6 Historic Louisville Locations Perfect for Your RPG Setting

Written by W.J. MacGuffin

One of the reasons urban fantasy and modern horror games work is that they mix the familiar with the strange. Many gamers enjoy a straight fantasy game with backdrops like unpronounceable Dwarvish mountains (“Finally, you arrive at Kzar’a’kun’ik Dhrza’k”) or alien homeworlds (“You enter orbit around Yeesh-Ne-Peesh II”). But tell your players that the game will feature a real Civil War-era building in your hometown, and people can grasp that more easily.

Tell your players that a nameless building is haunted, and they kinda get it. Tell your players that their old high school is haunted, and they’re hooked. Using a real location, especially one with a bloody or exciting past, immerses the player in a familiar environment while your game story takes them on a brand-new journey.

Thankfully, Louisville is an incredible city for this. Our river city has many locations, buildings, and natural sites that could make a perfect backdrop for your roleplaying game. Below are some of the best historic Louisville locations to drop into your urban fantasy or modern horror game.

Historic Louisville Locations for Urban Fantasy or Horror RPGs

Exterior picture of Waverly Hills Sanatorium.1. Waverly Hills Sanitorium

Of all the historic Louisville locations on this list, Waverly is probably the most famous. It’s also known as one of the most haunted places in the United States.

In the early 1900s, a tuberculosis epidemic nicknamed the White Plague hit Louisville hard. Waverly Hills Sanatorium was built in southwest Louisville to isolate tuberculosis patients so they couldn’t infect others. Treatments at the time did not have a high success rate, and as many as 8000 people have died there over the years. Deaths were common enough that people built a “death tunnel” to remove corpses from the building.

How to use this in your game: An abandoned hospital where thousands of people died is perfect for modern horror and urban fantasy RPGs. But what if there were more than just tuberculosis treatments going on? Did all of those deaths weaken the veil between our world and another? Maybe magic is easier there, allowing your players (or NPC villains) to cast spells not normally available.

Union soldiers' memorial gravestone in Cave Hill Cemetery.2. Cave Hill Cemetery

Cemeteries are always good to drop into a modern game. Louisville is home to the large Cave Hill Cemetery, a strange mix of graveyard and park. Over 120,000 bodies are buried there, including a few hundred Union and Confederate soldiers. (Yes, Cave Hill is the final resting place for both sides of the Civil War.) Nearby Beechurst Sanitarium, an asylum for people with mental disorders, would sent deceased patients there as well.

How to use this in your game: Horror games and cemeteries go hand in hand, but the inclusion of Civil War soldiers and asylum bodies makes Cave Hill even more creepy. Could the soldier’s ghosts still fight each night? Ghouls are known to prey on corpses, making Cave Hill a macabre buffet. And what magical artifacts may have been buried along with their deceased owners?

3. Seelbach Hilton’s Rathskeller

Located in downtown Louisville close to Fourth Street Live, the Seelbach Hilton was designed by German immigrants in 1905. It’s a beautiful building with a rich history — and a small secret. In the basement is the hotel’s Rathskeller, a ballroom full of arched ceilings, mystical symbols, and strange statues. (One column is topped with Rookwood pottery pelicans.)

If that’s not enough, the Seelbach was very popular during Prohibition. There are secret passages and tunnels throughout the hotel. Al Capone even used these to escape Louisville police.

In addition to possible occult elements, many believe that a ghost, known only as the lady in the blue dress, haunts the Seelbach.

How to use this in your game: With mystic symbols adorning the walls, the Rathskeller ballroom could easily be the meeting place for a council of wizards or witches. Those symbols can be wards to keep such meetings private and safe. Or the hotel’s connection to Prohibition and organized crime could inspire adventures involving tortured spirits. The arcane and criminal elements would also work well for a Cthulhu setting.

4. The Louisville Tunnels

Below Louisville, you’ll find a network of tunnels connecting different parts of the city. That sounds like a convenient fiction, but it’s actually true.

Some tunnels were part of the Underground Railroad. While Kentucky was a slave holding state, Indiana was a free state, so many runaway slaves traveled underneath Louisville on their way to freedom. Prohibition brought more tunnels and hideaways for gambling and speakeasies. The government also built their own utility tunnels over the years for small, electric freight trains. All of these have merged into an unmapped and little-known network.

Reportedly, these tunnels connect Manual High School, Louisville Zoo, Atherton School, Mega Cavern, Beargrass Park, Barrett Middle School, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Seelbach Hilton, E.P. “Tom Sawyer” Park, and more.

How to use this in your game: These tunnels can easily be home to all manner of monsters and creatures, from ghouls to vampires. They can also serve as a discrete way to travel through the city.

Exterior of St. James Court's famous Pink Palace in Louisville, Ky.5. The Pink Palace

Located in one of the richest parts of Old Louisville, this Victorian-style mansion has an usual history. It was built in 1891 as a gentleman’s club where men could drink, gamble, and have sex with prostitutes. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union bought the mansion in 1910 and painted all of the outside walls pink. Today, it’s believed to be haunted by several ghosts.

How to use this in your game: A “gentleman’s club” could be cover for an occult group. They may have left behind hidden tomes and spells in the floors or walls. And why paint it pink? Is it just a “feminine” color or was it an attempt to ward something off?

Interior of St Martin's of Tours Catholic Church showing statues, alter, and glass crypts.6. St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church

This old church predates the Civil War. Several religious orders came together to build it, including Franciscan monks. It became famous during the Bloody Monday riots of 1855 when anti-Catholic zealots killed at least 20 people. Today, the church is home to the relics of two saints: St. Magnus and St. Bonosa. The skeletons of these two martyrs are in reliquaries here.

How to use this in your game: These relics can be powerful magic items, imbued with energy from belief and veneration. Plus, what if the Bloody Monday riots weren’t about religion but something much darker?

Louisville is an old, beautiful city with a long and sordid history that makes it the perfect setting for your modern horror or urban fantasy game. By using these historic Louisville locations, you can help your game come alive in strange, weird, and even scary ways.

Do you know of any historic Louisville locations ripe for a fantasy or horror setting that we didn’t include in this article? Please share them with us in the comments below!


Photos: All photos used in this article were sourced from commons.wikimedia.org and are public domain.

WJ MacGuffin

WJ MacGuffin is a game designer who wrote for several RPGs, including PARANOIA, The Laundry, and Unknown Armies. He also published his own games Outlive Outdead and Triune. He loves his son, zombies, chicken wings, and pie.