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What Do Survival Horror and 'Dungeons & Dragons' have in Common? Dread.

Tabletop RPGs may not be known for getting the same scares as old Silent Hill games. But 'Dread' gets there.

by Alex Meehan
Jan 10 2017, 4:00pm

The Dungeons and Dragons series has been around for a long, long time. The pen and paper roleplaying franchise is as old, if not older, than the medium of video games. In a way, D&D has always felt like a precursor to gaming. They both share in the act of pretending, it's just that D&D requires a lot more note-taking and imagination.    

But where D&D influenced gaming, gaming can influence D&D right back.

To be more specific, we need to look beyond classic table-top RPGs like D&D, into more recent releases. Despite both its pedigree and popularity, Dungeons & Dragons isn't the only type of table-top RPG you can play. 

For example, my very first campaign creation experience started with a fairly new table-top RPG called Dread. Created by independent RPG publisher Epidiah Ravacho, Dread is a ruleset designed to do one thing: build atmosphere. 

Header and all D&D images courtesy of Wizards of the Coast

What makes Dread especially unique, is that its ruleset is designed from the ground-up for horror experiences. Even though D&D is primarily used for fantasy settings, the rules can be adapted for any kind of campaign. But Dread's core mechanics are derived from classic horror techniques; building suspense and inciting difficult decisions.

Rather than using stats and dice rolls to determine outcomes, Dread uses the act of playing Jenga. To successfully complete actions, players must remove an amount of Jenga pieces, as designated by the 'dungeon master.' The harder the action, the more pieces must be removed. Just like any horror game worth its salt, a good Dread campaign needs its players to possess skill and take risks. 

The threat of death also needs to be a constant source of pressure and fear. Players need to be aware of the consequences of failure. In Dread, if the Jenga tower falls, then bad things happen. In my particular scenario, the tower fell multiple times; resulting in the brutal murders of several players. 

The threat of death is a fundamental part of most survival horror games as well. The fear of potentially losing hours and hours of progress in games like Resident Evil and Alien: Isolation are what generate that feeling of dread amongst players. 

In my Dread scenario, not only were players made to fear their own deaths, but the deaths of their teammates as well. 

In my Dread scenario, not only were players made to fear their own deaths, but the deaths of their teammates as well. 

Character creation in Dread is fundamentally designed to create attachment between the player and their chosen avatar. Despite not providing the option for my players to create their own characters, I formed attachments by giving them each an essential role in the party: someone was a pilot, another person was a medic, etc.

This design choice was greatly inspired by the very influential (and very old) survival horror game; Sweet Home, which was never released outside of Japan. Giving each character unique equipment and traits made the fear of losing them emotional and mechanical. 

With every death, things got harder.

Similar to video game survival horror, a Dread campaign needs a difficulty curve. Dread's ruleset ensures that whenever players commit mistakes, they feel the effects of their failures. Every time the Jenga tower falls, players must first rebuild it and remove a select number of blocks before play continues. This is to ensure that pacing is maintained and the pressure doesn't slacken. 

I also designed a map to funnel players down a linear path. This meant that I had a lot more control over the scenario. Dread campaigns become boring when players fail to stumble across the creator's intended traps. Horror games can also suffer from the same poor pacing, when they allow the player too much downtime between dangers. 

The trick here is to keep things exciting, without allowing players to adjust to the feeling of being in peril. Silent moments are as important as the action-packed ones, and they proved invaluable to my campaign. 

Dread campaign image courtesy of The Impossible Dream

Whilst exploring an abandoned space station, my players stumbled across a room filled with hostile skeletal creatures. Up to this point, things had been very quiet, so the introduction of this first threat had a significant impact. 

I was made to quickly improvise a scenario to prevent them from escaping right then and there. And when the players eventually made it through, they were constantly on edge afterwards.

Their fear of what awaited them behind every door is a feeling that many early Resident Evil are familiar with. Pacing your scares correctly is how you create suspense, which is an essential element of any good horror experience. 

Music and sound are other really effective ways of building atmosphere and eliciting responses from your players. Great horror games come with equally great soundtracks, and are a fantastic tool to use in your campaign. 

Another essential element of good horror is being able to instill a feeling of helplessness or vulnerability in your audience. Letting players get too comfortable or confident tends to ruin the experience. When they're no longer scared about making decisions, you know you're doing something wrong. 

Survival horror games will often enforce restrictions in order to make their players feel more vulnerable; the inability to fight the monsters in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a great example. My methods included a lack of weaponry (only two players held guns) and a hacking mechanic that ensured players' decisions had serious consequences. 

Hacking required a set number of players to remove a set number of Jenga pieces. I allowed each player the option to automatically hack once (with the hacking expert having two chances), which they could use at any time. 

With the threat of failing hacks or even being hacked themselves, this one automatic hack became a focal point for many. The decision of when to use it was an agonizing one, and resulted in more than one argument. 

My idea for hacking originated from Bioshock, were the failure to hack a camera or turret resulted in alarms and splicers. But it was also derived from Bioshock's spiritual predecessor: System Shock 2, where hacking was a fundamental part of the game's plot. 

System Shock 2 screen courtesy of Nightdive Studios

In fact, my campaign owed an awful lot to System Shock 2. Not only did the very basis of my scenario borrow from the game (an abandoned space-station once owned by an evil corporation), but also the campaign's main centerpiece; Minerva.

Minerva was an AI designed to be initially docile, even useful, to the players, before eventually turning and attempting to eradicate them. A classic sci-fi horror scenario, that System Shock 2 just happens to do very well. There's a reason why SHODAN is one of the most iconic villains in gaming history, and I wanted nothing more than for Minerva to emulate her.

The moment of Minerva's turning was further punctuated by her hosing the botanical gardens with fire, which served as the ship's main source of oxygen. In their attempts to switch on the backup supply, I separated the players into teams of three, ensuring a greater feeling of vulnerability.  

Despite providing multiple ways for my players to deal with Minerva, they decided to outright ignore her and rush to get to the last server room. After their hacking expert failed his Jenga pull (and subsequently had his brain fried), they eventually succeeded and rushed to escape. 

However, yet another player fell and there were but three left to board the shuttle. In a more unexpected turn of events, they turned on one another and very nearly created a bigger bloodbath. Eventually, only one player survived the encounter, thanks to a lot of poor decisions made by other people.

This, I find, is what makes Dread campaigns so unique. With fewer rules, and thus fewer restrictions, it can be harder to create the experience you want for your players. At the same time, this allows for more delightfully unexpected moments to occur. This is perhaps what tabletop RPGs have over video games; a greater possibility for improvisation and unusual events. 

This is perhaps what tabletop RPGs have over video games; a greater possibility for improvisation and unusual events.

Every player might react differently, and no one campaign will play out the same. I certainly plan on trying out my Dread campaign on a new group of players, preferably people who haven't read this article. 

At the same time, survival horror games are the reason I created my campaign in the first place. I wanted to instil that feeling of dread and vulnerability in people, without having to invest millions of pounds or hop onto Kickstarter, and this allowed me to do just that. 

For anyone interested in survival horror, Dread could be your first step into table-top RPGs.