Haunted Houses and RPG Plots

The other day, I visited a haunted house—and it got me thinking about the overall structures that haunted houses tend to fit into. There’s a lot about it that’s pretty similar to a constrained RPG plot, after all.

The exit is not the entrance. Most haunted houses have a definite entry point, and a definite exit point somewhere else, most often somewhere that isn’t in line of sight with the entry point. After all, if people are going out the same door they’re coming in, that takes away a bit of the “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” feel that a haunted house utilizes. You don’t want people at the entrance to see the last room from where they’re standing! Games work the same way—if your group can tell from the beginning where the end lies, and it’s right back where they started, it loses a lot of the mystery.

Haunted houses have direction. In the case of a haunted house, it’s one single path through, with the visitors moved on by their guide (if applicable) or the press of people behind them. I visited one once that was just one room, and… didn’t, really—it had a few pretty well done creepy things, but after traversing about three quarters of the way around the room, it wasn’t clear if I was supposed to look for another exit or just go back out the front. A game should work the same way—sure, there are more branch-points, but there should be a clear sign which way is approximately forward, so that if the group isn’t sure what to do they can just go with that.

Haunted houses have an odd relationship with what we’d normally see as the fourth wall. On the one hand, you can’t fully let go of the idea that this is, in fact, a haunted house—if nothing else, because it would really ruin things for the next group through if you tackled the masked psycho and relieved him of his knife. On the other, the point of going through a haunted house is usually to be scared (I’m still getting the hang of that part—too much pride, I suppose), so you need to let your disbelief suspend somewhat to really get a proper experience. That means the people in charge of the haunted house need to keep the balance as well—to keep the parts all high enough quality that you don’t see the clear signs of unreality, to not deliberately throw off the image unless someone asks for it, but also not to go too far with it. The game is the same way; we can’t completely cast off the signs that it is, after all, a game, but if we break our own worlds, we’re not going to get them back, and our players are going to be wandering around critiquing the scenarios they’ve been given rather than engaging in the experience.

It makes far more sense if you see it yourself, of course. You’ve got one more night—go check it out! Happy Halloween!


  1. UZ says:

    Hm. Haunted house plots almost always contain some element of groupthink in TV and movies, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually address that. There’s usually a disbelieving character but their disbelief is usually punished on way or another. For similar reasons, haunted houses close after Halloween. :)

    Also – the “haunted house” episode is usually the sign that an anime has hit full boilerplate mode… it’s either this or the beach episode. Luckily, this usually means the plot has stalled entirely and you can skip to the end of the season to see the next actual development.

    An aside: The Dragon Hunters.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dragon_Hunters_(film). It looks ridiculous on its face, but see it anyway. It has fairly bad character design, a script which starts out terribly, and a lot of apparent Disney inspiration. It also has some of the strangest art design I’ve ever seen, a world that starts out merely derivative-weird and grows into a highly-detailed, architectural kaleidoscope of fairly original weirdness.

    Have a look. I only watched this movie because it was a $5 clearance special…

  2. Ravyn says:

    Hm. I hadn’t really been thinking about the plots, just the gimmicky attractions; I’m still not entirely sure why I’m a fan of the things, but if there’s one I know about that won’t cost me too much I’ll usually stop in, even though I keep insisting on not getting scared. Go figure. The plots, I agree–not much fun. Though don’t baseball episodes also indicate a switch to boilerplate?

    Re Dragon Hunters: I’ve seen that one, actually; it was one of a batch that got shipped to my library as a tie-in to the summer reading program. Loved the world, found the dragons quite amusing (isn’t it disturbing how adorable the little bat-things the one dragon turned into were when they flew up against the fourth wall?), got very sick of Zoe very very quickly but at least her incessant fangirling got me a blog post or two about making admiration a tad less obnoxious.

  3. UZ says:

    Ah, I should have known; you are quite the polymath when it comes to fantasy stories…

  4. Ravyn says:

    Not necessarily–that one was pure coincidence, mainly based around the fact that I keep up with children’s movies far better than I do with adult movies.

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