When I last ran Dread, it was an extension of my existing Trail of Cthulhu campaign and tied into it in various ways. Dread was an attractive alternative to Trail of Cthulhu, because it is inherently a little bit competitive in the way the Jenga tower is the main way of resolving actions. At the time, I thought combining Dread with a group of player characters with secret agendas would be a good idea. Unfortunately that didn’t turn out to be an optimal experience and so when I decided to run Dread again I definitely didn’t repeat that. On the other hand, I wanted something that would get the same kind of feel of tension and worry between the players.
That’s when it struck me: Zombie movies. More specifically the old style of B-Horror like Night of the Living Dead (see how the title came about?). What if the player characters were all stuck together at the outset of the zombie apocalypse, trying to just survive through the night and hopefully escape? From this premise I got a great idea: Instead of a player being killed when the tower fell the first time, what would happen is that player would be “infected” in some manner. With the questionnaire that makes Dread’s character creation so unique, this “death” would then establish the truth about how the zombie apocalypse started and how zombies were made. For example, if a player wrote that zombies came from a virus on a meteor hitting earth and it spread by bites, it would then become the “True origin” of the zombie apocalypse.
A screenshot of the questionnaire I gave out to the players at the start of the game. This established not only a players character, but also immediately gave them a sense of where the game was set (In the US, in San Francisco at a University). Note the questions about the “accident” and how the zombie virus/infection/curse spreads. Direct image link to see it better here.
In order to give a sense of paranoia and tension once the “potential zombie” was revealed, the infected player would have to draw blocks at random when I felt like it. This represented sudden urges of a strange alien/mutant hive mind (I’ll get to this later) and if they managed to resist this urge to attack their friends. Additionally if they felt like it at any moment they could simply “change teams”, giving the other players a complicated choice if they kept the potential zombie or decided to trust them. Gameplay wise this gives a lot more flexibility for a result and meant that I can easily control the pace of pulling blocks after the reveal. So if I want more tension, I can make the “infected” player pull more to either threaten a zombie attack, or just to decrease the towers stability for the other players actions.
Without ruining the play report to follow, this hidden infected concept and mechanic worked absolutely perfectly. It was much easier to understand than the somewhat convoluted agendas and special abilities I tried in Dread of Cthulhu. Another reason the hidden infected idea worked a lot better, was because there wasn’t an inherent “competition” aspect other than “Can I help this other player die hilariously in some way?”. I felt this works much better with the kind of narrative Dread inherently creates (and needs), which relies a lot on GM flexibility and on the spot thinking. In particular you need to constantly find ways to keep the players moving forward in the story (more on this later).