I ran another playtest of Haunted House the other day, which went much better than the last one thanks to me (a) not having a migraine, and (b) explaining it properly to the players beforehand.
This was the blurb:
Deep in the South Seas, far from the normal trade routes, the merchant ship Unconquerable Angel sees a tattered sail off the beam, with distress flags hanging limply in the stifling calm. A closer look, and the drifting hulk is revealed to be the brig Sarah-Jane, out of Southampton, reported on the registers as missing presumed foundered these five years. Something about the old ship – the dark gaze of its empty ports, the fat glossy rats that can be glimpsed scuttling about on deck, the sickly-sweet odour that intermittently wafts across the water – fills the Angel’s crew and passengers with a nervous dread. A select group is readied to board the derelict vessel. What they find will change their lives – those who survive the encounter. And it might just change the lives of a lot more people than that…
So rather different from the actual haunted old manor house that I’d originally conceptualized as the default setting for the game. But it turned out to work very well, being suitably constrained and also suitably easy to destroy by inventive means.
There were five players, and I guess we spent the first half hour or so designing the ten characters and their interrelationships. As luck would have it, four Expendables got killed in the Exploration phase, so things rapidly became rather stressed and angsty. The players came up with terrific ideas for clues and for links into their backstories, and passed the idea-ball around briskly and inventively. The system seemed to work out reasonably well, with a satisfying denouement in which three characters (plus an amorous and semi-intelligent gorillaman named Urko, who they’d found imprisoned on board) survived to row frantically away from the blazing hulk. There were moving scenes, hilarious scenes, and scenes of justified comeuppance.
It wasn’t quite zero-prep for me, but pretty much. Apart from the blurb above, I wrote a side of more detailed background explaining the setup. And I wrote a list of suggested locations on board the ship that people might like to explore. But I didn’t write any actual ‘game’ at all: that all came from the players on the day, and I just had to coordinate it and shape it into an overall story as we went.
So overall a win, I felt. It’s not quite at the stage yet where the instructions are clear and detailed enough that it could be run out-of-the-box by anyone, but a bit of work should sort that. The players made some great suggestions for improving/simplifying the system, etc, which I shall rush to incorporate while it’s still fresh in my mind. I’ll also put the notes for this game, and for the earlier The Ghosts of Fulwell, up on the website. Then I shall be looking for other people to try running it themselves!