A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of playing two sessions of one of my favourite games, Betrayal at House on the Hill with one of my favorite groups of people, the FIMS Game Club. I love Betrayal for the strong theme and storytelling component, which is almost like a basic RPG because of its variable scenarios and skills checks. I’m also a fan of the cooperative-traitor mechanic, which works very well with the story, as your characters try to avoid going insane together. Betrayal is vastly different each time you play, so writing about only one session feels like leaving out a core component of the experience. So instead, I’ve decided to compare the two sessions.
Betrayal at House on the Hill was published by Avalon Hill, now a part of Wizards of the Coast. It’s recommended for 3-6 players and is supposed to take an hour to play, though I find it usually take at least an hour and a half. Betrayal is the story of a group of misfits exploring an abandoned house. Each explorer has different traits; some are faster, smarter, stronger, or saner than others. As the night progresses however, mysterious forces come in to play, and the explorer’s sanity, and life, are endangered. Even though it’s not strictly a role-playing game, it’s easy to have fun and add embellishments to your characters and the story, based on your characters traits.
In the first phase of Betrayal, the house is explored and mapped out. This effect is achieved by laying down random room tiles to unexplored parts of the house, creating new house every game. These rooms, however, are far from empty. Explorers might encounter strange events or objects, or find Omens of the Haunt that will soon be upon the explorers. Each time an Omen is found, there is a dice roll to see if the Haunt begins. The more Omens that are found, the more likely that the Haunt (the second phase) will begin. This first phase is driven almost entirely through luck, which can be frustrating to some. However, I find that it fits very much with the horror theme of the game. Although randomness creates a distance from reality, due to the implausibility of certain events happening, this facilitates the prominent supernatural theme and a feeling of uncontrollability. As your character’s Sanity levels fall, yours may start to as well…
The Haunt is the second phase, and really the “main” phase of Betrayal. As the title suggests, there is now a traitor in the midst of the explorers. A scenario of their betrayal is determined from the conditions of the Haunt reveal, and both sides are given different rules win conditions, and a potential conclusion to their story. These conditions are kept secret from the opposing side, introducing an element of deception to the story. Luck still factors in at this phase, as completing tasks and fighting opponents usual require skill rolls. The strategy is in reading the opposing team, guessing their rules and decisions will be and pre-emptively blocking or avoiding them.
In our first session, we played the scenario “Frog Leg Stew”, in which I was deemed a traitor who works alongside a witch to turn all of the other explorers into frogs for her stew. In order to win, I had to incapacitate all the other explorers with the help of the witches spells and her frog-chasing cat, and the explorers could stop me by searching and finding all the mandrakes in the house to cast me away. This session was pretty evenly matched between us, because the witch had some pretty powerful spells at her disposal, such as un-defendable attacks and instant teleportation. However, in the end, the survivors did survive and the witch was scared away. In my experience, the traitor often has a more difficult time winning, but can still be very satisfying to play. Small victories, such as killing off survivors, are possible. The traitor also often has more complex and interesting steps to take, and can have fun characterizing multiple actors, in my case, the witch, her cat, and my original character. My main goal during my round as traitor was to just be able to use each of my mechanics (in this case my witchy spells) at least once. Even though I didn’t win, I still managed to cook half of the survivors in my stew, and had a fun time making cackling noises while doing it.
In our second session, we played the scenario, “The Abyss Gazes Back”, in which I was one of the non-traitor explorers. This session revealed one of the rare but frustrating outcomes a randomized Haunt, which is to have a haunt start too early, after about only 2-3 rounds of play. Having done less exploration, and found less room tiles and items, it’s then more difficult to navigate in this second round. Added to this were the mechanics of the haunt, where a gate into hell had been opened and the house was slowly collapsing into the abyss. With less room tiles to prolong the collapse, we had less time to counteract the traitor’s plots, and eventually fell to our doom. However, we still managed to have a lot of fun facing our imminent demise by playing on the strong storytelling elements of the game. Unfortunate circumstances become part of the story, for example, an accidental death of the traitor in the Pentagram Room was spun as their sacrificial offering to the gods of Hell intent on taking down the house. Being part of the “survivors” team also allows for some really fun interactions between characters, as they find solace which each other while dealing with the traitorous plot.
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a great game when you want to have fun and not take things too seriously. As someone who’s not even a big fan of horror, I still enjoy this game because of the ridiculous stories that are told through the combination of set scenarios and luck. It really allows you to improvise strategies and create interesting dynamics with your friends. And with some horror music, dim lights, and the right scenario, the atmosphere this game creates can still give you the creeps, in the best way possible.