Back in 2011 I submitted a game to the Ronnies based off the keywords: murder and whisper. I’ve played and revised the game quite a bit since then. I mention this in the spirit of full disclosure that the game I’m about to discuss is a game of my own making. However, I want to make it clear that this is not a design discussion. What I’m going to talk about isn’t a problem and it doesn’t need to be fixed. It’s just an interesting phenomenon that I’ve now seen multiple times when I’ve played the game. So, for purposes of this discussion, pretend I’m not the designer and this is just a game I played frequently and recently.
Haunted is a game about a murderer being stalked by the ghost of their victim. The murderer and the ghost are both dedicated to specific players and all the other players pull from a shared pool of supporting cast characters as needed on a scene by scene basis. There is no GM.
All of the characters have guideposts for play. For the murderer that’s a goal they are still hoping to achieve. For the ghost there’s unfinished business they regret not accomplishing in life. Supporting cast characters have either a need or a problem. Needs are something the character wants badly from the murderer. A problem is an issue the character is struggling with caused by the sudden death of the ghost.
This is the key driver of play: The agenda of the supporting cast players is to lay the needs and problems of their characters at the feet of the murderer to the detriment of their goal. Orthogonal to that, is the ghost who can only be seen and heard by the murderer. While the ghost has the ability to influence the outcomes of die rolls, they otherwise can’t directly interact with anything.
I had an opportunity to run Haunted at an online convention a couple of weeks ago and I saw a phenomenon played out that is actually quite common for this game and that I find completely fascinating. I’ll explain in detail but the short version of it is this: the ghost and murderer have nearly reversed experiences of the amount of agency the roles afford them.
In this recent game the murderer was Annie, an HR underling at a health insurance company. Annie’s goal was that she was seeking promotion within the company. The ghost was Annie’s live-in sister Sienna, who took advantage of Annie to leak information about unjustly denied claims. Annie then withheld necessary medication that led to Sienna’s death. As the ghost, Sienna’s unfinished business was that she needed to finish exposing the company’s life destroying practices.
The major supporting cast characters were Annie’s boss who had a need of turning Annie into a scapegoat for the leak. Annie’s boyfriend who had a need of wanting to take their relationship to the next level of commitment. Annie and Sienna’s mom who had the problem that she relied on Sienna for all the bureaucratic administration of her life. And, finally, Maya who was the primary patient Sienna was championing whose problem is that she now has no one to fight for her.
So here’s the first part of the phenomenon. After I get done explaining that the game centers all the action on the murderer, and that the ghost has no direct agency except as a voice in the murderer’s head, it is usually the ghost role that gets volunteered for first. The player often seems to be gleefully relishing the idea of a character role where all that will be asked of them is that they talk. It’s almost as if they are finally grasping at the chance for “pure” role-playing.
Then, somewhat more reluctantly, someone volunteers to play the murderer. Here’s the thing, it is usually the person socially closest to the player who volunteered to play the ghost, a best friend or a significant other in real life. It seems that knowing the ghost player creates a zone of social safety for playing the murderer.
This played out exactly in this recent game. One woman expressed early interest in playing the ghost, stating clearly that she found the idea of limited agency interesting. Then the other woman piped up and said, “Well, since she and I are friends in real life, I should probably play the murderer.” Thus, Annie and Sienna were born.
The phenomenon then extends into play like this: by default, the ghost can only be seen and heard by the murderer and they can not influence the physical world in anyway. They can influence the outcomes of conflicts initiated by others but this is very much a “helping” mechanic toward other characters’ goals. This help is accompanied by visibly supernatural effects. But otherwise, they have no ability to enact an agenda of their own except perhaps what they can literally talk the murderer player into doing.
In my mind, this is a horrific “trapped behind glass” situation. But in play, the ghost player is usually one of the most enthusiastic players, perfectly happy to be a running commentary track on the main action and to place their hands on the scales of conflicts from time to time. They behave as an incredibly empowered player and seem to have no issue with the fact that they technically can’t make anything happen on their own.
In this recent game Annie’s player decided that despite having engineered circumstances that appeared to be natural causes, she actually had a panic attack and ended up dumping Sienna’s body in the ocean. This led to Sienna’s player taking a more hallucinatory approach to her haunting such as having the room appear to slowly fill up with water as Annie’s boss leaned into her about the source of the leak. It was a very cold, wet, and at times almost cthuloid-esq game. This was all at the direction of Sienna’s player as she had full authority over what haunting looks like.
Conversely, the murderer, who is the focus of every scene and is fully empowered to call for a roll at any time with whatever stated goals they desire (limited, of course, by the circumstances of the scene), frequently ends up retreating faster and faster as the game goes on. It is not uncommon for that player to say things like, “I feel trapped” or “there’s nothing I can do” or “I don’t see a way out of this.”
I am reminded greatly of the behavior Ron described from The Frog Pool game:
Closing off options or narrations with “I can’t,” including but not limited to claiming Traits don’t apply when they often obviously do or could. “This is a situation I can’t escape from, and I understand that you mean it that way …” “I can’t kill the snake …” “I could do it if I weren’t looking for Urrop …”
In this recent game, this largely applied to Annie’s work life. As her boss zeroed in on her as the source of the leak, the more the player seemed to assume Annie’s job was all but lost. It manifested in her personal life as well as both her boyfriend and her mom seemed to increasingly take over her life. Now, some of this is admittedly due to the fact that mechanically the odds are not in the murderer’s favor, especially at the begining of the game. However, there’s a far cry between “long odds” and “hopelessly not worth attempting.” At one point Annie’s player came up with the interesting idea of swapping her compromised work computer with her bosses, but looked at the dice and just said, “No, nevermind.”
Now this hasn’t been the case in every game. I have seen murderer players who dive in with gusto and push forward despite the odds. But they are surprisingly rare. This recent game matched the more frequent pattern I’ve seen across multiple games.
I’ve just been completely fascinated by the observation that the ghost is designed to have little to no agency, while the murderer is desiged to have all the choices and drive, but the emotional experience from the players’ persectives are often reversed. It’s such an interesting phenomenon I figured it was worth posting about.