[Dread] Jenga beat up my dice! My results from the indie horror RPG.
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  1. #1
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    [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 citys sewers by something horrible. We ran the game in the schools 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, Dreads big mechanical advantage over CoC is that theres 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 games 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 Im trying to scare folks or immerse them in the game, I dont 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 thats 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 its also sort of freeing and I cant argue with the results.

    For example, my game was set in the 1920s. Xath played a flapper in her early 20s. 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 theyre 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 theyre 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 werent fidgeting because they didnt 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 thats all I needed. Ill 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
    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.

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    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?

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    Double dibs on a spot! I missed out the first time, I ain't missin' it this time!

  6. #6
    That is the best game mechanic ever. I'm tempted to buy Jenga just to be able to play Dread.

  7. #7
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    Well, Eppy answered most of the questions before i even discovered this thread existed, so i'm just doing a bit of cleanup.

    Quote Originally Posted by WayneLigon
    It sounds great, but the Jenga tower thing kinda kills it dead for me.[snip] I might have to actually play it a few times to appreciate it, but I really, really suck at things like Jenga. I don't like having my own inadequacies translated into inadequacies for my character; it's one of the reasons I play RPGs. It would be kinda like 'OK, to succeed at this task, get up and run around the block in less than x amount of time'.
    Quote Originally Posted by Kafkonia
    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.
    In our experience, this is much less of an issue than most people think it will be. First of all, plenty of people at convention games over the years have had a perfectly enjoyable time without making a single pull during the entire game. Depending on your character, the scenario, and your personality, it might be more enjoyable to avoid the tower (fine motor skill issues aside).

    Secondly, we've had at least one person who had diagnosed hand tremors, and said after the game that he had a blast--and, yes, he did pull several times, and he didn't think his handicap really affected the game in a negative way (I know Eppy, the GM, was really worried it would).

    Thirdly, and this is probably the most salient point: for the vast majority of people, skill at Jenga and skill at Dread are only very loosely related, at best. That is, having your character on the line changes it immeasurably, so the "Jenga masters" really aren't that much better than the complete beginners, who aren't much better than the klutzes. It sorta levels the field a bit--which, combined with the fact that you can (1) choose not to pull and (2) often choose to avoid situations where pulls are even needed in the first place, seems to minimize the issue. Due to years of playtesting, and then convention running, we've gotten inordinately good at Jenga, yet I can still have a blast playing a game of Dread, and don't feel particularly better at the pulling than the other players.

    To be clear, motor skills disparity certainly could be an issue that would impact the game, but, in our experience, it takes a much greater disparity than people anticipate, before it has a significant impact on the game. People who don't want to get into the right mood are a much bigger problem for the game. So i'd recommend giving it a try before writing it off--there's everything you need to run a game on our website for free download.

    Quote Originally Posted by Whizbang Dustyboots
    I'm tempted to buy Jenga just to be able to play Dread.
    Funny story, there: that's exactly what happened to us. That is, the core mechanic that evolved into Dread predated any of us having ever played Jenga, much less owning a set. So we had to put off actually trying it out for a week while i tried every store in town until i found one that had Jenga in stock (everybody just happened to be out at the time).

    And, putting on my marketer hat, a Jenga set is only ~$12, maybe less, and provides all you need for an entire group to play. You can't even get two sets of dice for that much money, and most people want a separate set of dice for each player in most RPGs.

    Quote Originally Posted by Tiew
    Sounds extremely cool. Do you think it would be a good system for introducing new role-players to the idea of a role-playing game? I have literary type friends who'd probably get bored a few minutes into me describing the rules of D&D, but who might get into the interactive story thing.
    Quote Originally Posted by FunkBGR
    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.
    As Eppy said, Dread has suckered several people that we know of into RPGs, who had previously rejected them. And, IME, it, if anything, goes better for the complete novice than for experienced RPers. So, if your current group won't go for it, maybe don't look for other gamers to play it--round up a bunch of your non-gamer friends for an evening.

    Also, for those of you looking to try the game: we'll be running a whole bunch of sessions at Origins and GenCon this year, as usual, and should have extra GMs with free time to run pick-up games at GenCon, in case of significant overflow. And as much as we love seeing familiar faces at con games, we love seeing new faces even more.

    Quote Originally Posted by greuh
    The "13" scenario found on the website, which I used at the second game is, IMHO, not as good as the ones found in the book : it needs development and some rearrangement of the scenes. I will reuse this scenario at the genconFr, rearranging some elements : the little girl won't be one of the first thing encountered, the catlike thing will be found beforehand, and I'll try to be more subtle. Because my players found out the whole thing at the beginning, and one of my players was too much of a bully.
    Yeah, we've heavily re-structured that the last couple times we've run it at a convention, for many of the exact reasons you've identified. It still uses most of the same pieces as the version posted on the website, but has been, as you say, rearranged and restructured.

    Quote Originally Posted by BryonD
    Any chance these products will ever be available as PDFs?
    Yes. RSN(tm). I'm re-doing the layout to be home-printer-friendly, while still capturing essentially the same style as the printed version. Which means completely redoing the layout pretty much from scratch, due to how it is built. And i've just not gotten around to finishing it up. As soon as i do, it'll be up on RPGNow, or somesuch. Maybe this month? And, we've tossed the idea of PDF scenarios for a few bucks back and forth a number of times, and mostly just haven't gotten around to figuring out exactly how we'd want to do it, and then doing it.

    Quote Originally Posted by GreatLemur
    I bet there are multi-colored Jenga set out there you could use to build color-coded towers...
    Yep. There's Truth or Dare Jenga, which is, IIRC, 3 colors; Jenga Extreme, which is 3 colors, 2 finishes, and parallelogram-cross-section blocks; there's UNO Stacko, which is a 4-color knock-off; and there are any number of multi-colored knock-offs. One thing about the knock-offs: most of them don't stack quite the same: the length is greater than 3x the width, so the layers stack with gaps. No real impact on play, but it does make re-setting the tower a bit more fiddly, and thus time-consuming.

  8. #8
    Re: people who like the concept, but fear the skill effects of Jenga:

    I wonder if this could be solved by using a random draw mechanic. What I'm thinking is you have an opaque bag, white marbles or disks or tokens or whatever, and black marbles. The bag starts off with, say, 50 white marbles in it. When you "pull", you draw a marble. White is equivalent to a successful pull, black = tower falling. You always replace a white marble drawn with a black one. So you get the same basic pattern, of a safe or almost safe zone at the beginning, meaningful danger in the middle, building up to almost sure doom at the end. (Of course, after a black marble is drawn you need to reset the bag.)

    My guess is that this would produce much the same effect as the Jenga tower, with a reduction in the vividness of the risk and the task (and the total loss of the focusing "don't touch the table lest the tower fall" aspect), in exchange for making it entirely luck based.


    (I should note that I have yet to play Dread and haven't gotten my copy yet. This is based just on this thread and other online comments.)

  9. #9
    That's Kirk's player knocking the tower over while reaching for a bag of Cheetos.
    And this right here perfectly expresses why I don't like Dread. Despite the brilliant writing, despite the amazing mechanic of the questionaires, despite the tension it builds, that right up there kills it for me, stone cold. The idea that a player's actions, even something as random as bumping the table, causes them to waste the work they put into their character, wastes the time the GM took to prep the questionaire, and could very well bring the plot to a screeching halt just doesn't sit well with me.

    I understand the desire to ramp up the tension. I ran a horror-conspiracy game for 12 years, and was constantly looking for ways to up the stakes. Player investiture in the characters and the world is a huge part of that. And that's where the blocks yank me out of it, pardon the pun - your work on a character doesn't mean jack, because you could bump the table, and you're out, removing you from the session. That's anti-immersion for me.

    I'd be very interested in seeing some sort of alternate resolution mechanic for this that keeps the stakes, keeps the investitutre that rises from the questionaires, but loses the (IMO) far too random element.

  10. #10
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    But with Jenga/Dread you have a little bit of choice as to how much risk you are willing to take. It might be safer to pull from the right side of the tower than the left.

    With the black bag proposal, it's just flat out riskier and I would suspect more would back out of even trying to pull once it became too odds unfavored.

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