Last weekend, at the 5 th installment of the Roludothon – a quarterly social gaming event in Montreal, I’ve had a change of trying out Dread.
Dread is a very different breed of RPG than any I’ve ever encountered – its core mechanic revolves around Jenga.
Lets start with the basics.
From what I gather, Dread is a game that is very well suited for one-shot game that has horror or suspense at its base.
The Games Master hands out questionnaire to all character players that help them flesh out their personnas and give fuel to the GM to run the game.
The questions are different for every player and taken randomly from the book. They help build relations between the players and add backstory elements as well as tie the players to the story that is at hand.
I’ve had tremendous amounts of fun just with the quiz, having answers from some questions riff on answers from other questions, building a character that seems to have more substance that what I could normally come up with in so short an amount of time.
The story is set in modern times. All players are passengers in a bus, going from city A to city B. Construction detours (haha, Montreal!) forces the bus driver to take a detour through the woods, where the bus runs out of gas.
Weird things start happening in the woods as the night falls, all gets cold and the passengers try to figure out what to do next.
We quickly got mixed up in an intriguing story involving enraged, murderous woodland animals (killler Bambi!), helpful rednecks and disapearing people.
The story in itself was standard fare, yet intriguing enough to keep most players guessing.
The core mechanic of Dread
The core mechanic of Dread revolves around the Jenga tower at the center of the table.
For those of you unfamiliar with Jenga, I can’t resume it better than the original 80’s Jingle.
Ther are no dice, no stats – whenever you make a decision that can have an impact on the game, the GM asks you to pull one block from the Jenga tower.
Depending on how difficult the task it, he can ask for multiple blocks to be pulled.
If the tower falls, you fail, it if stands, you succeed.
An important twist : If the GM prompted you to a pull, you cannot die from the result – but you will most likely be seriously impaired in future moves (twisted ankles in a horror setting? only if I’m playing a zombie!)
Again, for anyone unfamiliar with Jenga, the play starts rather easy, but as you build up, the tension around every move can get critical.
The context the game’s story puts you in adds so much incentive for success that the tensions is palpable – no matter who is playing, you do not want the towter to fall !
If the tower falls, something bad happens (if the player initiated the pull, his character usually dies).
We then rebuild the tower and remove a certain number of blocks.
The GM’s Rules Twist
This game’s GM added his own rule to the game.
In order to prevent us from cheating the game and deciding to elect a ‘fall guy’ to take the pull for the group.
Whenever multiple players could decide whether the would pull a block from the tower, the GM would ask to hide a pebble in their hand if they chose to do so.
All players revealed their hand at the same time.
This created some wonderful moments when a player tried to convice other characters to do an action… upon reveal he had convied most players to try the dangerous task… while keeping himself out of harm’s way!
The tension build-up with the Jenga tower really worked – every pull was easy at first, boosting our self-confidence….
But the mood gets very these when the towers starts shaking.
Rarely do we see players stand so far from the game table when playing!
What Didn’t Work
Once the tower is toppled, the tension immediately goes back to nothing.
The tension was so high before the tower topples that taking the time to build the tower backs seems like too much down time – we instead decided to end the game there and narrate an ending.
I loved my experience. I had built my character as to be an unstable med student, ex member of a cult who was forced into doing something terrible. He carried his scalpel with him – which I actual ydidn’t mean as a way to game the system 🙂
From what I understood, most players loved the game, the mood and setting (though one or two players were thrown off by my character’s scalpel weilding antics at the table).
I’m having a hard time seeing a campaign being run out of that… but I see it as a perfect engine for a single-shot halloween game!
Most of the fun to be had in the game lies on the shoulder of the GM.
The success of the game lies in him creating tense situations and creating dilemmas in whch players will agree to pull a block.
He also has to pull information from all player’s character sheet into the story in order to get them really involved.
Plus, he needs to be a great storyteller.
I think we got very close to that mark – which I find rather amazing considering it was a first time playing together for most of the players.
If you get all of that within a GM, you can probably get back the feelings you had when you were young, telling scary stories around a fire camp!
Jenga blocks picture borrowed from Julie Cola Shen’s Time Capsule Blog