Playing Dread Remotely

Dread was the first roleplaying system that I used as a game master and I recently had the pleasure to be a player of it remotely. My friend wrote a scenario that was inspired by an SCP article and it was an excellent time for all involved – I even died horribly to some freaky monster and like all good monsters I cannot begin to even describe it properly. Traditionally a game of Dread uses a Jenga tower and has players pulling a block for a given action should their character be under duress or working out of their skill. This lends to a beautifully tense table that blends perfectly with the horror genre that Dread lends itself too, however using a Jenga tower remotely is uncomfortable.

These are a multitude of options available as a substitute for a Jenga tower for Dread to be played remotely, though most of them attempt to replace the physical challenge of Jenga with a mental challenge and many of these do not create the feeling of dread for me. In the recent session that I played in we used Minesweeper but the feeling of dread for me was not caused by the game of Minesweeper, instead it was the skilful storytelling of my friend as the game master. Minesweeper did not work because it does not meet the criteria that I believe a physical Jenga tower meets for a game of Dread to successfully impose suspense on the players.

The Criteria and Options

For a game of Dread to work I believe the primary manner of resolution must meet the following criteria:

  • A visibly diminishing chance of success
  • Flexibility to make multiple ‘pulls’
  • A quick action to perform
  • Provides choice for the player

Many people have suggested rolling dice, drawing playing cards, digital Jenga, or playing minesweeper to be a substitute for the Jenga tower. Each may work to some degree; however, I find that most fail to meet the above criterion as described below.

  • Minesweeper fails at criteria 1-3 because it is simply too easy given the information the game provides (a possible solution could be a time limit imposed on the player for picking a square to click and maybe banning the use of flags)
  • Digital Jenga is difficult to manipulate as transferring 3-dimensional movement with precision form a mouse to the computer is awkward and it could easily lead to players feeling cheated. A potential solution could be VR, however that is an expensive solution
  • Playing cards may work and there are several methods for doing so such as drawing the single joker resulting in a death and a reset though depending on the software used then you may not be able to visibly see the diminishing deck. The problem with this is that it does not provide much choice for the player
  • Rolling dice is another flexible option that most people tend to focus on strict probabilities for that can sometimes result in lacklustre player without choice for the players. A possible solution for this is described below

How I Will Play Next Time

The next time I play Dread remotely I intend to use the following method. On paper, it seems like it could work and successfully meet the criteria outlined above though I suspect that it may require some tweaking.

Players will use dice sizes from D4 to D20 and for each pull must roll a number of dice required to have the maximum face value of each be greater than or equal to 12. Dice remain on the virtual table and if the player rolls a number that has already shown up, they are removed from the game (the Jenga tower falls) and the dice on the table are then removed. Players then reset the table following these rules in conjunction with the Dread tower reset.

Here is an example:

  1. P1 chooses to roll 1d20 and they get an 18
  2. P2 chooses to roll 1d4+1d8 and they a 3 and a 7
  3. P3 chooses to roll a 1d6+1d12 and they a 6 and an 11
  4. P4 chooses to roll 1d20 but they roll a 3 which has already shown up thus they are removed from the game

This method meets the criteria above as players have choice in how they wish to roll to hopefully increase their chances of being safe while showing a diminishing chance of success. The action to roll is quick and players can easily perform a second or third roll if required by the rules of Dread. If you ever have the chance of testing this approach out, then please let me know how it goes!

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Lessons Learned Hitherto: Dread and DnD 5E

I have found that the role of the Game Master is a challenging but rewarding one. It can be a stressful job which requires forethought preceding – and an agile mind during a game. However the joy of developing this skillset can be felt every time I play. The smiles, laughter, and expressions of disgust or horror on the faces of my friends are good – but I could not tell you if that outweighed the satisfaction and excitement I feel when I finish exploring a new roleplaying game.

As a budding Game Master of a meagre 100 hours I want to catalogue my reflections of each RPG I ran for any significant amount of time – which is anything excluding a single one-shot. So far I have found that the many techniques or tools that I have spent countless hours reading about take on a new light once I see them expressed in some form during one of my games.

For the sake of posterity and brevity this post will be in two parts and briefly reflect on my experiences with Dread, Dungeons & Dragons 5E, Blades in the Dark, and Mutant: Year Zero.

Dread

Dread was the first system that I ran a game for and it only had two players while a third person sat in the room and pretended to be better than us. In spite of this odd atmosphere and my inexperience, the game had players pacing around with worried expressions on their face minutes into the game and we all had a great time.

This was by no means a feat of mine. I have since learned that I made countless novice mistakes while running this game such as forcing my hand as a GM to ensure players experience a particular scene how I felt it should be. Embarrassing. Instead, I owe this good experience to my friends with a penchant for wild imaginations being supportive people and the system itself.

Dread is a game that has the players pulling blocks from a Jenga tower to determine success in a stressful or unknown situation. If the tower falls, their character is removed from the game in some way which could be anything from death to having mad diarrhoea. Whatever works for the narrative. Pulling from a Jenga tower is already suspenseful and then Dread pairs this with horror narratives resulting in a feeling of dread for the players.

If people feel a certain way then they may act in accordance to these feelings. Dread leverages this to support the telling of scary story. As a Game Master, I barely had to do any work other than describe the scene and then tell the players to pull a block. By providing room for the players to breathe and find their characters while being able to know the stakes (by looking at how unstable the tower is), Dread works without requiring mechanically diverse player characters or a massive book of rules.

Dungeons and Dragons 5E

Dungeons and Dragons 5e Core Rules Gift Set

If anyone asked me if I regret anything I wouldn’t say it was that time a friend of mine tricked me into picking up a snot-covered piece of bark in kindergarten or even those many times I thought I would be okay if I had just one more slice of pizza. No, they’re not good examples. Instead I might tell them about the pit that is DnD 5e.

From what I have seen many people find great enjoyment in playing this game but I did not and I did not realise that until much later. I would argue that DnD 5e is not a very good game for people new to the RPG scene and at best, is mediocre for experienced players and GMs. This is because it is a bloated incomplete toolkit system that is misrepresented by each person with the book($).

Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon…

Dungeons and Dragons 5e Player’s Handbook, page 5

A toolkit system is a type of game that has distinct and modular sub-systems that do not necessarily interconnect. Such as Combat and Downtime in DnD 5e. Toolkit systems can work really well as a GM and the players only need to focus on the subsystems that they are interested in, however DnD 5e does not supply all of the tools required in the base game yet it promises them on page 5, “Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon…” The Player’s Handbook (PHB) does not include rules for exploring a dark dungeon or anything for that matter, instead players are given pages describing things like how high they can jump or how long it takes for them to suffocate. No procedure exists in the Dungeon Master’s Guide either and if it did then it should be in the PHB because the players need to make decisions too. DnD 5e is repeated offender of empty promises like the one described above.

Everyone runs DnD 5e in their own way but not always for the same good reason people do with other systems – to adjust for tone or familiarity. No, people try to fix DnD 5e because the subsystems provided are clunky, the classes are imbalanced, it’s missing pieces, etc. At my table, this lead to a culture of people not taking the time to learn the rules and to adopt the rules that they were told by others. At first it is not a bad thing but when someone tries to run a game with people that are not familiar with these homebrew rules then that becomes a problem because suddenly people are not playing the same game. I could rant about DnD 5e for a long time but I’ll end it with this: It reminded me that I could say no. If I am not having fun, if a game is just causing tension and confusion, then I can just not play and that’s okay.

Closing Thoughts

There is a reason why there are so many different systems available to play. That is because people want money to tell different types of stories. A system can have a great impact on the tone and genre of the collaborative narrative being spun by the Game Master and the players.

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