The Portal at Hill House (Press Pot Games)
Designed by Travis Hill & Linda Farris-Hill
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt scared by a tabletop roleplaying game. Plenty of games fit into the Horror genre label: Vampire the Masquerade, Call of Cthulhu, the smaller horror games, the horror scenarios for other non-horror games, the list goes on & on. I’ve never been genuinely scared by tabletop games. Admittedly, I only really got into tabletop around 2012 and checked out of group play in 2018. I found most horror games to be action-adventure games with horror genre elements. It’s the same way Blade the Vampire Hunter isn’t horror; it’s superhero stories. Horror, for me, is a growing and eventually suffocating sense of dread. There is something you cannot explain, and it is slowly getting closer, and once it does, you have no hope. That’s horror. So, when I came across The Portal at Hill House I wondered how horror would work in solo play. Maybe in this context, it would be scarier?
The Portal at Hill House is a solitary journaling game that reminded me a lot of The Wretched. It begins by asking you to sketch out the legendary Hill House, giving some suggestions of rooms but letting you choose the type of house this will be. The only requirement is to have at least 13 locations inside the home to explore. Once you have your house designed, you must use a six-sided die & a standard deck of playing cards to determine the objects you need to discover to cleanse the house. Hearts are a Material Object, Clubs are an Ancient Element, and Diamonds are an Arcane Artifact. The number you roll will be the card number you need to pull as you explore the house. For example, if you rolled a four for Hearts, you will need Candles. So when you draw the Four of Hearts from the deck during play, you can cross that item off your list.
Cards are separated by suit so you should have four separate decks. One Joker goes into the Spades deck. Spades represent the passing of time. Once there are no more cards in the Spades deck, the house has you. You win if you can find the three items needed to close the portal before that. You draw from the Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds when you enter a room. Hearts are the room’s Ambiance, Clubs represent an object in the space, and Diamonds are the room’s Condition.
For example, you pull the Six of Hearts, the Three of Clubs, and the Nine of Diamonds. This means the ambiance is incredible or odorous (you choose), you find a burned deck of playing cards in this room, and there are exposed pipes from behind the drywall. It’s up to the player to tie these things together as they describe their exploration. The burn marks on the cards may be connected to the odor in the room. The exposed pipes could lure the player to come closer and see something worse hidden behind the walls. Once you are done writing up your exploration for this room, you draw a Spade. Ace thru 10 tells you to keep exploring while face cards demand you pull one to three additional Spades. The Joker makes you put two from the discard pile back in the deck, giving you more time.
The back matter of the book offers a lot of variation options. One of these is caused by adding an additional Joker and going from 13 locations to 16. There are some ways to turn this into group play, adding Curses to the game, variations on drawing face cards, and an alternate oracle for when the initial set of options gets tired. If you are into playing this game, you will have plenty of opportunities to change it up.
My one complaint is that the game doesn’t contain any system for determining who the player is. The focus is tight on exploring the house, but I needed help understanding why I was there in the first place. I would have liked a mechanics-light element for randomly determining something about my character: a paranormal investigator, a person stuck there due to a storm, a distant family member coming to collect the belongings, a detective investigating a murder at the house, etc. Having that one tiny element would help guide how I wrote about how I engaged with the place.
Below is my journal from my play through:
How many stories?
One story and a basement, it is a ranch style house
What does the outward facade look like?
The house is partially covered in mint green siding with exposed brick on the southern half. One window is boarded up. There are two porch lights, one of which has been shattered. The roof is black, some shingles missing. The garage door is dented with signs of three 9mm bullet holes.
Are there other areas outside the house?
There is an unkempt front yard, there is a sidewalk beyond that. A flower bed made by creating a wall of small concrete bricks sits on the edge of the front yard. Only weeds grow there. There is rotten mulch in flower beds along the exterior of the front of the house, weeds as well. In the backyard is a concrete patio and in-ground pool. The pool has been drained. Used needles & condoms litter it, mixed in with leaves from an oak tree that looms over the house.
How old do you think the house is?
The house looks like it was built in the 1970s/80s
What is unusual, if anything?
There is mail in the mailbox, not old but delivered recently. Every piece of mail is addressed to a different person. It is all junk mail, nothing to indicate who these people were. One of the porch lights is perpetually on.
Objects to Find: Rope (Six Hearts), Saltpeter (Four Clubs), Rhatmi’s Eye (Four Diamonds)
Room #1 – The Living Room.
I step into the living. It is dim. The large front window has been shattered at some point and covered with large pieces of particle board, nailed from the inside. My shoes crunch on dry sheets of newspaper, laid out and covering the floor. Crouching down I find a date (May 6th, 1987). I stand up and walk around the room, the sound of the crunching paper all I can hear. There is no furniture left in the room, it is a big empty void. From where I stand I can see into the kitchen, a wall separates that room from the dining room. I survey the newspapers on the ground, noting dates and looking for any patterns. Nothing. I freeze in my tracks as a child giggles from somewhere in the room. There’s nothing to hide behind. I am fairly certain the laugh came from the rusty air vent register at the base of the eastern wall. I pull the grating loose and out tumbles a glass vial, wooden corked, filled with a white grainy powder. Saltpeter. One item down.
Room #7 – Entryway
I walk to the hallway that connects the living room, the garage, and the main bedroom. The stench hits hard. Mildew. Plant detritus. Something else under it all. Can’t pinpoint it. Laying on itself is a steel filing cabinet with two drawers. I try the top drawer. It is locked. The bottom drawer slides open and yellowed, crinkled receipts come tumbling out. They do not stand out in this hall, soiled clothing covers the floor, likely the source of that smell. I look closer at the receipts. They are from department stores and supermarkets, the oldest date I can find is 1997. Some are for a couple of items. Others reach to the floor as I stand holding them. No pattern. Just a cacophony of consumerism. I try at the top drawer again, giving it a harder tug. It comes loose. Inside is a wound coil of rope. Second item down.
Room #3 – Bedroom 1
The source of the stench is clear now as I step into the main bedroom. Hate oozes from this place, my vision feels as if there’s a red mist over everything. I stagger and brace myself against the wall. Damp. Slimy. My eyes first drift up to the moldy corner of the ceiling next to the bathroom door. It drips, stringy wet ooze, viscous. I step closer, peering beyond the overturned mattress and bedframe. A lump of meat pulses on the carpet, long membranous veins dug into the floor like roots. It receives the mold drip like succor throbbing with each moist drip.
Room #2 – Kitchen
Every fiber of my being screams at me to leave the main bedroom and I do. I can’t remember how but I find myself in the kitchen, panting for breath. Something is wrong. I look at the kitchen window into the side yard and it is pitch black night. I came here intentionally in the early morning so I wouldn’t be here in the dark. The window is broken, no sound comes from outside. No crickets. No cars. No people. I can’t decide if I am thankful for that or not. I can’t escape the horrible smell though. Here it has changed slightly, it emanates from the refrigerator. There is no electricity running to the house so this should not be. I knew this was a possibility from the many photos of the single porchlight always on. I saw that when I entered. This is even more bizarre. A cold fog crawls across the stained linoleum floor like smokey fingers clawing towards me. They dissipate before they get close though. I know what I’m searching for isn’t in there and I silently forbid myself from opening it.
Room #9 – The Dining Room
I step backward into the dining room and trip over the broken sliding door. This once hid the kitchen from guests during dinner parties. It has been pulled off its roller and lay across the floor. A hole about the size of an adult fist marks the top half of the door. I stand myself up, brushing off dust. I notice the windows across the room are also shattered. The glass seems to have blasted inward and embedded itself in the dividing wall between the kitchen and dining room. Two legs on the same end of the dining table remain, the other two broken away, a large wooden incline. Broken dishes scattered. A silver cloche & platter are pocked with dents. A closer look reveals bone fragments? I have a sudden flash of this platter coming down with brutal force on a person’s head, caving it in.
Room #12 – Hallway
I find my way to the hallway that connects to the childrens’ bedrooms. There’s a sickliness in the air. Not like the smell in the main bedroom. This reeks of chemicals, hospitals, disease. At the end of the hallway there is a wheelchair, its back facing me. It points at a yellow wall. All the walls in the hallway are yellow. I get closer to the walls and find the paint is stained, I sniff. Cigarette smoke. They were probably closer to white once. Like teeth they’ve been marked by nicotine and smoke. The wheelchair would have been Sarah’s, the daughter. If only she had just been kept at the hospital she might have survived. She certainly wouldn’t have been here when it happened.
Room #5 – Bedroom 2
I enter what was marked on my map as Sarah’s bedroom. I cannot see. Something is blindingly bright in here. I shield my eyes and step forward, the edge of a wooden table bumps into me just below my waist. I peer down and see the tattered cloth acting as a table covering. It looks like a red handkerchief spread out, the design found on a cowboy bandana. A closer look reveals these are not simply patterns but there are figures among them, misshapen figures, twisted forms. The brightness dulls and I am able to glance up at its source. A chilling wind cascades through the room, pushing around objects. I find myself looking at where a wall should be. Instead, there is a vast gulf, a vista of what appears to be the depths of space. Beyond this house is a purple nebula, a green ringed planet, an ocean of stars. I seem to no longer understand which way is up, my balance is shaky. I see the open door to the shared bathroom and lunge forward.
Room #6 – Bathroom 2
The sound of wind is gone as soon as I walk into the shared bathroom. I shut the door behind me, not wanting to think further about the impossibility I saw. I need to stay focused. One more object. I turn and see the toilet, overflowing with black-green liquid, spilling out onto the cracked tile floor. The fluid is moving, drawn towards a circle of stones that appear to jut up from the floor. It pools in the center. I peer down and something looks back at me, not a reflection, but a window into somewhere else. I leave the bathroom and enter the second child’s bedroom.
Room #6 – Bedroom 3
Here is Mark’s room, the little brother. It looks like all the color has been sapped out of the objects in the room leaving everything with a melancholy pallor. The tantrum that was thrown in the dining room looks to have made its way here at some point. The floor is covered with chunks of plaster, clearly from the swiss cheesed walls, a litany of adult fists bursting through them in a fit of rage. On the center of Mark’s bed is a deck of playing cards bearing a scorch mark. I reach for them and they burst into flames, licking at my fingers which I quickly withdraw. The flames die down too, seemingly hungry for flesh to singe.
Room #4 – Garage
I make my way back across the house, avoiding Sarah’s room. I come to the garage and step inside. The walls pulse here, alive, something flowing through them. The garage door is no longer a thing of metal but flesh, a maw that opens and closes, a sphincter. Emerging from the flesh of the door in profile are the same twisted figures I saw on the handkerchief. Like reliefs found in Grecian temples, but not of this world. To the right is a bookshelf lined with tomes that undulate with the same fleshiness of the gaping door. With any thought I pull one from the shelf and open it, finding photographs of Sarah and Mark glued to its pages. I do not know where they are but things reach out from beyond the photograph’s edges tearing at them, leaving marks, streaks of blood.
Room #8 – Utility Room
I step back and find the fleshy wall behind me gives way, dumping me into where the utility room should be. But that isn’t there. I feel crisp, withered grass. Dead, brown. The same star ocean sky I glimpsed in Sarah’s room is above me now. I turn myself around and crawl belly down across the grass. There is a pool of water before me. It collects from the towering monolith of stone reaching up impossibly, beyond any skyscraper I’ve seen. A rivulet of water descends from somewhere above, but past the point where my vision gives out. The water in the pool steams, bubbling. I peek down into it. I see the shared bathroom where I had looked down into a small puddle minutes ago.
Everything is beyond my understanding in this new landscape. I feel the presence of things forever on the horizon, stalking me, biding their time. There appears to be no way back to the house. Instead, what lies before me is beyond the unknown, terrors and malformations of reality. I do not know if it is day or night, only that in the distance the number of glowing eyes grows in number and appears to be getting closer.