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D&D General The Haunted Castle

These days, when running the Realms outside of a tournament, playtest, or one-shot convention situation, I wing it. By now, I know the world through and through (or at least my version of it), and the players are driving the story with what they want their players to accomplish.


However, there was a time (albeit over forty years ago) when I as a DM not only spent about four hours of world creation and bookkeeping for every hour of roleplaying, but I fretted if I didn’t have several “potted adventures” up my sleeve: fully prepared side adventures that could take up an evening of play if something unexpected happened. I had a suitcase full of them (at home, several filing cabinets full), and a tea break was long enough to find anything specific that I wanted.

They began as “mini-dungeons,” often a tomb or the cellars of a ruin to be explored, but over time shifted more and more to character-driven: Non Player Character intrigues and activities that the PCs would blunder into or get targeted and caught up in.

But there was one early favourite sort of up-my-sleeve adventure that has never lost its allure for me, because it’s rooted in a childhood fascination: an abandoned, overgrown castle, not (right at this moment, but perhaps in the past, possibly the very recent past) the abode of outlaws or fugitives, though orc or goblin warbands may still use it as a base or stopover. It’s a ruin rather than someone’s home because it’s haunted: undead dwell there, and frighten everyone else away. (Except fearsome or mindless monsters in the cellars, of course.)

Not the undead of D&D, with the possible exceptions of animated skeletons or the Crawling Claws and Curst monsters I invented for the Realms early on, but phantoms, apparitions that could fly and fade out of visibility, spectral “wraiths” or “ghosts” (of folklore, not the specific D&D monsters that could age or drain life energy). Or more rarely, floating and flying talking skulls.

I wanted them to be spooky, whispering, half-seen things that were trying to tell the Player Characters something, trying to get them to do something that these haunts, being undead, could no longer accomplish—the “unfinished business” of their lives.

Properly presented, a Haunted Castle can impart bookloads of local historical lore, wrapped up in alluring mysteries, and hand Player Characters half a dozen adventure hooks to follow up on later. But the chief fascination of this setpiece setting is just the fun of exploring the dark, crumbling, cavernous place while the spooks glide about scarily.

I can still remember the screech one of my players let out when her ranger found a secret door in one haunted castle, pulled it open—and a skeleton fell out and embraced her, crumbling to dust as it struck the ranger in the face. All but the skull, which collapsed over her shoulder to rattle and roll around the dank flagstones underfoot. I can still feel her nails digging into my hand as she clutched it in fear.

All because I underplayed the moment, murmuring softly what was happening rather than yelling or standing up to dramatically gesture and act out the moment.

And the skeleton, that had belonged to someone trapped in the secret passage who had died walled up in there, whispered, “Free at last!” as its arms went around her.

Years later, any of the players who were there at that play session can still make her freeze by whispering those words. Though they’re not cruel enough to do so. Often.

I can also vividly recall the startled cursing of another player, whose character had halted warily to look down the cavernous length of a half-collapsed throne room at a crown-wearing skeleton slumped on a throne at the far end of the chamber, when the invisible undead spirit of that departed monarch drifted up and whispered in his ear, “I never saw them in time—will you?”

In this case, the DM had managed to surprise with his whispering in the player’s ear in the dimly candlelit gaming room because the crackle and crunch of another player devouring the last of the munchies had drowned out the sounds of my rising from my seat to approach the player.

Yes, cheap tricks that were old before I was born, which was well before any fantasy roleplaying game was thought of, but they worked a treat.

The key was—and is—to know my players. Some of us really hate being really scared at the gaming table, but don’t mind spookiness that we trust the DM never to push beyond creepy, and most of us love a mystery unless we’re overtired—which is not the same thing as a riddle or puzzle; a lot of gamers I’ve played with find riddles and puzzles tiresome at best. I mean the sort of “What happened here in the past?” or “What’s going on?” that involves NPC deceptions or murders that are still unfolding.

A small castle is the perfect stage set to mutely tell a story that player characters can decipher once they notice where items lie fallen or were left, where corpses are sprawled, which doors are ajar, and what crumbling messages can still be read.

Sometimes, three or four stories are overlaid atop each other, some of them ancient and some of them recent or still being played out—and my players have learned that if you can figure out how to talk to the resident haunts, they can tell you crucial information. Often in return for doing something for them that will let them rest. This may be as small as returning a small item to someone (or to their grave) that the ghost couldn’t get to them while it was still alive, or as large as overthrowing an usurper to return the rightful royal line to a throne. (And yes, both of those are hoary clichés, but they get to be overused for the good reason that they work, they satisfy that sense of justice that readers have when the story “turns out right,” and that matters far more around the gaming table than any feeling of déjà vu or “I knew what was coming.”)

Sometimes, even if we know what’s going to happen with Excalibur or the evil Dark Lord, we want to go along on the ride anyway. And enjoy things, as they say, to the hilt.

Which is why there will always be a good handful of Haunted Castles lurking near any gaming table I’m running a play session at. They’re an endangered species, but they will never, ever die out.

They’re too useful.

Which really means, they’re too darned fun.


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Ed Greenwood

Ed Greenwood

Forgotten Realms Creator
I remember a splendid moment during my Call of Cthulhu campaign, where my players were breaking into the house of a sketchy priest. At some point they heard the soft sound of a piece of furniture moving upstairs, followed by a soft whimpering coming from upstairs. As the players slowly climbed the stairs, I played the loud sound of a chiming grandfather clock. It startled all of my players, who were already on the edge of their seats.

Simple but effective. I hope to run another horror campaign like it some day.

However, there was a time (albeit over forty years ago) when I as a DM not only spent about four hours of world creation and bookkeeping for every hour of roleplaying, but I fretted if I didn’t have several “potted adventures” up my sleeve: fully prepared side adventures that could take up an evening of play if something unexpected happened. I had a suitcase full of them (at home, several filing cabinets full), and a tea break was long enough to find anything specific that I wanted.

Wow that's a lot of preparation and seems like overkill to me. When I was DMing 20-30+ years ago I planned and created as much as I could for an adventure Now I spend typically about a half hour, an hour if I have something specific in mind but never more than two. I just prepare outlines as players rarely follow a scrip or do as you would think.


Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I used to do Halloween episodes. Play in a darkened basement, makeup on to look zombie-like, single line of fine fishing line invisibly hanging down from the door that people would walk through as they came in. Then tell a spooky story with creepy music/sound effects going on in the background.

During the game roll a random die and tell someone to join you in another room and bring their character sheet and a D20. Let them know that absolutely nothing is wrong with them. Every once in a while pass the player a note and have them roll a D20, write the number down and pass it back. Sadly it only works once ... except of course the next session you do this the PC is possessed or has been replaced by a doppleganger.

There are a lot of ways to make your players paranoid. :eek:


Guest 6801328

I love Ed's description of the skeleton-in-the-closet (or, secret passage). It is a great example of the type of "immersion" I strive for, in which the players actually feel the emotions that their characters would.

It's very different from the kind of immersion I hear others advocating: that the players stay "in character". Pretending to be scared (in this example) as a performance for the rest of the table.

One trick that I used at the start of my horror campaign to instill that feeling of paranoia in my players, was to have a pile of black envelopes on the table during character creation. Without telling them what their purpose was, I simply left them on the table for a while. Then as we were almost done with character creation, I handed each player one envelope. I told them to open it, read it and keep the contents a secret.

Each envelope actually contained a couple of spooky angles for their character to connect to the plot. They could only choose one (or optionally they could suggest their own angle to me in private). During the campaign they had to try and keep this a secret, or suffer sanity damage. Of course I would then fill the campaign with moments that would make a connection with one of the players, but they would be unable to tell the rest of the party what was going on. And yes, each of these angles was unique per player, and they had about 4 angles to choose from.

I have never seen my players more paranoid.
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