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Dread: The disappearance of U-571.


From the moment I saw Dread on Wil Wheaton’s tabletop show, I knew it was something that I absolutely had to try. On thinking about what I wanted to run and where it could fit in, I realized that there was a scenario I had been planning on runner for Masks of the Dreamer for Trail of Cthulhu where Dread would be a good replacement. In this scenario, several German sailors on board a U-Boat heading back to Germany after visiting a mysterious city buried under the ice of the Arctic began suffering some strange events. Tapping on the hull, the cat going missing, food mysteriously rotting and this strange red fungal substance appearing on the pipes.

This scenario was inspired by an excellent adventure from Pelgrane Press, called Sisters of Sorrow. Where I decided to differ, was in that the greatest enemy for the PCs was one another and not inherently the monsters outside of the submarine. The problem with this kind of change is that player vs. player combat in Trail of Cthulhu is vastly unsatisfying: Someone will die and very quickly. This means it’s altogether too easy to remove someone else from the game, especially if you have any kind of disparity in firepower. Additionally, hitting other player characters (even with cover) is rather easy and so the scenario always felt like it would end in a massacre 20 minutes into it.

Dread provided an interesting solution to this problem, because unlike in Trail of Cthulhu player characters only die in one circumstance: When the tower collapses. If the tower should collapse during an action they are taking, their character is usually dead or badly incapacitated by it. This meant that there was some difficulty in removing other characters instantly, as in Dread’s rules as long as the defending character has a plausible reason for an attack to fail it just does. Hence, only pulling from the tower and forcing the issue can lead to another players death – meaning the increasingly rickety state of the tower builds a huge amount of natural tension.

Ultimately it meant that I could have a game where the players were inherently more competitive than in a standard roleplaying scenario, but without some of the issues such as being able to easily eliminate other players from the game. There was an inherently interesting balancing mechanic in play here, which really added a great amount of drama and tension naturally. Essentially the players needed to find ways to eliminate their competition (potentially), while simultaneously trying to avoid pulling blocks once it looked like the tower could fall at any moment. On my end as the GM, I needed to figure out how to force the players to draw blocks and prevent “stalemate” situations from occurring where no player drew blocks in fear of making the tower fall.

Dread and a Jenga tower
Dread is a very interesting system with a simple ruleset, which uses a standard Jenga tower as its main conflict resolution mechanic. Basically, when you knock over the tower for some reason your character faces a great calamity in the story or potentially dies a terrible death! Note: This is not my photo as I only have a PDF of Dread, but I am absolutely dead keen on acquiring my own physical copy!

This scenario began when I handed the players different questionnaires held in envelopes, which established their potential character on board the U-Boat. The characters and roles were:

Rudolph Strassberg, the British Spy
Wolfgang Hess, the Crazed Cook
Dr. Sarandar Karglis, the Karotechnika Occultist
Richter Schmit, the Loyal Lieutenant
Dr. Helga von Lichenhauser, the Curious Archaeologist

Each role had a specific agenda and a special ability they could use to potentially affect the game. For example, Schmit had sabotaged the guns in the subs armory, meaning he was the only one with a functional MP40 and thus a distinct combat advantage. When shooting at another character, he could use this weapon to force another player to draw extra blocks to defend themselves. Others like Dr. Karglis had powers that became stronger later on, as she could use her occultist knowledge to redirect the attacks of monsters against her to other players or NPCs.

Possibly the best of the abilities and what worked out in play beautifully was the British Spy, Strassberg. This player could decide on a secret signal to me to indicate that when they were attempting an action, on giving the signal, they would have the opposite result. So if the rest of the players needed something fixed by Strassberg (who was the engineer) they could publicly say to the group they were going to do so, but if I observed the signal, the action if successful would do the complete opposite and break that piece of equipment instead.

Additionally these questionnaires also established important things about the scenario itself. Some players got to define the artifacts brought back onto the sub, what strange events were occurring and if any other character or NPC suspected them for any reason. Most importantly many of these decisions have consequences on our return to Trail of Cthulhu later on, because this sub is the same one that the investigators are going to be entering. The state of the submarine and the way they find it at the end are decided by their actions. To keep with the competitive spirit as well, the players whose characters complete their objective get to decide important things about the subsequent Trail of Cthulhu scenario as well.

There were some high stakes on the way Trail of Cthulhu plays out in this game of Dread in other words.

None the less, with questionnaires out of the way and personalities decided it was time to set up the scene for the players. U-571 had been sent out to the Arctic on a secret mission from Himmler personally and soon found what the NAZIs were looking for: A strange sunken city buried deep under the ice of the Arctic. Only accessible by a nightmarish series of underwater tunnels, the U-Boat barely made it to the massive submerged chamber in one piece. Several members of the crew, including Richter, Captain Heinlein and Dr. Karglis disembarked disappearing into the strange place for several days. Upon their return, the Captain Heinlein acted especially unusual and seemed to have a strange locked box with him – filled with something he argued with Dr. Karglis about at length.

With the submarine finally returning to Germany, problems immediately became apparent within a few days after leaving the Arctic as strange events started to occur. The majority of the crew have become tense and unable to sleep. Mr. Tibbles, the ship’s cat, disappeared suddenly and hasn’t been accounted for. An odd red moss has begun to grow on the pipes of the U-Boat, which even after its removal just comes back somewhere else within a short period of time. Then there is the really strange part: The rhythmic tapping or scraping sounds on the hull, which seem to follow certain sailors around and can even seemingly respond intelligently to knocks on the inside of the hold.

With this context in mind, I began the game with a bang – quite literally – as emergency lights came on, alarms blared and the submarine was rocked by a massive shock-wave. Depth-charges! Under attack and being buffeted around, the characters charged towards the bridge of the submarine to find out what was happening. As they did so, another massive explosion rocked the sub and I chose this as the moment to introduce the core mechanic: Pulling blocks from the tower. Each character had to draw at this point, but how did we determine who had to do it first? Well here is the first way I cleverly used the questionnaire I gave them at the start. Each character had to note the day and year they were born, which in this case determined the order of who pulled first from youngest to oldest.

Upon reaching the bridge, with sparks flying and the sub diving to save its own skin, the truth was confirmed to the PCs: A British destroyer had found them and engaged the submarine. Only a very lucky missed shot from the destroyer’s main gun had alerted the seaman watching to the approaching threat, but they were still at risk from the depth charges hurtling down on the U-Boat. A massive blow took out a chunk of the main torpedo room and it began flooding, while the communications had been annihilated by the shock of the explosions. Here Strassberg attempted to “fix” the radio, giving me the secret signal, drawing a block to ensure that nobody would be communicating with the outside again. Interestingly, despite rather blatantly failing to fix the radio despite succeeding at his pull, the other players didn’t inherently notice the contradiction.

At this point, the sub was so badly damaged by the depth charges, that the diesel engine began to shudder and could have caught on fire at any moment. Naturally Strassberg was on top of this, but with another secret signal, ensured that the engine wouldn’t be starting easily any time soon. So with only emergency lighting available on the submarine and it now stuck firmly on the ocean floor with a matter of hours remaining until decompression (or worse), the PCs needed a plan. Firstly, Richter went around assessing the dead or wounded, eventually putting the dead in the chef’s quarters (!) and the wounded into the crew area. Wolfgang closed up the torpedo room bulkheads, ensuring that the room would be flooded but at least the water wouldn’t be able to get everywhere else in the submarine.

The question was, how did the destroyer know the U-Boat was there in the first place? They were miles away from the war effort and a British destroyer practically waltzing right on top of them in their position was unfathomable. So Dr. Karglis came up with the idea of examining the communications, finding that only three people had sent communications recently: The Captain, Dr. von Lichenhauser and Wolfgang Hess. Here the first of the great tower wars began, as the paranoid players immediately began trying to work out who had potentially sent the message. The captains message was translated post-haste, with it being a simple communication back to Berlin that several valuable artifacts had been retrieved with the sub on the way home.

Of the other messages, Helga’s came under suspicion next and this was especially because of her strange behavior in regards to protecting the contents of the message. Naturally the other players jumped on this, with accusations of being a British Spy flying – especially from the actual British Spy. This meant that one of the players suggested there would be compromising information in the message, which would potentially discredit Helga and then she successfully pulled from the tower. Now, in Dread, when you make an accusation or perform an action if you choose to pull from the tower when doing so it gives it much more weight. So it forced the other player of Helga to respond by pulling from the tower as well in order to protect their secrets.

An incredibly tense and protracted block pulling contest then resulted, with the tower at one point looking like this:

Tension was palpable!

Eventually the tower collapsed, with Helga unfortunately being on the receiving end of it. At this point I had some interesting decisions to make, because I wasn’t keen on killing a character in the first act of the scenario and I felt this wouldn’t inherently be lethal. Instead I chose to compromise Helga by exposing the fact she entered the city as well (without permission), having her agenda of getting the artifacts on the ship for herself and the sordid blackmail using her affair/relationship with Captain Heinlein aired out to the entire crew. Embarrassed and upset by these revelations, Captain Heinlein had no choice but to send Helga into the ships brig, where she could not get out without the intervention of another player (who would need to pull from the tower to do so). Additionally her special power of being able to use the Captain to send a player to the brig no longer worked – a double ouch.

Incidentally, when that tower fell I think the noise was so loud that several people a block over may have died from a heart attack. Once you see this game in play for yourself, the logic in using the tower really comes through and the tension was simply amazing! Especially because each time it fell I decided to start escalating the scenario in different ways to make it harder. In this instance, I rebuilt the tower and then pulled a fair number of blocks out making it more unstable right from the get go. Additionally, each “collapse” represented an escalation in the story in some way and so I began to introduce new complications.

The first of these was when Strassberg went to check on one of the wounded men, while the other characters realized Wolfgang’s signature in the communications logbook was a forgery: Someone had impersonated him! With Helga’s deception known, it left an unknown party and the captain, but before that argument could escalate one of the wounded men in the medical bay lurched forwards at Strassberg going “You…. it was you…. you!!!” and was promptly shot. This led to the great gun debate, as the Captain disarmed Strassberg for shooting an unarmed man, while Dr. Karglis didn’t want the ship’s cook to get access to the gun. She eventually had to concede and Wolfgang had the gun, which he curiously and promptly broke apart making it useless.

At this point I decided the scenario needed further impetus and had loud banging noises start to emerge from the flooded torpedo room. The banging and twisting metal quickly convinced the PCs that something was on its way in. A strange voice could then be heard, saying “Let us in, we’re here to rescue you and everything will be fine” and some of the crew – half insane and beyond stressed – answered by trying to open it. This led to a tense and difficult situation where the ships chef, several crewman and Richter began a tense stand off about opening the door.

Eventually this culminated in Richter knocking over the tower deliberately, spraying down the crew attempting to open the door with his MP40 and badly wounding Wolfgang in the process. However by knocking over the tower at this point Richter gave his life to stop them letting in the creatures, as he was shot repeatedly by two of the crazed seamen and died of his injuries shortly after. He successfully brought them time… for now.

At this point, discussion turned to the Captain and what he had been doing on the ship, while the players decided to bring Helga out of the brig to help analyse several artifacts that the captain had taken back to the ship from the sunken city. Here they learned an important piece of information, which is that the city was apparently called R’leyh and that the NAZIs planned to use it to strike a decisive blow against the allied powers to win the war. Oddly enough this is the part of the game where the surprise death happened, as Helga was analyzing a jar of strange liquid and accidentally opened it when she knocked over the tower in a mostly complete state. It unfortunately turned out the goopy black liquid inside was a bound and restrained sea shoggoth, which promptly devoured Helga as its first act of freedom.

With time running late, I just escalated the scenario considerably and had the deep ones break in, the engine – mostly due to sabotage from Rudolph – explode into flames and basically all hell break lose. Wolfgang succumbed to the spreading engine fire, while eventually both Rudolph and Karglis came down to struggling over the glowing pearl – the only thing stopping the monsters from murdering them – with Karglis deliberately knocking over the tower to ensure she was the sole survivor… at least for a very short period of time.

U-571 was silent at last on the bottom of the Atlantic, where it would stay until a certain group of investigators would come for it some 70 years later….

Overall the use of the questionnaires worked very well, but I think I didn’t do a great job on the individual agendas. These I felt favored the team attempting to murder everyone on the crew too much, while the characters who had goals requiring them to survive had it too difficult. While this scenario is designed to end in paranoid tears in a half-broken submarine at the bottom of the ocean, it did feel a bit overly hard to survive, especially if you weren’t trying to accomplish things that were obviously crazy like blowing up the engine or letting in the things outside.

Additionally I didn’t make it really clear how the individual characters actually won, where it should have been more clear that merely being alive at the end with nobody on the other “team” was important. Certain characters could win together, but with so many characters invested in a massacre (Karglis, Rudoplh and Wolfgang) it was far too difficult for the non-massacre orientated characters to win. There is a very good reason that most games with a hidden traitor style mechanic, usually restrict it to a smaller number of roles than there are “cooperative” characters. Something that I will bear in mind if I ever try to do another similar kind of thing in future.

What does work about Dread and was absolutely amazing was the tower itself. As a mechanic, it builds tension to an extremely high and effective level, with decisions becoming extremely tough the longer it goes on. Competitions between players, such as a struggle for a gun, take on an enormous amount of pressure the longer the contest goes on. As anyone usually dies the moment the tower falls over, albeit in this scenario nobody could die in the first “act”, there is a very tangible sense of “Could this action be my last?” that it adds. It also has this effect in a way that IMO regular dice based games just don’t manage to pull off in the same way.

Overall I think for this kind of one shot, or where you want a roleplaying system that has an easy to grasp aspect of competition between players, Dread is absolutely perfect. The tower is at once a really effective mechanic at building tension, while also simultaneously making it hard to easily eliminate players early and really ramping up the worry of death as it becomes increasingly unstable. It’s probably not a system I would want to try to run a long term kind of campaign in, but it’s a simple and effective game for introducing new players to the world of horror RPGs.

Would definitely recommend to anyone that they would try Dread. Now to decide how the players actions on this Submarine affect the subsequent modern day investigation in Trail of Cthulhu….