What I’d learned from Dread (Part 1)

Last week, I ran a pretty awesome session of Dread (a game which I’d briefly mentioned in an earlier post), using The Impossible Dream’s free adventure, Beneath A Metal Sky. Without giving away spoilers, its basic premise is that it takes place aboard a seemingly derelict space hulk called the ISS Auerbach.

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The USS Rickenbacker, another derelict space hulk from the cult classic System Shock 2.

A quick preface for those unfamiliar with Dread: it is a game that uses Jenga blocks to resolve situations, rather than traditional dice rolls. Say, for example, a threat presents itself. Players would have to pull a number of Jenga blocks, specified at the GM’s discretion, or risk injury or some other form of trauma. If the tower falls, the character of the player who had caused it is eliminated.

Improvising Act 2

The game went pretty well, although the first Act took far too long. There are a total of 3 Acts in this adventure, but because we only had 30 minutes left by the end of Act 1, I had to hand-wave away most of the dangers in Act 2 and substitute them with quick, easily resolvable encounters. It was a decision that altered the plot of the adventure, but, more importantly, drove home the point about what horror could entail.

Below, I briefly deconstruct the proceedings of Act 2. Since it was a bunch of improvised ideas quickly hacked together in the span of five minutes, you may rest assured that there aren’t any major spoilers if you’re planning to play this adventure someday:

  1. The only dangers that required pulls were the acts of climbing out of the main elevator from its top hatch and the elevator falling; this was a huge contrast to Act 1 where players faced a seemingly great threat and were busy contemplating all means and ways to escape, if not kill, it.
    Tallying the numbers, around 10 blocks were pulled in Act 1 while only 3 blocks were pulled in Act 2.
  2. There was still a lot of tension going on in Act 2, left over from the events of Act 1. Players were consistently fed descriptions that involved loud noises, moving shadows and potential dangers at every corner. There was not a moment in Act 2 that wasn’t unsettling.
  3. YET there was never a time in Act 2 where threats were manifested in the form of the main villains.

On point #3, there was some surprise. You could see the puzzlement on players’ faces when I announced that we were moving on to Act 3.

A part of that was due to how well the tension cranked up in Act 1. Several things happened in succession; it all culminated in a terrifying, intense battle. The illusion of safety immediately after that didn’t help when characters proceeded into the lift (and, by extension, into Act 2), where, right at the onset, the voice and music of the elevator quickly turned from cheery notes to a garbled mess of sounds – the first hint that something even worse was lurking behind the scenes. You could almost feel the tension permeating our gaming room throughout Act 2. Players were constantly unnerved (or at least more so than in Act 1). For instance, they didn’t dare to proceed through the main fungus-infested corridors, choosing instead to explore via the air ducts.

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Part of my inspiration for the lift sequence was derived from the fantastic computer adventure game, STASIS.

It was a great decision to hand-wave the actual Act 2 scenes. It made the players consider their choices more carefully, and it helped pave the way to a climactic finale in Act 3.

Suspense: making something out of nothing

Here’s what I believe had lent weight to the horror aspect of the game: the persistent knowledge that there was danger, the occasional safety net, and the immediate transition from the excitement of Act 1 to the unnerving lull of Act 2. Throwing false illusions of hope while increasing the imminence of danger ensured that players would continue to wade in knee-deep tension while the story flowed. There was a state of uncertainty that, like a balloon, would continue to inflate until the GM brought in the danger once more. From there, the metaphorical balloon was either going to deflate or explode – a piece of meta-game knowledge that I wanted my players to hold on to throughout.

One thing that I was glad the students took home was the knowledge that horror is not simply gore and action-packed chase scenes. While they contribute in their own ways, there comes a point where excessive use of either can create a state of desensitisation for the audience. Suspense can remedy that, but it is an ingredient that is really difficult to handle. We’re really creating something out of nothing.

Boy, am I glad I decided to hand-wave the original Act 2’s encounters and improvise on the fly. 🙂

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