animal Companion instead of the Ghost, it felt a lot more balanced.
The main thing to tweak for solo play in this adventure is the number of Shadows in Area 31. As written, there are five Shadows and I found it way too hard, narrowly surviving during my first playthrough and a TPK during my second. With Rose or Thorn as party members you are basically toast, since the Shadows are immune to necrotic damage. Even with a Sidekick and Animal Companion, the Strength drain — which might even be a dump stat — along with resistance to non-magical damage can make for a short and painful encounter.
I recommend reducing the number of Shadows to be equal to the number of party members, so in the suggested party of a PC, Sidekick, and Animal Companion: three.
The Shambling Mound encounter in Area 38 is very iffy going toe-to-toe using a party of three. You aren’t supposed to necessarily have to fight it. But, to avoid combat you need to make a living sacrifice, and who wants to sacrifice their Sidekick or Animal Companion two levels in? Adding another ’living creature’ to sacrifice is a good option. You might consider something like the Gertruda’s Dog encounter as described on Reddit.
Running away is maybe the expected outcome, with an exciting skill check ending, and others have shared advice to signal this early by noting the building beginning to collapse at the beginning of the fight. You might also allow clever use of the environment (the portcullis as an improvised weapon, for example).
However you slice it, it’s a challenging final battle that deserves some creativity.
Death House is a highly regarded starter adventure, and (other than the Shadows) it worked out great as a solo adventure. Hopefully the suggested tweaks make your playthrough as enjoyable as mine.