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I have talked about playing Dread in the past. Today, I’ll be sharing my GM perspective.
For context, I’ve now run this three times and been a player twice. This doesn’t make me an expert, but I have learned a thing or two. The first two rounds I ran a Jurassic Park scenario. The third and most recent was an Evil/Haunted House scenario inspired by the film “1408.” This last round doubled down on why I love tabletop gaming. Everything just fell into place (pun only mildly intended but fully enjoyed).
For Jurassic Dread, and with the games I was a player, there was little to no prep involved (I’ve chatted with the other GM about it). I found a map, chose why the party was together, and how they ended up on the island. I had a vague list of dinosaurs and an NPC. That was about it. I rolled with the players’ ideas and kept throwing hazards at them, keeping the tension high and the pressure on. These were games of pure improv and reaction. And while the responses I received from those games were positive, I knew there was more potential in this system…
For the haunted house, I wanted to do a bit more, so more I did! I wanted the threat to be smart, not just a mindless monster. It needed to be an evil intelligence. Something that could interact with and manipulate the PCs.
I started asking myself “what if?” ….What if we don’t actually see the victim’s death? What if they’re just absorbed into the house instead? I leaned into psychological thriller and away from monster movie.
I also really wanted to play a high-drama game. To create a high-drama game, you need characters that know each other, are stuck with each other, but also care about each other. With that in mind, I decided to give the players one character creation restriction: They needed to make a family unit.
Everyone could play what they would like but within the idea that they are a family. As usual, the questionaire is very important – not just for the players but also for my own set-up.
Here’s what I used:
Relation in family:
Family member I’m closest to: (this can be answered later)
Something I’m proud of:
Something I’m ashamed of:
Something I’m hiding from my family:
Let me tell you, the answers that came back were poetry! There were a few characters that heard voices, the daughter had attempted murdering Grandpa but killed his dog instead (the dog ended up being taxidermied but Grandpa thought he was still alive), there were paranormal enthusiasts and skepticks. The fodder they brought was perfect for intrapersonal issues but also buttons for the “house” to press.
GM Note: It’s important to get the characters sorted before the session if you want to prep. They’ll give you more to work with. It isn’t required, but I find it very helpful. It also increases the hype.
Even with my PCs sorted, I didn’t know how they were going to approach the issue of the house being haunted. So I came up with why, what, and how as well as a possible solution to the haunting.
Across the house were cursed runes inscribed – under floor boards, corners of rooms, etc. This meant that should the players want to remove the evil, there could be a way. How they would do that would be something I would follow the lead of the players (if they picked this thread). The main look of the house’s “avatar” was a shadowy, Slenderman-like spider thing. However, I had little intention of having it fully reveal itself during the game. I wanted to fully embrace the less-is-more mentality. I found sound effects I could possibly use. We had a soundtrack running that Katie used for The Darkest House (it’s perfect).
Game Play that Made all the Difference
The basics for Dread still applied. If a character is in a situation that could be dangerous, I had them pull a block. What I added (after researching across Reddit): Players occasionally had the option to pull 1-3 blocks, depending on how many they pulled they would receive different outcomes. The more blocks, the more information they got.
In addition, when a character died (the tower fell), we reset by having all the living PCs pull 3 blocks. The rules that I come upon said that you pull 3 blocks for every dead PC and then an additional 3 for every PC >6 still alive. I found this unnecessary, as I was playing with 8 PCs and it got excessive. We decided to do 3 pulls per living, and 1 additional for the dead.
One rule that I chose to stop using during the game was doing a random pull every 15 minutes. I can see this helping if you have players who are indecisive, if as a GM you aren’t asking for frequent pulls, or you have fewer players. But we had 8 PCs, and we were pulling a lot of blocks. There was little worry about pacing.
Finally, the last thing I did was pass notes. The house whispered to PCs throughout the game, pushing on their fears and shame and secrets. This amped up the RP and players made clear choices based on what was “whispered.”
Combining all of this made this game so memorable and enjoyable and terrifying.
THE GAME ITSELF
It was a “conversation” between myself and the players. I watched the tower and moved between groups, directing the narrative. I knew everyone’s motivations and secrets and was able to push and pull with a pencil and post-it notes. I had supernatural events lined up, but hardly needed them because of what the players brought to the table.
Why the Family was at the house:
– The mother, Selena, was susceptible to scams. So she received a post card saying they had won an exclusive, lake cabin weekend vacation! She accepted it as a birthday present to her long-suffering and hard working husband, Hugo. They turned it into a family vacation: Hugo, Selena, their three kids (Calvin 13, Nevaeh 14, and adopted/orphaned cousin Rufus 19), Grandpa William, Grandma Charlotte-Marie, and sitting on the porch of the cabin when they arrived is crazy ex-Uncle Norman (was married to Selena’s sister).
The first death came quickly. Part of this is the game mechanic I mentioned earlier. I allowed players to pull 1-3 blocks and they would get different outcomes. Selena set up crystals on the front porch to protect her children. The player pulled three blocks. Rufus was a paranormal enthusiast and had loads of equipment, so he said he was recording it all… I also allowed him to pull 1-3 blocks. Various family members made their way into the house, and players kept pulling. Calvin ran through the house, I allowed him to also pull 1-3… the tower fell on his third pull. The nature of this game and the tone of the story, Calvin ran through the house (most everyone was still outside), and out the back porch door… the door closed, and Calvin was gone. We reset the tower.
Because Calvin was now part of the house, I was able to use him as an avatar, which was beautiful. We fast forwarded a bit, the family settled in with a few more block pulls and spooking things starting to happen. I passed notes to specific characters and Mom noticed that Calvin was missing. She and Grandma went to investigate. She pulled a block and heard him laughing outside. This gave spooky feels to the players, but they were very good at not meta-gaming and Mom investigated. She was led to the cellar….
For the sake of keeping this post shorter, I’m going to stop there. If you would like me to write up the full story of the game, I would be happy to; just let me know in the comments. My main goal, and I hope I succeeded in this, is to give you inspiration for your own Dread game. To share with you game mechanics that helped build tension and keep the momentum of the game moving forward. The reset-mechanic really removed the “someone just died, I’m safe for a bit” issue we had in previous games… no one was safe in this story.
Ultimately, your players are there to be scared. The scarier you make the game, the more danger they are in, the more fun they’re having. That’s the point… You don’t play Dread looking for a walk in the park. Make it *hard.*