Dreamthieves, Take 2 (part 2)

In the last post, I talked about using multiple, multi-colored towers for my Inception-inspired Dread game. Now I’ll move on to discussing other mechanical tweaks to the towers and block pulling.

I was inspired by this mention of running an Inception-inspired Dread game at last Gen Con. One of the things they did was let each character/player have a “special power” that interacted with the tower. I took that idea and ran with it. In no particular order (just numbered for convenience of referencing):

  1. The architect is tasked with building the towers.
  2. The forger can make a pull to make a minor alteration to the dreamscape.
  3. The extractor can remove a block completely when pulling, not needing to restack it on top.
  4. The mimic can do reverse pulls: pull a block from the top layer and reinsert it somewhere lower in the tower.
  5. The mole pulls normally, but can then stack the pulled block on any tower.
  6. The leader can always pull any color of block [ignoring the color restrictions in deeper dreams].

If 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 a game-breaker: it simply was too powerful. The player of the architect (#1) felt a little left out, mechanically—messing with the tower might work in some circumstances, but as a counterpart to the other players’ powers, it simply wasn’t equally fun. And she made maximal use (or is that abuse?) of the ability:

strange tower

It was particularly in concert with #1 that ability #4 came into play. In a normal tower, it’s powerful—too powerful, I now think. But with the funky stacking that the architect’s player devised, it basically made pulls freebies. The blocks that you see sticking out are only stable with other blocks on top of them. So, sticking with the regular tower rule that you may only build the top-most layer, and can’t place blocks in lower layers, once those were pulled, subsequent layers would’ve been much less stable, since they would’ve lacked those blocks. But ability #4 let the mimic fill in those holes. And, it was a ridiculously-stable tower arrangement.

So, ability #1, to arbitrarily stack the tower, either needs major refinement, or just needs to go away. It wasn’t terribly fun for the player, because it’s a one- or two-time thing, while the other players get to use their abilities all the time. And if the player maximizes their one-time advantage and really goes crazy, it can easily undermine the inherent danger of the tower.

Ability #6 has a noble motivation, but, like #4, I think it unbalances things too much. Inception is focused on one character. Taking the premise and making a game out of it, I wanted to switch it to more of an ensemble cast. That meant I wanted to make the characters all roughly equal in effectiveness and importance. But, at the same time, what’s the leader’s job? In the movie, he’s The Hero, so he doesn’t actually need a job. Everyone else is there to support him, and are therefore defined by their jobs, but not him. Doesn’t work that way in a game, unless we choose to make it that way. One way is mechanically—I wanted to give the leader a mechanical trick that made it make sense to treat them as the leader. By letting that player choose any color block, there should be a powerful incentive to take them into every dream, because it would help offset the increasing difficulties built into the tower.

And, in fact, that “gem” of an idea was where all the varying block-pull tweaks came from. I knew what I wanted to give the leader, so i needed to find comparable tweaks for all the other characters. I failed. There are only so many ways you can mess with the tower without the game falling apart, and it’s really hard to find multiple options that are balanced.

More importantly, the funky tower mechanics made the towers too much the focus of the game. The tower is supposed to be omni-present, but Dread should not be a game where thinking about the mechanics in an analytical way is a major component of the game. The tower is very intentionally a visceral, intuitive sort of mechanic, not an intellectual one. It’s why I’m so coy in my analyses of the condition of the tower when I’m running a game—I don’t want people thinking in terms of “I can only get 4 more pulls, so I’ll take 1 pull now, rather than all 3.” Ideally, it’s much more along the lines of “The tower feels pretty rickety, so I’ll do as few pulls as I can.” And it’s why it works so well, even with very disparate manual dexterities at the table. I guarantee that the exact same group of people will be able to stack up at least half a dozen more blocks when they’re playing Jenga than when they’re playing Dread, because of the psychological element, the investment in the character and the story. With some people, it’s more like twice as many. In any case, most people, most of the time, aren’t being strictly analytical about the tower during Dread, and that’s a good thing.

Other than the forger’s ability, the rest of the powers (i.e., #3 & #5) seemed ok, but perhaps pointless. They introduced a distracting layer of strategy, and I’m not convinced they actually meaningfully impact the game play in the long run.

Which brings me to the forger’s ability. That was the only one that didn’t alter the fundamental mechanics of the game—it just codifies a very common way of handling extraordinary abilities in the game. Unfortunately, it’s also the one character that has yet to be played in either run of this scenario. Nonetheless, having used that mechanic (i.e., “make a pull to use your cool power”) in many, many scenarios, across numerous subgenres of horror, I’m confident in saying that it is just fine. In fact, talking with the players after the game, they all concurred that setting up all of the characters’ special dream-world abilities in that manner would be much more fun. It gives a mechanical contact point for the special abilities, without requiring them to actually make mechanically-strategic choices. Well, no more so than when making any other pull in a game of Dread.


In the last part, I’ll talk about changes to the questionnaires and scenario construction.

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2 comments on “Dreamthieves, Take 2 (part 2)

  1. […] is getting long, so I’ll continue in the next post. There, I’ll discuss other mechanical changes involving the […]

  2. […] the scenario construction was different from most Dread games, and bring the discussions from all 3 parts together.Scenario creation was the final new aspect of this game. Well, not completely new, but a […]

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