[Dread] Jenga beat up my dice! My results from the indie horror RPG.
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  1. #1

    A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)

    Piratecat's Avatar

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    Jan 2002
    Boston, MA

    [Dread] Jenga beat up my dice! My results from the indie horror RPG.

    I wrote this up earlier for personal reasons, and figured that cross-posting it might make some sense. I ran a Dread game at the EN World game day down in North Carolina. This thing won an ENnie last year, and I can see why; it's my new favorite horror game, trumping even CoC in terms of how much I liked the rules. I'd be curious to hear other folks' thoughts. If you want to pick the game up, you can do so from here.


    I just ran my favorite horror game in years.

    The previous winner was a session of Call of Cthulhu I ran at Anonycon five years ago, back when it was held at Yale. The PCs were Russian soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad who were being stalked through the city’s sewers by something horrible. We ran the game in the school’s literary society. The players sat in low leather couches in the exact middle of a huge darkened library, dead animals looked down on us from the walls as we played, and I could easily walk around behind the players as I ran the game. It was tailor-made for inducing nervousness. Notably, one player inadvertently screamed at a particularly scary moment.

    And yet, this last weekend, I got almost as good an effect playing Dread in the middle of a loud, sunny, crowded room at the NC Game Day.

    I mentioned it a few posts down (and if you want to pick the game up, you can do so from here). For me, Dread’s big mechanical advantage over CoC is that there’s no numbers or dice to futz with. I love gamey systems and game mechanics and rolling dice – I love D&D, right? – but only to the extent that they enhance a game’s mood instead of derailing it. Part of the fun of D&D and action-adventure is making lots of combat rolls. Less so for horror, though. If I’m trying to scare folks or immerse them in the game, I don’t want dice rolls and combat statistics being a distraction.

    So that brings us to Dread. I think Dread relies on two basic premises. The first is make the player buy into their character. There are absolutely no numbers on the character sheet, because the sheet is a thirteen question questionnaire that’s effectively one big Rorschach inkblot. Each player makes the PC uniquely theirs by answering the (occasionally loaded) questions. As a judge and scenario-writer, I find giving up this level on control to the player absolutely terrifying, but it’s also sort of freeing – and I can’t argue with the results.

    For example, my game was set in the 1920’s. Xath played a flapper in her early 20’s. I originally pictured her as sort of innocent, a rich girl having naughty fun. But one of the questions was the very innocuous “Where did you get those shoes?” and her answer (paraphrased here) was completely character-defining.
    “I was at a Harlem speakeasy swilling hooch with one of my friends when she tried to make a move on one of my swells. Once my ‘friend’ had passed out I took her into the alley around back and stripped her of money and clothes. I left her there naked and went on home. Her shoes look wonderful on me, and they’re still my favorite pair.”
    Wow. Okay, character established, and a lot darker and amoral than I had anticipated. And that character was evident in everything she did during the game.

    The second basic premise seems to be make the player responsible for his own fate. This is where the Jenga tower comes in. I bought a Jenga knockoff for $6 before my trip – much to the consternation of airline security, as it turns out – and had some doubt about how well it would work. The way the game works is that a player pulls from the tower whenever they want to do something that is possible but not necessarily automatic based on their background. Knock down the tower and your character is out of the game – insane, dead, fled, something. A player can always choose not to pull, in which case they fail what they’re trying. They also can choose to take one for the team, purposefully knock down the tower, and die, even as they succeed in what they were trying to do.

    Despite great GMs at nearby tables, we had the entire room watching anxiously every time someone had to pull from the tower. I worried what would happen if a player knocked down the tower in half an hour. Ha! The tension got excruciating after about 15 pulls, and my ninja Jenga-master players took somewhere between 24 and 27 pulls from the tower over four hours. It came perilously close to falling six or seven times, and usually for roleplaying instead of tactical reasons.
    "The rain is hitting you in the face, but you see movement high up on the roof."

    "It could be the killer! I shoot!"

    "You can not pull from the tower, in which case you'll miss; successfully pull and have a chance of hitting him; or pull, knock down the tower, and have something awful happen to you."

    Her eyes narrowed. "I'll pull."

    And after she was successful, I turned to the player up on the roof. "You can pull to avoid the bullet entirely, not pull to be hit but not incapacitated, or pull badly to catch the bullet in the teeth."

    He swallowed dryly. "I'll pull."
    And then there was the aftermath of this scene. From Pielorinho:

    Quote Originally Posted by Pielorinho
    "The PCs are terrified that someone is trying to kill them. One PC gets a rifle. The other, having just been shot at and seeing the rifle, demands that the first PC hand it over; when he refuses, the two get into a struggle over it.

    In Dread, that's handled by a pull from the Jenga tower. If you refuse to pull, the other PC gets the gun. If you pull and succeed, you gain control of the gun (until the other player decides to pull). If you pull and fail, you die horribly.

    The players made a couple of pulls each as they struggled silently over the rifle, knowing that if they failed in their pull, the rifle would probably go off in their face, killing them instantly. Finally one player decided to back off, and the conflict was over.

    And it was over nothing. Both players knew that there was nothing to be gained through this struggle; it was purely an expression of control, as the characters panicked at their lack of control over the situation. It was one of the least gamey moments I've seen in a roleplaying game."
    And you could see the focus! People weren’t fidgeting because they didn’t want to knock over the tower. They were really paying attention, with no one wandering off when a pull occurred; everyone was rooting for (or, in a few cases, rooting against) the player. All that nervousness and stress then got funneled back into the game, ratcheting up the mood a little more. It was a lot like the saw-edge pattern of terror and humor you find in the pacing of a real horror movie.

    As a convention game, the only problem I see is that filling out the questionnaire can take 20-30 minutes. I emailed mine ahead of time, which helped, but I can see it as an issue. On the other hand, I ran the game with just two index cards of notes – no NPC stats! – and that’s all I needed. I’ll be running this again at GenCon and locally.

    Any takers?


    For any of the players from that game, I'll be curious about your impressions as well.
    XP Imaculata gave XP for this post

  2. #2
    Thanks for posting your take on the game! I was interested in Dread when I first heard about it some time back, but never pursued it. I may have to reconsider.

  3. #3

    Waghalter (Lvl 7)

    Rodrigo Istalindir's Avatar

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    Feb 2002
    Washington, DC
    Dibs on a spot in the GenCon game.

    It sounds like a near-perfect gameday game.

    And come to think of it, it's probably the only RPG that the larger the party, the *more* dangerous it gets. Well, ok, except for Paranoia.

    Dread seemed to be the surprise hit of GenCon last year. I heard a lot of people talking about it and asking questions. Glad to hear it lives up to its promise.
    Last edited by Rodrigo Istalindir; Thursday, 26th April, 2007 at 11:26 PM.

  4. #4

    Acolyte (Lvl 2)

    Kafkonia's Avatar

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    May 2006
    Ottawa, Ontario
    It sounds fascinating. I could never, ever play it -- I almost had anxiety attacks just trying to thread a needle in home ec back in junior high, and my fine motor control is such that I would never have a chance to succeed more than a couple of pulls into the game. But for the right market, it could be perfect.

    That being said, I do wonder about the implications of the mechanics making success less likely -- and catastrophic failure more likely -- as time goes on. Does this differ markedly from traditional die-based gaming paradigms, or does it just heighten the escalating tension of horror games?

  5. #5

    Acolyte (Lvl 2)

    Clueless's Avatar

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    May 2003
    The Portal Jammer, Clerk's Ward, Sigil
    Double dibs on a spot! I missed out the first time, I ain't missin' it this time!

  6. #6

    The Great Druid (Lvl 17)

    Whizbang Dustyboots's Avatar

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    Apr 2003
    The hedge maze
    That is the best game mechanic ever. I'm tempted to buy Jenga just to be able to play Dread.

  7. #7

    Myrmidon (Lvl 10)

    Zaruthustran's Avatar

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    Jan 2002
    Holy cow, that sounds marvelous. I can definitely see how the Jenga tower would increment the tension, like the wheel of a rack. Best part is that it has a built-in "scarier, scaaarier, scaaaaaarier--AHHHHHHH!" mechanism. And then everything settles down to the baseline, only to crank up once again. Just like a horror movie.

    Love it.

    Question, though, for the big climax fight. If Bob pulls and dies, then Larry (and the rest of his party) get to pull with impunity. Does Dread address that? Maybe make two pulls per stunt at the end? Or just let the party whale on the monster, and it seemingly has no lasting effect (just like beating on Jason)?


  8. #8

    Waghalter (Lvl 7)

    WhatGravitas's Avatar

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    Jun 2005
    Grim, dark... the UK
    Quote Originally Posted by Zaruthustran
    Holy cow, that sounds marvelous. I can definitely see how the Jenga tower would increment the tension, like the wheel of a rack. Best part is that it has a built-in "scarier, scaaarier, scaaaaaarier--AHHHHHHH!" mechanism. And then everything settles down to the baseline, only to crank up once again. Just like a horror movie.
    Totally awesome, indeed. Now, I only have to find a way to incorporate this into a D&D game! Perhaps... I'm replacing action points with "auto-success, but possible doom"-jenga powers!

    In general... that's an awesome way to represent everything that gets more dangerous each time... hmmm...

  9. #9

    Thaumaturgist (Lvl 9)

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    Aug 2003
    Colorado Springs
    I reviewed Dread a while back and loved it. Dread is one of the first truly innovative and meaningful indie games that I've seen -- the engine isn't a simple gimmick, but has been carefully structured to honor the tenets of the genre that the game purports to espouse. Dread delivers what many other games promise but can't produce.

  10. #10

    Minor Trickster (Lvl 4)

    FunkBGR's Avatar

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    Mar 2002
    I've had Dread sitting on my shelf, and I just can't seem to find the gamers for it. Sounds awesome Piratecat - here's hoping I"ll get my chance someday soon.

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