Actual Play – Dread at GPNW (6/30/2013)

dreadGM: Dale Horstman
Players: Karen Twelves, Sean Nittner, Jennifer Lyseng, Adrienne Mueller, Christoph Sapinsky, and Lisa Sapinsky.
System: Dread

In the morning we didn’t have anything planned. We had a small huddle with folks and Dale offered to run Dread for up to six players. Karen and I were game, so we sent Dale into the donut to get a few more players. BOOM! In seconds we had a full game!

I’m a fan of Dread. More of playing than of GMing (I’ve actually never run, but see thoughts below), specifically because the fact that any person taking a dangerous action make everything more dangerous for everyone else.  And, because even if the tower looks steady, you really never know when it’s going to fall.


Dale started off handing us the standard format questionnaires to define our characters. We were all on a cruise ship, for various reasons. The questions we’re about that (at least mine weren’t), they were about how messed up our lives were before we got on the ship.

We had a family, including my character, his wife, and their daughter. Additionally we had a corporate executive taking a work-vacation (emphasis on work), the creepy guy obsessed with serial killers and trying to pick up on chicks, and the probably drunk too much looking for love lady. A motley crew for sure, but that’s exactly what you want to have wake up and find a…

Zombie Invasion

The ship had left port last night and in the morning, getting ready to take her morning run, Sam (Christoph’s character) spotted to bodies in the hallway, and a man lumbering towards her. It was on!

Our characters, led by Richard “Don’t Call me Dick” (Jennifer’s character) pretty quickly came to the conclusion that OH MY GOD, THESE ARE ZOMBIES.

Some great highlights of the game for me were…

Jonathan (my character) and Sam, who were teetering on the edge of divorce, getting into marital spats (mostly over their daughter), while in the middle of running for their lives.

The not quite cute, but kind of cute, romance that started to brew between Don’t-Call-Me-Dick and Adrienne’s character during all the madness.

Realizing, fuck it, getting shot in this game is a good idea. You can’t die till the tower falls but injuries and impairments might make for more future pulls, so have at!

Losing Sam (the tower fell) as she valiantly defended the rest of us with a fire hose… and later finding the divorce papers in my pocket (which I brought with me on the cruise) signed by her. That was a heart-breaker.


Taking out the helicopter (yeah, a helicopter was sent to contain us) with a mixture of shotguns (taken from the skeet shooting range) and skeets!

Doing the “zombie walk” to cross a deck filled with them unnoticed.

Being afraid of the dark. Always a nice touch in a horror game.

Adrienne’s character’s turquoise dress over her sunburned skin. It was such a vivid image for me. This bright color on top of her lobster colored skin. She had fallen asleep in it the night before, and so was wearing it throughout the game. Such an awesome detail.

Sophia (Karen’s character) and her obsession with getting work done, and being efficient. Karen plays these characters really well. They don’t come off as worrywarts or sticklers, they come off as people who have a lot of VERY HIGH PRIORITY THINGS TO DO.

Thoughts on the game

Running a three hour game (as a I saw on Saturday) is tough. The questionnaires still take plenty of time to fill out and then it takes some time for the players to introduce their characters. End result is there isn’t a ton of time to get the story in. Dale handled this constraint pretty well but leaping us right into the threat. We had one flashback to the night before (when things were normal) and then started our game with Zombies eating our brains.

I think it was a good call for the time allowed, but I would have liked some lead up if we could have afforded it. Something to hint at what was wrong (did we pick up a strange package at the last port, did some of the people who went on land while we were docked come back looking ill, etc) and well as a bit of discovery during the adventure itself (why were unmarked helicopters telling us to stay put and firing machine guns at us when we didn’t?).

Dread’s resolution does this thing, which I like as a player, but troubles me as a GM. Pulls happen at the speed of players trying to do things. Now, sometimes they don’t have much choice. “The Zombie is coming down the hall and is going to eat your brains” is a prompt that is almost certain to provoke an action from the player, and thus potentially trigger a pull. The more pulls that happen, the more dangerous everything becomes, until of course the  tower falls, in which case you have a momentary reprieve. But my beef is in the granularity. There are times in a game where I might take a roll to the dice, but the stakes might (no matter how badly the roll is) be dire. Dread has no “direness” dial. Anything that isn’t trivial (no pull required) could cause you to die (or be taken out of the game, or whatever). It’s a little rough for me to get my head around, because while I really like the idea that seriously bad things happen in a horror game, I don’t want those bad things (as a GM that is) to categorically always include death.

I’d like to see questionnaires having more impact on the game. They are our character sheet, and therefor should be more than just hints at how to play our character, that stuff should matter, and to matter it should come up in game. In part I realize there was only so much plumbing of our character’s depths that we could do in such a short slot, but I’ve seen this happen before in other Dread games as well. The questions are answered but few if any have significance. I’d like to see a game with a) fewer questions and b) more meaning associated with the answers. I’d say something along the lines of each answer poses a problem for your character. Once you’ve address and resolved the problem in game, you check off that question and get a free pull in the future. That might disturb the balance of the game too much, but I’d like to see those questions do more.

Dale is a very welcoming GM. He’s a friendly guy so I think that comes naturally, but it’s worth noting that when you’re planing a horror game, it’s nice to have friendly face describing the horrific things happening to you.

Spotlight management was also done really well. I was super glad to see all six of the characters get their moments in the sun. Or in some cases the unforgiving depths of the sea.

Playing on a cruise ship at sea is awesome. Good call!

Actual Play – How We Came to Die Here (12/10/2011)

GM: Noam Rosen
Players: Sean Nittner, Kristin Hayworth, Duane O’Brien, Eric Zimmerman, Lalita Devi, Karen Twelves
System: Dread (setting material from How We Came to Live Here)

I was so excited to play this game, and I wasn’t at all let down. Components of the awesomeness:

  • Players: Every single one of these players are awesome. I’ve gamed with all of them before and loved it. This was no exception.
  • GM: I’ve heard lots of good things about Noam’s games. I’ve played with him in my games, sat beside him as a co-player.
  • System: Dread. I love Dread; it makes me all kinds of happy. The tension that builds as the tower get’s more and more filled with holes.
  • Setting: I wasn’t at all familiar with the setting, but was immediately enchanted by it. The Native American Mythos.

Character creation started with picking from lists of members of secret cults (which all of us were in) and descriptive names (like “Laughs with Spirits, Dances with Fire, Who Ties Them Together, Fights them All”).

After picking characters we read up on our secret societies and then created a relationship map that bound us to each other. This processes started the game’s interactions. My character Dances with Fire, for instance wanted to have a child with Fights them All.

As the game started with a pronouncement from our inner chief Always Pregnant that the crops were fallow because there wasn’t enough children in the tribe. We were to marry and make children. We played a game of hacky sack (forget what it was called in the game) for the women to show off to the men and then went about partnering off. Dances with fire had eyes only for Fights them All and I was pretty bold about it. Dances with fire told him point blank to put a child in her or she would humiliate him… which she proceeded to do, loudly, in front of everyone.

I turned to Duane, who I really apologize for doing this given how hung over he was and pulled a block, “You going to let Dances with Fire shame you into giving her a child?” Duane stood up to pull to resist but somehow his leg go caught on the tablecloth and the whole tower went down. So sad for the player, but a great way to start the game.

He Fights them All said he take her out on the prairie (read: they would have sex) if she caught him. So they ran together, but as Dances with Fire pulled ahead she suddenly realized Fights them all was missing, he had been lost and it would be dark soon.
Noam took that one act and used it as seeds for the challenges. We all went out to search for the missing member of our tribe, and in doing so faced the ogre Sharp Tooth, summoned Father Sun to give us direction, and lost most of the tribe. Good times.

In the middle of this, there was another plot thread, a Cord Maiden who wanted to marry Kristin’s character (sorry I can’t remember his name) and went to Karen’s character who was both a midwife (semi-open secret) and a witch (totally secret). Horrible things ensued as Karen agreed to help her and did so by trying to cast a love spell on Kristin’s wizard, who woke in the night with a sweat. We all know just how well love spells work!

Karen later said she didn’t click into her character until she had failed the magical battle casting her “love spell”. During the spell, she really didn’t want to lose, but when she finally forfeited, despite her original disappointment due to losing that element of control over her character, it gave her character a really powerful motivation.

Noam picked up that motivation, used it to bring another threat (the Night-Eyed people) into the game.

As we traveled to a village to confront them, we saw a giant monster in the sky crawling up to devour the moon. My character threw a rock at the monster but only angered it into coming down to devour me first. In the darkness, the witch and the wizard however, merged their powers to bolster the moon and drive back the monster. Their sex-magic was epic.

Thoughts on the game.

I really did the proto-history setting. It has a sense of timelessness, and metaphoric reality that allowed us to range from the mundane to the cosmic.

Noam is fantastic and reincorporating our ideas into external threats so that we felt like all the challenges presented were results of our failures. He had a list of five or six threats and then brought them into the game in response to our actions. Very well done.
Often I worry (or third, or fourth) character in a game robs me of the connections established by the first, but this game assumed all of us knew each other well, so when a new character arrived, there was never a feeling of them being an “outsider”. Very important when you’re playing Dread in a 6 hour time slot.

That Noam had hacked the setting to the Dread system didn’t seem to be a problem at all. Our character sheets had all kinds of pools and traits but mostly those just gave us direction for role-playing. Generally speaking, if we were trying to do the think our character was all about, we got to do it for one less pull than anyone else, but that was about the extent of our “stats”

The kivas (secret societies) were cool, in that we didn’t really know how far they went, or what we would gain when we advanced within them. We had several characters get to 3rd rank in their kivas and that certainly made them interesting. I imagine in a long term game the GM(s) would want to slow down advancement a bit but in this game, we were having a blast trying to talk to spirits, killing monsters, etc.

With six characters we ended up playing all 11 PCs (that tower fell over several times) and we had the foreboding sense even at the end that our small victory paled in comparison to the larger threats. The tenor of the game was not scary but the themes presented felt like they were right out of the Mythos (Cthulhu, et al). There was an inescapable premonition of doom the entire game, and much, much more so by the end.

The “secret” part of the secret societies seemed a little ridiculous. I mean, our characters were running around doing things that made their affiliation obvious. Heck “Laughs with Spirits” was our spirit talker, which is pretty darn clear. I get that the idea was to mitigate sin, much like modern society would mitigate STDs and unwanted pregnancies with birth control, so it was always an imperfect solution, but I think there should have been some clearly “known” societies, rather than all of us pretending that we didn’t live in any. My guess is this is a setting element I don’t (or the game doesn’t, or both) fully understand.

Playing my second character (Who Ties them Together) was SO much fun. I was the total matchmaker and tried to get everyone to hook up. I dug it!

Best line in any game ever. “The sex was so good, there is still moonlight trickling down your leg.” – Noam Rosen
Other fun quotes:

  • “I lost my man so Father Sun put a child in my womb” -How to be outcast by your village.
  • “Sex was so good I saw my ancestors” – Laughs with Sprits
  • I threw a rock at the creature that ate the moon. It climbed down and ate me. The tower fell!

Actual Play – The Fight of Four: A Pale Horse (3/6/2010)

GM: Kristin Hayworth
Players: Sean, Matt, Travis, James, Justin, Shaun and Brendon.
System: Dread

Here was the challenge Kristin got: Post apocalyptic game. No Zombies.

So what happened? This happened:

Babe puts together this world that exist after the bomb. It’s all riddled with biblical references and ideology, but at the core, it’s survival.

Character creation

Each of our characters has a biblical name and a roll in the group: Sceva the Scout, Slave, Heres the leader’s son, Doctor, etc. We picked based on these simple descriptors. To show what a glutton I am I wasn’t at the table when Kristin said “This guys is the slave of the white horse” and I jumped on it “I’ll be the slave”. Good times commenced.

We each had a number of questions that started similar, but quickly became specifically about our lives. I was asked why Heres beat me but didn’t reveal to his father that I tried to escape. Why I wouldn’t become a member of the White Horse, even though it would mean being freed from slavery, etc. The characters were, for the most part, awesome. I loved walking into the game as the helpless slave who was a totally doomsayer and pissing everyone off with my pessimism. I had some immediately cool interaction with Sceva who wanted me to be free but I didn’t trust, Heres who also wanted me to be free but couldn’t say it, and the Lieutenant who kicked the crap out of me but I respected him because he was honest (if not all that bright).

A White Horse Crusade

The game started with a mission that sounded, even to those who weren’t total pessimists, like a suicide run. I won’t get into the details because Kristin may run it again, but the basic plotline was solid and filled with ways for our characters to gain and lose each other’s trust.

For me the real highlight though was after the “plot” was over. We had won; we could go home and be heroes. But do that meant living with genocide and the slave (now former slave) just couldn’t live with that. Can you live with doing something that would be atrocious from any perspective than one of absolute necessity? Can you do that even if it means killing the man who helped you do that? What if he sucker punches you and runs off?

Okay, that is a pretty “me” centered source of enjoyment, but frankly it was everyone’s reaction to my protest that I found the most entertaining. The captain gave his own life willingly for the cause, the Lieutenant and the Doctor both framed each other for betraying the mission, thus getting both of them kicked out of the community and the murderous sociopath was promoted to captain. Crazy!

What rocked

The questionnaires were awesome for creating immediate tension between the characters. Who’s been sleeping with your wife and beating her? Wow.

The players were awesome. We really played off of each other and validated the fiction each of us brought to the table. If the captain cared about who was sleeping with his wife, it meant that ALL of us cared about who was sleeping with his wife.

The moral debate was great. Especially when it involved sticking me with a needle in my carotid artery! Show your moral high ground through violence. I know I did.

What could have been improved

The pacing was a little back loaded. Not much that excited our character happened until the end. We talked after the game about spreading out some of the goals so they weren’t all completed at the same time.

There was a “random” encounter in the middle of a lion chasing antelopes. Yes, I know Kristin need to have a lion attack us. I get that but animal encounters often don’t have much meaning plot wise. I think if it had stolen some of our food and the question was to go hungry or to go after the lion, that could have had a bit more punch to it.