Let’s do it, let’s talk about Dread. It feels inevitable with the “Tower” theme.
Dread’s an early story game, relative to where we’re at these days with so many fantastic story games out there. The book is, as admitted by the author, a little padded because it was believed that any RPG should be pretty big. The system itself is pretty short but incredibly thematic. I’m a horror movie fan and despite being someone with lousy hand-eye coordination, the idea of the game appealed to me.
I’d watched an actual play of Dread on Tabletop which was great fun, but also meant that the kind of gamers I’d be running for could have seen it. I abandoned that scenario and moved onto the second, a science fiction one. I bought an off-brand WH Smiths version of a Jenga Tower which is charmingly rough and with slightly uneven pieces. I decided to consider that a feature rather than a bug. I also had a couple of plans.
First of all I got a toothbrush and some fake blood, then flicked it over the pieces so it was already bloodstained and even more thematic-looking. My second plan had to wait until play began.
I brought permanent markers to my first game of Dread and waited until a player died. One of the group, Maggie, did her best to never have to pull a block from the tower. You could do that, as there was always an option to stop pulling or to give up and fail. If a player does that, the GM can do anything short of killing the character. If they pull and succeed then that’s great, they’ve passed the action. It’s when you pull and the tower falls, that’s when you’re done. Maggie had what seemed like a wise plan at first, just not doing anything great or impactful first, but the problem is the group don’t pull blocks in a vacuum. The rest of the group had been pulling from an almost intact tower. This meant when a monster was racing through an airlock to get to Maggie’s character, she pulled and the tower fell.
The creature ripped her throat out and went on its way, continuing the hunt. I gave Maggie a pen and had her write her character’s name on the tower. The same happened with Saffy and her character who nobly sacrificed herself to save the group. Another name for the tower. These names would remain forever, along with the next characters to die in the second scenario, and the third.
I’ve been accumulating names now for a while, making a kind of evolving graveyard for future groups to see. If they die, their character will be trapped there forever. I’ve lent out the tower a couple of times so there are even names on there I don’t recognise. I love that, it means the tower’s got a life of its own. No one will ever know the fates of everyone who died there. It is eternal, waiting for the next deaths.
There’s one last thing with this. Despite my dyspraxia putting me solidly on Team “I’ll run Dread but never play” I kind of need to practice with a Jenga type tower. There’s a really cool looking two player RPG called Star Crossed which I want to run. It’s about a star-crossed romance between two people attracted to each other but unable to act on it, like a programmer and hologram, an alien and first contact worker, a planet and its unstable moon… those kinds of relationships. As you play, you pull from the tower. You need it to fall at some point to let the inhibitions fall, but you need a certain amount of pulls to have happened in order to get the best level ending for your story. Too soon and the relationship will burn out too quickly; too late and you’ll never act on it at all. It sounds fantastic, but my current problems are my coordination problems and that the tower is covered in fake blood. It kind of sets an expectation of the sort of story the star-crossed romance I play will be.