Tabletop role-playing

New game idea — Haunted House

I had some thoughts last night about what might be an interesting game. It might already exist, or might not work, in which case ho hum; but here you go anyway.

It’s a collaborative RPG in the modern style, for a GM and maybe 3-6 players. It’s about exploring a haunted house. My hope is that it would be sufficiently flexible to cover everything from creepy Victorian ghosts to modern slasher horror, and even Cthulhoid bibble should that appeal.

(The idea of this kind of game, if you aren’t familiar with it, is that unlike conventional RPGs it’s in 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 GMs role, rather than being the sole creator as is traditional, 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. You start by deciding on the setting, and the weather conditions etc, and the sort of tone you’re going for. Then each player creates two characters — one Protagonist and one Expendable. These should be drawn from the range of familiar types for the setting that you’ve chosen, and should be discussed among the players to make a coherent group.

The GM then 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 three phases.

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 — but at least half of those chosen should be Expendables. In turn, each payer has a scene, imrpovised 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) — 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.

(It might be better, rather than running these scenes in sequence, to set each of them up and cut back and forth between them. Not sure about that.)

At the end of the Exploration phase, the surviving characters gather together, alarmed at the loss of their fellows. Now each player’s Protagonist character has a one-to-one scene of their choice with another player’s Protagonist (allocated randomly? or based on seating order?), to display their relationship and the effect of strain upon it, and to progress their characters. As a result of this, character stats (which I haven’t mentioned before, but they’ll be things like Bravado and Empathy, allocated from a fixed pool at creation) may change, at the GM’s discretion. (This can also happen during the exploration scenes if the GM feels a character has done something particularly appropriate.)

The second phase is Winnowing. 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), or define a new one (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.

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.

The final phase is Denouement. The protagonists remain (broadly) together. 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 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 character’s Outcome (death, heroism, flight, whatever) will be determined by their stats, and a random factor. The GM must orchestrates communal play towards that set of outcomes. At the end, everyone has got what they deserve, one way or another.

(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.)

45 replies on “New game idea — Haunted House”

The idea of expendables is something I was toying with for a horror genre game. I’m still not really sure it works though – because every player must take the expendables seriously enough as characters that it matters when they die. Maybe make it secret which character is the expendable?

Mm, yes, that’s a great idea! The GM would know, of course, so they could make sure that enough expendables got killed in the first phase. But to the other players it would be a nasty shock.

(Having secret knowledge in this way is a bit against the spirit of the collaboration, I guess. But it seems to me a worthwhile tradeoff if it provides more fun.)

It does mean each player having to play two characters convincingly in parallel, which might be a stretch. But I think as long as the two aren’t in the same mini-scenes together, it should be do-able.

I’ve never played a collaborative RPG, but it sounds a lot like the ideas about “troupe” play which were being kicked about in the early 90s. Your version might be a bit easier to get working, though. The idea back then was that everyone was a GM, with different people running different sessions. The advantage of your single-GM approach is that the players can get creative with storytelling elements without necessarily needing to be confident about things like game balance, pacing, NPC stats, running time and so on.

(Personally these kinds of games aren’t really my thing since I play RPGs mainly for deep plot of the kind that’s not really possible in this format.)

(Personally these kinds of games aren’t really my thing since I play RPGs mainly for deep plot of the kind that’s not really possible in this format.)

This. I have tried various collaborative RPGs but they don’t do much for me. I much prefer the surprise and glory of a pre-prepared plot.

I like deep plot, but I guess I do still enjoy games without it (and without deep role-playing come to that), providing the fun factor and pick-up-ability are sufficiently brisk. I’d like to be able to populate the gap that lies between RPGs and boardgames… not sure it could ever become a continuum, but clearly this sort of game has some boardgame-like properties alongside its RPG-like ones.

That’s an interesting comment, because to me boardgames lie on the other side of RPGs. Something like this…

Completely unstructured play
Improvised RPG / story telling
Live action / freeform RPG
Tabletop RPG
Chess/Go etc.

That is a fair question. My feeling is that, because the other players are the audience for such a scene, they are entitled to ‘know’ the information gained from it in an out-of-character way, provided that they ensure that they later stumble across it in character.

Hmm. More satisfying if there were a way for such knowledge to be passed on IC. Though that might limit your range of options.

Knowing you have one Expendable and one Protagonist would surely alter the way you played, even if you didn’t know which is which, as per ‘s excellent suggestion. I wonder if there’s a way of having only one character per player, and also having all but one characters be expendable (which one is the Protagonist being known only by the GM, and perhaps determined randomly), but still have involvement for the Expended players.

That was actually my original idea, but I couldn’t work out a way to involve the Expended. I had vague ideas that they could play The House from then on, rather than the GM doing so… but it seemed likely that would end up incoherent.

Perhaps they might play as ghosts? They might work against, rather than for the house (though that does diminish the communal game). Or perhaps they could be ghosts, allowed to declare to work for the cause of the protagonist and remaining Expendables, or against it?

Mm, worth a try. (Although of course not all settings will necessarily suit the existence of such ghosts.) They will have to be careful not to turn it into a game of We Like Being Ghosts and grab the limelight from the surviving characters, who are after all supposed to be the protagonists.

As far as the collaborative stuff goes it’s very like Taste for Murder but not with the expendable characters and all that. If you’ve not played I would run it any time for you.

I’ve rather enjoyed playing collaboratively, not always, sometimes I like an old fashioned RPG but I loathe being railroaded by GMs.

There are a (very) few GMs who I don’t mind being railroaded by… but one has to accept that it is then really a form of storytelling rather than gaming.

I’m hoping to run a bit of Taste for Murder shortly, on people who have never done any kind of role-playing: that should be interesting!

I think there might be some issues around keeping the order of scenes and balance between multiple characters, especially if you’re cutting from scene to scene. This would either require a lot of advance planning or really good on the spot logistics and organization, which might undercut the intent of collaborative play. I’d still be willing to give it a go, though.

Yes, I think balance would be easier with only 3 or 4 players. There are some techniques one can use to help that along (eg. jump cuts), but it’s only really going to work if the players have a full understanding of and are in sympathy with the structural intention.

Linking the characters in so that the expendables work is critical. I remember an Epic game that did it particularly well. Getting them to care, but not throw a wobbley when they die….

I would suggest some interesting way of making them to be linked in some direct way to the generation of the primary character, so only one character is chosen/generated by the player.

I was also reminded of aspects of “Betrayal at the House on the Hill”.

I like the idea of playing two separate characters — it allows you to try different approaches to the problem. However if you know who’s expendable, you’ll treat them different, and I think there’s a danger of it becoming a little snuff n’ saw

Could you work on the expendable concept by giving each player a single character and then bringing them in a second character only when the first is killed- so potentially no characters are predestined expendable BUT it’s highly likely they will mostly snuff it at some point?

If they are all in at least pairs but can die within visibility of another PC this gets around your need to psychically pass on clues (which sounds a little messy to me in terms of gameplay esp if your PCs aren’t hardened RpGers).

What I’d be thinking of would be similar to a film like “Clue” where the primary PCs are all the characters present at the start of the film (Mr boddy, Yvette, miss Scarlett, the Cook) and then later in the narrative secondary characters appear (The Cop, The Motorist, The Singing Telegram Girl). So everytime a pc gets canned, another character conveniently enters stage left. That means no pC is left twiddling thumbs. (you could also make one of the “new PCs” a double agent of some kind if that made the plot more twisty).

Can you tell I think this is a fun idea ??

This reminds me of the Call of Cthulhu games I used to run in Ox. Party suffer a loss while fighting fire vampires on the Orient Express, so the player hastily creates a character who’s a train ticket collector whose eyes have suddenly been opened to the eldritch horror (and who only speaks Serbo-Croat). With a fairly high death rate, you could end up with some really ill-assorted groups by the end of the adventure.

Would you design up a whole sheaf of secondary characters in advance, or as and when required?

that sounds interesting, but not available unless there are some other people around, which in your classic abandoned submarine (I liked the ‘other scenarios this could cover’) or indeed party investigate empty place/haunted house, there generally ain’t.

I’ve avoided commenting before because the first two posters said what I would’ve: for me, from RPG, you have to play each any character as true so you mustn’t know one is an expendable at the beginning (as I say, as has been said), and ‘clues’ known but not known flummoxes me too – must be known in some surviving character or not revealed/known at all.

And I can’t tick poll because I am interested in free-form, in how it might work – I’ve heard great descriptions of games where it did – despite not knowing much about it and having come from RPGs.

However lovingly I craft these poll options, there’s always one troublemaker!

I don’t really have a problem with things being known and not known — I see that as just one aspect of the narrative expectation. As, in a film, when we see a character about to do X, we can guess what’s going to happen because we saw an earlier scene in which that character wasn’t present. I think it’s important to recognize that in an RPG (of any type, not just this kind) the players are the audience as well as being the protagonists.

Ah, I missed the detail of this post first glance through, and have ended up in suggesting a fundamentally similar idea for avoiding the “Expendables” trap, below.

Re: Not a comment

It hadn’t occurred, but I see it now you say it. I suppose on a conscious level I was expecting most readers not to be keen, so provided a range of ways for them to express that.

(Although perhaps, subconsciously, I was actually setting myself up for a flood of reassuring responses forced into that one positive option.)

At first I thought it sounded a bit like Inspectres, which is a collaborative ghost-hunter RPG, but on further reading they’re quite distinct. Inspectres has more of a Ghostbusters feel and is intended to work as a campaign (and the players only RP one character.) Your game feels more Cthulu-ish and is clearly a single session or short story arc type game.

I’m probably teaching my Grandmother to suck eggs here but I found with Inspectres even excellent players floundered with having to invent chunks of game. A much more satisfactory game was had when I gave them little snippets of research material as a jumping off point for their invention.

Mm, I think being constrained to a very tight (and one-off) setting, and an accepted narrative arc will help people with the invention side of it. One of those situations where it’s easier to come up with good stuff within narrow constraints than it is when you’re given a whole blank canvas to play with (see also: composing poetry in restrictive verse forms). That’s the hope, anyway! If need be, though, then the GM can always ‘seed’ the house with bits for them to pick up on, as you say.

Having said that I have comments, I should make some I suppose, although they have largely been said by others. I am wary about the use of “Expendables”, because they are likely to be viewed as just monster-fodder. I see the reason for them, but they are the weak link in the idea from my perspective. Of course the alternatives have their drawbacks.

Suey mentioned Taste For Murder, which has the murdered character’s player coming back into the game as The Inspector. Could there be mileage in a similar dynamic here? If one or more characters get swiped, the players bring new characters into the situation (previously known to the first group or otherwise), which then adds the twists that there is likely to be suspicion between the old and new groups as to whether they were in fact responsible for what happened to the ‘disappearees’ (and in some circumstances that might have been the case).

I’m also curious about the extent of the role of the GM. The story evolves collaboratively rather than from a detailed, pre-written scenario, but the very existence of a GM somewhat belies that premise, doesn’t it? Do you see the GM being separate from the players in the traditional RPG mode, or as a collaborating player with some additional responsibilities?

Your replacement suggestion ties in somewhat to ‘s thoughts above, I think. Mm, I like the idea in some ways — but I was thinking of this really just for one-offs, and the kind of manipulation of party dynamic that you describe might feel a bit forced. Would probably have to give it a go to see.

I see the GM as a facilitator and coordinator, so not a player but an alongside role. Not as godlike and commandeering as the traditional GM’s role, but hopefully not without its own satisfactions. It will primarily fall to the GM to make coherent sense of what the players toss into the mix, so they will have to be able to think on their feet and keep track of the overall sense of story.

I suppose from my own selfish point of view, I could GM a game of this (or similar) when I haven’t had time to prepare anything. During the session it uses more of some of the normal skills and less of others, but the sustained creativity that would be needed to improvise a whole trad game on the fly is not required.

Yes, I got the idea that this was for one-offs, not extended campaigns, and my suggestion was made with that in mind.

I wasn’t thinking that the party dynamic would necessarily have to be manipulated (at least, no more than the rest of the game premise, which is predicated on building a scenario around a recognised genre template), I meant that they are simply avenues that players might decide to explore when one group meets the other.

My own feeling is that having Expendables would, if anything, feel more ‘forced’, as they are being created with the express purpose of coming to a grisly end.

Worth trying out in different permutations if you ask me. Certainly I think the idea has some mileage.

Like most of my game ideas, I suspect it’ll languish in this unfinished state now for some time; unless I foolishly promise to run it some time, and thus manufacture a deadline that requires me to get around to finishing it!

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