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.


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.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Registered Ninja
I think that the best way to get adventurers into a haunted house are to force them or trick them, it's to rely on the fact that their are adventurers. The townsfolk need somebody to put the unquiet spirits to rest, so they turn to the heroes. Some children are missing inside, who will save them? Did we mention that when they were alive the ghost hoarded a ton of treasure and buried it in the basement?

Yes, you can jump out a window at any time if you get scared (oh brave adventurer). It won't get you any closer to completing your quest.

For what it's worth I wrote an adventure an adventure back in the 4e days called Good Little Children Never Grow Up, which I think does a good job of getting PCs into the house and motivating them to stay until the confront the ghost at the heart of it all.

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In my 30's horror campaign The Horror at Huxley House, the house is actually an extradimensional space that adapts its exterior and interior to fit with whatever plane of existence it is currently on (simular to Doctor Who's Tardis). Simply destroying it is not an option, as it would only reveal the true metal structure underneath, that resists any damage. The players can leave the house at any time, but they have to urgently stop a growing threat in the house. They've also been cautioned not to exit the house through its doors, although they don't quite know why. Instead, they've been instructed to use a special closet in the attic to exit the house when they are done.

The house is not a conventional haunted house, as there are no ghosts. But horrifying Lovecraftian creatures from beyond time and space lurk within its walls. The players do not yet know how the house works, and how these strange creature came to be there, but that is something they are trying to find out.

From the start of the campaign, I informed the pc's well about the dangers of the house, and what to expect. As such there was no need to trap them inside, as the danger was not a surprise, and they had a clear objective. During our session zero I also explained to my players that while any normal person probably could (and would) flee the house, they should think of themselves as the leads in a thrilling black and white suspense movie and not do so. The premise is that they are some what courageous investigators, and I asked them to play the campaign as such. I think it is fine to get that conceit out of the way before you start play. It saves the DM the trouble from having to pull strange stunts just to get the players to stay in the house.
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Always have lots of handouts/personal messages. Describe a lot of things only single characters see. That gets the paranoia going. I have used this a number of times. Include things they 'think' they see. I have a word doc of these for the first Pathfinder adventure path when they enter a Haunted House.
I did the same approach for an aberrant forest where the trees had eyes, there were mindlflayer tadpoles in orchids, etc.

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