Haunted House: 4 Tips To Terrify Your Players

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haunted-houseHaunted 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!

8 thoughts on “Haunted House: 4 Tips To Terrify Your Players”

  1. I just finished taking my players through a haunted castle that was in the middle of a lake. I created some back story that told of a king who built up a kingdom with his own hands. It was a great castle until he became greedy and heavily taxed his citizens. The last straw was when he threw a powerful wizard in prison for “words of treason”, and the wizard cursed the castle to sink into a swamp, and for the souls of the cruel to wander through it forever, and so it did. The players headed their in search for the kings great treasure, but were trapped on the small island in the middle of the swamp where the castle was because their boat sunk. when they entered the castle it seemed rather empty until they came across the servants quarters that contained bodies in each bed. The bodies rose up and approached the players with grinning, lip-less mouths that contained rotten, bleeding teeth. they had pasty white skin, no hair and bleeding eye sockets. these figures would constantly peruse the players as they continued through the castle, and whenever they were attacked, they would take no damage, and the wound would slightly bleed as the things continued to peruse the PCs. All their torches would go out, so the only lighting would be the occasional lightning bolt from outside, giving a slight “weeping angel” affect. The NPCs would dissapear and they would later find things such as their Non Player cleric’s head in a treasure chest that they opened. My players wanted out of the castle despite the fact that they hadn’t lost a single hit point.

  2. In the same vein as the “Over Describe” advise for creating horror is the classic line from your high school writing class of show don’t tell. Make sure you use all five senses and don’t tell player’s explicitly what is creating the sensation. Describe a smell, or a tactile experience in extreme detail. Give only passing notes on their visual experience and let players draw their own conclusions about what is causing their phenomenal experiences. Once they start making assumptions (a really bad idea in a horror Milieu) play to those assumptions with your descriptions (their assumptions color their experiences and points of view). Conceal the differences between what they expect and the reality of things and don’t show them how wrong they are until it is too late. This is a great way to create suspense and horror.

  3. My players don’t delve in haunted houses. They live in one. After repeated attacks on their keep, the players felt their castle was a little underprotected, so set out to create some defences. Being the sadistic characters they are, the castle was soon loaded up with iron maidens and meat hooks, you name it. But this was not enough. The mage, secretly a demon worshiper, invoketed a few favours from his diety. Now the keep is filled with tourted souls and demons, as long as the players pay the monthly fee.

  4. I love the trick of over-describing. Players are so used to everything that comes out of a DM’s mouth being relevant that they get all paranoid when you start describing things, that sudden danger is around every corner.

    So I like to toss it up a bit, and have something completely off-the wall or hilarious happen instead, or sometimes nothing at all. Always keeps them guessing!

  5. I led one of my players into a trapdoor that opened to a pit filled with wipped cream. Why you may ask well
    1. Can’t swim easily in wipped cream
    2. Can’t climb a rope (it’s a -12 on climb checks) its really slipery on your hands
    3. If they manage to get out the stuff stays inside there armor and makes a nice trail for monsters to follow.

  6. As a matter of fact my players are going through a haunted scenario right now. It’s on a slightly different scale however…for they have to face an entire country in the grip of that kind of horror.
    Plus they just found out that if they don’t do everything right, they’ll unleash an entity from the Far Realms…so, y’know, no pressure.
    I can already see ways that reading this article will help me tweak my narrative in the coming sessions! It’s going to be so much fun, and my players will both love and hate me!!

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