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 on the outskirts of town, or a castle on the verge of ruins, haunted locations are ripe areas to introduce backstory, side plots, clues, atmosphere, or some undead infestation.
A distinguishing feature of haunted locales is dependence on mood. Fear is a typical goal, but haunted locations aren’t always threatening. A sorrowful or even playful haunting presents different opportunities. Mood is a mix of pacing, description, and encounters, so to determine the right mood for your purposes, try answering the following questions before introducing PCs to a haunted locale:
- Why is this place haunted? Even if the PCs don’t find out, you should know.
- Who is haunting it? These may or may not be creatures the PCs can encounter.
- Is the haunting atmospheric or hostile? A haunted locale can exist as a background entity for the sake of atmosphere or information gathering while the true threat is something else, or it can fully be about PCs escaping evil spirits with their souls intact.
Description is one of the most direct ways to indicate mood. The table below is a starting point to see how different descriptions can convey different emotions. Pick a room based on your needs and then use the desired mood as a springboard to develop it. You can also randomly generate rooms to piece together a haunted locale dripping with atmosphere and some hints of its underlying story.
|1d6/Room||Mood: Fright||Mood: Sorrow||Mood: Playful|
|1 Foyer/Staircase||The staircase yawns upward into darkness, each step looking more frayed and dangerous than the one before. From out of that darkness, a sudden wave of heat, as the exhalation of a great beast, bursts down the stairs in a rush and vanishes.||Broken timber and holes line the stairway up, the structure groaning as if remaining upright is too great a burden. Discarded at the bottom step atop a frayed and faded rug are a pair of children’s shoes, forgotten and near crumbling.||Old carpet, once brilliant red, lines these aged steps, dirty footprints still stamped into it. Quiet at first, then louder, quick, thumping steps radiate up and down—one, two, three times—and vanish with an ethereal giggle.|
|2 Dining Hall||This dusty table is covered with plates and debris as if those who last sat here left in a panic. The silence in the room shatters as an adjacent chair whips around and slams into place at the head of the table with a resounding CRACK.||Chairs rest at their places at the table—plates, utensils, and the remains of long-rotten food in place as though guests may arrive any moment. Cobwebs string between chair arms, between bowls and platters, and from the overhead chandelier to the candelabras in a gray, weeping curtain.||The table here is crooked, haphazardly set with grime-covered dishes, the chairs around it askew at different angles. Two candelabras at either end puff ethereal smoke and flare to life in a cheerful blaze before extinguishing. The ding of an unseen dinner bell sounds through the room.|
|3 Master Suite/Bedroom||The darkness in this room feels heavy and cloying, like suffocating beneath a heavy blanket. The curtains around the once-luxurious bed are fragmented and the mattress is bare except for an ominous stain spread darkly across its center.||The large bed in the center of the room is covered in once-bright moldering blankets. The table beside it holds a jewelry box with a broken lid, the valuables within it long ransacked. Next to it, framed, painted portraits are knocked over or broken, covered in too much grime and age to see clearly.||A bed with moth-eaten covers and a dresser and mirror, layered with cobwebs, take up most of this room. The dresser drawers glide open while being watched, accompanied by a soft shuffling sound like sifting through cloth.|
|4 Nursery||Only a dilapidated crib is intact in this room, the rest of the furniture reduced to debris. A headless doll sits within as though placed there. Underneath the creaking of the room, there is the sound of a muted, panicked voice whispering “Shh… shh…”||An intact rocking chair slowly moves back and forth. From it emanates a quiet lullaby, hummed just softly enough to make it impossible to guess the tune.||An assortment of toys and child-size furniture are scattered across the room in various stages of disrepair. There’s the sound of chairs scraping on the floor in excitement, but nothing moves. Then, from beneath the crib, a red ball rolls toward the door.|
|5 Parlor||All the chairs in this sitting room face away from the door. A mounted stag’s head stares from the wall, its horns dripping some unknown substance. Its mouth drops open, unleashing a high-pitched keening shriek before the sound of broken glass, like bottles being hurled, explodes all around. Once it ends however, there is no glass anywhere in the room.||A cold fireplace forms the center point of this room. The chairs and sofa are arranged around it, all layered in dust and squeaking with real or imagined rodents. On one chair sits an open storybook, face down as though the reader intends to return.||Chairs sit around a dusty table, and stools sit at haphazard angles by a dirt-and-web-coated bar. The smell of hearth smoke bursts in, followed by a brief cacophony of laughter, clinking glasses, and cards shuffling before fading.|
|6 Courtyard/Garden||In the center of a brackish fountain, a statue with the bearing of a celestial spreads broken wings. Amid the ivy strangling its body and neck, it shows an empty face, the stone violently eroded with deep marks and gouges.||Dead gardens surround the central gazebo. On the verge of collapse, the boards are spotted with holes and grayed. A sodden, torn wedding veil lays in a gauzy heap against the gazebo wall. In the distance, a soft voice whispers, “He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me. He loves me not…” before fading with a sob.||The stone fountain is dry and crumbling, flanked by abandoned gardens. Nonetheless, the scent of flowers blooms heavily, along with the sounds of fragmented laughter and the splashing of water. A shining copper coin, at odds with the ruin of its surroundings, rests at the edge of the fountain.|