Heists and Haunted Houses

From Joel Fox

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0504

A Brief Word from Johnn

Keep It Simple – a 5 Minute Exercise

My favourite quote from this week’s article about heists:

“GM intervention is often unnecessary to create a complication.”

In my experience this is bang on. Keep it simple, let the players complicate.

We GMs tend to worry too much about planning, details and having everything perfect for next game. Let’s stop worrying. Instead, we just need to take care of our end of things and give players a chance to interact with it. And if we keep our end simple, we make planning and preparation much easier on us and our busy schedules.

Do you remember the 5 Room Dungeons series RPT ran a couple years ago? That was simplicity at its best. Why plan a massive crawl when you can create a bunch of little crawls over time, and let the players create all the complications that will spawn a whole bunch of great gameplay?

Here, tries this next time you need to create an encounter and have five minutes:

  1. Select a foe
  2. Give the foe a goal that opposes the PCs
  3. Give the foe a weaker friend
  4. Select a location
  5. Give the location a cool interactive feature
  6. Pick a reward
  7. Look on the internet for game stats for the foe, his friend, the interactive feature and the reward (if needed)
  8. Clone the friend if you need to make the encounter more difficult when it triggers

Next game, as soon as you have an opportunity to trigger this encounter, do so.

Leave out all the details about when the encounter should trigger, NPC backstory, NPC personality, detailed motivations, complicated set-up, plot hooks, map and so on.

Add these details off the top of your head during the game as needed or as they occur to you. Let players complicate things for you so some details take care of themselves.

Certain encounters deserve more planning. But if you are stuck, blocked, out of time or overwhelmed, use this simple formula to hammer out a few potential encounters fast.

This is just an example of keeping things simple. As you GM, look for ways to simplify all the tasks, to dos and things you do to plan for and run a game.

Website Gets a Blog + New RSS

RoleplayingTips.com has a clean new look, and along with it a blog that has its own RSS feed.

CampaignMastery.com is still my main blog for in-depth GMing articles. The new blog at the RPT site contains reader tips, short bits of advice, newsletter news and interesting links.

Visit the blog and let me know what you think: Roleplaying Tips Blog’s.

Subscribe to the RSS: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/rptsrss

Heists and Haunted Houses

The heist is a classic scenario in fiction that, while prevalent in film media, is rarely found in pen-and paper games. The reasons for this are many, but the most important one to me is most people just don’t know where to start. Everyone knows what a heist is – most people have seen Heat, Ocean’s 11, Conan the Barbarian, Sneakers, and so forth – but actually GMing for one? That’s a different story.

This article will hopefully make GMing heists easier by laying out the fundamental elements to any good heist.

While this is in response to a reader request about FATE 3, it was somewhat coincidental that I was also considering the elements of a heist, albeit for a different system. So, this article is as system-neutral as possible to make its content available for GMs of all games.

Step Zero: What is a Heist?

What exactly is a heist? For our purposes: “a planned and prepared-for caper, targeting a predetermined site, with the intention of removing objects of value and escaping unharmed.”

Heists don’t have a specific script or style – many different types of robberies and thefts fall under the blanket of being a heist. Some heists are sneaky, where being detected means failure; some are hectic, madcap melees; and most heists are a mix of these two elements plus a few more.

Step One: Heist What and Why?

The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a heist are tied together, for often the risks and costs associated getting the loot match or outweigh the reward. The risks associated with a bank robbery, for example, are nearly too many to list: risk of injury, death, imprisonment, betrayal, and so forth, not to mention further pursuit by law enforcement, paranoia, and having to leave the country. Therefore, the why of a heist is often more important than the what, even though the what is the goal of the players.

The what is generally easy enough, such as:

  • A pile of diamonds
  • Money
  • Bearer bonds
  • Paintings
  • The Declaration of Independence

It might not be intrinsically valuable like currency, but rather something of a more personal value:

  • Documents showing the heritage of party members (granting them a crown at a later date)
  • Blueprints to create an exotic device
  • An imprisoned person the party cares about

You might come up with the what somewhere later in the heist creation process, or leave the what a mystery: the party knows something valuable is in a vault, but not exactly what it is.

The why, however, is more of what makes a heist a heist, and not just people stealing stuff. The why is what makes the benefits outweigh the risks, so it has to be pretty big: a party rarely says, “Hey let’s steal the Hope Diamond today.”

The why is:

  • Some advantage or edge the party has over the loot’s defenses
  • To protect themselves from an even more dire fate
  • To prevent a disaster
  • To keep the loot safe
  • To save a loved one

Here are some specific examples:

  • A party member helped design or install one of the more potent security measures guarding a treasure; they know of a bypass.
  • A friend, relative, ex-lover, etc. that guards the loot is a friend of the party, and will supply the party with useful information in exchange for a cut.
  • The money gained from a heist will be used to pay off a dangerous criminal organization that wants the party’s blood.
  • The loot is a powerful item or will provide funds that will aid the party considerably in their current quest, whatever that might be.
  • The loot is a cure or antidote for a rare and otherwise incurable affliction that one or more party members suffer from; without it, they’ll die.
  • Similarly, someone has afflicted the party and will exchange the antidote for the loot.
  • The loot’s owner recently acquired the item themselves, and don’t have the full security system installed yet.
  • The loot’s owner has recently acquired the loot themselves; an object of great power, it spells considerable doom if the party doesn’t recover it.
  • The loot is dangerous or in danger, and the loot’s owner doesn’t listen to the party’s pleas; it must be stolen to protect it or others.

Making the why a personal and specific element of the heist helps tie elements together.

It also keeps party interest high. A party that decides one day to rob a local complex might lose interest or get discouraged during the planning stages, whereas a party that knows a local complex has valuable items the party can use and several exploitable security holes will stay on task until the job is done.

Step Two: The Owner

The best place to start when planning a heist is the owner of the loot. This owner is responsible for all security measures guarding the loot, so their personality, background, experience and skills play a large part in what the party will encounter and have to overcome.

An owner with applicable experience or skills might have installed some of the security measures themselves. A martial-minded owner might personally guard the loot (or wear it).

Other owners are mere businessmen, nobles and whatnot and have no real experience protecting loot, so they hire security contractors to handle the details; which ones they hire, however, depend on their personality, background and so forth. Try to think from the perspective of the owner.

Here are a few examples.

  • A seasoned owner might rely more on alert guards than on passive defenses like alarm systems, or cycle guard shifts more often.
  • A technician/wizard owner might rely more on security systems/defensive wards than on fallible guards.
  • A criminal or ex-criminal owner might be more than familiar with ways to steal loot, so he has systems in place to negate likely tactics.
  • A cunning owner might have fake loot behind strong security, with the real loot hidden in plain sight or in an inaccessible location.
  • A cruel or unreasonable owner might be unfair to his guards, making them more likely to betray him to the party.
  • A cheap or inexperienced owner might not have state-of- the-art security, or might not keep it in good shape.

At this point you should construct a security hierarchy outlining what people have jurisdiction over other people. The owner will be at the top, with his top security chief(s) (if any) on the tier directly below him.

Constructing this security hierarchy will help later on when the party is planning on how to infiltrate the site; if they can see that vault guards have higher security clearance than perimeter guards, they’ll know their counterfeit perimeter guard uniforms won’t get them into certain high- security areas.

If starting at the owner doesn’t seem like the best course of action for you, just leave the hierarchy blank for now.

Step Three: Passive Defenses

The start of a security network that guards loot should be passive defenses, such as systems that function without needing direct supervision from a lackey.

Passive defenses have many advantages over active defenses (e.g. guards): they work 24 hours a day, are hard to fool or coerce, and they require limited upkeep.

They have their fair share of disadvantages too: they are predictable, don’t adapt to unique circumstances, often require power, and have to have fail-safes or off switches so they can be bypassed by the rightful owner.

There are many kinds of passive defenses, but they can be broken down into four broad categories by their intended function.

  1. Deny egress. Heavy doors, deep pits, unsalable walls, and other sorts of things that aren’t easily bypassed without specialized equipment or training.
  2. Active defenses (like guards) that raise the alarm an intruder is present. Trip wires, motion sensors, security cameras, heat or noise sensors, metal detectors, and other sensory apparatus connected to bells, whistles, flashing lights and the like.
  3. Kills intruders. Automated turrets, whirring saw blades, poison gas, and what-have-you. Most legal minded sites can’t use these due to legal issues. Some types can be bypassed easily (e.g. gas with gas masks).
  4. Incapacitating defenses. Knock out, restrain, trap, isolate, or otherwise non-lethally render an intruder unable to proceed and make them easy to apprehend.

A prudent security chief will utilize more than one type of passive defense and scatter them throughout a site.

For example:

  • A heavy door at the entrance
  • Trip wires and motion sensors throughout a site which alert armed guards
  • Knockout gas at the door to the vault
  • A sound detector linked to poison gas inside

Layering defenses is important because each type of passive defense has a serious vulnerability:

  • Denying defenses can be penetrated by the well-prepared
  • Alert defenses are useless if no one is around to hear the alarm bells (and they’re vulnerable to the ubiquitous looped security tape trick)
  • Kill traps always have ways to bypass them and multiple safeguards so an owner isn’t killed
  • Incapacitation traps often leave a target awake and able to escape their bonds.

In addition, most if not all passive defenses are easily circumvented by properly impersonating a guard with appropriate security clearance, or by knocking the power out (or using an anti-magic field in a fantasy setting).

Step Four: Active Defenses

Active defenses are those that are sentient, mobile or ambulatory, possess some degree of intelligence and problem solving, and have some means of subduing, hindering, or killing intruders.

The most common type of active defense is a security guard: uniform, security pass, and a basic armament that doesn’t require much training to use.

Elite guards with specialized training and advanced equipment exist, as well as specialized response teams that deal with specific threats (fire crews, SWAT teams, etc.).

More esoteric active defenses, like AI’s with control over remote drones or non-human creatures (monsters in fantasy settings and aliens or bioengineered beings in sci-fi) are possible as well, although there are deficits to these defenses that balance their unique abilities.

Active defenses have several advantages over passive ones:

  • They can react to changing circumstances
  • They have experience and training which makes them well-suited to respond to specific threats
  • They can’t be turned off with the push of a button

On the other hand, guards have to eat, sleep and use the restroom, not to mention they get bored, have to be paid, housed, entertained, fed, equipped, scheduled, and so forth. Most active defenses have considerable upkeep. It costs a lot more to have an armed guard watching a door 24/7 than it does to lock it.

An active defense’s benefit of being intelligent is sometimes a hindrance, as well. They can be bought off, coerced, tricked and confused. Additionally, many types of guards aren’t on-site 24/7. Many security companies, for example, don’t show up until an alarm is tripped.

Neither active nor passive defenses alone are enough to protect valuable loot. A good balance of both is the best way to keep intruders out, with several types of both as well: snipers watching the perimeter, foot-soldiers walking the halls, elite guards protecting the loot, and response teams on stand-by to back up everyone else.

At this point in your planning, the security hierarchy should be shaping up considerably, with security chiefs, passive defenses, and active defenses making at least four or five tiers total if not more.

Likewise, the monthly bill to support this security network should be reaching steep levels as well. Make sure to weigh the cost of protecting a treasure against the value of the treasure itself. If it costs $50,000 a month to keep a million dollars safe, is that cost effective? Sometimes it’s hard to put a price tag on how much it costs to run a laser trip wire, or how much to supply ammunition to 12 foot-soldiers for a month, so estimate if you have to.

Step Five: Façade

A façade is a front or false face. In terms of a heist, the façade is everything from the property line to the start of secured areas. In a bank robbery, it’s the area of the bank where patrons are allowed; in a casino, it’s where people gamble, eat, and sleep; for a laboratory, it’s the offices and public areas.

Not all heist sites have façades, but most business-related sites will have them, so they are an important consideration.

Now that your secured site is starting to take shape, filling in the façade is the next natural step, since most heists will involve navigating the façade and some heists will bypass certain secured areas by manipulating the façade (going through ducts, drilling through walls, etc.).

Façades are designed around utility, cost, ease of access and legality. The easiest way to build a façade is to think of how you would build a normal business. Try to consider all the things that business would need. Then surround the secured areas with that façade.

For example, in a casino, there should be:

  • Gambling areas
  • Food courts
  • Bars
  • Bathrooms
  • Information kiosks
  • Stages for live shows
  • Chip exchange areas
  • Elevators
  • Staircases
  • Parking garages
  • Hotel rooms and everything that goes with hotel rooms (e.g. laundry rooms).

You should also consider portals between areas in the façade, and portals between the façade and secured areas:

  • Doors
  • Security doors
  • Fire doors
  • Secret doors
  • Trap doors
  • Ladders
  • Windows
  • Ducts
  • Dumb waiters

There should also be some light security in the façade, just to keep an eye on things and prevent intruders from reaching secured areas, even if the entrance is hidden. Maybe façade security doesn’t even know there is a secured site, or they don’t have security clearance to enter the site.

Non-security personnel, like cashiers, waiters, and so forth, often have some involvement in the security system (such as the ability to activate silent alarms, or access to a few secured areas) so they should go on the security hierarchy as well (maintenance men, for example, can probably access many areas that cashiers can’t).

Step Six: The Team

Now that your site is basically complete, it’s time to move to the ‘heist-er’ side of things. The team consists of the players, of course, but sometimes NPCs will be involved as well.

For heists that require a lot of manpower, or ones that require a specialized skill-set the party doesn’t possess, hiring an NPC lockpick, security expert, wheel-man, and so forth might be necessary. Additionally, having NPCs involved with the heist can help by introducing some chaos into the carefully laid plans of the players (see Complications later on).

There are two ways to build an adventure: build the challenge to match the players, or build the challenge independent of the players so they have to adapt and plan to succeed.

Heists should generally be of the second type, with something of the first type mixed in. Challenges that are part of the heist should require a good deal of planning and moxie, but should be within the limits of the players’ power.

For example, in a fantasy setting, if you had a party of nothing but fighters and rogues, it would hardly be fair to have a site’s defenses be nothing but magical traps that only a wizard can disarm. In that circumstance, mundane traps and plenty of armed guards would make a better site – something the party can do with some planning and effort because it matches their skill-set. At the same time, they may have to buy a scroll of Dispel Magic or hire a wizard NPC because they know there is a ward somewhere in the complex they can’t disarm.

The easiest way to balance this sort of problem is to make a list of the skills the party has, and then draw the list of skills required for the heist from those skills.

Next, add a few skills the party doesn’t have to the skills required. Adding more makes a heist more difficult and require more planning. Here are some skills that could be required in a heist, with modern / fantasy equivalents where applicable:

  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Size
  • Lock-picking
  • Sleight of hand
  • Stealth
  • Acrobatics
  • Persuasion
  • Disguise
  • Driving, piloting, boating
  • Explosives / sapping
  • Scuba-diving / swimming
  • Sky-diving, rappelling, skiing
  • Security disarming / trap disarming
  • Technical / artifice
  • Marksmanship / swordsmanship
  • Electronics, computers / magic

An epic heist will require a great number of these skills and more, although your average heist will only require half or fewer.

Party members should be able to fill out most of these, with career criminal/rogue types making considerable contributions to the party skill base.

Step Seven: Assets

Assets comprise elements external to the PCs that might assist in a heist. They come at some cost to the party or add additional planning considerations.

For example:

  • Buying or bartering for information from people who work at the site or helped design it
  • Specialized or uncommon equipment that might be unwieldy or hazardous
  • Associating with contacts that might have their own agendas

Acquiring assets should require spending time or money. It might also require certain social graces, specialized skills, or pre-existing contacts to bring into line without drawing unwanted attention.

Creating assets for PCs to use is an important part of building a good heist. Assets are an essential part of heists, because without the outside help that assets provide, the party has everything they need on hand to perform a heist.

While this might seem like a positive, it only serves to make a heist boring, with no twists or turns; everything goes according to plan, tip-toe in, tip-toe out. Requiring PCs to seek outside help means the scope of a heist is grander and the loot more valuable. If any random guy off the street could do a heist with no help, heists wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.

For each considerable obstacle in a site (generally, each tier of a security hierarchy), there should be at least one or two assets available (with a little digging on the players’ parts) that can partially or totally overcome it.

For example, say there is a state-of-the-art security door that guards the loot.

Sample assets could include:

  • Hiring an expert to deal with it
  • Buying a high-powered drill that can penetrate it
  • Contacting a bomb-maker and buying an explosive that can remove it without destroying the loot
  • Acquiring the passcode from a security guard through some means of subterfuge.

Some obstacles can have multiple available assets; some obstacles can have no available assets; it’s up to you.

Step Eight: Planning

Now that the site, security hierarchy, and assets are starting to take shape, players can begin to actively plan their approach to the heist. This step is where you actually start playing. Everything up until this point should have been prepared before the session.

GMing for this part of the heist takes a different strategy than in most types of GMing. You should just sit back and, for the most part, let the players do the work.

Step in when you are asked a specific question about the site that the players could have access to information about. Maybe they’ve befriended a butler who can give them a limited floor plan or has some sort of insight into the security infrastructure (a hack into the camera systems, or in a fantasy setting, a crystal ball).

Don’t tell players outright a plan won’t work. If you feel the need to intervene, have their information sources reveal some detail that puts a burr in the plan. If the players want to use explosives to penetrate a security door, and you know the kind they plan to purchase won’t even put a dent in it, maybe have the butler mention that the security chief often brags about how resilient the doors he’s installed are.

This ‘soft no’ should specifically be used for major points, such as doors that, if impenetrable, end the heist in a failure. For lesser obstacles with flawed strategies, failure can spice things up.

Much of what occurs at this point depends on your players. Some groups will have a unified vision of their strategy. Some will argue endlessly about what route to take. Some groups naturally lean toward certain strategies (a group of all fast-talking types might go for a confidence scheme). Some groups are all over the place in terms of party composition and have to come up with a similarly convoluted plan.

Try to stay flexible and allow the party to attain assets you hadn’t considered if they come up with a good plan (estimating costs for exotic equipment or services as best as you can).

Step Nine: Preparation

Between planning and execution comes the time where the party gathers up all the materials they need, hires the specialists and takes care of their checklists.

This preparation stage is probably the largest in-game time expenditure for a heist adventure. It often takes weeks or even months to have illegal or exotic equipment imported, and NPCs often have other jobs or the like they have to work on. It might seem like tedium to some groups, but it can be a good opportunity to introduce interesting characters and do some role-playing.

Beyond these necessary steps to making the heist work, there can sometimes be sub-adventures that are just as essential.

Perhaps a special piece of equipment is a sub-adventure – a mini-heist if you will. One or more of the PCs must enter a secured facility other than the primary site to acquire some thing or piece of information. Maybe specialist NPC (or even a PC) is in a secured location like prison or insane asylum and the party must break him out for the job. An interesting one is a player gets a part-time job at the site and has to sneak around, gathering information and misplaced security cards. There’s a lot of room for sub-adventures, but they’re not necessary if your group doesn’t seem particularly interested.

Complications should start to appear during this stage. Maybe the site security catches wind of the group’s efforts and ramps up security, or certain necessary equipment or personnel simply aren’t available.

Compromise and lateral thinking are important skills for players during a heist, so having them start using those skills before the actual heist starts is not only generous on your part but also makes for a better heist in general. If players are absolutely stumped when they run into a complication during a heist, the heist is going to be short.

Step Ten: The Heist

The heist itself is hard to describe. There’s an elevated level of tension, but at the same time a general confidence because of the amount of planning involved. Sometimes plans are changed in light of the circumstances, or abandoned entirely when things go wrong.

How the heist goes has a lot to do with what plans the party has made. Some areas of a site and defenses will be skipped entirely, and areas you hadn’t planned on them visiting might be the primary location of a heist.

One of the largest issues during a heist is that party members are often in different locations performing actions simultaneously. The timing of these maneuvers is crucial, but it’s hard to gauge exactly how long it takes to perform many actions. Additionally, the question of who goes first is also an issue.

One way to resolve both problems is to break time segments into five minute intervals, and have each player describe what they’ll be doing in those five minutes. Estimate how long a task takes based on its complexity (easy tasks 1 minute, medium tasks 5 minutes, hard 10 minutes).

Calculate travel times based on speed (remember that while incognito, moving at top speed is generally a poor idea in most circumstances). When time-sensitive occasions like combat occur, switch back to round-by-round for a minute or so.

This method of five minute turns help players synchronize actions during the planning stages for a more harmonized plan. With each player having written down a list of actions based on a common time frame, the action will go more smoothly and it’ll be easier to keep everything in sync.

Even if this method isn’t used, some sort of organized time- based mode seems almost necessary to make the heist more closely resemble a planned sortie, rather than a group of guys haphazardly performing tasks.

Step Eleven: Complications

It may not seem obvious at first, but in reality, complications make the heist. Without complications, there’s no conflict; without conflict, there’s no danger; without danger, there’s no challenge; without challenge, there’s no fun.

Complications are what turn the best laid plans into a slapdash scramble to get out alive. Consider a heist where every plan and preparation comes to full fruition. No guards are alerted, no security measures tripped, no team member caught, the loot recovered in full, and the getaway unchallenged and complete. Where’s the fun in that? You might as well be telling a story about how they got away with the treasure, rather than having them play at all.

GM intervention is often unnecessary to create a complication. A player will roll a fumble, act based on flawed information, or change plans mid-stream without other team members knowing. However, the GM may need to step in and put a little chaos in the mix.

Either way, the best preparation to create complications is to make a list of every type of defense measure located in the site (with the help of your security hierarchy) and consequences for when it is tested. Then add a few specific instances where something can go wrong for even the best plan. Creating these ‘murphy complications’ might seem difficult, but just think of a few from some heist movies and then go from there.

For example:

  • An NPC betrays the party. Maybe the site owner made them a better offer, or they want all of the loot for themselves.
  • An NPC ally acts irrationally. Maybe they have a prejudice toward the guard’s ethnicity or attitude, or a hidden mental ailment.
  • Equipment that worked perfectly during testing suddenly malfunctions. A quick check reveals the batteries need changing.
  • An unscheduled inspection, celebration, or other event alters security measures (generally, making them tighter).
  • The bribed security guard is arrested for outstanding parking tickets, so there’s a different, non-bribed guard at his station.
  • There’s a power outage due to inclement weather, which resets the entire security system before the backup generators turn on.
  • Traffic is unusually heavy, which makes specific elements arrive late and getting away all the harder.
  • Another team planned a heist for the same day and has a team in the building at the same time as the party.

It’s possibly nicer to keep these murphy complications in reserve and not use them if the party screws up enough on their own, but at least one should occur during every heist to keep the players off-guard and make them deal with unexpected events. You don’t want the players to fail, just to have to work for it and do some critical thinking.

Step Twelve: The Getaway

The getaway is probably the most important part of the heist for the players, for obvious reasons (if you don’t get away with the loot, it doesn’t matter).

Physically getting away is only one part of a successful getaway. You also have to plan for future pursuit and prosecution for a heist to be truly successful.

Planning for both types is essential for players, but sometimes it’s hard for a GM to adequately speculate as to the effectiveness of a planned measure in a dynamic environment. Say a team plans to get away by using dirt bikes to navigate traffic, then fake their deaths in a boat accident with fake money in the boat? Who’s to say it works?

For the immediate escape, plan out a typical response system in advance, with multiple stages for the amount of heat the party draws.

Guards in outer layers of the hard site or in the façade might be able to pursue the team on foot, though specialized response teams and law enforcement (given that the site is a legal one) will comprise the majority of resistance to the players’ escape.

Just checking the speeds of the players’ getaway car vs. that of the pursuing forces isn’t sufficient; have both parties make some appropriate attribute checks (driving, athletics, etc.) to ensure their escape, with bonuses for quick thinking, planning ahead and reaction to the environment.

As for the latter, ‘getting away with it’, part of the answer is to go back to the owner. Having the owner or his security chiefs make appropriate attribute checks (testing their gullibility, perception, and related skills), as well as appropriate law enforcement agencies (the FBI being the major one for domestic crimes in the US) making checks as well, is a good start.

If no one detects anything awry with the evidence, then for the most part the team is off the hook for the time being. There’s always a catch, however; new evidence is found, a particularly tenacious investigator makes the heist his pet case, and so forth.

The best way to deal with the party being ‘found out’ in the long term is to just have another adventure at a later point. They might have to placate the party that found them out by performing another heist, or by going on some other sort of quest.

Graphic of section divider

Comment from Johnn: Awesome tips, Joel! Thanks very much. Readers, stay tuned for more heist tips in an upcoming issue.

Graphic of logo used as divider

4 Ways to Make Haunted Houses Great

From Andrew “BlueNinja” Tripp

Johnn, I’m working on building a campaign based on a popular video game. While considering how the various locations would have changed in the several centuries since the game, one of the buildings seemed to be the perfect location to have a haunting. I don’t recall seeing a topic like this in the archives, so I wrote up an article. Hopefully it sparks some good suggestions from other gamers!

Pick an Interesting Location

Location is important. The castle or mansion at the top of the hill is an obvious choice, especially if it comes with timed backlit lightning strikes. But think of other places – an office building, a dark alleyway, a theater or guild-hall.

If you have a haunted house in the middle of a neighborhood, what kind of effect does that have on the people who live in the house or their neighbors?

If you have a public library with a ghost, how do the employees react and what do they tell patrons?

If the haunting is deep underground, does the ghost make the cave or basement wetter, drier, colder?

If the haunting is on the top floor of a skyscraper, does the view outside reflect the city as it is, or the city the way it was when the ghost was alive?  Or, possibly, consider the building might itself be a ghost, appearing only to the right person, item or time – and what happens to the luckless people inside when that condition disappears.

Such buildings could be used to travel into the past, the future, or alternate dimensions.

Why Is It Haunted?

Most ghost stories revolve around death, but never peaceful deaths. The haunted are often unfortunate victims, suicides, or vicious killers. Either their spirits are trapped, or the powerful emotions involved leave a psychic recording.

If a building itself is the ghost, it could be due to acts of great evil, or perhaps it was built on a ley line nexus.

How often the ghosts appear could be completely random, or there could be circumstances the PCs can create to make specific ghosts more likely to appear.

Think about what situations are required to make the ghost disappear and the haunting cease. This could be as simple as casting an Exorcism spell, or as complicated as tracking down the descendant of a killer and enacting retribution for a centuries-old crime.

If you’re playing a modern-day campaign, maybe the PCs could buy or rent some proton packs and play a branch of the Ghost Busters, while futuristic campaigns can talk about psychic residue and echoes of sentient beings.

Interactive Versus Expository Ghosts

There are normally two kinds of ghosts: those you can interact with, and those who ignore the presence of the living.

The second category tends to be the ‘psychic recordings’ type and are good for putting out information and clues to the players. Perhaps the images reflect something similar to what the PCs have seen, only decades or centuries earlier. Such ghostly scenes should be short, no more than a few minutes. While the PCs might be able to cause the sequence to start, nothing else they do will cause any change in the replay of events.

The first category is fun because the ghosts are aware and can interact with the PCs. A poltergeist can move items, either leading on or trying to drive away the party. A silent ghost can mime or lead the party. Then there’s the all-out ghost, which can talk, move things around and even use magic or special abilities they possessed in life.

For more fun, combine the two kinds of ghosts. Have a scene that replays, but have one ghost be fully aware, playing her part until she can take the party by surprise.

Put out ghosts who will embarrass or humble the party. Or just run a haunted house full of undead – Halloween is coming up soon!


As inspiration, here are some of the more memorable ghost stories I remember.

  • Thief: Deadly Shadows video game. Specifically, the Robbing the Cradle mission -a haunted orphanage/asylum, still roamed by the hostile spirits of the patients and staff. Good if your PCs can’t fight them or have another reason not to disturb the dead.
  • System Shock 2 video game. Filled with sudden replays of other crew members, usually shortly before they died. Excellent atmosphere for a group of PCs being chased or who are lost.
  • The Hawk and Fisher books by Simon R. Green. One of the books has a palace built atop the ruins of a slaughterhouse, and the villain brings the ghosts of the butchered animals to life. Another has the protective ghost of a family return to help destroy a foe. Many of Green’s writings are good for finding bizarre entities.
  • The Dark Tower, book 3. The haunted house Jake uses to travel between worlds is a good example.
  • Monster House movie. The ghost isn’t seen until near the end of the film. Instead, it animates the house like a living being. The movie also shows some great traps.
Graphic of logo used as divider

Readers Respond

Halloween Westerns

Subscriber Angela made this request in RPT#504:

I volunteered to run a Halloween one-shot. On top of that, I agreed to make it an old west setting.

Is there anything special you would do to help create the feel of the Old West?

Anything new or cool you would do for a Halloween adventure?

-Angela R.

Graphic of section divider

Here’s how you responded:

From Mike

Cardboard or plastic Stetson hats should be widely available. Add to that a rubber Halloween mask for the GM to wear, plus spares.

Why spares? Because if you’re a player, you can wear both hat AND mask.

I would also check out the Kenzer and Company website for freebies relating to Aces & Eights, their wild west game, and would look at running a modified Call of Cthulhu scenario set in the wild west (to get the combination of flavors).


Graphic of section divider

From Jeremy B.

Expeditious Retreat Press has two very nice western adventure seeds packs for, I believe, $2 each.

[Johnn: yup. Available at my store for $1.75 right now: Seeds: Western I

The horror rules at the end of Victorian Monstrosities by Adamant Entertainment are an excellent adaptation of fear horror and madness checks to d20 gaming.

[Johnn: PDF version: The Imperial Age: Victorian Monstrosities

As to evoking Westerns, go for cinematic. It’s dusty, hot and tiring. You just wanna get into town and leave the tumble weeds behind you. You walk through the swinging doors of the saloon and take your place at the rail.

Graphic of section divider

From Jim Springer

Here’s one I ran once for my yearly Halloween game:

“A filthy child sneaks into what appears to be a burnt out church. She scurries up to the bullet-riddled alter and effigy. ‘Oh lord, we have lost so many to the scourge, this El Diablo!” Tears stream down her cheeks and the words are wracked with sobs.

“Please, oh lord, protect us. Since my mamasita and the Sheriff are dead it has been hard to keep love and hope in our hearts under their rule. Please save us, oh lord!”

At the same time a stranger walk up to Boot Hill, dressed like a mortician. He leans heavily on a shepherd’s crook and whispers muted words. Then an eerie green mist rises from Boot Hill, flickering in the night breeze.

The earth begins to move a few grains of dirt, then more…until wooden coffins rise from the ground. As the mist penetrates the aged wood it has an odd effect: the clothes and bodies seem to mend; decomposed flesh turns pink and leather belts and boots seem fresh and soft.

Then their eyes open – not the white eyes of the dead, but eyes with the energy and vitality of a sleeper awakening from a long sleep.

As the mists finish their work they retreat, taking with them the strange man in black. The only one to witness this was ‘

Laughingcrow, the town drunk and only witness to this unholy event, mutters to the wind, “Spirits of vengeance have awoken, big trouble coming tonight.”

Meanwhile, a woman carrying something limp in her arms shuffles down the street. “I found tha’ little girl! Intje ol’ church. Help me get’er to the saloon, ok? She was runnin’ to boot hill.”

The group rolls up characters, as normal. Only once they finish, let them know they’re dead! For this one time (just on Halloween), the veil weakens and the PCs, who happen to have all been slain by the same vile group of western scum, can rise from the afterlife and seek revenge (and hopefully leave their loved ones better off).

The story lead to an easy encounter with three goons to save a little girl, great motivation for any group, and she can fill in the story gaps. Then just insert any old western plot.

Hope this helps inspire!