New game day! Yesterday I received a copy of Dread, a horror RPG with a twist.
Dread is a diceless, narrative horror game, that builds the tension steadily until a dread-ful conclusion. How is does that is really novel: you play Jenga!
The Dread Tower of Jenga?
Actions are resolved by pulling a block from the Jenga tower (as replacing it on the top as you normally would). Successfully do that, and you succeed at the task, but knock the tower over and you’re dead! Or at least out the game in some way. Once the tower gets rickety players can refuse to pull a block, but that means they fail at what they were attempting.
For example, let’s suppose a player is trying to swim/wade across a fast-flowing river. The DM calls for a ‘pull’ to perform this action. If they players tries and succeeds, they swim across and the plot moves forward. If they try and fail (the tower falls) their character is finished – perhaps they drown, are eaten by crocodiles, or any other idea the GM has.
If they refuse to pull a block, they fail. But crucially, their character still attempted the action – asking for a pull is always done after the player declares an action – they failed in the process of carrying it out. So in this case the character may have got stuck half way, and now be clinging to a rock in need of rescue; or perhaps they failed to overcome the current and were swept off downstream. In neither case is the character dead, but the story has progressed to put that character in a worse position.
The Tension and The Terror
What’s great about the system is that you can see how the tension is increased as the story goes on. Pulling a block near the start of the session is easy – their characters are fresh, healthy and ready to go. But as time goes on and the tower gets unstable, they’re tired, shaken, ready to snap at any moment.
Once the towers falls and a character dies, you reset the tower and start the process all over again. This breaks the tension a little, but maybe that works like a typical horror movie where there would be a short respite after a big scare.
It’s also a totally narrative system, so might be good for bringing ‘normal’ people into RPGs. You create a character by answering a questionaire (e.g. “when you can’t sleep at night, what memory brings you peace?”, or “What would the others be angry to find out about you?”), and so there’s no numbers, classes or any other mechanics to sort out before you begin.
I haven’t run this game yet, and as excited as I am, I can see a few problems. The primary one is the player elimination. The use of the jenga tower effectively means someone will be eliminated, it’s just a question of when.
Ideally you would time the game such that any eliminations come at the end of the session, towards the climax. But I get the feeling that requires a decent amount of luck as well as skill as a GM, and a particularly clumsy/unlucky player could just be eliminated within the first half hour.
The system also asks a lot of the GM (and players) to think on their feet, and keep the plot moving. I’m not sure I have the creativity for it, and I’m scared without dice!
That said, I’m looking forward to giving this one a go. There’s several free ‘adventures’ on the creator’s website, which one shall I choose?
- Beneath a Metal Sky: Your salvage crew came upon a derelict ship floating in space, docked, and began exploring. Now, your ship is gone, and you need to find a way out.
- Beneath a Full Moon: Your spring break adventure went sour last night when something mauled your guide and stole your food. Can you make it back to civilization?
If you want to know more about this system, it has it’s own WordPress blog: Dread the Game.
Also, I think Will Wheaton covered it on his TableTop YouTube channel. I haven’t watched because I have an irrational hatred of the guy, but it might be worth checking out.