In this part 3 (of 3) of my analysis of a Dread game based on the movie Inception, I’ll look at how 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 more extreme version than I’d ever done with Dread before. With Dread, I normally have a pretty definite setup before the players ever show up. I have to in order to craft the questionnaires. There are usually chunks—sometimes large chunks—of the scenario that are determined by the players, both how the answer the questions and how they play the game. But, at the minimum, the initial setup is decided ahead of time. Not with my Dreamthieves game.
For this game, I spread the pieces of the story out amongst the other questions on the questionnaires. By the time the players had finished the questionnaires, most of the scenario was created. They determined the target, the info sought, their employer, and a number of other major details of the plot outline. So I had no idea what game I was running until just before the game began.
Everybody loved this part, though it also threw most of them for a loop. In future, I think the way to do it would be to have “normal” character questionnaires and then a separate “scenario questionnaire” step, before play began. Probably just have everyone work on it collaboratively. For those who like player ignorance to reflect character ignorance, the questions could be divvied up and the answers secret, known only to the answerer and the host. It would end up a bit like the mission creation in Wilderness of Mirrors, with the host filling in the gaps as needed.
The questions themselves definitely need refinement, because they relied a bit too much on the players having brought “Inception: the Game” with them in their heads—and only 1 player in this group had seen the movie. So, for example, they sorta assumed that whatever their plan was would require a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream. Just because.
There were some other problems with the structure of the scenario. I should’ve had an explicit in-world time limit on the whole thing. As is, we started in the 1st dream, but never clarified how much time they had in the physical world, or what would happen if they took too long.
But the biggest problem was definitely relying on movie-plot emulation to keep them in the dreams. I had extracted and summarized the metaphysics of dream delving, including the whole “if you die in the dream, you wake up” bit. Well, these were gamers, not movie producers, so they quickly took advantage of this, and spent much of the session popping back and forth—going into a dream, accomplishing some bit of the mission, or even just passing on some info to a colleague, and then committing suicide in the dream world to return. It lost much of the potential drama and delicious structure of Inception in the process. It was like the party that has perfect teleportation and a good map jumping in and out of the dungeon to avoid all the consequences of their actions, take healing breaks, resupply, etc. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it does radically alter the feel.
I don’t recall anything in the movie that explicitly prevented that behavior, but I think that next time I run Dreamthieves, I’ll declare that everyone has to enter a dream at once. Which will introduce another problem, however: communication. It’s fine for a movie if several of the characters are left behind with each new dream, but for a game, the players are all still there. And 3 parallel stories with 2 players each is way different than one story with 6 players doing separate-but-coordinated things. Without some way to communicate between dream levels, it risks turning into the former. Really cool for a heist movie; less cool for a [heist] game.
Alternately, the players suggested that I treat it much like “real” death, and thus like anything else traumatic in a game of Dread: require pulls to remain fully functional. Perhaps draw on the feel of Flatliners a bit, in that regard.
Finally, one interesting observation about this setup: It’s the perfect setup for a longer campaign-style game of Dread, precisely because character removal just means being booted out of the dream, and thus the mission—i.e., session. There are consequences, but without the need to be constantly introducing new characters. To be clear, this would radically alter the feel of the game, since it would become about continuing to contribute to the mission, rather than survival, but it would certainly work.
It would, also, transform the game itself—it really wouldn’t be a horror game any more, and I’m not sure it would be Dread. You can have campaign-style games of Dread, but they are almost guaranteed to be high-lethality, with lots of character turnover. This wouldn’t be that.
The good news is that making it a heist game—embracing that—rather than a horror game should help address the problem of too many blocks to pull. In a heist story everything is difficult and uncertain, so there simply should be more pulls. Plus, it is generally a fast-paced genre, which helps to justify speeding things up and, again, making more pulls. So I simply need to get in the habit of demanding more pulls, and pushing the tempo of the game. That will help capture the genre, and will also do something to ameliorate the problem of too many blocks.
So, to summarize my experiments with trying to capture the feel of Inception with a Dread scenario:
- Multiple towers is a go, but I need to significantly up the number of blocks pulled to make up for it.
- Multiple-colored towers works just fine. It both helps to offset the addition of lots of extra blocks, and gives a nice feel to the dream-within-a-dreams.
- The rest of the funky mechanics were a fun experiment, but add more trouble and complication than they’re worth—and some of them don’t really add anything positive.
- The characters can have kewl powerz in the dream worlds, but they should just use the regular mechanics, like in any other Dread game.
- Constructing the scenario via questionnaire works, and is engaging. But the actual questions and presentation needs a lot of work, and it is probably better to make it a separate step from character creation.
- This isn’t really Dread any more. But it might just make a good heist-style game done this way.
- It’s less clear to me how you would adapt it fully to the heist genre in general, minus the dream delving part. You’d no longer have the excuse for multiple towers, nor the excuse of an alternate reality to deal with removed characters. You’d probably have to redefine tower collapse to mean something else—though I suppose “captured” or “arrested” might do the trick, and that fits the existing rules.