DREADful Storytelling

Dread is a great role-playing game (RPG). Sharing similar roots to my beloved Dungeons and Dragons, Dread is a 21st Century twist on the RPG genre. DreadI wanted to talk about it here because it’s one thing to be a player in a role-playing game; it is another beast entirely to be the Game Master.

Running a role-playing game is equal parts writer, actor, and referee. I’ve talked about how Dungeons and Dragons inspired my writing journey, but this is a whole other level.

Dread doesn’t have dice. No armor class. No stats. You give your players a character questionnaire with particularly worded questions (to elicit certain avenues of response — these questions are a bit like “When did you stop beating your wife?” In fact — that would be a great Dread question.)

The pass/fail mechanic is handled using wooden “tower building” blocks – you can probably name the popular branded version of this game. That’s truly the only prop that you need to play Dread.

Gaming aside, why bother with Dread? It is one of the most story-driven games I’ve had the pleasure to play. We played a pre-generated scenario (but they tell you how to craft your own!) called Under the Metal Sky, which is set in space. As the game’s name implies, this is heavy on the horror tropes.

Being the Game Master for a role-playing game means that you (unlike your players) know the whole story. You also know what everyone has created for their own character (via the questionnaire), and you have to be ready to role-play as any of the minor (and sometimes major!) characters that your players will encounter during the game.

You are also the prop master. In storytelling games the props are like booster packs — your players suddenly have something tangible to handle, something to hear, a puzzle to unravel. It can revive them if their attention is flagging, their stamina depleting, if they’ve lost the┬ádesire to continue in the face of overwhelming vampires (not a spoiler, btw)….

Novelists write in one dimension, but a Game Master tells a story in 3-D! There are words on the page, lots of them. But there are also maps, journals, and audio recordings, pictures…. All the items that as a novelist you have to describe, as Game Master you actually create them!

I encourage writers to step outside the page and create a living story. Watching your friends work to unravel a puzzle you’ve created, playing the stubborn parking garage attendant that your friends need to charm, rewriting the story in your head as your friends do something that never, ever would have occurred to you…. that is the thrill and delight of being a Game Master, and Dread is a great place to start.


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