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Haunted House

Haunted House is a collaborative RPG for a GM and 3–5 players. It's about exploring a haunted house, or other such setting. It's sufficiently flexible to cover everything from creepy Victorian ghosts to modern slasher horror, Cthulhoid bibble, bughunt, and basically anything else that involves exploring a restricted location containing an unknown threat with lots of character death.

This kind of game is a very constrained form, in which only a certain range of setups and narrative types are practical. But the tradeoff for that is that rather than the game being written in advance by the GM and presented to the players, instead it's created collaboratively between GM and players during the game session itself. Because the genre tropes are familiar, everyone knows the shape of story that you're aiming towards. The GM's role, rather than being the sole creator as in traditional RPG, is to facilitate, improvise, and operate the mechanics such that everyone has a fun and satisfying experience.

So the premise is that a group of characters turn up at a spooky old isolated house (etc). You start by deciding on the setting, and the weather conditions etc, and the sort of tone you're going for (or the GM can declare these in advance). Then each player creates two characters. These should be drawn from the range of familiar types for the setting that you've chosen, and should be discussed among the players, so as to make a coherent group.

(Of course, it needn't be a house; it could be an abandoned submarine, or a spaceship hulk, or a temple in the Amazonian jungle, or whatever. Up to you. And if preferred, the GM can create the setting in advance and then the players populate it: that works well too. We've included some example settings for you to download below. They include a preliminary questionnaire for players, which you can use to get people thinking a bit about their characters in advance.)

Structure

The GM paints the scene in a prologue passage, describing what the group is doing at the haunted house, and the circumstances of their arrival. Then the game is divided into four phases.

Establishment

Each character in turn has an establishing scene, which might be with an NPC (played by the suitably-briefed GM, or with another PC; or might be a soliloquy or narrative, as the player prefers. The idea is to present a conversational encounter or illustrative passage which establishes who this person is, what they're like, and why the audience should care about what happens to them. Depending on the setup of the scenario, these scenes might be as part of the lead-in, or might be from some time in the past.

Exploration

During this phase, characters wander off and explore rooms (or other locations) of the house. Each player chooses one of their two characters to Explore. At this point, the GM determines secretly, at random, which of each player's two characters is a Protagonist and which is Expendable. If less than half of the Exploring characters turn out to be Expendables, re-roll.

In turn, each player has a scene, improvised between themselves and the GM, where that character goes off to explore a room. In that room they will find a Clue (which they invent as required, or they can ask the GM to invent) – something that points to the larger secret of the house. It might be a box of old love letters, or a painting with the eyes slashed out, or a secret tunnel, or a black orchid in a vase, or a chained up dog with two heads… anything at all really. For Protagonist characters, having completed this exploration task, they return to the group. Expendable characters do not return – the mystery of the house has already claimed them. This will usually involve death, but it might be insanity, or rapid ageing, or transfer to another plane of existence… depends on the game, but basically it means they are no longer in any sense playable. Character stats may be changed as a result of Exploration scenes, if the GM feels a character has had a particularly noteworthy experience.

At the end of the Exploration phase, the surviving characters gather together, alarmed at the loss of their fellows. Now each surviving character has a one-to-one scene of their choice with another player's character, of their choice, to display their relationship and the effect of strain upon it, and to progress their characters. As a result of this, character stats may change, at the GM's discretion.

Winnowing

In the second phase, the remaining characters go off in groups of two or three (all characters in a group must be controlled by different players, and each group must contain at least one Protagonist) to look for their missing companions. This works by scenes as before. Each scene may visit a previously-established location (in which they may find the bodies or whatever remnants, and if they wish another Clue), or define a new location (in which will be a further Clue). During these scenes, each of the remaining Expendables will be killed, but this time 'on camera' ie. while other characters are present. Again, stats may alter

Now only the Protagonists remain, and they regroup again, terrified. They first have an all-together scene where they try and start to solve the mystery, then as before they break into one-on-one scenes of their choosing, to progress / degrade their relationships further, and possibly alter their stats again. For example, a morale-boosting loin-girding conversation might raise the participants' Bravery by a point.

Denouement

In the final phase, the protagonists may remain together, or may split up into new groups or solo factions. They may advance off as a group, or wait for the horror to come to them, but essentially this should play out as one big fairly continuous scene with occasional vignettes off to the side. The relevance of the Clues must become apparent during this expository sequence, if it hasn't already. Each player should roll for their character's Outcome (see below) at the start of the Denouement, and tell the rolls to the GM. The GM must then orchestrate communal play towards that set of outcomes. At the end, everyone has got what they deserve, one way or another.

System

Locations

Each location should be named, and the GM should keep notes about it as required. Including who discovered it, what it's like, what horrific events have happened there, what clues been found, etc.

If the party want to keep the locations rigorously mapped and connected, they may: or it can be assumed that all rooms are equally accessible. Up to them.

Character stats

Each character has stats in Fatedness, Bravery and Empathy, between which they must assign 6 points in the range 1, 2 or 3 per each.

Fatedness

This stat represents the propensity for the game's plot to engage one's back-story etc.

Any character interacting with a Clue can roll vs Fatedness to 'link' (generate an involvement) with it. The player or the GM determines the nature of same. (For example, you recognize the mutilated portrait on the wall: your grandmother had a copy of it. It depicts her missing eldest son, your mysterious uncle.)

Detachment from or engagement with the workings of fate during the game can adjust Fatedness.

Bravery

A normal "do something brave" roll is >= Bravery on a d4. If the location is particularly terrifying, or has been the scene of terrifying events during the game so far, or eg. holds the savagely mutilated body of a character, the GM can require modifications to the roll. If the character makes this roll, they can do something positive and brave. If they fail, they must do something cowardly and craven (or just ineffective). This rule can be elided for narrative purposes.

Empathy

Lack of acting to help an Attached character can cost Empathy: as can the death of an Attached character. But strengthening or otherwise supporting an Attached character can improve Empathy.

Attachments

Each character can be declared to have Attachments to up to 3 other characters. These can be of strength 1, 2, 3 as the player wishes. If the action attempted is to help a character to whom they have an Attachment, they get to add that to their roll. The downside is that they will get drawn into trying to rescue (etc) their Attached characters, to avoid Empathy loss.

Vulnerability

Each character should have a declared Vulnerability, at the player's choice. This might be a phobia, or a personality quirk, or a sensitivity, etc – basically it's something which might, if the right context comes up during the game, cause that character to be at a disadvantage.

Outcomes

At the start of the denouement, each player rolls d4 vs their character's Fatedness. If <=, they have an Active fate. If >, they have a Passive fate (ie. fate has taken them over).

Then roll d4 vs the character's Bravery and vs their Empathy. (Adjustment might be required, if it turns out everyone has 4s in everything by this point!) Note that in the table below, "death" is shorthand for "death or other form of devastation, as appropriate for the setting/genre".

Fatedness roll Bravery roll Empathy roll Outcome
Fail (Passive) Fail Fail Contemptible death
Pass Cowardly but sympathetic death
Pass Fail Futile death
Pass Fortunate survival
Pass (Active) Fail Fail Heroic death
Pass Sympathetic but cowardly survival
Pass Fail Callous heroism
Pass Complete heroism

Acknowledgements

Thanks to everyone who provided useful suggestions and thoughts, and to all the playtesters!

Materials

Here's a PDF relating to The Ghosts of Fulwell, the first playtest setting. And here's one for The Wreck of the Sarah-Jane, the second playtest setting.

© 2012 Undying King Games