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Dread with Less Player Elimination

In Wil Wheaton’s call for indie RPGs for Tabletop season 3, he says the following:

I’m also beginning to look at indie RPGs, because we had such a great time playing Fiasco. So far, candidates include:

[…]

  • Dread

I don’t know if we’ll be able to make any of these work (Dread has player elimination, for example) […]

That’s a fair cop on Dread’s dynamic, and is core to the rules as written:

If at any time a player other than the host causes the collapse of the tower, their character is removed from the game. It should be noted that this occurs regardless of who is or isn’t pulling, or even if the tower falls accidentally. If they were attempting to pull a block at the time, the character also fails at that action.

How this will play out in game is up to the host. Usually, this will result in the death of the character, but may involve any number of events including imprisonment, loss of consciousness, flight of cowardice, insanity, possession, etc. It should not be difficult to dream up various and sundry graphic ways to remove the jumper. However, the translation attempt may cause the host some difficulty. How do you remove this character and still preserve the reality of the game?

But I’ve also seen two ways to deal with that that I think are pretty cool.

Inescapable Fate Method

Wes Schneider, Paizo’s editor-in-chief and my grandboss[1], runs a wicked fierce game of Dread. (And we all talk about our love of Dread in the PaizoCon Horror in RPGs panel.) When I played in one he ran, he kept the intent but changed how it worked. Instead of immediate player elimination, he outlined a different consequence. To paraphrase: “Once you cause the tower to fall, your life is in my hands. You can’t make pulls anymore. I decide if you succeed or fail. I decide when you die, and trust me, you will die. Enjoy the lingering torment.”

I knocked the tower over, and fully narrated my death. Wes then said, to vaguely recall from memory. “And then you look around.” Apparently I wasn’t dead yet, but infected and knew my death was near. He dragged that on for about 40 minutes, and I played along with it pretty well. It made the game more fun for me, because I got to ham up the futility. In fact, the character went from assuming he’d be the only one to survive to knowing that he was marked for death, and went first into rooms. The creatures would—again, if I remember right—completely ignore him and go after the others.

The pitfall of this method is buy-in. You have to be willing to keep playing but have no agency of your own. For some people, that’s less fun that player elimination. For folks like me, though, bring it the fuck on. :D

Unlockable Characters Method

This method I learned at an EndGame Oakland game day sometime in 2011. Travis Lindquist ran a WWII “back in a medical station near the front” game, and it was brutal. About an hour or so into the action, Travis says that we hear a woman’s panicked screams, and follows with “If you save her, she’s an unlocked character. One of you can respawn into her if you die.” Thus, you still have character elimination without total player elimination, and you still have risk because it’s a consumable resource.

And that was pretty awesome. We did, in fact, save her, and I later knocked the tower over with my first character to mow down a horde of demons, thus allowing me to respawn into the nurse. That was the only extra life we got in the game, and it was pretty neat to suddenly play a totally different viewpoint.

Also in that game, I got to make pulls to force a demon god to know love while I was being consumed. That was nifty.

New Thought: Early Timer

As I’m writing this up, a thought occurs to me that if someone knocks the tower over too early, like within the first hour of the actual play (not counting any time spent on the questionnaire or other setup), that character is instead maimed. All of your pulls require on more than normal because of this—maybe only those where the maiming is narratively prominent, or maybe just for all of them because why not. Once this “maim time” has elapsed, or if it’s been triggered, the game goes back to its hardcore pure-elimination mode.

Unless you intentionally knock the tower down in that time. That plays by the classic rules and it kills the “just be maimed” option because the tower’s knocked down.

Instead of based on time, it could be based on the first half dozen pulls.

Another Thought: Sharks of Retribution

This is inspired by the character elimination part of Bully Pulpit’s Carolina Death Crawl. In that game, when a character is eliminated—and it’s a GM-less game where all but character will be by the end—that player takes on a different role as advocating for the horrors that want to kill the other characters. How that would work in a game with a GM is an exercise for you readers and individual tables, but it’s an option.

(The name of this comes from Derek Guder, who in a Carolina Death Crawl game called my fiancée a “shark of retribution” after her character was killed and she circled the table whispering vile portents.)


Do you know of other ways to soften the player elimination part of Dread without removing the fear factor that makes the game so great? Please share!

– Ryan

[1] A friend’s term for “the boss of your boss.”

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6 Responses to Dread with Less Player Elimination

  1. Jason Godesky says:

    We ran a Werewolf campaign with Dread (I like the setting, but not so much the system). Of course, the real terror in a werewolf game isn’t whether or not you’ll survive, but when you’ll lose control. So when the tower fell, that’s when you lost control. I got to take control of your character until it passed. Sometimes that would mean waking up naked somewhere in the woods, covered in blood, and terrified of what you might have done. It worked out pretty well.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Hmm. I would still want to make intentionally knocking over the tower a big deal. In the Werewolf dynamic, that seems too much like “yes, I’m gonna hulk out!” versus “no, I want to restrain myself,” which makes that not too appealing to me. How did it actually play out when the tower was intentionally knocked over?

    • Jason Godesky says:

      Yeah, this did effectively remove knocking over the tower as a useful option.

  2. Cody C. says:

    When I run Dread, I usually go with the “Inescapable Fate” route. However, there’s another path you can take that I’ve used to great effect: have the players who were eliminated become the villains.

    I’ll admit, this requires a lot of trust between the players and everyone has to be on board, but it can be really fun. I occasionally run a Dread game where characters find themselves trapped in a haunted house that taps into each characters’ dark side and forces them to face it. If the house breaks them (i.e., the tower is knocked over), they become agents for it and try to break the others (following my lead and I make sure things don’t go too far, of course).