Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Dread Awakening: First Play with Dread

I run several games and I don't usually play very much. But over the last few months I've been able to play in a Fallout-based campaign which has been really fun. The GMs built the rules to echo the setting, we've have audio-based clue, and twists which came at me out of left-field. This last Saturday he took a week off as a kind of "intermission" since we finally caught up in time to the prologue events of the game's opening sequence. I volunteered to run a one-shot because I'm always up for running- before I've actually had a chance to think about what I want to run or the work involved. Its also a chance to try out some experimental games. The group's six players plus the GM, so that ruled out Fiasco and some of the other small group improv games. We play a fairly rules-lite homebrew system for the majority of our campaigns, so I didn't want to throw new mechanics at them, so I left out Don't Rest Your Head, HeroQuest, Fudge, and such. Horror was requested or else I might have tried Time & Temp.

I spent most of the week before churning ideas over in my head. I have a set of scenarios written for cons (AFMBE, Conspiracy X, Armageddon) but some of the players had played in or heard about them. I had a breakthrough when I settled on using Dread to run the game. The players would have to learn only minimal rules. It would mean two steps for prep: making up individual questionnaires on the one hand, and buying a Jenga set on the other. I went through the rules carefully and read through the suggested scenarios. All three had some interesting features, but nothing grabbed me. I hunted down some of the other available modules, but one covered a post-Apocalyptic setting and the other, children's nightmares. I wanted to keep it fairly close to make it easy for the players to immerse themselves. A zombie game had some appeal, but I feared that done straight it might slip into more of a combat game which didn't seem particularly suited for Dread.

About the Game
If you haven't played Dread, I should probably explain it. It is a horror game with two particular innovations. First, the GM makes up a set of 13 questions for each player. With the exception of the final question ("What is your name?") these are unique. They establish some background for the players ("Why do you tell people you're an engineer when you really just drive trains?") and still gives the players space to come up with the details. Second, Dread uses a Jenga tower for resolution. Any time a character undertakes a difficult action, they have to draw a piece out and place it atop the tower. Really difficult or complex actions may require multiple pulls. Players may use the details from their character questionnaire to justify something being easier (and therefore not requiring a pull). That's a narrative device that I think would take a couple of sessions to get used to. What happens if the tower falls? That character's removed from the game. I'll come back to my reaction to that concept in a bit. Players can opt to reframe their actions or change their minds entirely at any point in the process. They can also voluntarily knock the tower over to be eliminated but succeed heroically at their action. So as you can see the games aimed at immersion supported by a particular involving resolution mechanic.

Horror One-Shots
I wanted to find something which would support that immersion. I have two basic approaches to horror one shots. The first is a kind of delayed gratification. I do a slow build up presenting many things which may or may not be related to the actual "horror" they're going to be investigating or encountering. A number of red herrings help put them on edge, especially if that can conceal a more mundane and surprising event. That works well if the players are already primed and expecting a horror game. You make them paranoid about things that don't matter- like having their car break down in the woods in the opening scene. They expect an attack but instead you use the moment to explore the PC's interactions. The other classic approach is to throw them deep in the middle of things- background doesn't matter so much, they're in a situation they have to deal with immediately. That doesn't necessarily have to be combat or an immediate "threat" but instead can be a shared strangeness. Amnesia’s the classic device for that.

If you'd like the files associated with this scenario, you can find those here. 

The Premise
So you can start the players in an asylum in group therapy, waking up together in the middle of a police interrogation, or chained together in a house of traps. I knew I wanted to do something like that- the Dread questionnaire process does some of the legwork of building characters conflicts and relations. So how would that withstand some external threat? The three scenarios in the book played off of that but didn't have the blacking out. I was twisting around in about a dozen directions the morning of the game day when I finally figured out a device like this which would have some resonance. I would make The Hangover into a horror game. Not the most original idea, but something the players could buy into pretty quickly. I took some of the existing questionnaires from the book and modified them. Then I made up a set of cards, one for each player to be randomly distributed. They were as follows (they were in list form when I handed them to the players to make it easier):

You wake up...
In just a bathrobe and silk pajamas; with a bag of white powder stuffed in the robe pockets; an aching left arm which reveals a badly bandaged gash; several packs of expensive imported cigarettes jammed under you; and a crumpled up packing ticket stuck in your sock. (Note: that was supposed to be parking but I had a ytpo)

You wake up...
In just your underwear; with a puking monkey sitting on your chest- he looks ill; desperately clutching a wavy and ornate dagger, the blade caked with dried blood; an empty bottle of absinthe in the other hand; and a really nice hair cut you didn’t have before.

You wake up...
In your normal clothes but with a lot more blood on them; with a horrible pain in your hands from deep straight scratches across the palms; an access key-code fob you’ve never seen before; an empty and used large bore syringe with the label removed; and a half-finished book of Mad Libs.

You wake up...
In some kind of haz-mat suit; with the taste and feel of jello shots covering your face; $30K dollars in poker chips stuffed into your pockets; bite marks and bruises on your hand; and the remote control for someone’s expensive TV in your pants

You wake up...
In a really nice outfit, but for the opposite gender; with a dead Blackberry you’ve never seen before in your hand; a vial of some brownish powder in your pocket; tribal tattoos drawn in permanent marker across your face; and a carefully arranged stack of tiny liquor bottles from the mini-bar.

You wake up...
In a good-looking business suit with a strange odor, with burn-marks on your fingertips; the keys to a BMW rental car nearly impaling you where you lie; a bent and ancient keycard; and shredded paper stuffed up your right sleeve.

Only after I assembled those and the questionnaires did I think about the game structure. I sketched some notes and incidents for about an hour, plus a list of NPC names. I knew how some of these things fit into my story, but I figured that I would connect most of it as we played. Finally, I set up the game room to support the atmosphere. I used a multi-head lamp aimed at a back corner to give a slightly dimmer light, enough to read by but less than the in-ceiling fluorescent. We use three 6' x 2 1/2' tables for gaming, two for the players and one abutted sideways against that as the GM’s space. I moved that back and brought down a high stool to sit on. That brought me closer to the players and at the same time elevated me to that I loomed over them.

Getting Started
Once everyone arrived I went through the basics of the game, the very basics. Dread has a few additional notes about resolution and so on but I stuck the key idea: pull if it is difficult. Horrors if you fail. I handed out the questionnaires and the "wake up" cards. I told them that we wold be doing a horror version of The Hangover, but gave them little information beyond that. Setting up the premise (at least part of it) is necessary to allow the players a chance for creative and fitting answers to their questions. If I hadn't I think it might have been a lot more difficult. With their question sheets and details of what they found on waking, I left. I think this actually really helped. We usually get pizza for the game when we play at Kenny’s house and have it delivered. Since we played at my house, I ordered carry-out from a close by and better pizza place. That gave the players about fifteen-twenty minutes to look over their sheets and bounce things around with me looming over them or answering requests. By the time I got back, they'd built a pretty coherent set of identities.

Diverging from Dread
I should also note that I kind of went against advice given in the Dread rules at this point. First, the book suggests that whenever a player topples the tower- they're out of the game. Period. They're removed. You might have some "ghosting" but generally, they're gone. That might work at a convention where people have the ability to head out if they die or stay if they want to watch, but I was hesitant about it. I had never played Jenga, so I had no sense of how many pulls it would take to knock over- which meant I erred on the side of caution. I told the players something horrific would happen- not quite as powerful as getting knocked out of the game but still. The actual play of the session meant that my worries never came to fruition. The second thing I did kind of works against the tone of Dread, building from a comedic premise. Dread specifically addresses humor as a venting device, but suggests curbing too much. I, however, wanted that contrast between the dark humor of the situation and the real darkness of it. I think I managed to provide a game where every time it got goofy, the players laughed and then recoiled from the horror around.

The Game Itself
Note: this was a horror game, and a pretty gruesome one- so consider yourself warned, NSFW.

So the group woke up in a trashed hotel room, with all kinds of awfulness around. We had one wake up on the wet bathroom floor, only to realize it wasn't the tub which had overflowed. Chas flung the bag of white powder at Dave to wake him up, resulting in a brief cocaine freak-out for his character. The monkey induced fits in Dave, who had to be put down briefly with a golf club to the back of the head. They looked picked themselves up and began to search around. They noted the absence of the groom, Bob Howard, and found a number of additional clues. Most notably, the DHS Agent who had wandered into one of the bedrooms and slit his own wrists with a straight razor. During this whole time-- investigating, getting cleaned up, trying to put themselves to right, realizing the power had gone out-- a couple of them noted the deep yellow color to the sunlight coming in where they'd cracked the curtains open a little. Finally, close to forty-five minutes into play, someone opened the curtains and looked outside.

And saw the devastation which had rocked Las Vegas. Windows had been broken out, fires burned in various places, plumes of smoke rose upwards, the wrecks of cars jammed the streets of the strip, and the sky had a dark yellow cast to it, a sepia tone that colored everything. They saw some...things...more vague and among the car husks down below. Some settled on the idea of their having been a nuclear war, but others weren't convinced.

Exploration began, somewhat hesitantly. They saw half-open doors in the hotel halls but avoided looking in any of them. On the roof they found nearly a hundred pairs of shoes lined up at the roof edge- left behind by people who had leapt to their doom hand-in-hand. The weirdness meter continued to rise. They headed down to the garage to follow up on a parking stub and the strange keys. Along the way they saw bloody handprints, strange etched sings of a five inside a diamond, and other evidence of something horrible having occurred. Of course throughout this, they had no real light sources. If you've ever been to a casino hotel you'll realize they have no windows. Some emergency lights aided them, but by the time they got to the underground parking garage they were pretty freaked out. So when they found the pile of shucked human skins neatly folded next to the stairs, they kind of lost it.

In the words of Ward: "I'm sorry, what kind of nuclear bomb blows just the skin off of people?"

They headed down and decided to push the panic button on the car key fob. That allowed them to track the car down by the honking and flashing lights. Of course before they got there they saw a figure coming towards them illuminated by the blinking of the headlights. Have you ever seen those guys who put on multiple t-shifts until they look like a Sumo wrestler? Imagine that with human skin suits: sausage-like fingers, layers of lips, and great empty black corridors where its eyes should be.

It lunged at Kenny. As did I IRL, which freaked Jacque, making her flinch and spill hot coffee on herself. A job well-done for me! The group knocked the Skin Collector down and ran for it. It scuttled along under the other parked cars Silent Hill-style, but managed to get to the car. They hit the gas and made a break for it, speeding through the garage until they came to the lowered garage door. Ward braked and stopped in time, managing only to set off the air bag. At that point they heard pounding from the trunk. They popped it and found Boris Elk, a hippie looking dude who told them they'd jammed him in their when they went to Kinko's last night. He seemed in pretty good spirits, having slept off a bender in the car. The group noticed the truck also had a shotgun and some clips for the Fed's gun, giving them some defenses and a few more clues. Elk asked if he could have his cocaine back and they told him they'd left it up in the room. Affable, he agreed to go check on that- and then got flying tackled by something and knocked between parked cars. The group made a break for it, with Dave pausing to look back just long enough to see the thing coming after them in Elk's skin.

The group made their way through the wreckage of Las Vegas on foot. They avoided awful beasties but I managed to spend some time getting across the horror and alien feeling. In Kinkos they figured out that they'd come there, used the scanning services and uploaded some things to Facebook. They fled out of there ahead of a Clive Barker-esque monster made up of tangled bodies. They followed another clue to an Animal Quarantine facility, which they discovered happened to be adjacent to the local DHS building. They also found Dave's abandoned SUV. A mod of monsters swarmed them and after some spectacular shooting, they fled into the DHS building.

There they found Emergency Channel 5 operating and broadcasting to every device in the region. It was a looped tape of them laughing and reading from an ancient tome. Clearly they'd obtained this and decided it would be hilarious to speak the words out loud. The tape loop ended with them still laughing and the Groom beginning to shake. It was about this time that the group realized they'd caused all of this, between broadcasting an invocation to Ylgonac and uploading scans of the mind-blasting tome to their Facebook page. Chas reached for a bible she'd brought in hope that it would help.

And it was here that the tower finally fell. You see Ylgonac's a pseudo-Lovecraftian figure who is all about infecting ideas, like books. So as Chas began to read, the ink on the pages ran out and infected her. And BOOM the other PCs killed her. Putting two and two together, they realized they'd infected Facebook in the same way. Suddenly they heard a broadcast over the DHS channels checking for survivors. They now had twenty minutes to get to the Luxor Casino for a landing pad pick up. With the Jenga tower rebuilt following Chas' death, I had them pulling like fiends for just about everything in the hope of getting it to crash again. Just before they got to the last level, Dave opted to crash the tower voluntarily, sacrificing himself to save the other four. The helicopter took off into the yellowed sky with the survivors.

So decent session for a one shot. Dread worked pretty well and I would use it again. I had a timeline and details for about half the bits on the handouts. The rest I began to put together as we played. It's a pretty workable approach. The one thing you do have to accept is that you won't tie everything together like the movie. I suppose you could plan it out more tightly and I might do that if I ever run this at a convention. Next time I will definitely make players pull more. I'd also consider doing the game in chairs around a coffee table, rather than at a shared table with the tower atop it. I was pretty happy with the play and the system.