A game of looming horror, by Ephidiah Ravachol and woodelf. Review by Charlie Etheridge-Nunn
Horror movies are tricky beasts to replicate in games. Zombies!!! replicates the look of horror by turning a zombie apocalypse into an arcade game. Dead of Winter presents interesting moral dilemmas but we all turn into cold sociopaths when it’s only pieces of cardboard on the line. This is something we covered in podcast episode 27 Halloween Special
Role-playing games fare a little better. Chill rode the line perfectly between horror and comedy, leading to me getting my chest ripped out by a were-jaguar when I played a crazed homeless man convinced he was a secret agent. Call of Cthulhu is a classic despite a slightly clunky system but even then, people can get distracted by their phones, make some off-colour joke and suddenly all the tension is gone.
If the tension stays, then it’s still a pretty good game. I’ve given players nightmares. Actual nightmares. I felt so proud, however that was more the module, myself and him rather than the system.
So how do you get people’s attention around the table even when it’s not their turn to act? How do you naturally build up tension and horror?
You do it with Dread.
Dread is a horror role-playing game with a slight twist. It doesn’t use dice or cards (or candles, painting each others’ arms, stacking hats or whatever else modern designers have been using), instead you play using a tower of wooden blocks which you pull from whenever you do something challenging. If you fail, you die. It’s a little trickier than that, but you’re a smart audience, you can already see why that’s so effective for horror, right?
I’ll get the first thing out of the way; yes I’m talking about Jenga as a mechanic for a horror game, no that is not a Jenga tower. Fortunately there are several ‘wooden faling block’ games, such as this one which I bought from WH Smiths and then flecked fake blood over using a crappy travel toothbrush which I had spare. Thematic props are better props.
Dread is a simple game, but unlike a lot of the story games I love, it’s potentially quite prep-intensive for the narrator. Luckily there are three premade scenarios in the book which take up a great deal of the space, the system itself is tiny. I ran my first game of Dread for a science fiction-themed day of games with my writing group. For two of them, my NaNoWriMo co-conspirator Fred and my girlfriend Emma, this would be their first ever role-playing game.
Back to the prep for the narrator. It’s twofold; making a story with some key dramatic notes to hit during the game and creating the character questionnaires. In Dread, characters are represented not by a series of statistics about how hot or how good at stabbing they are, but by a questionnaire about who your character is. Some questions are simple such as, “Why did you answer the spaceship’s distress call?” or loaded like, “How did your sister die?” or only really great for flavour like, “What food that most people like can’t you stand?” These give you, the GM and the other players a good impression of what your character is like.
My group were answering a distress call from a spaceship.
Saffy was Li, the captain of the ship. She was returning home to her daughter and with a ‘leave no man behind’ attitude, couldn’t turn down the distress call from the ominously-massive spaceship which was the main setting of the game.
Emma was Kitty, a playdroid which had been bought for her daughter. Kitty had an odd way of taking some commands from her owners and while her overriding instinct was to protect children, her last ward ‘broke’ while they were playing. She was sold cheap and that last part happened to be left out of the sales pitch.
Fred was Stretch, the ship’s mechanic whose lower half was replaced with a cybernetic wheelchair.
Maggie was Dr Francesca Smith, a coward and drug addict who had been self-medicating for some time (not noticing that Stretch had also been dipping into the supply).
The distress call was distorted and didn’t really give a good impression of what they were to expect on the gigantic spaceship. They knew it carried thousands of people though; men, women and children. They docked and sorted out who would be leaving to check on the crew. Kitty was taken along to look after any of the children who needed help, Stretch and Li were going to find any signs of life and Dr Smith initially remained behind. Inside there were no life signs, mainly because of the radioactive dust which was floating in the hallways like a thick mist. Once the group were part-way inside all communication with their ship cut out. They needed to get power back on, but part of that included hacking their way into the emergency systems.
Okay, so here’s the thing you might have heard about with Dread. The system itself. I mentioned above that there’s a wooden tower of blocks which you have to pull from, well here we’ll get a little further into it. Whenever there’s something risky or outside of your character’s realm of experience (as stated in the questionnaire) then the narrator gives them a choice of pulling from the tower. If they pull and place the block without toppling the tower then what they want to accomplish works. If they choose not to (which they can do at any point in the pull) then bad things happen but specifically not death. The final result which may seem obvious to you now is that if you pull and the tower falls, you die. Or you go irreparably insane, or anything else which extracts you from the story. Player elimination is a bad thing, but this is a massive incentive to stay safe or to abandon a pull.
Stretch managed to hack in and Dr Smith ran to the others so she could remain in contact with them. She ran safely, as Maggie was doing everything she could not to have to pull from the tower. That’s the great thing about every challenge being something specifically able to be abandoned. Do you run and get there quickly or take your time? Do you apply first aid to your wounded ally? As the game goes on each pull makes the tower worse and worse, showing the gradual build up of tension indicative of horror stories. People get more wary or more risky. Then it tumbles and everyone jumps. Wooden blocks go everywhere and someones fate is sealed. In the first act of these stories it’s often good to give the dead player a spare character questionnaire. After that you might want them to become a monster or to sit out and watch the horror.
Our first fatality was Dr Smith. The group had reached the engine room which took up several floors. Kitty saw that something small had been using the vents and decided to follow in case it was a child. Then the monster appeared. It was a skinless, radioactive horror. Everyone in the room had to pull from the tower. Li gave up mid-pull as the tower was shaking too much. She was gutted by the monster but still alive as I was prohibited from murdering her unless the tower fell. It went outside and the group space-walked back to the airlock. The beast tore up the airlock connector between their ship and the beast’s, exposing the deck to space. Stretch fled with Li resting on his wheelchair. Dr Smith had to pull in order to get away safely. The tower fell. The beast ripped her space suit open, suffocating her just before she was ripped to shreds.
There was a moment, people calmed down after that initial impact, Emma rebuilt the tower and removed pieces which has to happen after each fatality, to keep the tension escalating as the game goes on. They finally found the secret labs where this creature was being studied. A scientist was trapped in a metal locker being attacked by the beast. Stretch wasn’t any good at shooting and while Kitty was a surprisingly efficient murderer, she was sneaking through the vents. Li was an ace sharpshooter but horrendously wounded. Saffy asked whether this meant a pull would have to be made as the skill and harm effectively cancelled each other out. I nodded and she smashed the tower with one slam of her hand. If you reckon you’re not going to make it through the pull, if you feel it’s dramatically relevant, you can intentionally topple the tower to control your own death. Li limped into the room, gun blazing. She fired on the beast and it charged her faster than any man could. It reached her and sliced through her throat. There was a moment of silence and then it dropped to the floor, a massive laser hole through its’ midsection. It was dead. The nightmare was over.
Kitty used her robot senses to detect life signs, specifically that of children. With the power switched back on, she could see a cluster of them all together in the ship’s school. She started to make her way there. The man in the locker was set loose and freaked out when he saw that the players had switched the power on as that would have woken up the rest of the crew. Why was that a problem? Well it wasn’t thousands of innocents in hibernation and one monster, it was thousands of monsters in hibernation and one crewman. The ship had picked up an alien spore which made people into skinless monsters. That mist? That was all their skin which had sloughed off and disintegrated. Stretch and the survivor, Gavin, had to get out. Meanwhile, Kitty found all of the children blearily opening their eyes, yawning and waking from their slumber. They were of course, skinless monsters, but Kitty was programmed to protect any children. Emma wanted Kitty to be accepted by the infant monsters. For something that risky, I had her pull from the tower twice. She passed and they followed her to the shopping district where the last uninfected people had holed up. She sang and played and finally heard movement down the lift hatch. Stretch and Gavin were clambering down the shaft and Kitty realised this was going to be the last of the food for her children. I will hasten to add that Dread is not by default a player vs player game, sometimes these things just happen. The horde fell down the shaft but Stretch sent the lift back up at them. He and Gavin crept past a couple of the infected crewmen and into the one remaining escape pod. They fled and Kitty was left alone on the ship with her deadly brood of murderous monster children.
Game over. Roll credits.
Then we got to the post-credit sequence. Stretch’s escape pod is programmed to go to the nearest inhabited planet and he looked out of the viewscreen at the farming colony below. Then he realised something; this is where all the escape pods went. They were spread around the landscape, doors open, horrendous bloody trails leading out from them. The infected were in the pods, they were in the colony, but this was the only place his pod could reach.
SEQUEL BAIT! Woo!
Yes, I do plan a sequel. Kitty and Stretch will probably not be playable characters in it, but I imagine the game being the Aliens to this game’s Alien. I was surprised and pleased to see the two first-timers not only really get on with the system but survive the game.
There were some stunning moments in this game, both in and out of the table. Player elimination is definitely a problem with this game but at the same time the action is compelling enough that the dead players were watching the action and tensing up whenever a pull was made. There was one pull where Saffy ran out of the room and watched from round the corner just in case any movement at all would cause the tower to fall and kill one of the remaining player characters. It got like people were defusing a bomb and as much downtime as there is between announcing the action and the resolution of the pull, it’s all time stressing out about the action. It keeps players present at the table, something which a lot of horror games have difficulty with.
I definitely recommend Dread as a one-off horror game and as something to introduce people to role-playing with. Good luck pulling from the tower.