I picked up Van Richten's Guide to Ravenloft and have been reading it cover to cover. This is my review of the book, chapter by chapter. Casually hidden away at the end of chapter 4, there's a Ravenloft adventure called The house of lament. The back of the book says nothing about this, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover it. This is my review of it. This post may contain mild spoilers.
I've run a player character through this module, and I've run the module as Dungeon Master.
I really enjoy a haunted house module. I don't know of all that many, and there were some that I played so long ago that I can't be sure whether they were modules or just something my Dungeon Master invented off the top of his head. I've run The sinister secret of Saltmarsh several times, and also Death House. I have yet to run The house of lament, but I'm happy to have another haunted house adventure to add to my list.
This adventure is about 20 pages long, but it's secretly three separate adventures in one. There are three distinct plots happening within the eponymous haunted house, and you're free to either focus on one of them or muddle all three of them together. It's a lot of material to work through, and arguably it's just plain too much. I have no idea how a Dungeon Master is meant to convey a coherent story, with clues pointing to three separate plots. When I ran the game, I tried to focus on the Halvrest story, but I mixed in the Dalk Dranzorg story because there was just so much of it throughout the house. The third story, about a witch, is pretty easy to ignore as just another haunting. I'm not sure how you'd focus on the witch story and ignore the Halvrest and Dranzorg ones. I guess maybe you're meant to let all three stories come through, but focus only on one story during the in-game séances, but from the player's perspective, it's nearly impossible to extricate all the plotlines and understand what relates to what.
Through a series of three séances, you're able to give player characters prompts about a plot point they should pursue. Through encounters and hauntings, you can give clues about what happened in the house's past, and eventually the player characters are likely to stumble across some solution (even if it's aimlessly confronting an angry evil spirit that needs vanquishing.) Many stories unfold, and it's up to the player characters and their spiritual guide (conveniently played by the Dungeon Master) to determine what mystery to solve.
The module doesn't do the Dungeon Master any favours and mostly fails at summarizing the plotlines. Dalk Dranzorg and the witch are pretty straightforward, but the Halvrest story is pretty confusing, and there are lots of characters to track. If you focus on the séances, you can probably manage to point the players in a somewhat focused direction, but there's a lot of misdirection in the module, too. For instance, a note found within a hollow statue urges players downstairs into the basement, which has no bearing on anything. It can be a fun diversion, but I really wish 5e modules would work on layout. A visual marker, or a textual "tag", one story elements would be hugely useful here, so that the DM could identify at a glance whether a story element actually matters to the plot (and then, which one) or whether it's just a fun miniquest.
The module is designed to take characters from level 1 to 3, which is also conveniently the range of the new survivor character types. This could be coincidence, because I feel like survivors are designed to end their story at 3rd level, while this module is explicitly intended to propel players into further adventures in Ravenloft, but it might at least be fun to try this module as a mere survivor.
As written, the player characters are meant to wander through the mists, meet one another along the way, and then arrive at a mysterious house where two investigators have arrived just ahead of them. The Dungeon Master is meant to choose two investigators from Ravenloft lore (provided in the previous chapter), and the investigators are supposed to hire the players to "investigate the house." The investigators then sequester themselves in a room to prepare for a séance.
I don't love having an NPC hanging around for an entire adventure, and I love even less that major names from lore (like van Richten himself) ends up hiding in the parlour, being no help whatsoever. There's no way around it. The NPC is either obstinately useless, or else players try to get the NPC to be overly useful. In this module, the investigators perform the three séances, but a séance can only be held once a day, so I guess they just...sit around in the parlour for 72 hours while the player characters fight ghosts and resolve haunts and take all the risks for 20 GP a day. No matter what, it seems to me that this reduces some legendary personalities of Ravenloft to being sinister, selfish, or just plain stupid.
Were I to run this module again, I'd just have a single investigator show up, and she'd be really really old. Experienced players might suspect her of being a hag, and that's OK. Whatever they think, she's way too old to be of any use in an adventure. She'll go in and set up a séance room, and spend the rest of the time "focusing on the spiritual realm," only speaking with the player characters when they nag her with questions, and she'll never have anything useful to say. In fact, they may even start to suspect that she's senile. But the séance begins, the player characters get a message from a spirit, and hopefully that's enough to give them motivation to explore the house.
Or I'd forego an investigator altogether. The spirit board could easily come alive on its own, or a spirit could communicate with players through some other medium.
I'm certain I don't want to play Van Richten being useless for 72 hours, though, nor do I want to play him solving all the player characters' problems.
The haunted house has got lots of spooky stories, some really creepy rooms and set pieces, traps in the form of haunts, and it manages to tell a story (or three). There's a good mix of monsters and threats from both the Monster Manual and from this book itself.
Unsurprisingly, when I ran the game my players ended up entering the house from the top level, and when I played the game we found Dranzorg's battle axe before we even entered the house. Luckily, the trigger for the end game scenarios is designed to be flexible. It's up to the Dungeon Master to decide when the final plot point (which ever of the three possible plots, or a combination thereof, your group has followed) becomes apparent.
The final "boss battles" are chilling, horrifying, and exciting, depending on the plot or plots your group is following.) If I had to compare the endgame to Death House, I'd definitely say that this one is the stronger one. Things really ramp up in this module, and storylines merge to tell a clear and satisfying narrative.
In a way, I feel like The house of lament is a Death House do-over (but not in any way that implies Death House needs a revision). Some of the same ideas, but very different implementations. Haunted house, located in Ravenloft, leading to further adventures in the domains of dread, and a similar win condition or two (which I won't specify, in the interest of avoiding spoilers). Death House namedrops Strahd a few times, but you could easily swap out the name of any darklord, as appropriate to your targeted domain of dread. I think both adventures are great gateways to Ravenloft.
If you're trying to set a mood and establish the Ravenloft game world in the minds of your players, this is an easy way to do it. The house of lament very quickly sets the general tone for Ravenloft, and after this adventure your players will be ready to take on any domain of dread you lead them to next. Just be prepared. Choose a plotline to follow, map it out for yourself, and stay focused during the game. Listen to your players, and have the spirits guide them as needed. This is bizarrely not an investigative module, even though it looks an awful lot like one. This is a non-linear dungeon crawl, with awkwardly unclear goals and key plot points that are intentionally withheld until it's convenient for the Dungeon Master to reveal them.
The "problem" is that players are put into this house, and they're told they need to de-haunt it. They're contacted by a spirit with vague instructions, which is likely to compel them to explore. Really they're just spinning their wheels. They can't win yet, because the end game trigger hasn't happened yet, because if it did happen then the adventure would be over. So nothing they find is likely to mean anything to them, and in fact it's likely to confuse them. You can help the module by listening to your players as they discover stuff, and incorporate that into the plot. Have the spirit contact them or otherwise react to these discoveries so the players know whether they're on the right track.
This isn't an amazing module, but it's not bad despite my complaints. I really do love a haunted house module, and this one does satisfy the requirements. It's just a lot to process. When I ran it, I had it all tie back to Strahd, because I used it as a component in an Expedition to Castle Raveloft game. I feel like that focus helped a lot, but I could also see this being an excellent start to a Lockwood & Co. or Scooby Doo style adventure, too. There's great potential here, as long as you're prepared to put in a little work to bring it into focus.