Betrayal at House On the Hill has been in the Avalon Hill pipeline for quite a while. It was originally on the production list of the “old” Avalon Hill, back when the company was headquartered in Baltimore. Those of you who attended AvalonCon in the late ‘90s may have played an early prototype of the game.
When Avalon Hill was sold to Hasbro, The House On the Hill (as it was then called) went along with the company. The new management liked many of the game’s core concepts, and game designer Rob Daviau was assigned to develop and streamline the game. He poured a lot of effort and creativity into the project before it moved again to Avalon Hill’s new home as a subsidiary of Wizards of the Coast. There it received several more coats of polish and trim from Mike Selinker and Bill McQuillan. The finished version of the game has definitely been through a gauntlet of talented designers.
When I set out to design HotH, I asked myself, what is the essence of a good horror movie, and how could I recreate it in a game?
First, when I mention horror movies, I should explain that I’m more a fan of the black-and-white films you see after midnight on the old movie channel than the modern “let’s see how many ways we can kill teenagers” horror flicks. (That isn’t to say that a homicidal slasher or two hasn't found his way into some House On the Hill scenarios!)
A good horror movie needs to do more than just shock you when a guy in a mask jumps out of a closet. It needs to be spooky as well as scary. There’s nothing spookier than a haunted house.
These are the principles I used to make the house as spooky as possible:
- A haunted house should have creepy staircases. I’ve never once seen a movie where a ranch-style house was haunted. Something about ghosts and staircases goes together. A haunted house needs a big, inviting-looking main floor where you can wander through the decaying greenhouse and waltz in the ballroom. It needs a spooky attic with old chests that emit unexplained noises, and it needs a dank cellar filled with crypts, chasms, and underground lakes.
- In a haunted house, you never know what’s around the next corner. The House On the Hill is assembled as the players move through it. Whenever you pass through a doorway, you draw a room randomly from a stack of tiles. Every time you play the game, the house layout is different. You never know what’s on the other side of a door until you open it.
- A haunted house must have secrets. No ghost or monster worth its ectoplasm would be caught dead (or undead) in a house that didn’t have at least a hidden staircase or a revolving bookcase somewhere in its depths. This house is stuffed to the rafters with secrets -- secret passages, hidden safes behind paintings, trap doors that plunge unwary explorers into the basement, and a creaky elevator that might not bring you back you to the same place you left.
- The good guys need to work together. Even though the game can have up to six players, there are only two sides: the traitor (who might get lucky and turn a few other explorers to his evil purpose) and the good guys. The good guys shouldn't compete amongst themselves -- they all either win or lose together.
- The undead are unimpressed by kung fu. Most of this game’s scenarios involve a threat that will kill all the good guys if they don’t stop it in time. Some of the good guys start off fairly strong, and they might find a useful weapon in the house that makes them even stronger, but there aren’t many monsters that can be defeated by a good right hook. If a monster in the next room is coming toward you, the smart thing to do usually is to run!
That’s not to say that the monsters are invincible, just that defeating them often takes brains as well as brawn. Every creature has a weakness. Perhaps there’s a ritual in the library that will send the mummy back to its sarcophagus. That strong character may be needed after all, though, to keep the monster occupied long enough for the smart character to finish her research!
Although many scenarios in the game follow this pattern of avoiding monsters until you can get at their weaknesses, they aren’t all that way. When the house is overrun by blood-sucking vampire bats, it isn’t that the bats are terribly difficult to kill, it’s that there are so many of them. Many scenarios don't involve any monsters, or the monsters are other players. It’s hard to make generalizations about the scenarios because each one is unique (and there are 50 of them, remember?).
The next article looks at the characters you can play and their strengths and weaknesses. See you then.
Bruce Glassco is a professor of English who has also been a gamer since the early ‘80s. His werewolf story, “Taking Loup,” was in the 1999 edition of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Other of Bruce's stories and poems have appeared in the magazines Realms of Fantasy and Weird Tales. House On the Hill is his first published game.
Catch up on any previews you missed!
- Fifty Doorways to Doom
- History and Mystery
- Cast of Characters
- What's Behind Door Number One?
- House of Danger, House of Treasure
- Omen, Omen, Omen, Haunt!
- Sheer Evil
- Selfless Acts of Heroism