I recently picked up a copy of the horror RPG “Dread.” I read through the book and listened to this actual play podcast from The Walking Eye, which is a great primer on the game if you don’t feel like buying the book just yet. That being said, I have not yet played or hosted a game of Dread, so what follows should be taken accordingly.
I am fascinated by the action resolution mechanic in this game. A Jenga tower is, all at once, simple and inspired. It is a binary mechanic, meaning your character either lives or dies, without modifiers, by your own (hopefully) steady hand. It’s simply you and the tower. It’s quite clear how such a diceless system could create nervousness in a player as they approach the tower.
In the book, there are also several alternatives to the tower. The game Topple seems closest to the Jenga tower, but stacking dice is also suggested. Elsewhere, I have also seen building a house of cards as an alternative. All these things have something in common – they rely on a steady hand, yes, but they also rely on the presence of a steady surface. I want to propose a different resolution mechanic that does not require a steady surface, and yet instills that same growing sense of impending failure that the tower does. It uses a standard deck of cards.
Here’s how it would work:
At the beginning of the game, remove an Ace for every player (or Aces/Kings, with more than 4 players). More on why in a moment.
When the host calls for a pull, the player making the pull draws a card out of the deck. A 2, 3, or 4 is considered a failure (Aces are high).* This is an easy enough mechanic to resolve actions, just like in the basic Dread game. But how do we create that growing sense of impending doom that a gradually destabilized Jenga tower conveys?
Easy. When a card is “pulled” from the deck, and it is a success, it is discarded. You pulled a 9 for a success? Great. Set that 9 aside; it is no longer part of the deck. Failures however, go back into the draw deck. Therefore, as successful pulls are made, the deck is slowly, surely, and quite literally being stacked against the players. And the players know it. As you discard success after success, they will look at the deck differently. Now there is a greater ratio of failing cards… do I really want to make a pull?
Now, about those Aces. The Dread deck method doesn’t require the same manual dexterity and player interaction that a Jenga tower does – the results are completely chance based. And even though the math tells us that a player only has a 1 in 4 chance of failure on pull 1, there is the possibility that the first pull is a failure. To mitigate this, the Aces are set aside, and can be discarded by a player in order to ignore a result and redraw. So, if that very first pull is a failure, the players can spend an Ace to ignore that failure and redraw.**
Why Use This Method?
I have to agree with those who say a Jenga tower is the perfect resolution system for this RPG. As the title to the article implies however, using a deck of cards allows you to play Dread in an environment that would not support a Jenga tower – in a car for example. In the Will Call line at Gencon (seriously guys, that’s an epic line). Waiting in line to get on the roller coaster. Or maybe the one of the people you want to play with is simply handicapped in a way that impairs their fine motor skills. Whatever the situation, if you want to play Dread but the tower is not an option, you can still play.
- You can fine tune the percentages by putting X number of successes back into the deck after every Y pulls. For example, “re-seeding” two successes after every five pulls gets you to about a 50/50 chance of failure on pull 35. This method has the added benefit of extending the number of pulls that can be made from a deck before it is exhausted.
- Instead of discarding Aces when they are used, they can be shuffled into the deck. If an Ace is subsequently drawn, not only does it count as a success, but it also goes into the Ace pile to be spent again on a future pull. This allows players to stack the deck with an extra success, and also creates a small incentive to make a pull (the possibility of getting that Ace back).
*Dread’s rule of thumb is 1 failure every 35 pulls. Fail on 4 (besides sounding cool) has an approximate 80% likelihood of failure on pull 34. If you don’t like those odds, fail on 3 gives an approximate 50/50 chance of failure at pull 33. This doesn’t take into account the effect of the Aces or re-seeding.
**Whether you will allow multiple redraws on the same pull is up to you.