One of the first things you’ll do when you start playing a game of Betrayal at House On the Hill is to choose which character you’ll play. When you get your character card, it will tell you various useful bits of information about him or her: starting traits (more about these later), age, height, weight, hobbies, and birthday. There’s also a little narrative about the character’s background and greatest fears. Some of this might seem unimportant at first, but you never know.
There are twelve different characters to choose from, all friends and neighbors such as you might meet in any peaceful, small town. Here are a few of them:
- Jenny LeClerk, 21 -- A quiet, shy girl who likes nothing better than playing soccer and curling up with a good book. Both of those activities help her get her mind off that terrible day fourteen years ago when her mother went to the store and never came back…
- Darrin “Flash” Williams, 20 -- Fastest man on the college track team. With his constant nightmares of some Thing chasing him, he’d better be fast, all right.
- Vivian Lopez, 42 -- Her greatest loves are horses and old movies. It’s such a struggle keeping her used book business going that sometimes she dreams of burning the place down. Not that she ever would, of course. Of course not.
- Peter Akimoto, 13 -- Peter wants to be an entomologist when he grows up. Bugs are fascinating. How can anybody not be interested in bugs?
- Madame Zostra, 37 -- A gypsy fortune teller who is happy to read the charts and cards of her customers. Why is she afraid to read her own?
Everyone can select a character, or they can be picked randomly. Once they're set up on the Entrance Hall just inside the front door, you’re ready to start exploring the house.
The character you choose has an important effect on how you play the game and not just in terms of what funny voice you use. Every character has different starting attributes.
There are four personal attributes, or traits; two physical and two mental.
The physical traits are Speed and Might.
Speed determines how quickly you can move around the house -- if you don’t encounter anything that makes you end your movement, you can move a number of rooms equal to your current speed score each turn. That’s important later on in the game, when you need to move items around quickly and avoid monsters! Speed also helps you avoid some traps, like rooms where the ceiling starts to collapse on your head.
Might is raw strength. If the Haunt turns out to have monsters that can be defeated (or at least stunned) in combat, then Might is a trait it’s good to have. Of course, it can be very bad when the mightiest explorer turns out to be a traitor…
There are also two mental traits, Sanity and Knowledge.
Sanity doesn’t describe how sane you are relative to the rest of the world. You might have a high sanity yet be convinced that you are Julius Caesar come back to life. Rather, your sanity trait describes your personal force of will -- how convinced you are, personally, that your vision of reality is the correct one. Characters with high sanity, like Madame Zostra, are good at performing exorcisms and resisting spirits and other malign influences. Characters with low sanity are easily spooked by the house’s supernatural manifestations, often with dangerous consequences.
Knowledge determines how intelligent and observant you are. Characters with high knowledge have the highest chance of detecting and disarming traps while exploring the old house. Also, there are a few Haunts where having an explorer with a high knowledge trait is crucial. That smart explorer might be your best chance to locate a key book in the library that lets you perform the ritual that prevents the whole house from being drawn into an alternate dimension.
It’s often a good idea for players to choose characters who specialize in all four different areas, because you never know which ones you’ll need to defeat the Haunt.
Improvements, Wounds, and Death
Each Explorer card has a series of numbers for each trait running along each side of the card. When you start playing your character, you’ll put a plastic marker on the spot that’s highlighted for each trait.
As the game goes along, though, the values of your traits change. Some items or events increase your traits, letting you move the marker up the track. If your character is injured or otherwise damaged, you slide the marker down the track. Physical wounds can affect either Speed or Might, while gruesome or frightening events can decrease either Sanity or Knowledge.
At the bottom of each track is a skull. If any of your traits ever reach that spot, then your character dies. Before the Haunt has been discovered, however, no one in the house is actually going to die. That doesn’t happen until later in the story. If a trap or event would move their marker onto the skull space, then it stays at the lowest number instead. Once the Haunt has been found, death is a very real possibility -- some might say a likelihood. In addition, certain Haunts allow dead players to come back … changed.
There’s more to differentiate the characters besides their traits’ starting values. If you look carefully at the tracks for each character, you’ll note that they’re unique. Each trait can have values from 1 to 8, but the traits don’t go up linearly.
For example, Little Zoe Ingstrom, age 8, starts with Might 3, but her entire Might track goes 0-2-2-3-3-4-4-6-7. She starts off pretty weak, and even with bonuses to her Might, she’ll never be strong. If she finds items that boost Might, they’d probably do more good in someone else’s hands.
By contrast, consider Professor Longfellow’s Sanity track of 0-1-3-3-4-5-5-6-7. If he starts seeing unexplainable phenomena, he can handle it pretty well -- for a little while. Then all at once, his mind will snap like a rotten twig. Every character is unique.
Next article, we’ll talk about what to do once you step into the house and the front door slams shut behind you. 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