Saturday, October 20, 2012

DREAD Thoughts & "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement" Preview

So, gentle reader, as you may have noticed, I reference DREAD quite a bit on the this blog.  Here it is again, in case you forgot..

Currently unavailable from Amazon, which I have not seen happen in a while and they're still publishing slim scenario books, so hopefully it's just between printings, but it's also available in PDF from DriveThruRPG and when I think to look in my local game shops, I usually have no trouble finding it.

Dread is a game of "diceless horror" where the schtick is that the sole mechanic of the game is a Jenga (or generic tumbling block) tower, which is much more interesting and intense than it might sound.  The players pull a block when they want to take an action where success or failure matter.... So trying starting a car on a bright sunny day, not a pull...  Trying to starting a car whose battery is run down as the ax-wielding maniac is smashing in the back window, now that's (at least) one pull.  When the tower collapses, bad things happen, injury or misfortune early in the game, death.

The other place where Dread shines is in character creation.  Here again is the example I gave in my Character Creation - True Background vs. Limited Future Choices post.
The GM comes up with characters for the scenario, in my last game the players were all circus freaks, and then comes up with questions for each character that the player answers to define the character.  For instance, in my Circus Freak game, one of the un-played characters was the Circus Strongman, below are his questions:

  • What happened to you when you were nine that made you swear to yourself that you'd never be weak?
  • Even though you're the strongest person you know, you hate physical violence, why?
  • What intellectual pursuit of yours would surprise people if they knew about it?
  • Why don't you feel comfortable socializing with the other performers?
  • You don't enjoy being a circus performer, but why don't you leave the circus?
  • What nationality won't you admit to being descended from and why?
  • What happened that made you afraid of being underground?
  • When the going gets tough, how do you respond?
  • The elderly clown Juventas died of a heart attack recently, what shameful thing did he see you do three months ago?

As you can see, in answering the questions, a player gets to determine many of the details, secrets, fears and emotions of a character.
Well, last night, Citizen Ben his first game of Dread, an zombies in a blizzard scenario of his own creation, that I got to enjoy playing in and it reminded me of some tips, tricks and thoughts I had about writing/running a good game of Dread and then a preview of the next Dread game I'm running, a 19th century Whaling/Nautical inspired game, "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement"

Dread is a deceptively simple game and it's actually much harder to write a scenario and the accompanying player questionnaires than you might think.  Here are some things I'm trying to keep in mind as I write and revise my questionnaires for "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement" that I think are helpful for anyone writing a Dread scenario.

  • Random questions do not a character make.  
    • While it's tempting to take the example questions from the Dread book or published Dread scenarios or other sources and then just assign 10-12 at random to each character, it's actually much better to make sure you have an idea of the character and then very carefully select questions that fit that character.  This means that as a GM, before you start on the questionnaires, you should know the core of each character and have a two-four word description that provides the player some feel for the character, for instance another character in my Circus Freaks game was the Sword Swallower, which didn't tell the player about the emotional tenor of the character but at least gave an idea of perhaps some skills (swords, sword swallowing) that character might have.  
    • For "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement" I'm trying to convey some of the emotional tenor in the brief description as well, as you can see below in my character list.
  • Each question should have a chance to come up during game play.
    • In my Circus Freaks game, each character had a question about a fear, for the Strongman it was "What happened that made you afraid of being underground?"  When I read the player responses I made sure to try and then work their character's fears into my descriptions and the things they encountered during the game. 
    •  Questions can establish a skill the character possesses or lacks ("What intellectual pursuit of yours would surprise people if they knew about it?"), or a strength or weakness or get the player to think about how they'll play the character ("When the going gets tough, how do you respond?").  
    • Another great question category gets the player thinking about relationships their character has with the other characters in the group ("Why don't you feel comfortable socializing with the other performers?").  
    • It's important to use questions to establish what items a character might start the game with.  If the character should start with a car, have a question prompting the player to describe the car or why the character is attached to it ("Why is your '77 Charger your most prized possession?")
    • Lastly, you can use a question to establish some background important to the game, for instance in my Circus Freaks game, the characters were in a small Texas town during the dust bowl to bury an elderly clown who had been part of their circus and just died, this was the set up to the plot, so I made sure each character had a question related to that deceased NPC ("The elderly clown Juventas died of a heart attack recently, what shameful thing did he see you do three months ago?")
    • For "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement" I'm making sure that each character has at least one question from the categories below:
      • A skill they possess.
      • Something they believe in strongly, like a superstition, moral code or a religion.
      • Something or someone they've left behind on dry land.
      • A weakness or fear that they have.
      • A relationship they have to one of their fellow shipmates.
      • The relationship they have to their ship's captain.
    • I'm giving each character in Left Wing 10 questions, not including the question about their name, so making sure that those 7 categories comes up on each questionnaire gives me focus but also leaves a few questions on each character that I can have been outside those categories or that can be follow up questions.  Some of the 7 categories are just to establish what the character can do, but some are very specific to the game I intend to run.  I ask about things the characters believe strongly in and things they've left behind on dry land because those are things that I want to be important to the game.  
    • For the Circus Freaks game I made sure each character had a question covering how they felt about being a circus performer, because being an outsider in society was part of what that game was about ("You don't enjoy being a circus performer, but why don't you leave the circus?")
  • It's important to focus on plot structure and pacing.
    • Dread is a game of horror or suspense, so you want to focus on establishing a mood and keeping the game moving along.
    • Start in the middle of action.  I started the Circus Freaks game by dropping the characters into a labyrinth below an isolated Texas town which put them immediately into an unfamiliar situation and right away forced them to decide which way to go.  One of the things I would change if I was revising the scenario Ben ran was the beginning. He had the characters all start in their apartments on the same floor in an apartment building and gradually introduced the danger of the zombies, so the first half hour of the game, at least, was the players slowly trying to gather enough information for their characters to realize it was zombies attacking in the blizzard and slowly exploring and barricading their floor.  I think a much more effective opening would have been to take the injured National Guardmember who had been trapped in the elevator and to have him burst onto the floor and for the characters to be brought into the scenario by his cries for help.
    • Call for pulls often.  The tower is much less menacing when players aren't pulling.  The scenario should involve actions where success or failure mean life or death and the players should be pulling often.  Yes, there will be times when the players stop and discuss their options, but otherwise it's a much better game (in my opinion) if the characters are moving from dangerous scenario to dangerous scenario and each action they take matters for their survival.
    • Don't let the game drag on.  This is probably the hardest thing about running Dread after writing the questionnaires.  It's easy to let the players try to find the safest way to do things, to give them lots of time to discuss their options, this is fine at the start of the game, but once you get to the halfway point, you want to keep the plot racing along, even when the characters are desperate for a break.  If they're discussing options for too long, have the antagonist get closer so that the players have to keep on the move.  This is also important because Dread is a game best run in 2-3 hours.  It's hard to keep up a tense atmosphere for longer than that.  In the game last night, we took a 5-10 minute break about 2 1/2 hours in and when we got back, we'd all lost a little focus, there was a lot more out of character joking and chatting than there had been in the first 2 1/2 hours of the game.
There are 3 scenarios in the main Dread rules book and a couple of Tales of Terror Supplements, each of which has 2 more scenarios (reviews of Tales of Terror here).  There are also a few free scenarios online, if you look, Gamer Chris has an excellent free scenario, Unauthorized Human Trials (Game play report here and Scenario PDF here).  

One of my projects to complete is to write up my Circus Freaks game to publish for free (and give it a better title than Circus Freaks that's not as long as the quote I took from Nick Cave and the Bad Seed's "The Carny", that I used as the title when I ran it... "There was not one among them that did not cast an eye behind / In the hope that the Carny would return to his own kind.”) and I then I plan to do the same with "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement".

Without further ado, here is the preview of "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement"

It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit. - Moby Dick, Chapter 96 “THE TRY WORKS”

Each day he become less clear in his mind / The mission, the crew, the growing suspicion with the passing of time / He'd talk to himself in his room / "All this talking - you boys talk too much / Now get out of my room  /And stop talking to me about luck / There is no luck / I paid all the way, did it all my way / With hard work and pluck" – Crime & The City Solution “THE BRIDE SHIP”


An original DREAD scenario authored by yours truly, set in the dangerous waters of the Pacific Ocean in the 1850s.  A crazed Whaling Ship captain who has become obsessed with the mighty and mysterious Kraken!  A secretive British scientific expedition lost at sea, the survivors found clinging to the spars of their ruined ship.  Monstrous evil and freak storms!  

Inspired by MOBY DICK, authentic Whaling Histories, 19th Century British Scientific Expeditions, Crime & the City Solutions THE BRIDE SHIP, Andrew Liles “The Dying Submariner (A Concerto For Piano And Reverberation In Four Movements)” and “The Dead Submariner (A Concerto For Bowed Guitar And Reverberation In Three Movements)”, Current 93 featuring Cosey “Black Ships Were Sinking Into Idumæa”, Manorexia “Ice on the Equator” and “Plastic Island in the Pacific”, Nurse with Wound “July 21” from Shipwreck Radio Volume 2: Eight Enigmatic Episodes from Utvær, Coleridge's RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER and Gustave Doré's illustrations.

Expect a GM Commentary on "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement" the second full week of November!


  1. I have to admit I was disappointed with how things went last night in most regards, with the exception of the 'Fun Factor'. I thought my opening was less than crisp. It was, as you stated, to slow and plodding. We picked up some serious momentum once the game got outside, I think that really worked.

    However once we took that break it really killed the mood. It was still fun, but it was hard to get that tense atmosphere back again. I allowed the players to dictate the pace and that was a mistake. I should have pushed the pace with Zombies much more often, and to more devastating effect.

    As for the 'Surveys', I just did a bad job. They were either far too leading, didn't have a direct affect on the game, or were simply superfalous.

    It was a decent first attempt at the game and I felt everyone had a good time. It had it's moments of were it felt like I was watching the 8 of you play out your rolls in a Zombie movie which was gratifying, but honestly I ran a C+ level game at best last night. I'll learn from this and the next time it'll be better.

    Great blog as always.

    1. You know, I think you earned a "B" on the game. All the players had fun and once we were outside the pacing was great and even though we lost a lot of the mood and tension with the break, by the end the tension had built back up. The horror never felt forced, as some Dread games I've played in where the monster of the night seems much less threatening and easily avoided, and you rolled with the punches the players threw, keeping us on track and focused on getting to the harbor.

      You ran a fine game, and I feel bad because I'd been thinking about a lot of the things in this post the last few weeks as I've been revising Left Wing of the Day of Judgement and I should have sent you an email with these as some reminders.

      Getting the surveys right is tough and as a veteran GM I think it's easy to forget that or overlook that when writing them up, that's why when I write Dread questionnaires, I always make myself the list of question categories I want each character to answer, because otherwise I'll just forget or just toss random questions on and then the surveys aren't as useful to player and GM as they could be.


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