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Thursday, 26th April, 2007, 10:59 PM #1
A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)
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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 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."And then there was the aftermath of this scene. From Pielorinho:
"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."
Originally Posted by Pielorinho
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.
For any of the players from that game, I'll be curious about your impressions as well.
Thursday, 26th April, 2007, 11:17 PM #2
Acolyte (Lvl 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.
Thursday, 26th April, 2007, 11:20 PM #3
Waghalter (Lvl 7)
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ø Block Rodrigo Istalindir
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.
Thursday, 26th April, 2007, 11:28 PM #4
Novice (Lvl 1)
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?
Thursday, 26th April, 2007, 11:56 PM #5
Acolyte (Lvl 2)
Double dibs on a spot! I missed out the first time, I ain't missin' it this time!
Friday, 27th April, 2007, 12:30 AM #6
Spellbinder (Lvl 16)
That is the best game mechanic ever. I'm tempted to buy Jenga just to be able to play Dread.
Wednesday, 2nd May, 2007, 08:30 PM #7
Novice (Lvl 1)
Well, Eppy answered most of the questions before i even discovered this thread existed, so i'm just doing a bit of cleanup.
Originally Posted by WayneLigonOriginally Posted by Kafkonia
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.
Originally Posted by Whizbang Dustyboots
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.
Originally Posted by TiewOriginally Posted by FunkBGR
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.
Originally Posted by greuh
Originally Posted by BryonD
Originally Posted by GreatLemur
Wednesday, 2nd May, 2007, 11:27 PM #8
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
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.)
Wednesday, 2nd May, 2007, 11:48 PM #9
Novice (Lvl 1)
That's Kirk's player knocking the tower over while reaching for a bag of Cheetos.
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.
Wednesday, 2nd May, 2007, 11:48 PM #10
Enchanter (Lvl 12)
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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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