Haunted houses are a classic concept. One could even argue that the idea is fundamentally embedded in the human consciousness. There are stories about spirit haunted houses dating back to the Roman empire and another tale in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. And of course, we still write new haunted house stories to this day. Is it any wonder it is such an enduring idea? It hits all the right notes: fear, curiosity about life after death, our attachment and impact on our surroundings and the personality we ascribe to inanimate places. You can harness this cultural classic in your D&D game, with some tweaking. A haunted house (or other locale) makes for a fun diversion session to break up the rest of the plot.
#1 – Take Out the Combat
How do you make hauntings scary to characters who regularly hack up zombies and ghosts? You need to create monsters that the players can’t engage directly. Books that fly at them, rotting timers that give way, specters who take a pot-shot before fading. This that do enter longer term fights should just be tools of the ghost, possessed doll or a whirlwind of kitchen cutlery, for example. I really don’t think you need combat except for perhaps the final confrontation, but everything that could be resolved with a proper ritual or symbolic act to banish the spirit.
#2 – Hammer in the Emotion
Big heroes operated at a big scale. They decide the fates of towns, kingdoms or entire worlds. While it does make them important and altruistic, they tend to lose touch with the little guy. Haunted houses are generally haunted because something awful happened there. Things like a father going mad and butchering his family or a young widowed woman who killed herself in despair and now wails and tortures any happy people she can get to. These spirits would normally be small fish for such mighty heroes, but you can really make the pain in that house feel personal. Bring your self important heroes back down to a human level.
#3 – Keep Them In
One of the most important aspects of the haunted house is to keep the victims in there. The old standby of the the spirit sealing the front door works for the average man, but fighters who have slain dragons with pure muscle may find that unsatisfying. Rather than trying to force them artificially to stay, incentivate them. Give them an objective that their characters feel they must complete no matter the cost.
#4 – Over Describe
A big part of horror is building a sense of dread and uneasy. This is a difficult trick in an entirely narrated medium. I find the best way to tap into your players’ paranoia is to over describe. When describing a room, spend time lingering on certain. Take about how everything is covered in dust except the portrait on the mantle and describe it’s image to the last detail. Use a repetitive phrase to describe every statue in the house (except perhaps one). What shape do the shadows cast on the wall take? But it is all just set dressing…except for the things that are not.
You players draw clues from both how you describe something and how long you do. If you grant a time investment to mundane objects you are giving them an artificial importance. This confuses players like nothing else. Spend two minutes describing a statue and they are sure it will come to life, completely ignoring the briefly mentioned rug which gives out under their feet.
What haunted horrors has your group faced? Let us know in the comments!