Playing With [Lots of] Blocks

Warning: this post contains a couple spoilers for Inception. For that matter, it pretty much presupposes you’ve already seen it. So, if you haven’t seen it yet, proceed at your own risk. I will say that it is a movie that you owe it to yourself to see with a blank slate.

Something we’ve talked about almost right from the start is “can we play with the tower itself?”—as in, alter the block stacking from the standard Jenga configuration. A few weeks ago, I read about someone’s Inception-inspired Dread game, and two things jumped out at me. I mean, in addition to the inherent coolness of that game concept.

The first was their comment that they wished they had had more than one Jenga set, so they could use one for each. I have a whole crate full of assorted Jenga sets, and we’ve often talked about using multiple towers, but hadn’t previously thought of anything approaching a good reason to do it, much less a good way to incorporate it into the game. It would’ve been just a gimmick—and despite occasional claims to the contrary, the Jenga is definitely not supposed to be a gimmick.

Well, multiple worlds—layered dreams, alternate realities—definitely make sense for separate Jenga. For me, what makes it make sense—at least enough to try it once and see how it goes—is that the stories in the various worlds are all occurring simultaneously. If the entire game were in a [single] dream world, or characters simply left one reality for another during the course of the game, the single tower should simply go with them. That more than adequately handles the fiction. But, for a story like Inception, where you are not only bouncing back and forth between different realities, but they are all happening simultaneously, a case can be made for maintaining multiple towers to regulate the multiple realities.

Of course, if you do this, you also need to decide what a tower tumble means. Is it removal from the game, or just from that reality? Obviously, in some games, the two are synonymous—but that need not be the case. For example, as dreamwalking is depicted in Inception, normally a death in the dream just means you wake up, and reflecting this in a game of Dread would mean that if you topple the dream tower, your character wakens up [and whether they can re-enter the dream or not depends on the game fiction], but if you topple the real-world tower, your character is definitely removed from the game. To represent the situation that is the central plot of Inception, however, I would say that a tower topple in any of the dreams also means character removal, as they fall down to limbo.

Oh, to address a particular quirk of Inception‘s specific plot that character removal and deep dreams raises: I’m not sure if, when playing Dread in that world, retrieving the person should be possible—it’s very hard to represent extraordinary capabilities that break the game’s own fictional reality in an RPG, without completely breaking the fiction. The movie can depict the arduousness of Cobb’s task with visual shorthand, and through previously established background. In Dread, all I can do is leave it to narration, or say “pull 12 blocks to rescue your buddy”. The latter feels a little arbitrary to me [even if the number weren’t, in fact, arbitrary]. The former raises the problem of extraordinary powers in RPGs vs. fiction: players over-using them. It also feels sorta hollow—here is this really extraordinary thing, that is supposed to be impossible, and that scares the bejeebus out of the other characters [in the movie], and yet one of the PCs [in the game] just goes and does it, simply by saying “sure, I’ll shave 10 years off my life to save him”—or whatever. It’s too easy to simply describe heroic effort, I guess is a good way to sum it up. So, I’d lean towards either simply not having the possibility on the table, or making sure that it was a block-pulling challenge. Now that I think about it, I suppose simply the mini-adventure nature of it would engender a whole bunch of pulls, if you played it out, so maybe it would take care of itself.

Now, on from the specific case of representing Inception, directly, to the more-general case. Let’s stick with dream-within-a-dream, though this could apply to a few other situations, as previously mentioned. One of the elements of the fiction that I want to capture is that each dream, built upon successive layers of fiction, is more fragile. So I want to represent that with the towers somehow. The most obvious solution is simply to require more pulls to do actions in a deeper dream. That would even work without having multiple towers to work with. But it also feels very inelegant—really, all I’ve done at that point is have more total blocks to play with, and then compensated by increasing the number of pulls, so it’s really not any different than a normal game.

The next idea that popped to mind is setting the towers up in a row, relatively close together. Say, about double the width of a tower between each tower. This means that knocking over one tower can also knock over another as it falls. That feels like a good start. But, other than the first and last in the series, there’s no directionality. Worse, the deepest dream is one of the least-risky, because it’s on the end of the row. So, how about making them increasingly close? So, put a couple feet between the reality tower and the 1st-dream tower. It’s now very unlikely that the 1st-dream tower will knock into the reality tower as it falls. Then put the 2nd-dream tower less than a foot from the 1st-dream tower. And the 3rd-dream tower only a hand’s-width from the 2nd-dream tower. And if someone delves down into limbo, set that tower, say, 2″ from the 3rd-dream tower.

OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Assuming you have enough Jenga sets, that actually sounds pretty workable. Though it’s definitely not a one-way relationship: the 1st-dream tower is, obviously, as close to the 2nd-dream tower as the 2nd-dream tower is to the 1st-dream tower. So it still doesn’t quite capture the nuances of the relationships between dreams in the fiction, where consequences only spill up from deeper levels to shallower levels, not down. So, not perfect, but still definitely adds a new element to the game.

Then I thought of using different types of Jenga for the various towers. Make the deeper levels inherently more challenging. The obvious variation is Jenga Xtreme. But there are actually quite a number of different sets out there, whose properties actually are quite different, for our purposes. For starters, there is the abominable Vintage Edition Jenga (the one in the wooden sorta-book-shaped box). These blocks are painted, which makes them much slipperier, but, more importantly for our purposes, they didn’t control the thickness of the paint. Which makes the tower horribly wobbly—I can routinely stack up a regular Jenga set until there literally are no more pulls left. Even using the most-conservative strategy (pulling all middles), I rarely get more than a dozen pulls out of the Vintage Jenga. It is definitely the most-difficult Jenga I’ve ever tried, far harder than Jenga Xtreme. So, anyway, if you want a super-wobbly tower, get a Vintage Edition Jenga. Otherwise, frankly, stay away from it for Dread—it’s ridiculously lethal.

The next obvious way to make different towers harder is to use one of the several multi-colored sets (Throw ‘n’ Go, Party, Girltalk, or Nightmare Before Christmas Jenga; several of the knock-off brands). Once you have different colors of blocks, you can either randomize what color can be pulled, restrict all pulls to one color, or pre-assign the various colors to various sorts of pulls. For example, with a 3-color set, you could make all pulls to accomplish physical tasks use one color, trying to figure things out another color, and use the third color for social/persuasive tasks. The first division that comes to mind for a 2-color tower is to use one color for [pro]active pulls, and the other for reactive/resistive pulls. So, if you want to shoot the vampire, you have to pull a red block, but if you want to resist his mesmerizing gaze, you have to pull a green block.

With a multi-colored set, you could even do something like this with just one tower: in reality, you can pull any block, in the first dream level you can’t pull orange blocks, and in the second dream level you can’t pull orange or purple blocks [only black]. It gives much the same effect, making each layer more difficult, without requiring multiple towers. The only thing you give up is the possibility of toppling the tower in one reality but not another, and the possibility of the tower being less stable in one reality than another—i.e., the difficulty going up, then back down again, due to reality shifts (without a death).

While I’m talking about multi-colored towers, let me toss out one idea that is very high on my “I so need an excuse to do this in a game” list: In addition to multiple colors, Girltalk Jenga has questions written on [some of?] the blocks. These are the middle-school-slumber-party version of questionnaire questions—think truth or dare, sanitized to make Hasbro’s PR department comfortable. So, how can we actually use that in a game of Dread? Well, the obvious possibility is to answer the questions, but how, exactly, does that interact with the rules? We were talking about this the other day, and the best possibility we came up with is that incorporating the answer to the question into your character—further developing your character, in other words—would come into it. Either it could be a requirement whenever you pulled such a block, or doing so could save you from the next pull. Or, perhaps, if you answer the question, you don’t have to put the block back on the tower, which is sometimes even harder than pulling it out in the first place. Which would have interesting ramifications for the long-term viability of the tower, however.

Now, the second thing that jumped out about the Dread game I read about was that, while they didn’t have extra towers, they did play with how the tower worked. Specifically, each of the characters had a “power” that let them interact with the tower in some exceptional way. In that game, one of the characters got to set up the tower each time, and didn’t have to abide by the usual pattern; one could reduce the number of pulls needed; and one could put blocks back into the tower to try to make it stabler.

For years, we’ve toyed with messing with the tower in similar ways. I don’t think we ever talked about setting it up strangely, but adding/subtracting pulls [beyond differences created by your character’s capabilities] and putting blocks back were definitely in discussion. Anyway, reading about that game got my juices flowing, so I wanted to brainstorm: what other ways could you let people alter how the tower works, or how they interact with it, provided it made sense for the scenario/genre/setting? I’ll start off with what I’ve thought of, or gotten from talking to people:

Setting it up in a different way. This could be as simple as a spiral twist, as in the game that inspired this post, or something completely different. We sat down last night and played around a little, and found a few semi-viable alternatives. I’ve known that the blocks are roughly 3:5:15 proportions since the start, so the obvious alternative is turning them on edge, making layers of 5.

stacking on edge

This theoretically lets you pull up to 4 out of every 5 blocks—though, in practice, I’ve never been able to one-handedly reduce a layer in this configuration to less than 2 blocks. So it’s probably more realistic to say that this gives you 3 out of 5 blocks, which is actually slightly inferior to the standard tower. However, you can get that 60% pull ratio while still having relatively stable layers, with two in each block—leaving all layers with two blocks in the regular tower means only pulling 1 block in 3. But it’s also a lot trickier to get the middle blocks out, IME, so…

The other two possibilities we tried out that might, possibly, work, are stacking them on end, and making triangular layers. Rather than try to describe either one, I’ll just use some pictures:

semi-vertical stacking

making triangles

After much playing around, that was about the limit of what we could come up with that was a repeatable pattern, and allowed pulling of any blocks. But, if you’ve got some more ideas, I’d love to see them.

Once you’ve got it stacked up, though, now what? Well, we already mentioned reducing/avoiding pulls due to metagame, rather than game-fiction, reasons. Also, putting blocks back—reversing the process. Though, unless you allow using extra hands to stabilize the tower while you’re doing this, I’m not sure that’s actually an ability that’ll be used much past the first few pulls. Which brings me to my next idea: allowing two hands, perhaps only in very specific ways (you can still only touch one block, or you may never touch the same block with both hands at once), or just generally. Be careful—this one can make the game much easier if it’s too freely used. Another simple variant is to allow someone to pull from the top layer. If you do this, I’d say they still have to be able to set it on a higher layer than they pulled from, so there would have to be at least two blocks in that top layer, but, still, this would make the occasional pull much easier. Another simple “power”, assuming you’re using a multi-colored tower, would be the ability to choose any color to pull, when the rules normally require you to choose a particular color.

After this, it starts to get wackier. It’s already legal to not necessarily re-align a block that you half pull, and there’s no demand that you perfectly align the block when you place it on top. Why not allow someone to break the stacking pattern? Allow them to place the block on top however they please—diagonal, hanging over the edge, on edge, on end.

Finally, we get to the really complex options. Complex, because they’re harder to implement, and/or I’m not sure how they affect the game’s probabilities. Anyway, what about letting someone remove a block, and not re-stack it? This definitely cuts the difficulty, at the cost of lessening the number of potential future pulls. Though, due to a shorter/stabler tower, the actual number of possible pulls might actually stay roughly the same—I’m really not sure. The next obvious evolution of this is to let someone place a block without first pulling one. This would require you to either have let someone pull without replacing earlier, or have a second Jenga set standing by, just to provide extra blocks.

And, interacting with the multi-tower idea above, it could get really wacky: what would happen if you let someone pull from one tower, but stack on another? Imagine a regular Jenga tower, with half a dozen Jenga Xtreme blocks in the mix…

OK, that’s it for now. But I want to hear what other people think. Have you tried any of these ideas, or something else similar? Do you have some ideas on how any of them should/could play out, or how they would affect the overall play of the game? Which ideas sound like the best match for an Inception-style Dread game?


One comment on “Playing With [Lots of] Blocks

  1. […] you’ve been following my blog, you’ll recognize most of these modifications from my earlier post on ways to change the behavior of the tower in Dread. The players all agreed that #4 was basically […]

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