Dread Techniques

edited July 2018 in Play Advice
Hi all,

I played Dread for the first time this week and I enjoyed it, but it was totally not what I expected, and I had to radically adjust my expectations mid-game to continue enjoying it.

I had expected a narrative "create a horror movie story together" game. When it became clear that the story was mostly pre-planned, and minimally responsive to the characters we created or their relationships, I shifted this expectation. My second round of assumptions was that this was a challenge-based fictional-positioning game, where the odds are stacked against us but with clever problem solving we just might be able to survive. I wasn't satisfied with this either, as it was clear that actions outside the scope of the planned story simply were not possible.

After playing, I found
this thread, which matched my experience of Dread: as a low player-input railroad. With this perspective, it was really fun. Players contribute color, especially about their psychological state and conversations with other characters. Players can also color scenes by their actions, but these (in my play experience) impacted only the color of subsequent scenes (what order they witness things in, whether they are missing a limb during the climatic showdown, whether the showdown happens in a different room) but the arc will remain unchanged.

They can change the story significantly by:
1) Dying at variable points
2) Discovering the planned resolution of the scenario

I think this highly constrained player authority makes the tower very intense. It is essentially the thing that impacts your participation in the story. I'm wondering if this experience matched the experiences others have had with the system. My impression of the game text is this is the intended play style, but I could see another GM handling things very differently.

I had bought the book before playing, but not read it, so I went through it over the last couple days and was surprised by several of the recommended GM techniques. I gather that a lot of these stem from the totally binary not-dead/dead resolution system and from the importance to adhering to a certain pace to stay in-genre.

- I had thought that when a player pulled a block from the tower, they achieved their intent (comparable to a successful die roll in other systems. In play, we succeeded at several pulls but failed at our intent, which actually seems necessary to keep most of the included modules on track as written.

- The scenarios explicitly recommend 'red herrings', getting players to spend pulls on totally hopeless activities, so that there are fewer blocks in the tower and more tension at the climax. Since choosing to pull from the tower gives a player a tiny bit of narrative control, wasting this resource on something that had no effect on the short or long-term narrative felt like fake player-agency.

-As far as I can tell the GM (host) frames every scene, and the scenarios suggest framing not on the logical progression of events but to control pacing of the story. So if players are picking up on clues and describing actions that make the planned-for terrors less daunting, subsequent scenes are framed with them in a worse position, to compensate.

I'm wondering if others had the same read/ similar play experiences (players are willing participants in a largely linear plot) or if this is only one of several possible Dread styles.



Comments

  • I had expected a narrative "create a horror movie story together" game. When it became clear that the story was mostly pre-planned, and minimally responsive to the characters we created or their relationships, I shifted this expectation. My second round of assumptions was that this was a challenge-based fictional-positioning game, where the odds are stacked against us but with clever problem solving we just might be able to survive. I wasn't satisfied with this either, as it was clear that actions outside the scope of the planned story simply were not possible.
    That's brutal, and goes to show how much mileage we can get in roleplaying by having the words and the understanding to actually talk about what we're doing in games. I've been making a point of being very explicit as a GM myself in this regard, and I think it shows as a marked improvement in the amount of general confusion in our play.

    Dread is a very pure immersive story railroad game, everything in it revolves around that. I would be very surprised if the GM had anything but that in mind; its procedures make no sense for a shared-story game or a challenge-based game, for instance.

    And yes, I think that you've read and understood the game correctly. It is geared towards a style of play where the GM has their own powerful story - or rather, powerful imagery - to share, and the game is there to enable the group to experience it that imagery from the first-person perspective unique to roleplaying.

    Regarding the pulls thing, I think that there's a degree of depth in how the GM uses them; an art. I think that the red-herring thing is a core technique, for instance, as it is what enables the GM and the players to engage in scary dialogue over the logical cascade of a scene: you are very concretely in control of whether your character runs from the shadows or not, and the pressure in this choice comes from the fact that you don't know whether the GM is bluffing or not. It wouldn't be nearly as scary if the players did not relinquish the considerable amount of control that they do in a horror game like this.

    Also, consider this neat facet of the system: a player refusing to pull is essentially saying that they want to secure their continuing existence in the story in exchange for being fucked up by horrors. The player is choosing to potentially have horrible things happen to their character while persisting as a protagonist. Contrariwise, deciding to pull is always a declaration for purity: I will stake my character's continued existence, as I would rather face annihilation than face whatever it is beyond that door. So you're choosing between death and dismemberment, basically, which I think is rather neat.
  • I run a lot of Dread — it's easily my favorite indie game to run at this point, because the mechanic is clear and easily understood, and it tends to focus people's attention sharply. I've had a lot of problems recently with people's attention wandering during games if they aren't the focus, but Dread really pulls people in, because of the danger of the tower falling.

    Reading your post, I'm not entirely sure whether the problem here is an overly controlling GM or the mismatch between the game and your expectations. I definitely see Dread as more of a GM-led narrative than a fully collaborative player-designed narrative, for instance.

    But what jumped out at me here was your report that you made several pulls and still failed in your intent. That feels like either bad GMing, bad scenario design, or overreaching intent. As far as I'm concerned, if you're accepting the risk of complete failure, you should still have the chance of some success. If the GM is making you pull when there's no way you can succeed at the thing you've declared you're doing, then that pull is framed incorrectly.

    To my mind, all pulls should be for allowable, achievable actions, and if they aren't, the GM needs to reframe what the PC can and can't do, and make sure it's clear exactly what they're pulling for. I've certainly had people wanting to pull for things I couldn't let them do, e.g. "I shoot the monster in the face and kill it" an hour into the scenario.

    In that case, though, the GM shouldn't be saying "Go ahead," waiting for a successful pull, and saying "Okay, you shoot at it but you miss entirely." They should be reframing the pull as some sort of achievable step, like simply shooting at the monster. On a successful pull, maybe you hit it and it retreats, but returns from an unexpected direction or in an unexpected way. Maybe you hit it but it doesn't seem to care about bullets. Maybe there's more than one monster. The GM should be able to come up with a way to frame your action in a way that doesn't instantly break the game, and should communicate what the action is so you can make the reasonable choice whether to pull or not.

    To some degree, the responsibility here also lies with the players, which might help with your agency problem. It's up to you not to overreach by essentially saying "I pull to end this story instantly." I hope that doesn't sound insulting — I have certainly had players who tried to do this! If you're playing a Star Wars themed game and you have to fight Darth Vader, and your declared action is "I cut him neatly in half with the first blow of my lightsaber, before he can defend himself" you're probably also going to fail in that intent, not because your player isn't allowed agency, but because it doesn't make for a good story, and it isn't consistent with what everyone knows about the setting.

    TLDR: In my mind, it's up to you to set achievable goals, and it's up to the GM to be transparent about what you're pulling for, and to give you success if you earned it, and to make failure interesting and exciting rather than just "I'm not letting you do that."
  • Dread is a very pure immersive story railroad game, everything in it revolves around that. I would be very surprised if the GM had anything but that in mind; its procedures make no sense for a shared-story game or a challenge-based game, for instance.
    I appreciate seeing the agenda put so neatly. I am likely to run Dread for friends (especially around Halloween) and I think framing around the goals of a session will make a big difference in our enjoyment of it. I'll plan on calling it an "immersive horror story".
    Also, consider this neat facet of the system: a player refusing to pull is essentially saying that they want to secure their continuing existence in the story in exchange for being fucked up by horrors.
    The option to not pull was introduced somewhat late in our session (or, just as likely, I didn't internalize its introduction earlier in the game). It wasn't clear to me why you would refuse to pull or what would happen if you didn't. The options "suffer this horror but potentially prolong your life" and "avoid this horror but hasten your doom" seem pretty compelling to me.

  • Reading your post, I'm not entirely sure whether the problem here is an overly controlling GM or the mismatch between the game and your expectations. I definitely see Dread as more of a GM-led narrative than a fully collaborative player-designed narrative, for instance.
    I would say my challenge was mostly expectations. The GM was very immersive in his descriptions and was really solid in sharing spotlight. I went in expecting a more GM-led than player-led narrative, but there's a lot of space between those two poles. My main consideration here is that my friends will have a better time playing this if I can give them a good sense of what degree of narrative control they should expect.

    To my mind, all pulls should be for allowable, achievable actions, and if they aren't, the GM needs to reframe what the PC can and can't do, and make sure it's clear exactly what they're pulling for. I've certainly had people wanting to pull for things I couldn't let them do, e.g. "I shoot the monster in the face and kill it" an hour into the scenario.
    This is interesting, as I think there is a mix here between "playing your character" and "playing along". It seems very clear to me that the player can't declare what the outcome of their actions is. You can choose to shoot at the monster but you can't, as the player, declares that it dies when you shoot it (or that Vader is chopped in half in your other example). But also, you as the player know that no matter what you do, you won't kill the monster because you're in the first act. No actions you take will have that effect. So you shoot it because you want to hear the description of the monster being unaffected or dodging or having a bunch of siblings. You shoot because you're actively participating in the story, and you get to experience that horror movie moment of feeling helpless in the face of the monster. I think this stance as a player is fun, but not intuitive if it's not discussed before play.

    To some degree, the responsibility here also lies with the players, which might help with your agency problem. It's up to you not to overreach by essentially saying "I pull to end this story instantly."
    The example that came up in our game was breaking a window to get outside of the creepy house. We weren't hoping to "end the story instantly" (or at least I wasn't thinking that) but it seemed like a way for our characters to gain a semblance of control over their situation. After 3 or 4 pulls, it became clear that this was impossible, and that the pulls we were spending on this were not building tension or moving the story forward; we were just wasting real-world and in-game time. We also may have made a lot of noise and drew the monster closer. No one wanted an "I pull to win" but there was an assumption that pulling meant getting some part of what you want. In another game, I might call this bs, but it read like a couple bits of advice from the text.

    Dread Scenario Spoiler
    In one scenario, the host is encouraged to describe a plane flying overhead and have players waste pulls with schemes to get its attention, but that it is impossible for this to have any effect on the scenario.
    They should be reframing the pull as some sort of achievable step, like simply shooting at the monster. On a successful pull, maybe you hit it and it retreats, but returns from an unexpected direction or in an unexpected way.
    And I do think that this requires artfully maintaining an illusion on the GM's part, because you're saying "Here's how your action changed the situation!" and then, shortly after, "But here's why the pressure is right back on!" by tweaking the situation so that the player action didn't change too much. If the players know that these moves are happening to keep a story on pace, then it's easy to relinquish control and enjoy the ride. If they don't, it's still probably fun, but peppered with a bunch of confusing moments.
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