The Alexandrian

Dread: Pacing Problems

December 14th, 2011

Dread is a storytelling game of horror based around a core mechanic in which the players pull blocks from a Jenga tower whenever their characters attempt a meaningful action: If the tower doesn’t collapse, the action is successful. If it does, the character is eliminated from the story, the tower is rebuilt, and play continues.

The intent is that the tower’s steady descent into precariousness models the traditional horror pacing of “tension rises, something bloody happens, and then tension starts rising again”. And, in my experience, this fundamentally works: In a focused gaming environment, the physical act of pulling the block viscerally and collectively immerses the players into the emotional state of the narrative.

So, at a basic level, the mechanic is very, very effective.

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the game inherently suffers from a systematic pacing failure that arises from the same mechanic.

Let’s assume that you want a collapse or near-collapse state at the end of the game (for a tension-filled conclusion).

Per the designers of the game in this thread, it takes about 30 pulls to reach a collapse-state on the tower. I haven’t done any rigorous testing, but that sounds pretty plausible based on my experience. Unfortunately, this means that Dread only reduces the time between collapse-states by 10% (by pulling 3 additional blocks per character knocked out when you rebuild the tower). That means that in a two-collapse game one of the players will be sitting out of the action for nearly half the game. In a three-collapse game, one of the players will be sitting out for 60% of the game.

(To put that in perspective, it means that in a two hour game featuring three collapses, one of the players will play for 45 minutes and then watch the other players for an hour and a quarter. Even doubling the rate of pulls after the first collapse only mitigates this problem.)

Obviously this isn’t a problem if you’ve got a pool of players who don’t mind being completely passive spectators for long periods of time, but the “no chatter” rule in Dread (prohibiting players from talking out of character) only exacerbates a problem which is widely recognized as being a bad idea in game design for a reason.

THE END GAME PROBLEM

The logical conclusion would seem to be pacing for games featuring a single collapse-state: People aren’t “supposed” to be eliminated except for possibly a single elimination during the final climactic struggle. This makes the game considerably narrower in its utility, but appears to be the only way to easily resolve the “bored player” syndrome.

Unfortunately, this solution only calls attention to the other problem the game has: Tension deflation following a tower collapse.

Theoretically, of course, this models the tension/release cycle of horror movie pacing (as described above). But the player elimination problem forces us to abandon that pacing. And even if we didn’t do that, the same problem exists at the end of the game: There’s no way to quickly ratchet the tension back up.

Bill is killed by the werewolf… and then the werewolf isn’t scary any more and the group mops him up.

For mid-game collapses, of course, the GM should make the werewolf run off and then come back later (once the tension has built again). That, after all, is how horror movies work.

But the problem is repetitive: Whenever the tension ratchets up to the point that you can trigger an effective conclusion, there’s a high-risk for a collapse. And since a collapse always indicates a failure, it means that the actual conclusion will happen AFTER the collapse. This means that the game tends to either (a) end on a whimper or (b) a sacrifice (in which one of the players sacrifices their character by knocking over the tower to achieve a Pyrrhic victory). The latter is effective… but only up to the point where it becomes predictable.

SOLUTIONS?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any.

And it is unfortunate, because, as I mentioned above, the core mechanic is very effective in practice: The Jenga tower not only mechanically creates tension which normally requires a great deal of GM skill to evoke, but also invests the table collectively in that tension as a shared experience.

The game is intensely good at a micro-level. But its inherent pacing problems create a consistently frustrating experience at the macro-level.

9 Responses to “Dread: Pacing Problems”

  1. Changling Bob says:

    Regarding player elimination and right off the top of my head: rather than eliminating a player, they are affected by what happened (mentally, physically, whatever is appropriate) and must draw twice as many pieces when they take a relevant action; only eliminate players once at an endgame state.

    I don’t know enough about the game to know if this is reasonable or valid (knowing precisely what you’ve said here!), and doesn’t fix the tension-reset problem, but might be worth a look at?

  2. Leland J. Tankersley says:

    If you own stock in whoever makes Jenga, maybe you suggest having multiple towers, say one per character. When it’s time to pull a block, you roll randomly to determine which tower you pull from. That would help to avoid the loss-of-tension problem.

    Hmmm, what if the collapse of a tower led to the demise not of the puller, but of the character associated with that tower?!

    Or instead of being random, the tower you pull from could be the one associated with the character deemed most “at-risk” from the action being resolved, or something.

    I don’t know that this is something I’d want to play, necessarily, but it’s interesting to think about…

  3. Jess says:

    Having run a few games of Dread myself, players sitting out for much of the game is definitely a problem. I haven’t really been able to find a decent answer for it either, at least not on a general level. On a specific level, I’ve been able to find answers for certain situations. I ran a game based on the body-snatcher concept and rather than have the first pull be the death of the character, they were the first person to be body-snatched. Luckily it was a player I knew could handle the situation.

    As far as pacing goes, I’ve never thought of it as a problem to have the tension deflate for a while. It gives the players a chance to relax a little, which for me has meant an ability to subtly move them back towards a point where the tension returns and catches them off guard. Just because the tower is rebuilt doesn’t mean that the characters have the solution to what they’re facing. The werewolf may kill Bill, but they’ll still have to make plenty of pulls to avoid dying in its claws as it shrugs off being shot. I think much of the problem around horror movies, and thus around Dread, is that we always think there has to be this final showdown, which is good for certain things, but not for Dread, and not for any sense of realism. If we go back to much of what has inspired horror movies originally, namely campfire ghost stories and folklore, there’s very rarely a nice tidy end with a big climax song and dance. That’s part of what makes them thrilling in the first place. I’ve always run my games with that in mind. The werewolf can always disappear, it doesn’t need to finish them off. It might grab one of the characters as a snack on the way out though.

  4. Summerisle says:

    Ive never played Dread as such, but at this year’s SoCal MiniCon one of the DM’s (Telecanter, of recedingrules.blogspot.com) ran a WhiteBox/S&W game that used the Dread mechanic to adjudicate the effects of a disease all the players were suffering from. Any time something happened that might cause someone any sort of annoyance, anger, or fright, a player (we round-robined around the table) had to go to the side table and pull one of the blocks out of the tower. If the tower fell, the incident in question would push one or more of the PCs into a berserk rage, and in-party combat would ensue. If the tower stayed up, we all retained our cool.
    The tower never did fall, but there were certainly some tense moments when someone pulled a block and it wobbled around some. It was a brilliant idea on our DM’s part, I think. It made the effects of the disease a lot more interesting than a simple modifier or occasionaly die roll would’ve, IMO.

  5. Jono says:

    For this one, I’m going to draw on some party experience.

    In my final year at university I used to frequent a particular friend’s house party after a fortnightly society meeting. This friend was an absolute legend. Her after-parties often lasted all night, resulting in a gaggle of half-zombified stragglers shambling home at the break of dawn. How I survived that crazy year I don’t know!

    What became a common feature of her after-parties was the Jenga. We went around the room, taking it in turns to pull a block. The twist was that each block had a forfeit written upon it . “Swap clothes with the person opposite,” was one of the tamer examples. Sufficed to say, collapsing the tower resulted in…. something dreadful happening to the poor wretch who knocked it over.

    I think the principle could work for this game too. Write a one or two word consequence on each block (some good, most awful) which the DM can interpret and apply to the game world. For example “Lose your right Hand (both in-game and out)”, “Player to the Left Struck Blind”, “Temporal Stasis for 1d4 interractions”. That ratchets the pacing right up, because every interaction with tower has consequences. Collapsing the tower also becomes the worst of all possible consequences, rather than the only danger in the whole game.

    In this case you’d probably have to limit the circumstances in which a block pull is necessary. Perhaps characters can carry off skill checks as 1st level D&D characters without danger. Pulling a block in game could represent a character drawing on supernatural power in order to bypass a skill check. This allows the PCs to transcend their usual limits in the game world. However, poking holes in the cosmos carries ever-increasing dangers of harm, mutilation and annihilation (a la Mage: The Awakening). You could further spice things up by requiring an additional pull for every ten points of DC (so a DC of 15 requires two blocks, while a DC of 21 requires 3).

    How does that sound?

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    @Jess: “I’ve never thought of it as a problem to have the tension deflate for a while.” Most of the time, I agree. Throughout most of the game, this cycle of tension-and-release actually works great. It’s just the end-game where it becomes problematic. Regardless of how the horror scenario ends (defeating the horror, escaping the horror, everybody dies) there’s still a need for it to end. And Dread seems to produce endings which are either predictable or weak (or both).

    Maybe it’s just a question of trying to structure scenarios that can end bleakly in that final fail state (so that, if the tower collapses, it’s the end of the story): If you can make it through this sequence you’ll stop the virus from being released; if the tower collapses, then that fail-state is the virus being released and the group knows the world is doomed.

    But that feels like it’s constraining Dread‘s scope and utility even more.

    @Jono/Summerisle: I think there’s a ton of mileage in seeing how this mechanic can be boot-strapped to other games and mechanics.

  7. jdh417 says:

    Not knowing anything about Dread or Jenga, I’ll timidly suggest rebuilding the tower in a progressively weaker fashion after each collapse. It would add more tension and the game will end quicker so that those eliminated won’t be sitting around as long.

  8. fliprushman says:

    I think combinig Jono’s idea of effects written on the blocks and using jdh417’s idea for a progressively weaker tower would do the trick. The only thing I foresee as a problem is that some players may be able to figure out which blocks were put where (a ball under one of three cups scenario.)

  9. Sir Wulf says:

    As jdh417 suggested, the gamemaster can adjust the tower to any level of decrepitude he prefers, using fiat to adjust the tension felt by players. A game could start with the tower canted sloppily to produce a tense opening scene.

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