The exploration of Argynvostholt, a large ruined manor in the heart of Barovia, began under strange circumstances. I doubt many adventurers have explored a haunted mansion whilst the entire population of a village is camping on the front porch!
The adventurers had gone to Vallaki to find the wedding dress the Abbot wanted, but they were worried about how Ireena was faring back in Krezk. So, they decided to use a sending spell to contact her, and were terrified when instead of Ireena, they discovered they’d contacted Strahd instead!
The group rushed back to Ireena before Strahd could abduct her and, not only did they evacuate Ireena, they also evacuated the entire village, as they feared what would happen when Strahd discovered the villagers had been hiding his chosen.
Thus, the adventurers and the entire village (wagons, dogs, horses) trudged up the winding path to Argynvostholt, one-time home of the Knights of the Silver Dragon, a militant order that Strahd had destroyed many centuries ago. While the villagers waited outside, the adventurers explored the main manor, discovering that the main hall was large enough for the villagers to gather, and that a trio of fallen undead knights were keeping vigil in the chapel and were not pleased to find the adventurers (and the villagers) there. This was not an easy fight for the adventurers, especially as fleeing was a poor option due their obligation to the villagers, but they eventually prevailed.
With the knights dispatched, the villagers moved into the main hall and set up camp, uncomfortably, and the adventurers continued their exploration of the place.
Argynvostholt can, with a little effort, be a very creepy place to explore: a crumbing edifice, with things lurking on the edges of the adventurers’ vision. Or you can get my group. When the barbarian of the group discovered a severed head in a closet that looked exactly like hers there was not the sense of horror I was hoping for. Instead, it was “Cool!” and “I’m taking it with me!” In later sessions, she’d throw it ahead of the group to distract their foes.
The weaker parts of play in Argynvostholt were when the party just explored room after room – many of which are empty. Play was much stronger when a smoky spirit led them directly up to the spirit of the one-time commander of the Order, Vladamir Horngaard, who could explain the secret behind the fall of the knights. His defeatist monologue strongly reinforced the corruption that Strahd had brought to the land. A later encounter with a statue that explained (in poetry) the way to break the curse on the Order was the other highlight. Previous clues to nature of the curse had been missed by the players.
My advice for playing Argynvostholt is to not treat it as a straight-up exploration scenario. Don’t require the players to map and explore every room. Summarize the cumulative effects of the emptiness and decay, and skip to encounters of interest. You can give the players some choices (do you wish to continue investigating this level or move higher?), but there’s a high chance that standard dungeon-crawling techniques will dissipate the tension and horror.
I ended this section of the adventure with a rider coming up along the road to the manor – it was a young, Vistani woman, who would prove important to the story to come.