A couple weeks ago at Con of the North I ran another playtest of Dreamthieves, a Dread scenario I first ran a couple months ago. Inspired by someone’s description of an Inception-inspired Dread game at Gen Con last year, I set out to see what it would take to make the two work together. I first ran the game a few months ago at a local game day, but with only 3 players (only one of which knew anything about Dread before then) and a shortage of time, it was really hard to tell whether or not it would work. This time, I had 5 players, 4 of whom had played Dread multiple times before, plenty of time, and some ideas from the 1st run-through. We also were able to discuss the game afterwards, so I could get some feedback this time.
In summary: It was awesome! It was also slightly broken. And I think I may be inventing a Dread variant, rather than just another scenario.
Starting from the basic structure of Dread, I made several changes. The most obvious change, and the genesis of my rules tinkering, is using more than one tower. For each dream world, or level, I used a separate tower. The next change is altering the basic rules for pulls. Finally, I used the questionnaires to build not only the characters, but the scenario.
This was, I think, my biggest mistake: I layered too many new mechanical things on, not all of which gave as much benefit as the effort they took. So let me analyze each chunk in turn, and then look at the overall shift of the game needed to make it more suspense than horror, shifting it towards what is essentially a heist plot.
Using multiple towers was the part that everybody loved the most. The reason I think it’s a useful modification, and not just a gimmick, is that it ties into the layered, interactive nature of the various dream realities. I did two things with the towers to specifically reflect the feel of Inception. First, I set up the towers so that the third-dream-world tower is close to the second-dream-world tower, but far from the first-dream-world tower. The first time, they were in a row, about as far apart as the height of a tower. This time they were scattered around the table, but I’ll get back to that. In future, I think putting them in a line, from 1st layer to last (however many there are) is the way to go. Second, I used multi-colored Jenga sets, so that each tower could be made increasingly difficult. Specifically, the second tower was 2-color, with the players only allowed to pull the darker color, and the third tower was 3-color, with the players only allowed to pull the darkest color.
The idea was that the restricted options for pulls would make the later towers tricky more quickly, to reflect the more fragile nature of deeper dreams, as in Inception. That part seemed to work well.
Placing them strategically relative to each other is also part of the genre simulation: one tower collapsing might knock over an adjacent tower, so I wanted their proximity to be based on the layering of dreams within the game world. I started to write a sentence to explain this in the abstract, but I’ll go with an example, instead. Let’s assume that there is tower A, representing the 1st dream world; tower B, the dream-within-a-dream; and tower C, the dream within that dream. I would set them up such that tower C is relatively close to tower B, but very far from tower A; and tower B is about equally close to A and C. This means that, should C collapse, it might hit B, knocking it over, but, hopefully, the only way it would topple A is by first toppling B. For reasons of story reality, I don’t want there to be any realistic chance of C & A toppling from one action, while B remains standing—because that would represent someone dying in both the deepest and shallowest dreams, while still surviving in the one in between them, which I can’t make sense of in the story reality.
Putting the towers in a row isn’t the only solution, it’s just the simplest. If the players want them arrayed around the table, it’s just important that the towers not all be equidistant from one another. I’m not sure whether it is important to mandate that they be close enough that one tower falling is likely to topple another, or if that’s more problem than benefit, but if any are close enough, you definitely want some closer to each other than others, as dictated by the dream worlds they represent in the story.
The multiple towers also introduced the biggest problem, in my opinion: too many blocks. Even with the restrictions, that means there are roughly twice as many possible pulls during a game, which means that it’s unlikely there will be the real threat of anyone being removed from the game unless the game is much longer. This combined with some of the other mechanical changes, which I’ll go into in a bit, compounding the problem. As is, for convention play something else needs to be done—like a noticeably longer session (6-8hrs), which probably isn’t really viable. The lessened lethality, however, might work well for heist, rather than horror, games. Again, more on that later.
So, verdict on multiple towers: yes, for Inception-type stories, or perhaps somewhere else where there are multiple realities, but only if the characters can move between the realities and the realities influence one another. An ongoing story that simply moves from one world to another, and never back again, and the worlds themselves don’t interact, gains nothing from this. And there’s a real downside that I haven’t completely figured out how to fix—namely, the extra blocks.
This is getting long, so I’ll continue in the next post. There, I’ll discuss other mechanical changes involving the towers.