Last week, I ran a one-shot game of the horror RPG, Dread. Dread is a light system with very few rules, no stats and no dice. In place of dice, the game uses a Jenga tower for skill checks. Where a check would normally occur, the player instead draws a block from the tower and is considered successful if the tower does not fall. Naturally, this means that as time goes on and more checks are made, the tower becomes more and more precarious. This is actually a really effective mechanism, succeeding in gradually building tension until the tower falls. When the tower falls, the character making the check is killed and the tower is rebuilt. Play then continues with relative security for a while as tension is released and begins to slowly build back up towards another death. Players can also voluntarily push the tower over to sacrifice themselves in a suitably dramatic way.
The game we played saw a small, devout church youth group travelling to Massachusetts to visit an old church. They were to meet their reverend at this church. The tone of this story was quite campy and was full of pop culture references. The first example came in the form of the reverend himself, the reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, lifted from the fantastic Netflix Original Series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The member of the group were:
- James, the reverend’s right hand man. He is an NPC and is leading the group.
- Sally, the bus driver.
- Darren, a mechanic.
- Jacob, a persuasive speaker.
- Noah, a devout pacifist.
- Beth, a mandolin-playing gardener.
What was interesting about this little church group was that they were not a church group at all, but rather a cult attempting to summon the cosmic entity, Yog-Sothoth. The only member of the group who actually believed they were a church group was Noah, whom the rest of the group intended to sacrifice once they arrived at the church. Secrecy was always going to be paramount.
The story began on the bus, with the group relentlessly singing along with Beth and her mandolin. Sing-alongs became a running theme in this game with rousing renditions of religious songs, folk songs and pop classics throughout the evening. The group happily continued on their way until they were flagged down by a trio of armed bikers.
Jacob got out of the bus to see what the bikers wanted before stealing a gun and briefly holding on of the bikers hostage. Once the group had got back into the bus, Sally made a point of reversing over two of the bikes as they made their exit.
A few hours of driving later, and Sally was getting tired and asked for another driver to take over. This seemed a good idea, as I was going to revoke her automatic passes for driving checks due to tiredness. What occurred next was infuriating for both the players and myself, as it was my first time dealing with a purposefully difficult player. I talk more specifically about this player on my group blog, NoRerolls, but needless to say this individual will not be invited back. Anyway, to get to the point, Darren offered his services as driver and immediately pushed over the tower, which was nowhere near falling. This meant that he effectively sacrificed himself as soon as he got into the driving seat… ugh. It also meant that the tension I had been trying to build using the tower was completely destroyed and one player was left very upset. In game terms, Darren took the wheel and immediately crashed the bus into a telegraph pole, killing himself and rendering the bus unusable. It was also suggested he leave the table.
Once the group recovered from their in-game shock and out of game anger, they continued on foot until arriving at a suspiciously empty motel in the middle of nowhere, with a big, old house standing behind it. Beth noted the twitchy young man on reception and the fantastic examples of taxidermy on display, but their night was mercifully peaceful and passed without event.
The next morning, Jacob called David McDavid Honda’s new east coast branch to secure transportation. A rental car was provided by the good patriots at David McDavid:
Back on the road, it did not take long before the bikers found the group again. This time, Sally was far more aggressive, swerving into a bike and sending it careening off the road. Jacob, over Noah’s protests, shot one of the bikers with the gun he had stolen in their earlier encounter. The group continued on until they came to a fork in the road.
At this point, they had a choice between the dark and threatening forest road or the busy, open interstate. The majority of the group voted for the interstate but Sally, as the driver, made an executive decision and took the forest road.
Immediately, the group were beset by various obstacles, including logs blocking the road and ravenous wolves. These were overcome with relative ease by the group, but the tower was slowly becoming more difficult to maintain.
The group then encountered another cult who, in the case, worshipped Yig, the father of serpents.
Sally, becoming increasingly unhinged by this point, decided that the best course of action was to mow through the cultists, managing to kill five of them in the process – much to the horror of the other players. Whatever the moral implications, Sally did succeed in getting her companions out of the forest and back on the road… for a bit… until they ran out of gas.
The group then set off on foot to the nearest farm, where they were offered the barn to sleep in by some slightly hostile farmers. It was actually a very nice barn, and the group left quite rested. There was a short debate about whether they should try to steal supplies from the farmhouse. They decided not to break into the farmhouse, and felt vindicated in this decision when they peered into a shed on the way out and found a set of Yig cult robes. They swiftly got on their way.
They walked for a long time, not encountering many people on the road, apart from a very out-of-place orange seller. They ignored him and moved on. When they needed food, they used Beth’s gardening skills to identify safe mushrooms and berries. They also found an abandoned tractor and trailer with the keys in the ignition. Quite paranoid and edgy by this point, the group decided not to take the tractor and walked down towards the interstate where Noah intended to hitch-hike.
The first car that stopped was full of smart-looking, well-dressed people who seemed to be intently studying the group’s faces. The group backed off and allowed them to move on, hearing a slight radio crackle as they drove off. The next vehicle to stop was a bus carrying the women’s soccer team of the Miskatonic University, returning to Arkham Massachusetts following a game in Connecticut. This would take the group within a few miles of the church, and gratefully boarded the bus.
The group was given some time to rest, but were awoken by the sound of sirens. This put the group on edge, especially as the tower was now looking incredibly precarious. Ahead of the bus was a road block, manned by FBI agents and local police. As the bus slowed to a stop, Clyde (the lead biker from earlier) boarded the bus and immediately recognised Jacob. A scuffle ensued and Clyde was left in a position where he was about to reveal the truth about the cult to Noah, the intended sacrifice. At the point, Sally pushed over the tower, sacrificing herself to take out Clyde. She ran at him, carrying him bodily through the windscreen of the bus, lacerating and killing both Clyde and herself. The secret was safe, but another group member was dead.
Sally’s player made an interesting observation that in a horror movie, Clyde would be considered the protagonist, taking on the cultists to save the unwitting sacrifice. She took great delight in the fact that she got to kill the protagonist, bring her kill total to six for the game. Kill total is not something I was recording, and not something that anyone else was considering, but Sally felt that it was important.
The rest of the group retreated into the woods, knowing that the church was not far beyond the other side. There were a number of possible distractions and threats along the way, but as each thing appeared, Jacob barked at the group to keep moving. He was determined to get to the other side. There were many checks along the way as they crossed difficult terrain and drew on knowledge to identify threats. This led to a very quick destabilisation of the tower, and the group was feeling increasingly nervous. This peaked at the point that this happened:
You’re walking in the woods.
There’s no one around,
And your phone is dead.
Out of the corner of your eye you spot him,
He’s following you
About 30 feet back.
He gets down on all fours and breaks into a sprint.
He’s gaining on you.
I did say that the tone was campy and fuelled by pop culture. Jacob reached for his gun and pushed over the tower, sacrificing himself to secure the safety of his remaining companions, Beth and Noah. He shot Labeouf and watched as the Hollywood superstar crumpled to the ground. He went to check the body and was surprised when, with his final effort, Shia brought an axe up and into Jacob’s skull. Both men lay dead in the woods. I was a little disappointed that I did not get to subject the group to the entire saga of actual cannibal Shia Labeouf, but I was happy at how the group had reacted.
The rest of the journey was largely uneventful, with Beth and Noah arriving at the church to meet the reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. As Noah approached the reverend, he felt a heavy blow on the back of his head and slid out of consciousness. Beth had knocked him out. When he awoke, Beth and the reverend stood over him, chanting and lowering an ornamental dagger into his chest. He gave a single scream, which seemed to echo around the church as it began to groan and pulse. He quickly lost consciousness as Yog-Sothoth re-entered the world.
The story was over and I was happy with how it went. Other than the little incident with the difficult player, it went well and the group enjoyed it, too. I would definitely use Dread again, but only as a one-shot. I don’t think it’s really the sort of thing that would work well as a campaign. Really impressed by this simple, little game.