Over the past few days, I’ve received the electronic versions of two excellent products I backed on Kickstarter. Both of these are firmly in the horror genre. The first was the East Texas University (ETU) setting by Pinnacle Entertainment for Savage Worlds, which backers were able to download on Monday, June 23rd. The second was Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans by Golden Goblin Press for Call of Cthulhu, which backers could download on Wednesday, June 25th. In honor of the release of these two nuggets of gaming goodness, I thought I’d take a few (hundred) words and run down my Six Favorite Haunted House Scenarios for Tabletop RPGs.
The Haunted Half-Dozen
#6 – The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition)
“Desloate and abandoned, the evil alchemist’s mansion stands alone on the cliff, looking out towards the sea. Mysterious lights and ghostly hauntings have kept away the people of Saltmarsh, despite rumors of a fabulous forgotten treasure. What is it’s sinister secret?”
Released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons by TSR in 1981 as “Dungeon Module U1”, this adventure was the first part of the “underwater” trilogy of adventures developed in the United Kingdom and written by David J. Browne with Don Turnbull. This 32 page adventure for 5-10 characters of levels 1-3 is the strongest of the U1-3 trilogy, and the only one of the three with a haunted house theme. This adventure is far and away better than the other AD&D haunted house scenario released by TSR the same year, Len Lakofka’s The Secret of Bone Hill.
The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is presented in two sections, the first of which is the haunted house scenario. The maps are fairly standard for the time of publication, but there is an extra flap on the cover folio which allows the inclusion of a few more maps. The adventure itself presents an interesting take on the haunted house trope, taking cues, it seems, from Scooby Doo at times. The adventure is well written and, more than typical adventures of the time, focuses on gathering clues and solving a mystery. The majority of the combat encounters in the house itself are of the creepy-crawly variety, such as spiders, centipedes, stirges, and the like.
If you’re looking to run a fantasy ghost hunting campaign and want an adventure that goes in a different direction than most scenarios of this genre, playing through at least the first part of this adventure would be a good choice. As a GM, if you want to go more in a Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl direction, this adventure would be easily modified to fit the bill.
#5 – The Haunting (Call of Cthulhu)
As the introduction to this adventure states, “More people have played this Call of Cthulhu scenario than any other.” This introductory adventure for CoC, once known as “The Haunted House”, has been included with every edition of the game, including the 1st edition in 1981, which seems to have been a good year for haunted house scenarios. Due to its inclusion in the CoC core rulebook, this neat little scenario doesn’t have any cover art, and the maps are below standard even for the time which it was originally released.
Nominally set in Boston in 1920, this simple 5 page adventure can be ported to virtually any era and/or location. The scenario is fairly short, in itself, but as the introduction states, the first part of the adventure, which is the investigation prior to the actual haunted house exploration, can be lengthened to make the entire scenario run longer. Also, the adventure can be run as a non-mythos tale by omitting the non-essential eldritch tome that makes an appearance.
Since the actual haunted house exploration in this scenario is fairly short, there are few physical adversaries to be encountered. Those that are present are well done, very atmospheric, and serve to increase the investigators’ mental anguish, which is, in this adventure as in most CoC scenarios, the main challenge. There are several excellent maps and handouts available in various places on the internet, including Yog–Sothoth (yes there are two separate links there), Dan of the Dead‘s blog, and the Dundjinni forums (where you’ll find some excellent maps by Cisticola) to enrich your experience with this scenario. These extras bring the adventure up to modern standards and it still holds up as an excellent adventure even by today’s standards.
There are some other variations out there, as the adventure has been converted to D20 by PoC (just like everything else), and converted to a Scooby Doo format for Savage Worlds by David Baymiller.
This scenario appears once again, with new art by Rachel Kahn, in the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition Quickstart Rules.
#4 – Dust to Dust (World of Darkness)
This 20 page scenario by Chuck Wendig was released in 2004 as part of the Ghost Stories collection, which contains 5 ghostly scenarios for World of Darkness (new). It is more of a “haunted town” scenario than haunted house, but it is excellent and really expands on the haunted house genre. The author is a master of the horror genre and the art is excellent.
This modern scenario is set in a western ghost town called Fort Assumption. The town is haunted, but it is also haunting. Some places are just “bad places” and, like the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining, Fort Assumption is one of them.
Unlike the previous two entries on this list, “Dust to Dust” contains no maps and few set encounters. As the author points out, the scenario is more of a “ghost town toolbox” than a proper adventure. This makes it incredibly useful and adaptable. It could easily be used in a Deadlands game, and I have seen it used in this way, by moving the time period back a bit. The setting could also easily be modified from the “western ghost town” default to just about anything. I once ran this scenario set in an abandoned Appalachian mining town in the New River Gorge area, which I named Hamlet, West Virginia. This versatility makes the scenario an indispensable part of your horror gaming toolbox.
#3 – Ravenloft (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 1st edition)
“I am the ancient. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I am not dead. Nor am I alive. I am undead, forever.” – Count Strahd von Zarovich
First released by TSR in 1983 as the 6th installment in the “Intermediate” series of modules (I6) for 6-8 characters of levels 5-7 for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, this 32 page haunted house scenario by Tracy and Laura Hickman served as a sort of “shot heard ’round the world” for horror gaming. This adventure spawned a whole franchise, including a sequel (“The House on Gryphon Hill”), a wildly successful campaign setting, novels, and an excellent reboot for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 called Expedition to Castle Ravenloft.
It is amazing to look at this adventure in the light of “The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh” and “The Secret of Bone Hill” and consider that this was published only two years after those adventures, and a good bit of it was written in the late 1970’s. The quality of art and cartography in this adventure are miles above those included in TSR’s previous haunted house scenarios, and the plot is significantly more involved.
One of the first AD&D modules to contain 3D maps by David Sutherland III, this adventure really raised the bar on cartography of AD&D adventures. Clive Caldwell’s art was likewise a huge step forward for AD&D adventures of the time. The module also features an innovative fortune telling mini-game that changes the locations of various artifacts and makes the scenario slightly different each time it is played.
The writing in this adventure is superb, capturing the feel of 19th century Gothic horror quite nicely. The plot, centered around star-crossed lovers and a centuries-old curse, is much more detailed and focuses on investigation more than most AD&D adventures of the time. In addition to the haunted house exploration, the surrounding land of Barovia is well detailed and evokes that Transylvanian feel that was once almost compulsory for tales of this sort.
There are plenty of combat encounters in this scenario, as well as other challenges for thinking players to overcome. Some of the encounters are a bit contrived to fit within the fantasy setting, and if I ran this again, likely incorporating elements from Expedition to Castle Ravenloft and using Savage Worlds for my system, I would eliminate several of them. There are also some elements that are too silly for the overall tone of the adventure and really break from the mood the rest of the scenario works so hard to establish. Even though some will undoubtedly think me crazy (Hint: I am) for not having this adventure in the #1 spot on this list (Hint: That’s not why I’m crazy), I feel there are enough things that this adventure didn’t do as well as the two that followed (both chronologically and on this list) to merit its place on this list.
#2 – Last Rites of the Blackguard (Savage Worlds/D20 Modern)
This 48 page haunted house scenario by Ed Wetterman was originally released by 12 to Midnight in 2003 for D20 Modern. In 2009, it was re-released for the Savage Worlds system. This scenario features a couple of haunted houses for characters to explore… a haunted cul-de-sac, if you will.
The modern horror genre isn’t complete without the appearance of diabolical Nazis and objects being thrown around poltergeist-style, and this scenario delivers on both fronts. When I first GMed this adventure for the D20 system in 2004, I was impressed by a number of things it included. Some of the extras available for this adventure included photographs to hand out to the players (representing photos taken by the characters), a newspaper clipping, player maps, and most impressively, a selection of audio EVPs that could be played for the players (again representing those captured by the ghost hunting characters). I know, I know… The author has since stated that the photos were terribly cheesy, but they worked, along with the EVPs, to really bring the players into the game. What really set this scenario apart, for me, was the inclusion of those recordings.
In addition to all the nifty extras, the scenario itself is well-written and engaging. I love the “cut scenes” that are included that show things the characters don’t necessarily see for themselves. There aren’t a huge number of physical adversaries, but those that are encountered really add to the atmosphere of the adventure. The maps, while not groundbreaking, are adequate, and got a facelift in the newer “Savaged” edition. The newer maps are clean and crisp. I’d love to see somebody do some high quality color maps for this scenario, such as those that have been created for other entries on this list, but I’m sure with the adventure’s resurgence in popularity due to the release of the ETU setting for Savage Worlds, that will happen eventually.
This scenario is set in the incredibly haunted town of Pinebox, Texas. Long one of my favorite settings, this adventure can serve as an excellent springboard into the happenings of that town and the local university. I really hope to be able to run this again in the “Savaged” incarnation, though I will use some of the resources from the prior version to enrich the experience for my players. I also hope that nobody tries to use a taser on young (7 year old) Marissa Gray next time (yes, that really happened).
#1 – The Skinsaw Murders (Dungeons & Dragons 3.5/Pathfinder)
Written by Richard Pett, this 96 page scenario was first released in 2007 for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 by Paizo Publishing. It was written for 4th level characters and serves as the 2nd installment of the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, now revised for the Pathfinder role-playing game. Really, this adventure could stand alone with a little modification, as it is the best installment of that adventure path by far.
This huge adventure is divided into 5 parts. Though the entire thing is pretty well entrenched in the horror genre, the first two parts and the last part really shine the brightest.
“Last night, the murderer struck at the sawmill. There are two victims, and they’re… they’re in pretty gruesome shape.” – Sheriff Hemlock
The adventure begins with the characters investigating a series of grisly murders plaguing the town of Sandpoint, which they saved from destruction in the previous adventure. As the players investigate the murders and gather evidence, the trail leads to Foxglove Manor, a haunted house the locals have taken to calling Misgivings.
The adventure is printed in color, on glossy paper. As per usual for Paizo products, the art is excellent, especially Wayne Reynolds’ cover art, as are the maps, though better maps are available (see below). There are a solid number of combat encounters in this scenario, some novel and interesting psychological challenges, and a focus on investigation and gathering evidence. The author does an excellent job of tying everything together into a cohesive whole that really draws out the horror in the scenario.
The exploration of Misgivings is quite simply the best haunted house scenario I’ve ever run as a GM. I did use a few extras to give it a bit of an edge, including a soundtrack keyed to various rooms of the haunted manor, and large maps created by Tintagel, which can be found here. I placed these large maps over a lightboard and dimmed the room lighting using electric candles, so the haunted house was the focus. My players were seriously spooked. Especially when I used this recording for a certain encounter (if you read the adventure, you’ll know which one).
Part 5 of this adventure is also quite strong. It focuses on a much smaller exploration of a haunted clock tower in an urban setting. The climb up the clock tower is excruciating… in a good way, and the creature that awaits at the top of the tower is truly terrifying.
The six haunted house scenarios listed above have given me some of the most incredible nights of gaming I’ve ever experienced. Hopefully you enjoy them as much as I have. Do you have any haunted house scenarios to add to the list? Please let me know in the comments.