Dread, Only Longer (part 1)

Most people seem to think of Dread as a one-shot-only game, but when we wrote it we intended to create a campaign-worthy game that created particularly intense individual sessions in that campaign. We wanted a game that gave a pay-off in a single session, but one that also worked for longer games.

In chapter 3 of Dread, there is a section about how characters change with the ongoing story. Elsewhere in the book, we talk about how to craft a setting and scenario that makes room for the loss of characters, which is far more common in Dread than in many other RPGs. But, based on the talk I see online, very few have even tried to run a Dread game longer than a couple of sessions.

I’ve even heard people assert that it’s not possible to play an ongoing Dread game. So clearly we didn’t share enough in the rulebook about how to create long-term play. We talked about choosing a sensible setting to justify bringing in new characters on a regular basis, but not enough about the details of how that works. The secret, as in so much of Dread, is in the questionnaires.

So this is the first of a series of posts, talking about some of the obstacles to ongoing games of Dread and sharing some tricks to address them. Let me set the parameters: I’m not talking about a single story that takes more than one session to complete, and may or may not be survived by all of the characters. I’m talking about “campaign-length” play of potentially dozens of sessions, or as long as you want to keep the game going (the Walking Dead tv show has made it to 9 seasons so far). But nothing I’m going to suggest will hurt a single-story game. At worst, doing these things will be extra effort that won’t pay off in a shorter game. And I’m going to assume you’ve read the rulebook, so I may reference things written there without going into detail about them.

Let’s start with the obvious: what do you do when a character is removed from the game, but the game goes on? We’ve already shared some short-term solutions (letting them play a while longer as a “dead person walking”, coming back temporarily as a ghost or similar), and you could even stretch them out over multiple sessions. But I’d advise against it. Having no agency in a game for an hour at the end of the night is one thing; having no agency for several sessions would be tedious at best. And eventually you’d simply run out of characters.

So what we need is to bring in new characters. There are several parts to this, but I’ll start with: why is this new character here? How do you explain new characters showing up, probably repeatedly, and getting involved with the established characters?

One way to do this is to hint at the new characters within the questionnaires of the old. When you’re planning an ongoing game, make sure that every character you create has a connection to at least one character who isn’t another player character but who would make a suitable player character. Then, if your character is removed from the game, you’ve already introduced a new character you can bring in, and who has a connection to the other characters and the story.

In other words, at least one question on every character questionnaire should be about someone else. Possible categories include:

  • family who would come looking for the character if they didn’t return
  • a protegé
  • a mentor
  • teammate
  • classmate
  • close friend
  • old college friend
  • the fellow members of your scouting troop
  • the person who first alerted the character to the existence of supernatural threats
  • a fellow captive
  • the character’s next vat-grown body, waiting to be activated
  • a squire
  • a sentient familiar
  • someone who owes your character their life
  • fellow cult members
  • members of the same knightly order

And there’s no requirement that you use the connection from your character if they leave the game. Since every character should have at least one connection like this, you could use each others’ connections.

If the setup of your story makes sense, some or all of these “backup characters” could be part of the story right from the start. The main characters could be just 4 or 5 of the students at camp, and as each one is eliminated, the player takes over another camper. This works particularly well with a situation where there is an isolated group that is larger than the player group.

But even when there aren’t other people around, there are usually ways to introduce them, maybe between sessions, maybe right away.

Which gets to the other part of replacing characters for long-term Dread play: there needs to be somewhere for those extra characters to come from. Because that’s the one kind of Dread scenario that doesn’t work for multi-session play: one where there’s no way to introduce new characters. If you want to have a longer game, don’t back yourself into a corner with no way to add new characters. For the rest, campaign length play is possible so long as you want it.

#RPGaDAY 28: Dread

The scariest games I’ve ever played have all been sessions of Dread. Let me tell you about our very first playtest of the game. We already had most of the rules there (plus a few extraneous bits that we thankfully dumped before we published), so it was pretty much what you’ve played if you’ve played Dread (though characters were pretty different). Eppy and I were playing in our kitchen with our friend Dan, with the lights low. Eppy was running the game. He had set up a playlist of mood music, looping on his computer a couple rooms away. We were dealing with some creepy cultists in a recently post-apocalyptic land. We had discovered they were engaging in human sacrifice and maybe cannibalism, and decided we needed to get away while we still could. Dan was working on a pull, his hand almost on the tower, and the music was so quiet as to be inaudible. Then, with no warning, an agonizing scream erupted from the next room. We all jumped a foot in the air, Eppy included, and had to take a break before Dan could finish his pull and we could continue the game. Sure, it was just a coincidence and a startle, but it wouldn’t’ve mattered if the game hadn’t been so scary to begin with, if we hadn’t all been so tense through the combination of the events in the game and that looming tower on the table. 

I don’t think we ever bothered with music for a Dread game again—it was almost too much. But we continued to play and run scary sessions of Dread, and I’ve even seen it work its magic in loud, brightly-lit, crowded convention rooms. 

Oh, that scream? It’s part of the opening of a Samhain song, which actually has some very soft other sound effects, but those were inaudible on computer speakers a room away. Unfortunately, neither Eppy nor I can remember the exact song, and some quick googling didn’t provide the answer. 

#RPGaDAY 19: Beneath a Full Moon

Favorite published adventure? Not sure how to answer that. I’ve never run a published adventure, not even an intro or quick start for a game that I can recall. I’ve read and even bought a few, but the closest I’ve ever come is using a story seed or published NPCs to create my own scenario. And I haven’t, as far as I know, ever played a published adventure, either. So, for lack of anything else, I guess I’ll have to be a little narcissistic and choose an adventure I wrote and ran that was later published: the werewolf “hunt” Beneath a Full Moon, one of the example scenarios in Dread

#RPGaDAY 15: Heroine at Forge Midwest

I’m going to start with the best convention game that I wasn’t actually part of. It was Con of the North, many years ago—I think before Dread had actually been published. So people had heard of Dread—it was part of why we were invited to the con—but it wasn’t yet known, and our games weren’t yet swamped. One of the games that Eppy was running only had 3 players, which is pretty much the minimum for the game to really be fun, and he nearly lost 2 of them when he was doing the scenario introduction and they realized that they would be playing rabbits. Not anthropomorphic rabbits, not rabbits with magic powers, not people transformed into rabbits—just rabbits. [We had thought this was clear from the event description, but apparently not.] And that this was nonetheless a serious game. He nearly lost them again when he busted out the Jenga™ tower. Luckily for all concerned, they decided to give it a go. 

Con of the North is the best convention for playing Dread that I’ve been to. At least half the gaming space is in cleared out hotel rooms with just 1 or 2 tables in them, so you don’t have the dull roar of a large convention hall, and at most you have one other group making noise. Luckily, for this game it was just them in the room. So as night fell on the rabbits they turned the lights down in the room. I had finished running my game, so I had come by to sit and watch. As the rabbits tried desperately to escape the owl stalking them, they all were hiding, verging on tharn, which would’ve made them easy prey. Eppy told each player that they would have to pull for their rabbit to keep their wits about them. One of the players volunteered to go first, and started examining the tower. Then, with no warning, in a silent room with just the light spilling from beyond the door, he smacked the tower, sending blocks everywhere, almost-shouting “I bolt!” at the same time. Everyone, Eppy included, jumped, and that rabbit became owl food, but gave his compatriots a chance to get away. 


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