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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:

2. On Dread as a Game System (and the Jenga Tower mechanic):

  • 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:
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…

Series Navigation<< Talent Night, Part 2: How the Game Played Out (NSFW)Talent Night, Part 4: The Dread Scenario >>
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