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The Horror! of Haunted Houses

Haunted houses are a time-tested horror trope that appears in a wide range of role-playing game genres, but in heroic fantasy it can be a real nightmare for the game master. Here's why.

haunted-house-corner-200065_1280.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Haunted House Basics

TV Tropes sums up the haunted house genre:

When you enter, the "wind" closes the door behind you- and likely will not reopen until its time for the next set of schmucks to take the bait. Creepy portraits may adorn the walls and the eyes may literally follow your every move. There are probably cobwebs everywhere, draped over the ever-changing portraits. The Ominous Pipe Organ may start playing Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor all on its own. Mirrors reflect things that aren't there... when they aren't all broken. There will probably be at least a couple Bookcase Passages and Booby Traps. Oh, and if you dig into records of people who've lived in, or stayed in the house before, or research the house itself you're likely to find some pretty spooky history and at least one Dark Secret.

Haunted houses don't have to be houses of course. They can be castles, or mansions, or some other edifice. What they all have in common is that they are structures that are haunted in some way--literally, by ghosts or other undead, or figuratively, in that the house may have some great evil represented another way (e.g., demons, a mad scientist's constructs, etc.).

We discussed previously how taking away player choice is a tool of horror that, when applied to heroic fantasy, can irritate gamers accustomed to their freedom. Haunted houses are particularly vulnerable to this problem in a way that labyrinths aren't, and it all has to do with what the structure is made of.

Wood vs. Stone

Generally speaking, a haunted house is made of wood. Unlike dungeons and labyrinths, where there's an assumption that there's so much rock a character cannot easily burrow through it, the walls of a house can only be so thick. Additionally, unless the house is truly massive, its general dimensions are obvious from its appearance alone. In a dungeon, not knowing what's around the corner is part of how characters are kept in the dark. And houses have windows and other obvious forms of entry that let in light. Being able to leave a house is usually no more difficult than smashing a window.

The very fabric of a haunted house makes it vulnerable to a brute force approach. Enterprising players will burn a house down first once they realize its nature. Unlike labyrinths, characters can easily leave a house because it's just not that big; even if it's an enormous mansion, PCs can punch their way through walls to egress. The assumptions built into dungeon-crawling by their nature hedge PCs in and haunted houses are forced to hedge visitors in other ways.

That's not to say that a haunted house can't share the characteristics of a dungeon. Haunted castles could easily be made of stone. Windows can be boarded up or mere arrow slits that don't permit easy escape. Which is why haunted houses in fantasy games tend to use a bunch of tricks to keep players there.

Dirty Tricks to Trap PCs

In horror novels, there are plenty of reasons why characters might stay in a haunted house. Dungeons & Dragons' bonds are one way to create a tangible tie between the PC and the house itself; perhaps they grew up there, perhaps they are dedicated to ending the house's reign of terror. If the PCs aren't children entering the house on a dare, as adults they may be motivated to rescue someone they believe is trapped inside. Or perhaps they're ghost hunters, dedicated to measuring and recording the house's evil--or ridding the house of its curse entirely. Whatever the case, psychological factors can provide an effective wall to keep PCs within a haunted house. This barrier to exit becomes strains credibility the more PCs there are.

Environmental effects can hedge PCs into a house they would normally never join. Inclement weather is frequently cited as a reason, although it could just as easily be that there are monsters on the outside that are potentially worse than what lurks within. And if all that fails, supernatural effects can simply block the exit: doors might not open, windows are magically sealed, and the wood simply won't burn.

Haunted houses tend to be short, low-level adventures because characters are unlikely to spend much time exploring. This is why longer adventures provide a dungeon beneath the house or play with physics so that the house is bigger on the inside (like in the aforementioned example, House of Leaves):

Many haunted houses as depicted in film and TV (particularly vintage productions), and in videogames, tend to be Bigger on the Inside, with seemingly endless corridors and remote areas and rooms that seem incongruous with exterior views of the building. Sometimes it's simply because Artists Are Not Architects, but frequently there is an implication that the haunted house is a form of Eldritch Location: a Mobile Maze in a Negative Space Wedgie. If you find yourself in one of these, expect Endless Corridors and Scooby-Dooby Doors to be the least of your problems. In particularly bad cases, as the house gathers more life force and fear energy expect increasing levels of Bizarrchitecture and Malevolent Architecture, particularly if you're getting closer to figuring out how to get out or approaching the heart of the house. In the core of these places expect to find blatant Alien Geometry, or possibly even a full blown Psychological Torment Zone.

To see how these tropes apply to Fifth Edition D&D, we have a great example that's available for free online: The Curse of Strahd introductory adventure, Death House. PLEASE NOTE: This section contains spoilers for the adventure.

Death House in Action


Death House starts with two children begging the heroes for help. They refuse to go back into the house but are convinced there's a monster inside. As if that's not enough of a reason for the PCs to enter the house, they also explain that there's a baby inside. For extra motivation, the mists gradually swallow up the village around the PCs until they only have one choice but to enter the house. In addition to heavily obscuring vision, here's what the mists do to characters:

A creature that starts its turn in the fog must succeed on a DC 20 Constitution saving throw or gain one level of exhaustion (see appendix A in the Player’s Handbook). This exhaustion can’t be removed while the creature is in the fog. No matter how far a creature travels in the fog, or in which direction it goes, it gets turned around so that it eventually finds itself back in Barovia.

Why not burn the house to the ground? Death House has an answer:

Characters can burn the house to the ground if they want, but any destruction to the house is temporary. After 1d10 days, the house begins to repair itself. Ashes sweep together to form blackened timbers, which then turn back into a sturdy wooden frame around which walls begin to materialize. Destroyed furnishings are likewise repaired. It takes 2d6 hours for the house to complete its resurrection. Items taken from the house aren’t replaced, nor are undead that are destroyed.

With the mists outside, there's no escape for the PCs anyway. Once they defeat the evil at the heart of the house, escape is possible but the house won't make it easy:

All the windows are bricked up; the bricked-up windows and the outer walls are impervious to the party’s weapon attacks and damage-dealing spells.

The PCs will have to battle their way back out if they plan to escape.

Can you run a haunted house adventure in a fantasy setting? Death House is proof that it's possible, but it's probably best for lower level characters (who can't brute force their way through walls) and shorter adventures.
 
Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I've run haunted houses now and then, they can be fun. It doesn't even need to be limited to lower level PCs, it just takes a bit more creativity. Since the house is inherently magical, no permanent damage can be done to it. Try to break the window? It doesn't work because they're illusionary or are a permanent wall of force. Try to teleport out? You get redirected or it's stopped by an Unhallowed spell.

But it does require player buy-in so it may not work for every group. In an odd way, to me haunted houses make more sense than yet another dungeon created by a mad mage.

There are a lot of ways of doing it, in the last game the house was haunted by a powerful ghost that had accidentally tapped into necromantic energies beyond their control. The ghosts trapped in the building could not be permanently destroyed, it was all about putting together clues and unravelling the mystery of how to put the souls at peace.
 


I think haunted house from curse if strahd worked just fine.
I generally believe the bigger from inside than from the outside makes it an etra dimensional space. So maybe if you try to dig your way out, you will find yourself in the wide space of a different dimension. Probably the shadowfell.
Also if you assume the house is haunted, you can just easily make it from something that just looks like wood, but if you try to destroy it you might find that the house is alive and will stop such attempts.
 

I know it's a B-movie but I thought Grave Encounters had some good ideas for being trapped in a haunted location, where walls appear that didn't used to be there, or the door that leads outside only opens back up to where people already had been. I agree that horror games in particular seem to take a lot more buy in that these weird physics etc aren't just the DM cheating to keep the story on the rails
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Also if you assume the house is haunted, you can just easily make it from something that just looks like wood, but if you try to destroy it you might find that the house is alive and will stop such attempts.

Yeah, you definitely don't want to try that in a particular haunted house-oriented Call of Cthulhu scenario I played. I was on the receiving end of a pretty nasty shrivel spell.
 

Game Master: your car breaks and you can't continue the travel, it's is raining cats and dogs, you are lost in a road in the middle forest. There is front of you an old house. The thunders are sounds like a dreadful omen

Players: we set a match to burn that f***ing haunted house.

Game Master:😱😱😱😱😱😱😨😨😨😰😰😰 :cry:🥺😭😭😭😭😭😭😭
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Game Master: your car breaks and you can't continue the travel, it's is raining cats and dogs, you are lost in a road in the middle forest. There is front of you an old house. The thunders are sounds like a dreadful omen

Players: we set a match to burn that f***ing haunted house.

Game Master:😱😱😱😱😱😱😨😨😨😰😰😰 :cry:🥺😭😭😭😭😭😭😭

Game Master: The house reacts to your violent attack, uproots itself and eats you all. It was really a giant mimic.
 



Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
ATMOSPHERE! You have to set the mood and know how to creep out your players. Choose your words carefully, think about the descriptions you provide to your players. Also, some of your player characters maybe more inclined to fear, based on where they are from or their upbringing, so work something into their background.

Thought CHILL (the Pace Setter box version) was very good about creating the feeling of dread and horror in the game. It had great monster powers, like the one they used to cause flashlights, cars, radios to go haywire, so matches would not strike. Or one that allowed them whisper/write on things.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Supporter
I still think the big bad at the end (edit: of Death House) should have been a flesh golem with the baby's head, calling out for it's "mama" :)
 
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Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
Maybe the OP's image should have been ...

monster-house-9.jpg


Which is actually giving me ideas for my sort-of-annual Halloween special. The monster is the house and the "monsters" in the house are just trying to escape. :devilish:
 


IMNSHO, older editions of D&D are better for horror than modern ones. Horror often goes hand-in-hand with resource management; part of the fear and stress comes from having limited supplies and a finite number of attempts before you are SOL. Recent editions (i.e. 4e and 5e, but even later additions to 3.5e) have made numerous changes that minimize the amount of resource management that happens in the game. Healing is easier, resetting abilities is easier. Heck, you can even get unlimited access to spells and magic. While I understand that a lot of people like these changes for normal roleplay, it has really hurt D&D's usefulness in the survival horror genre.
 

In an odd way, to me haunted houses make more sense than yet another dungeon created by a mad mage.
The 100s of gigantic dungeons created by mad mages never sat right me, just doesnt make sense on so many levels. Myself I cant justify it. Something like Undermountain, Greyhawk, Myth Drannor make sense but I think any given setting should have 1, maybe 2 large mega dungeons IMO.
 

IMNSHO, older editions of D&D are better for horror than modern ones. Horror often goes hand-in-hand with resource management; part of the fear and stress comes from having limited supplies and a finite number of attempts before you are SOL. Recent editions (i.e. 4e and 5e, but even later additions to 3.5e) have made numerous changes that minimize the amount of resource management that happens in the game. Healing is easier, resetting abilities is easier. Heck, you can even get unlimited access to spells and magic. While I understand that a lot of people like these changes for normal roleplay, it has really hurt D&D's usefulness in the survival horror genre.
Definitely every edition since 3e has favored the player over the DM. As a DM I've never set out to kill a PC but 5e seems very survivable RAW.
 



MGibster

Legend
We had an adventure where we had to save someone from a warehouse.

It turns out it was a WereHouse.
That reminds me of a joke.

A courier with an attache case containing information on the location of top secret warehouses is killed in no man's land. The lieutenant asks for volunteers to recover the attache case as this information cannot fall into enemy hands. One soldier takes it upon himself to volunteer, goes over the top, wades through a fusillade of enemy gunfire, and despite being wounded several times recovers the case and returns to his line.

Lieutenant: You've recovered the locations of our top secret warehouses! You'll get a medal for this.

Soldier: Warehouses? I thought you said top secret whorehouses!
 

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