Some locations—the wizard’s tower, the sunken temple, the haunted house—appear repeatedly in stories and adventures. In this series, we’ll explore these archetypal locations, playing with or defying tropes, and presenting rules and ideas to bring these locales to life and to set you up for success when incorporating them into your game.
Whether a windswept manor on the moors, a dilapidated hut outside of town, or a castle on the verge of ruin, haunted locations are ripe areas to introduce backstory, side plots, clues, atmosphere, or some undead bashing.
This section focuses on the creatures your PCs typically find in a haunted house. It includes some ideas of how to utilize them in a haunted locale to emphasize their flavor and powers and some ideas using legendary and lair actions to make creatures at the center of a haunt more impressive.
The following monsters are haunted staples. Included are ideas to make them the central focus of a haunt, including locales befitting their themes.
To focus in on a banshee haunting, focus on the circumstances of her creation. Odds are, she made other people miserable in life, presenting opportunities for her to have other undead like specters or will-o’-wisps around her lair.
Haunts. Consider placing a banshee’s haunt in a place where she wronged others:
- A cruel bride who has her misdeeds revealed on her wedding day, resulting in her being brought to justice, may haunt the chapel where it happened, or she may have burnt it down around herself out of spite.
- She might haunt a school or an old friend’s home where she lorded over her peers and ended up killed out of envy or entangled in her own plots against others.
Ghosts are standard haunting fodder for their complexity and innate stories. They are the easiest to fold into traditional “ghost stories,” whether meant to inspire fear or pathos.
Abilities. Make interesting uses of a ghost’s abilities or change them up:
- Possession is a potent ability to provide exposition or clues but can also be used to terrify in demon-like stories, especially when a possessing entity is used in combination with shadows or wraiths.
- Changing up a ghost’s abilities can reinforce themes: instead of possession, for example, a friendly child’s ghost might have telekinesis to let them “play” with toys or a dramatic ghost might have thaumaturgy to let them project voices or create special effects when they appear.
Shadows are formed from the actual shadows of living creatures. A single shadow going unnoticed could create a whole legion over time, gradually draining nearby creatures while they rest until they perish and birth a new shadow.
Haunts. Haunted locales featuring shadows can showcase the horrifying process of creating a shadow:
- A manor where an entire family wastes away over time, leaving darkness-strewn hallways behind.
- Play on shadows’ affinity for pious souls and involve a monastery or abbey where the faithful show signs of sickness and deterioration as feelings of malevolence emanate from the shadowy corners.
Hooks. Consider a story hook of the PCs encountering a person returned to life without a shadow because they’d been slain by one. The shadow is also aware of their “parent,” leaving it up to the PCs to investigate the best way to undertake such a quest.
Specters lack the memories and emotional range available to a ghost, making them suitable for hauntings featuring angry, violent spirits with less emphasis on mystery and more on terror.
Haunts. Specters work well in archetypal haunted places:
- Places with lots of dark corridors, cramped rooms, and violent, painful history—underground tunnels, catacombs, asylums, prisons, unsavory hospitals, and the like.
- Specters can’t tell their own story like a ghost, so having one burst from a room with obvious indicators of the historical suffering that took place there can point to the conditions that spawned them.
Will-o’-wisps tend to be used as “companion” monsters around lairs instead of being a focus on their own, but they function much like specters in function to emphasize suffering and peril.
Haunts. Will-o’-wisp-focused haunts work best if forged around events that could create several at once:
- A criminal gang hiding out in an abandoned manor or underground lair who murder each other out of distrust, their malevolent spirits luring people into the dark.
- A cabal of wizards trying to harness the energy of the wisps only to get themselves killed by them and now haunt their tower as mysterious balls of light visible all over town.
For “demonic-style” hauntings, wraiths (with some corrupt ghosts for possession shenanigans) are potent options.
Abilities. Make use of a wraith’s descriptive text to emphasize their negative presence:
- Animals shy from them, plant life withers, and their presence consumes small fires from the strength of their void.
- Their ability to create and control undead makes it easy to make a haunted house situation with many ghosts harassing the PCs, but a wraith is the true hidden master behind it.
Hooks. Wraiths can emulate stories where a haunting entity “moves in” as a dark presence, infecting a community or castle or large family holding. As gardens mysteriously die, animals flee, and angry ghosts appear in the wake of sudden deaths, the PCs can be called in.
Legendary and Lair Actions
Often the ghost (or specter, or banshee, and so on) at the center of a haunting has quite a bit of history and story built up around them, as does their locale. To give their mechanics a little more “oomph” to match their narrative, legendary and lair actions are fitting ways to embed more power into a haunting.
Legendary Actions. Legendary actions need be nothing more than allowing the creatures more uses of a major ability, like letting will-o’-wisps use their shock or turn invisible extra times in a round as a legendary action. Alternatively, spell abilities like major image, cause fear, or guards and wards often fit on creatures in haunted locales and can add surprises and storytelling elements to a haunted encounter.
Legendary Lairs. Making use of lairs allows the entire haunted locale to have an effect on the overall encounter. The following examples of lair actions use a wraith as an example of what its haunted lair actions might be like:
- Creatures of the Beast type that the wraith can see within 120 feet must succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or become frightened for 1 minute.
- The wraith’s negative energy void absorbs light and heat from all natural sources within 30 feet, extinguishing torches, lanterns, campfires, and so on, and granting the wraith 5 temporary hit points for each source absorbed.
- The aura of death surrounding the wraith causes all normal, nonmagical plant life within 30 feet to die, and plant life within 60 feet to wilt. Magical plants and plant creatures within 30 feet of the wraith must succeed a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or take 18 (4d8) points of necrotic damage or 9 damage on a successful save.