Talent Night, Part 3: What I Learned Hosting a Dread Game

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Talent Night: My First Time Running a Game of Dread

Note: this is the second third post in a series. In the previous post, I discussed my long, long hiatus from RPG gaming, why I chose the game Dread for my first game in a decade and a half, and a bit about the game mechanics. You might want to start there.

Alright, so I learned a lot of things playing this game: some about Dread as a game system, some about character motivation, some (mostly re-learned, to be honest) about dealing with newbie players. And some stuff not related to any of those things. Some of these may be obvious to people who’ve played Dread, others to any gamer, some maybe fiction writers know (and somehow I didn’t). Actually, I knew some of this stuff too, but the game drove it home.

1. Dealing With Newbie Players:

  • Not to complain, because these things happen, but when introducing gamers to RPG gaming, it’s probably wise to explain that it’s not exactly like card games, board games, and so on — that it’s a kind of emotional, narrative experience, that has its own flow. I knew this long time ago, but didn’t think to do so. A friend of some of the gamers ended up flying in to Korea, and came to my place from the airport, too late to join the game, but too early for us just to quit. There was a longish intermission as some of the players went outside to pick her up, and I think that affected the mood and the flow of the story. Not complaining. These things happen, even sometimes with seasoned gamers.
  • It can help to acquaint players with the rules before game night, if the rules of the game are complex or the players are inexperienced. The rules of Dread are actually very simple, but I could sense some impatience from a couple of players as my explanation went on, even though I gave a pretty basic summary, and certainly explained in less detail than in this podcast example of a session. I think we’re likely to try Fiasco next time, so I’ll probably find a procedural cheat sheet or quickstart-type document so people will get the basic concepts of the game and start-up can be a little faster.
2. On Dread as a Game System (and the Jenga Tower mechanic):
  • I happen to agree with some of the critiques I’ve seen online of the main Dread mechanic (the Jenga tower), namely that it can sometimes immobilize players; this is probably especially true of inexperienced gamers. It’s certainly not a mechanic that spurs characters to act decisively, since each pull inspires them with worry and anxiety, and this becomes more pronounced as the tower becomes more unstable. While the collapse-and-rebuild dynamic actually does simulate the rising and falling tension in a lot of horror movies (something I feel I understand better now, having played this game), if you have a risk averse player (or, worse, a risk averse group) it can sort of shut things down, forcing the “host” to force actions onto characters. (And leading to a sense that the “host” is victimizing characters by forcing them to act.) By the way, most of our players were willing to take risks, though one player in particular seemed to be more risk averse. Mechanics design always involves trade-offs, and this one, for all its metaphorical power, and its ability to make players feel a little dread, and its simulation of the rising, dropping, and re-rising tension in a lot of scary movies, does kind of cause less-daring players to need more extrinsic motivation to act.

With the Jenga, there's no dice involved... and this does have an affect on the experience!

  • I think if one wanted, and was willing to do the preparation work, the Jenga mechanic could be supplemented (though not replaced) for use running a longer-running series of stories involving the same characters. This, after all, seems to be one of the things Dread isn’t good for, at least not out of the box. I imagine one could find a way of lowering the stakes by adding a complementary mechanic–perhaps, a couple of decks of “Consequence Cards” that increase the stakes (and randomize results, while being vague enough to apply to any game situation) with each collapse of the tower, so that, say, characters are only removed from the game on the third tower collapse in a given session, or perhaps on their third (or later) tower collapse. The first deck of Consequence cards might be milder, though still having a bearing on gameplay: an injury, the loss of a piece of equipment, or whatever; the second deck would become more dire (a serious injury, a serious complicating factor, a new enemy, whatever).
  • But one of the beauties of Dread is its absolute simplicity. So while other mechanics could be introduced as well, such as giving characters occasional chances to pull cards they could later spend to downgrade the results of a tower collapse–at least, if one wanted to run a long-running narrative with the same group of characters, something along the lines of the TV show/comic The Walking Dead… but I’m leery about the idea of introducing too many such complications and additions.
3. On Scenario Design:
  • Even subtle hints in the questionnaire can result in huge character traits: a hint in the questionnaire of small sexual irregularity became bestiality, and one character’s unhealthy infatuation with a teenaged student became a pervert with an online persona used uploading upskirt photos of students. The final result of the story was a lot more R-rated (or NC-17?) than I had intended. I’m not bashing the choices the players made… it ended up being a different kind of game than I expected, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s just interesting to see what people grab and run with. (Other hints that could have become major character flaws were, at times, less-explored, which is interesting too.)
  • But, also, I think my leading questions will have to focus the characters a little more. There were interesting hooks that led nowhere, partly because there were just too many in each character, and partly because we were in the dark and I forgot certain detail that I would have seen if we’d been in a slightly better-lit room.
  • The improvisatory nature of the story allowed for some really interesting stuff. I loved how Walter’s last scene played out, with an almost-gentle moment of a curmudgeonly, bullying teacher  confronting the figure (ghoul? apparition? demonic manifestation?) of one of his students, whom he may have helped send to her death by his own bullying cruelty, and talking about the unspeakable–the cruelty he visited on her in class, a few days before she died, and he asking him to answer a question he cannot answer–and then his being embraced by the child as she pulled him to his somewhat-deserved doom. I think if I was more in practice, I could have crafted more such scenes for all the characters: in my mind, Miss Jiwaku’s character (Paul Ball, the Principal) was the one who didn’t get such a moment–it would have come later, but the game ended before it was possible, and her character had fewer interesting hooks for me to use anyway, though I had something in mind. But I think the “host” needs to take a few minutes before the game starts, to consider the sheets and think ahead, something I ended up doing less than I perhaps could have. That said, I’m happy with the confronting-one’s-dark-secrets moments that we did manage.
  • Achieving balance between different character questionnaires is tricky. By random choice, the players all ended up with characters who were either divorced, widowers, or single. There was one character who was supposed to be married to another, but that was The Librarian, who didn’t come into play.  And the School Nurse, who was bullied as a child and in possession of psychic powers, would have been a fun character, except nobody chose her/him.
  • The Jenga Tower, if your players are being a little fearless, probably works as a good metaphorical stand-in for exhaustion and stress: if one were to play a zombiepocalypse-type scenario, characters might cause the tower to collapse simply by accident, performing a routine task, because they were tired or distracted. (Stepping over what looks like a dead body, but might actually be a starved zombie lain out on the ground by your feet. When the tower collapses, it bites you in the leg.) I think Dread would be an excellent game system for a storyline like that in The Walking Dead, in fact. The TV show, I mean: I haven’t seen the comic yet.
  • Getting characters together ASAP is tough… but, I think, it is imperative. I expected the characters to meet up in the hallway very early on, and to band together. However, it took a long time for them to work their way out of the auditorium. That was, oh, 15 minutes of game time: it was over an hour of play, all told, before everyone was out into the hall. (Though some characters were out within fifteen minutes.) And when they did meet up, unfortunately the questionnaires had focused so much on  enmities between them that they didn’t end up having much interest in sticking together. This wasn’t all bad, but it did result in a lot of downtime for everyone as I switched focus between two pairs of characters.
  • A rich backstory isn’t necessarily necessary, or sometimes it’s just for the “host” to know about. I developed a TON of backstory: a whole narrative about what the identity of the supernatural beings involved in the intrusion were–and who they would pretend to be, if they ever manifested directly. But they were creepier when they remained abstract, and mysterious, and horrible.
4. Character Motivation:
  • “Horror” narratives sometimes operates along lines that work differently than a lot of fiction… which helps explain part of why I struggled so much with character motivation when I began writing science fiction. In SF, in fantasy, in a lot of fiction genres, it’s better for a character to choose his or her course of action, and usually while outside events or forces–of the actions of other major characters–can be triggers, the motivation ends up being intrinsic to the character. However, in horror, we can often find extrinsic motivations at work. Characters want to survive the night with deadly monsters on the loose. Their choices are constrained, their impetus less than relevant: zombies have taken over the city. Demons have transferred in from another dimension. A ghost has decided to haunt them. (I’ll have to think more about this, but it seems to me that the “intrusion fantasy” (as discussed by Farah Mendelsohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy,  likely often follow a similar narrative pattern at times–perhaps Mendelsohn even discusses this, I haven’t gotten too far into the book yet). This enforcement of motivation sometimes ends up being a necessity, too. Consider the first few episodes of The Walking Dead‘s current season: the main group of characters have every reason not to be doing the things they’re doing, but the impetus comes from new characters introduced into the game. They take a prison, and then discover prisoners still alive inside it, and hostile ones at that.

  • Questionnaires needn’t focus on negative relationship issues: giving characters positive connections can help reinforce party-behaviour. In a longer-running narrative, characters have time to overcome their enmities and develop trust (like Daryl Dixon in The Walking Dead TV series, for example). But in a stand-alone, single-sesison game like this, it pays to build some bonds into the characters from the get-go. The bond can be extrinsic–the characters are the only people who have survived a cataclysm–but it can also be intrinsic to the characters: some character is a curmudgeon, but another character is his or her child, or in-law, or someone who saved his or her life once.

So, all in all? Dread was a fun game, and I’ll be keeping my Jenga set around in order to be able to play it again sometime. It’s limited in that it’s mainly for a horror-type narrative, in that it largely depends on some intense improvisation, and it depends on players being proactive despite their dread of the tower. I also think, given some of the things that happened, that it would be more than possible to run a comedic/horror Dread scenario.

For the moment, I feel like I don’t quite have a good enough handle on scenario design, so I’d probably want to run someone else’s design to get a better feel for how the various parts of scenario and character questionnaire design work.

But next up, I’ve got a copy of Fiasco that was ordered and whoever is up for it, we’re going to try that.

Oh, and as to whether any of this is applicable to writing–since I’m interested in how gaming can help me refine my understanding of character, narrative, and so on–I think the first long paragraph under #4 is useful for writing: I suspect in horror narratives motivation actually can often be different from how it works in other kinds of fiction. In interesting ways, which have interesting implications…

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