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."
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.
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.