This week I played a RPG that’s as far from your standard d20 adventure as it gets. Dread is a dice-less, horror adventure in which the players weave together a dark tale. Winner of the 2006 ENnies Innovation Award, Dread utilizes a unique mechanic that added a real sense of tension to the game:
Here’s how this works. Once each player constructs a character by filling out a questionnaire, a Jenga tower is assembled in the middle of the table. Whenever your character does something that has a chance of failing, the GM will have you pull a block from the tower. There are no skill checks, no dice rolling or situation-specific powers. You simply decide what you want to do, and pull a block and see if you were successful. It’s so simple and remarkably good at building tension and a sense of dread.
My group played the free scenario, “Beneath a Metal Sky” (PDF), about space explorers who come across a seemingly abandoned space hulk. After a bit of investigation, we boarded the ship to find that the artificial gravity and life support systems and gone offline. There’s a lot of radiation in the area, and the air is full of what we eventually identify as irradiated skin cells. Gross, right?
Before long we were attacked by what looked like a human with horrible radiation burns all over his body, but it turns out he was being controlled by a horrible and very aggressive symbiotic entity. During the struggle that ensued, my character was pulled down an air lock and killed. Poor Randy Butternubs. RIP.
Here’s the thing: if you pull a block from the tower and cause it to fall, your character is gone. It’s that brutal. However, you can make a spectacular move of heroism and intentionally topple the tower, sacrificing yourself in a way that makes something wonderful happen for the rest of the group.
I liked this game a whole lot. Improvising scenes and exploring new worlds is a lot of fun, and like I said, the Jenga tower did a great job of making us nervous. It’s a very clever alternate to dice.