log in or register to remove this ad

 

Dread Isn't for Everyone

I mentioned in the previous column how I sprung a horror game on players who didn't buy into it. But along with that change I introduced several mechanics to reinforce the horror, notably Dread's mechanic using Jenga tiles. After a few sessions, we gave up on it. Here's why.

Dread-RPG-Splash.jpg

How Dread Works

Jenga is a party game in which players slowly draw blocks from a wooden tower until it collapses. The goal is to not be the player who causes it to fall. It's a simple mechanic that generates a considerably amount of tension as each player's close call spells certain doom for the player who draws a block from the rickety tower after her.

Dread uses Jenga as a sort of countdown mechanic to represent the rising horror of things going terribly wrong in the game. Like Call of Cthulhu's sanity mechanic, there is no preventing the collapse, only delaying it at best. Unlike Call of Cthulhu, the Dread mechanic is a shared resource all players pull from as things get worse and worse, until the tower falls. I decided it would be a great way to introduce a fear mechanic to my players, who weren't really bought into the idea of role-playing weakness or terror in a D20 Modern game.

The first time we tried it, it was very effective in creating tension. But after a few more aborted attempts, we gave up on it.

The Tension Builds Until the Tower Collapses

Part of the fun of Jenga and Dread is that the tower has a conclusion. When the tower falls, it's both exhilarating and terrifying -- but then it's over. Rebuilding the tower takes time and, emotionally, the tension that started with the first game begins to wear off. I've always found the first game of Jenga to be magical and subsequent games played afterward less so. Similarly, in a role-playing game using the mechanic as a form of shared failure works until it collapses, and then there's a sense of relief. When the tower fell, I incurred a penalty to whoever knocked it over, but that wasn't fair either because...

Some People Have Shaky Hands

It had never occurred to me that my players might have a physical disability that might give them a disadvantage in-game. But the Jenga mechanic requires hand-eye precision and anyone who can't see well or their hands shake is at a distinct disadvantage. In a role-playing game where we're playing more competent characters than ourselves, the Jenga mechanic introduced a player's weaknesses into the game. This was the number one reason I stopped using it -- it wasn't fair to everybody.

It Requires a Steady Table

Role-playing game tables as boisterous affairs. People roll dice, they miniatures around, they reach for snacks, or they just gesticulate as they role-play. The number of times the tower collapsed by accident became too numerous to count. The tower turned into an obstacle to playing the rest of the game. We frequently played in different locations, and that changed the mechanic too when we couldn't find a steady table for the Jenga tower.

In the end we decided to nix the experiment. The idea was sound and Dread is an awesome game, but it's not quite as simple as importing the mechanic into a D20-style game where characters grow in power. For a one shot, it could be very powerful -- I like the idea of the collapse of the tower precipitating something drastic like a monster attacking or a character dying -- but for a campaign it ultimately wasn't for us.
 
Last edited:
Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


neobolts

Explorer
I ran a modified Dread game over the weekend, where I added a layer of dice rolling. Failed checks resulted in pulls, and number of pulls increased with the number of prior failed checks. This simple addition if ability scores created a mechanical differentiation among the characters and worked pretty well.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
One of my players has a palsy. I wanted a system similar to Dread for a campaign, but didn't want to subject the player to a disadvantage. I asked the forum if others had found a solution and suggested a cumulative dice throw instead. The replies suggested the dice mechanic wasn't a very poor second best and suggested the player be able to designate a champion to pull for him. I didn't like the him being forced to place the fate of his PC in another person.

In the end I retooled the campaign idea and dropped the whole concept.

 

I mentioned in the previous column how I sprung a horror game on players who didn't buy into it. But along with that change I introduced several mechanics to reinforce the horror, notably Dread's mechanic using Jenga tiles. After a few sessions, we gave up on it. Here's why.


How Dread Works

Jenga is a party game in which players slowly draw blocks from a wooden tower until it collapses. The goal is to not be the player who causes it to fall. It's a simple mechanic that generates a considerably amount of tension as each player's close call spells certain doom for the player who draws a block from the rickety tower after her.

Dread uses Jenga as a sort of countdown mechanic to represent the rising horror of things going terribly wrong in the game. Like Call of Cthulhu's sanity mechanic, there is no preventing the collapse, only delaying it at best. Unlike Call of Cthulhu, the Dread mechanic is a shared resource all players pull from as things get worse and worse, until the tower falls. I decided it would be a great way to introduce a fear mechanic to my players, who weren't really bought into the idea of role-playing weakness or terror in a D20 Modern game.

The first time we tried it, it was very effective in creating tension. But after a few more aborted attempts, we gave up on it.

The Tension Builds Until the Tower Collapses

Part of the fun of Jenga and Dread is that the tower has a conclusion. When the tower falls, it's both exhilarating and terrifying -- but then it's over. Rebuilding the tower takes time and, emotionally, the tension that started with the first game begins to wear off. I've always found the first game of Jenga to be magical and subsequent games played afterward less so. Similarly, in a role-playing game using the mechanic as a form of shared failure works until it collapses, and then there's a sense of relief. When the tower fell, I incurred a penalty to whoever knocked it over, but that wasn't fair either because...

Some People Have Shaky Hands

It had never occurred to me that my players might have a physical disability that might give them a disadvantage in-game. But the Jenga mechanic requires hand-eye precision and anyone who can't see well or their hands shake is at a distinct disadvantage. In a role-playing game where we're playing more competent characters than ourselves, the Jenga mechanic introduced a player's weaknesses into the game. This was the number one reason I stopped using it -- it wasn't fair to everybody.

It Requires a Steady Table

Role-playing game tables as boisterous affairs. People roll dice, they miniatures around, they reach for snacks, or they just gesticulate as they role-play. The number of times the tower collapsed by accident became too numerous to count. The tower turned into an obstacle to playing the rest of the game. We frequently played in different locations, and that changed the mechanic too when we couldn't find a steady table for the Jenga tower.

In the end we decided to nix the experiment. The idea was sound and Dread is an awesome game, but it's not quite as simple as importing the mechanic into a D20-style game where characters grow in power. For a one shot, it could be very powerful -- I like the idea of the collapse of the tower precipitating something drastic like a monster attacking or a character dying -- but for a campaign it ultimately wasn't for us.

The steady table thing always concerned me. With four 6'+ dudes (and one 5'10"), one 6' lady and all of us either fit or overweight, and in undersize London UK flats and houses, tables get a lot of bumping!

Seems like Betrayal at Hill House offers a fairly obvious mechanical replacement for Jenga though - simply have a fixed number successes needed and roll an increasing number of dice at each Jenga moment.
 


SMHWorlds

Explorer
I think what could work is a bag with say 12 beads, three of them a different color (say red). Each time sanity is lost or something happens, the player digs into the bag. A black (normal) bead means building tension; nothing happens but it means more of a chance to grab the red bead. If a read bead is pulled, something happens, a penalty is incurred and it is increased slightly by the number of black beads a player has. However, the player who pulls the third red bead suffers a major meltdown and it changes the scene / direction of the game.

You could do similar with all the face cards of a deck of cards, where pulling an ace is like pulling a red bead above.
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
One of my favourite games for one shots. I’ve never played it as a campaign, but as a one shot it’s nearly perfect.
Agreed. The Dread mechanic encourages players to not do risky things (for risk of the tower falling) or worse not do things at all.

In a one shot this isn't such a big deal as people will just play as they have always played, but long term people start to game systems, and this is one of the worst ones to game.

Still it's great at building that feeling of tension and well dread.
 

What's wrong with a cumulative dice mechanic? That seems like an obvious option.

Any die or card options have the problem of being completely random. One of the joys of Dread (IMNSHO) is that it's not all random, which makes it more emotional. Watching each placement of a block on top, drinking each cup of beer or Mountain Dew, or simply the tactile sensation of how stable the tower is on your last pull will all help determine how confident players are with taking another risk. You can't completely replicate that emotional effect with a random mechanic. You need something with immediate sensory feedback that gives players a sense of having a direct impact on future outcomes.

Something like Kerplunk or Don't Break the Ice may also work, but still have some issues with disabled players and will guarantee failure much quicker.
 

Tun Kai Poh

Adventurer
Cthulhu Dark's cumulative dice also work to replicate the feel of Dread, but it isn't quite the same.

Jenga tower mechanics do need a certain amount of manual dexterity, and they work well when it's an intimate, small and short-term story being told, like in Star Crossed:

Or in Swords and Flowers' survival horror game MONOLOCK (which has different "classes" each with different block pulling abilities).
 

The tower turned into an obstacle to playing the rest of the game. We frequently played in different locations, and that changed the mechanic too when we couldn't find a steady table for the Jenga tower.
Gnome Murdered (by RPG Pundit) is mechanically similar... but uses a die throw instead of the tower. (and if you fail, the GM is supposed to narrate gnomes coming out and murdering your PC.)
 

Could a type of Scrabble work for a group that doesn't want a physical challenge? Something along the lines of:

  • Everyone has a rack of ### letters.
  • Each time a player would normally pull a block, they instead have one minute to make a play worth ### points.
  • Re-draw letters normally.
  • Once a player is unable to meet the point requirement (including the possibility that tiles run out), treat it as knocking the tower over.

Just like Jenga, it changes the game to be cooperative instead of competitive, and has a guaranteed eventual failure. Needs some playtesting to get the numbers perfect. I would start with 7 tiles in a rack for a 4 player game, 6 tiles for a 5 player game, etc. I would start with a score minimum in the 12-18 range, but this could be variable based on the group.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I tried to play the kiddie version of this "Dread House" with my kids, and it just really didn't work. And, it really raised my skepticism for how the main game itself would play out, because not only do I think a lot of the problems we encountered would show up in the full game, but the "Dread House" version actually had a number of cool mechanics - like eliminated players get to play the monster - that I think actually solve major issues that the main game would have.

I have this suspicion that when Dread works for people it works because their emotional experience of the game of Jenga itself is one of nervous anticipation, anxiety, and well "dread" and that the game cultivates that or is intended to cultivate that. But, I'm not sure my experience of Jenga has ever been that, and that the game can add to Jenga what it doesn't have in the first place for me, nor am I sure that playing Jenga can add to the "dread" if it isn't in the game in the first place.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I have this suspicion that when Dread works for people it works because their emotional experience of the game of Jenga itself is one of nervous anticipation, anxiety, and well "dread" and that the game cultivates that or is intended to cultivate that.

But, I'm not sure my experience of Jenga has ever been that, and that the game can add to Jenga what it doesn't have in the first place for me, nor am I sure that playing Jenga can add to the "dread" if it isn't in the game in the first place.

I think you're looking at it as a bit too all-or-nothing on the tower. The tower mechanic (or any alternative used) is intended to act as a contributor to the experience - an enhancement and support to player emotional engagement, much like lighting and soundtracks can be.

Will it necessarily work for you? No. But then, no particular mechanic is expected to work well for all players everywhere. This one apparently works for a lot of people.

Will it outright make all the tension for you in a scenario that doesn't have aspects of that innately to it? Of course not! That's not a reasonable expectation. If you play Toon with a Jenga tower, it doesn't magically become a horror scenario.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I think you're looking at it as a bit too all-or-nothing on the tower. The tower mechanic (or any alternative used) is intended to act as a contributor to the experience - an enhancement and support to player emotional engagement, much like lighting and soundtracks can be.

Will it necessarily work for you? No. But then, no particular mechanic is expected to work well for all players everywhere. This one apparently works for a lot of people.

Will it outright make all the tension for you in a scenario that doesn't have aspects of that innately to it? Of course not! That's not a reasonable expectation. If you play Toon with a Jenga tower, it doesn't magically become a horror scenario.

So you're agreeing with me?
 

Presents for Goblins

Advertisement1

Latest threads

Presents for Goblins

Advertisement2

Advertisement4

Top