Dread: Saigon Falls

So, the other night we played through my new scenario for Dread, titled “Saigon Falls,” with my housemates here in Vietnam.

A view of Saigon, er, Ho Chi Minh City, from the highest point in the grungy backpacker district. No, we're not staying there now.

It was an interesting experience for a few reasons. For one thing: we were playing imaginary characters living in our real (shared) house. That was odd, because a lot of the story took place inside the house, and the geography of the house played a part in a lot of scenes.

It was interesting secondarily because the characters were modeled on the previous occupants of the house we’re staying in, a group of frathouse morons who apparently had huge, drunken parties weekly, had people falling off balconies and breaking their hips (or the neighbours’ windows), and who left everything in the house at least slightly trashed. Honestly, I couldn’t really imagine how they lived in here with rooms where none of the lights were working, showers that barely sprayed water, and so on.

The plot of the game was simple: it was a variation of The Hangover–indeed, a variation of the “You Wake Up…” Dread scenario I ran across on the RPGgeek forum, set specifically in our house. In my variation, the monsters were primarily cockroach-based–giant roaches, human-roach hybrids, and so on.

The cast of characters created by the players was, well, bizarre. The first to wake was Fred, an anxious transsexual (female to male) who really, really wanted to prove how manly he was, and was beset by a fair bit of anxiety about how best to present his masculinity to the world–playing a hero? Reassuring the ladies? He found himself on the roof, naked, in the middle of a bloody circle-with-a-pentagram-inside… but the circle was incomplete, with a bunch of beer cans intersecting it at one point; they were all burned as if they’d been set on fire. Fred later discovered his hair was all shaved off, and sigils of some kind had been inked onto his skull. Also, there was a monkey holding a pistol on his chest.

Next came Jonathan, I think it was, an odd young man whose behaviour later on suggests he was some kind of nutball, and finally that he was a sociopath, though not the most clever one: he was very deep into conspiracy theories, and talked at length about how Elvis was still alive and living in an  incestous relationship with his post-op transsexual twin brother (Elvis’ twin brother, not Jonathan’s, to be clear.) Jonathan woke up in a bathtub, wearing a huge black diaper and turban set made from the living room curtain. The bathroom was not his own–it belonged to Kale,  Californian who’d lived longer in the house than anyway. Jonathan’s hair had been shaved down to a Mohawk at some point during the night before, and the floor all around the bathtub was covered in a layer of vomit… like, the vomit of a bunch of people, not just one. Exiting from the bathroom, he found the walls of the room–someone else’s bedroom–covered in evil scrawling writing.

Ellie was next. A former Elvis impersonator from Memphis with a hatred for chickens–yeah, you can see where we’re going with this already, can’t you?–she found herself on the kitchen floor, dressed normally. Yes, she was the first in the group wake up fully-dressed… but there was a bunch of honey slopped onto it, and she was crawling with ants and cockroaches, so she promptly disrobed and began singing Elvis songs to herself as she set about killing roaches.

Kale woke next, to find himself bundled up in a parka, in a closet… not his own. The parka was backwards, the arms tied behind his back, and try as he might, he could not get them undone. A wave of panic washed over him–this was when his player attempted to pull a block from the Jenga stack, if I recall correctly, without sitting up from a laying-down position on the adjacent couch, and knocked the stack over. But Kale got to live on in a shadowy half-existence. Kale began to call for help a while later, because the closet door simply wasn’t budging.

Finally, former sorority queen (defrocked as a result of some kind of flap involving something that happened online) Britnay woke in a bathrobe, sprawled on the floor of a bathroom–neither the bathrobe nor the bathroom were her own–with a half-empty $2 bottle of “gin” (yes, our local market offers such horrors) clutched in one numb hand, and a weird aftertaste in her mouth. The aftertaste, she discovered eventually, seemed to have been blood, which was spattered on her face, but also had stained her teeth. (She was careful to brush them with a finger and some of the toothpaste she found on hand.)

Antics ensued: some of them were rooted in the characters, some of them were rooted in the goings-on of the night before. Bits and pieces of the party from the night before bubbled up as the story went on, but the basic shape of the thing was: the characters woke up. They got together and freed Kale from the closet. Then they tried to figure out what was going on, while still annoying the shit out of one another, while outside signs began to register that something had really gone wrong the night before. The weather had gone haywire, there were warzone sounds and screams in the distance, and finally, the characters got a taste of what lay beyond their front door.

By this point, Fred was in a bathrobe, and Britnay and Ellie were stark naked. (This state Britnay found preferable to seeing Fred naked.)

Cockroaches were the monstrous theme of the night: some of them just giant, dog-sized roaches. Others, roach-people hybrids. Both invaded the home, after someone raised the “shutter” (a garage-door security system we have by our front door). Both attacked the characters. Fred tried to assault one with the pistol he got from the monkey on the roof, only to discover it wasn’t loaded.  Jonathan, having found a stray human finger on the stairs and pocketed it, tossed it down the stairway to lure away the roaches coming up the stairs.

No idea what that means but it could be a reference to Tea (Tra?) and Pho.

The characters ended up holed up in a room, until roach-people from the next building began trying to break into the house, at which point the characters decided to flee the house altogether. Jonathan ended up climbing down a drainpipe to the ground floor, outside the house–in the tiny space between our house and our neighbours, from which the only escape was through a kitchen where three giant roaches had gathered. The others made their way down to the living room–the only room nobody had checked–to find a corpse in the middle of a magical circle, and a copy of the Simon Necronomicon, not that any of the characters knew what that was. While they were in the room, some friend of Britnay’s called from Hanoi to ask if she was okay, and tell her that the government was going to nuke Ho Chi Minh City, that she needed to get the hell out ASAP.

Meanwhile, Jonathan had figured out how to fight back against the roaches, busted into the kitchen, and was fighting them off with a flaming roll of paper towels. Eventually, the remaining characters (aside from Fred) showed up to help him kill off the roaches. Ellie’s weapon of choice was her coat rack, the sharp end of which she managed to set on fire using the stovetop.  Fred, being a selfish git, tried to take off alone on Kale’s motorbike; but never having driven one before, he took a bit too long to figure out how to start it, and ended up being dragged off into the shadows by a roach-thing. Sometime around this point, Jonathan shoved Kale at one of the roaches, though Kale barely escaped being bitten by the mandibles.

The other characters, after defeating the roaches, decided to make their way to safety… so they set out for the airport. Kale, abandoning the group when he realized four people wouldn’t fit on his motorbike, walked off on his own… only to be run over by a fleeing Humvee in the street.

Jonathan, who had never driven a bike before but felt he should (because, ahem, he was the only guy in the group), putt-putted the bike to the street, then drove a little distance before a cockroachified Fred showed up, monstrous, horrifying, and was shoved aside as they fled. Britnay took over the driving, and began to pilot them away from their home, and, in theory, towards the airport, though nobody was quite sure which way that lay. Meanwhile, Ellie, seated backwards and still clutching her coatrack, sighted something a little more immediate: a flood of water approaching.

The surviving characters ended up inside an abandoned bank building, on an upper floor where they could go out onto the terrace and see what was going on. And what was going on was that a wave of huge roaches were fleeing something. Something, they knew not what, was coming. What to do?

Britnay and Jonathan somehow concocted a plan by which a couple of virgins needed to be sacrificed. Britnay obviously not being in the running for this, she decided that Jonathan and Ellie would have to be the ones to die. Jonathan agreed, and, eyes as crazy as ever, plunged to his death.

Nothing happened.

Ellie was less enthused, and suggested they try get money from the flooded bank and continue on to the airport. This plan was foiled by the fact that the water was neck-deep down in the bank. So they returned to the upper floors, thence to the roof, to try signal helicopters for help.

And then, the thing the cockroaches had been fleeing showed up. First came mist, and a strange noise like a high pitch and a low pitch ebbing in synchrony. Then came the glowing balls of light–for those Lovecraftians out there, this was basically Yog Sothoth they’d summoned.

The thing approached them, and then asked directly into their minds why they had summoned it. When they failed to provide a good answer, it attempted to eat their minds, but somehow they both resisted… or perhaps it found their minds too empty to feast on. But Ellie preferred to think it wasbecause she was singing Elvis songs–the power of Elvis saved her.

Then the Thing They Summoned attempted to force them to accompany it on the return voyage back to the Outer Darkness. It gave them a vision of space, and asked that one of them accompany it, but they both refused, and resisted–and though in the process the hands they were holding together fused at the skin, with more Elvis-singing, somehow the thing released them back to their home dimension, to the rooftop, just in time to signal one of helicopters that had appeared over the city. One chopper drew near, the Vietnamese soldiers inside baffled (though not dismayed) at the sight of two naked white women on the roof of a bank, and the characters were rescued.

Roll Credits…

Scooters, scooters everywhere... until the giant cockroaches attack.


Most the players seemed to have fun; the one player who didn’t seem to, kind of didn’t seem into it from the start, so it’s not like the game caused that, I don’t think. They spent a lot of time laughing–not the reaction one expects in a Dread game, done right–but this did at least indicate they were enjoy themselves, and that’s important in a game, after all.

That said, for me RPGs are an art form, and so I have a pretty strong concern with doing them “right”…  If you really put in the work, they can approach fiction in their depth, complexity, and in the emotional punch they pack. I love that, I want that. So I have to admit that I see how things came out as a problem to be analyzed. If you’re one of the people who played, this is not a personal criticism. I am more likely to be critical of the things I can control than player actions, since I can’t (and shouldn’t try) to control that.

For one thing, I don’t think my Dread scenario was designed effectively. I’m thinking about my recent post on balance in stories–the etude for writers #2–and somehow it seems pertinent: balance seems to have been what didn’t quite sit right in terms of the flow of the story in our Dread game. Specifically, I’d envisioned a balance of dialog and action, with comedy dominating in the begin but horror outpacing it as the story went on.

However, a GM doesn’t “run” the game, even when he is running it; I think the mood of the group was strongly slanted towards comedy. It was a tough crowd for horror, I think, and that kept the balance swerving towards the comedic element despite my best efforts to ramp that side of it up. I think basically, I was at cross purposes with the group, as they were more interested in (and comfortable with) a comedic game where the horror got played for camp, where what I’d originally had in mind was something where the comedy at the beginning sort of dovetailed into horrific nastiness at the end.

One reason I had that in mind is because the Dread mechanic is emotionally mimetic: it’s explicitly built to resolve actions in a way that also builds tension in the players, and a sense of anxiety and fear that is connected to the task of pulling a block from the Jenga Tower. In our game, one player’s first pull, within five minutes of the start of the game, knocked the tower down… (I’m not sure why, and we haven’t discussed it, so I won’t theorize about it here, except to say he wasn’t all that concerned about making a successful pull at that point.) Whatever the reason behind that, the ultimate result was that the Tower toppled way too soon, which in a Dread game tends to cripple the development of that particular kind of anxiety upon which the whole mechanic depends.

But at the same time, I don’t think the early topple is the only reason for this. I also think that the Dread mechanic just doesn’t work well for a horror-comedy scenario, or at least, the scenario has to be designed for that kind of a game narrative. This group is one I’ve never played with in total–there are two new people and some of the people we played with in Korea aren’t here–so that was impossible to anticipate the group vibe. Knowing what I know now, I think if we’re going to go for a comedic/horror campy approach, it’d be better to find other common ground: for example, a Buffyverse playset for Fiasco, focusing on The Trio-type geek/loser type characters trying to pull off some kind of evil magical/technological scam in Sunnydale sometime during Buffy’s high school or college years there.

(And I think then the Tower mechanic might need to be modded for a comedy-horror vibe; it might need to involve more of an off-the-cuff, pull and see what happens approach. Maybe it’d need to be softened so that a toppling Tower doesn’t mean the removal of the character from the game, but instead some horrible, amusing fate that feeds into the comic/horror vibe.)

Another comment–from one of the players–was that more of the horror of the story ought to have come from the characters themselves, and that of course is part of the point with the questionnaires… but that depends on the players. I tried to give them opportunities to interact  using that stuff, but not much of it came up… which isn’t totally surprising: a fair number of people in the group are not experienced roleplayers, so while they could stay in character, they weren’t really used to looking for spots where they could bring character flaws into play. This is a skill one learns by playing, I think… but it probably helps to have the lights on bright enough for people to be able to see their character sheets.

Also, I ended up having to push with action whenever there was a lull. My rough plan was for it to be about one-third of them waking up, gathering, figuring out what had happened in the house, and fleeing. But in fact, they remained in the house for three-quarters of the game time, with the result that it got late and I skipped a lot of the later stuff. One player commented to me afterwards that she hadn’t realized the characters were “supposed to go outside” and that suggests two flaws: were I at the top of my RPGing game, I could have seamlessly let them play things out in the house and they would not have realized I’d planned for a whole bunch of other stuff outside. One result was that a lot of time was lost spinning our wheels, as I went from trying to get the game to advance, and trying to give the players freedom.

It didn’t help that I realized later I was sending mixed signals… which I’ll talk about next, because I think this is something useful, something I learned about character motivation, the geography of threat, and obstacles. That is: you need to place obstacles in characters’ way, but timing is crucial for this. In a game like Dread, characters are constantly searching for cues as to what they’re supposed to do. By having a giant roach upstairs, and several big ones downstairs at the same time, I sent a mixed message: the characters weren’t supposed to go up or down, right? Obviously. Well, no: the huge roach upstairs was supposed to be a really tough obstacle, while the smaller ones downstairs were more surmountable. The players look at the threats as a geography of impetus, in a way: they look one way and see a monster, and think, “Maybe I’m not supposed to go that way…” But since, in a split-level house, I put threats at the top and at the bottom of the building, the characters ended stuck in the middle: they ended up up holing up in a room and trying to wait things out, which I let ride for a while to see if they’d pull out some character based conflict, but when not much materialized–probably the questionnaires didn’t seed enough of that in–I ended up having to send more critters in the window to flush them out of the house.

There’s a delicate balance here: the game should be open-ended, but players should also be able to intuit a structure to the narrative, including its geographic logic, and I take responsibility for that being unclear. Likewise, the scenario’s questionnaire design might need to seed in more conflict in a narrative where the external threats are more visible, and when players are less experienced.  Partly this is an issue with scenario design, and also partly because of how I implemented it in-game. The same old struggle of mine: trying not to throw in everything at once, or play every note I know fits the chord in the space of two beats.

It’s also a case of rhythm:

  1. Give characters an impetus to do something.
  2. Give characters a reason to do it now.
  3. Let characters cross the point of no return.
  4. Launch the obstacles.

Obstacles prior to the point of no return look more like warnings, like an expression of geographic proscription from the game designer or GM to the players. Obstacles after the point of no return are challenges, which ratchet up the tension and the stakes.

Finally, the end of the scenario was just weird–it slid into an absurdist mode of RPG I’ve never really experienced before, and whileI have nothing in principle against it, I just didn’t know how to resolve that. I’d planned for a deep horror vibe, but there was singing of Elvis and dancing and naked women joking with Yog-Sothoth. Different expectations much? I didn’t really know how to resolve things, and unlike our last session of Dread back in Korea, there wasn’t an easy character-harrowing move I could pull, drawing directly on the character sheets.

In all, I was personally unsatisified with how I ran the session, and I think I’m going to explicitly also make it clear that anyone who doesn’t want to play, doesn’t have to. (If nobody wants to, fine: I can try find an established gaming group, or perhaps just bide my time until I am somewhere one exists, or play online.) I would hate for a feeling of obligation to make people come to the table even when they really aren’t feeling into it. Perhaps, also, a little discussion of IC vs. OOC (in-character versus out-of-character) is in order.

Usually, I post a copy of the scenario or playset for any RPGing I do, but this time, I’m leery to post this scenario, because I think the design is that flawed. (And not so useable unless you’re also living with a group of expats in a house somewhere in Asia.) If you want the next best thing, go check out the Dread scenario discussed at RPGGeek that I mentioned at the start of this post.

Oh, one more thing. I am not against the absurd camp-humor at all: I just didn’t know how to make the scenario resolve with that. I had nothin’, nothin’. But now it has me thinking that some kind of Lovecraftian/Elvis mashup could be absurdly beautiful, along with playing (much more interestingly than usual) with the whole Elvis/aliens meme out there. (No, no, really. There’s proof. Ha.)