Dread session in a Dungeon World campaign

Prior Dungeon World + Dread session

So, a few months ago were about to continue our Dungeon World campaign with a session where the PCs are just crawling out of a long underground tunnel, low on food and water, struggling after a hard trek.

I wanted a session that would feel sort of like an interlude. The PCs being allowed to breath, and possibly learning new skills (they all passed levels, in some cases 2), but I wanted that leveling to also feel like a tough transition. Growth through pain.

I pulled out the Jenga tower. 

The intention wasn't to make this a session with too much constant tension, but instead to make it feel like transition was difficult, and fraught with some peril. They all sweated a bit. There were times when they wanted to use even simple powers... but just like adventurers that had scraped through, and were barely making it, even the simplest of spells or actions required block pulls, prior to rolling dice (which would then determine success or failure). It made everything that much more difficult, and you could feel the characters struggling. It worked so well, and they enjoyed that session from the feedback I gathered.

Second Dungeon World + Dread session

That previous example was a few sessions back, and we hadn't played in a while. Everyone was chomping at the bit to continue the story. But I warned them: Tonight was going to be a Jenga night. Come prepared, accordingly.

We started with a long campaign recap, hitting the highlights, and everyone enjoyed that since they all remembered different interesting aspects, and had forgotten many of the events from sessions long past.

For this session I wanted a chase. I wanted them to feel the constant movement and the imminent threats. And in some ways it worked well. 

I setup the music (per the previous post), and I started by having them each make an NPC. I didn't tell them what it was for, just yet. I gave them each three Short Order Heroes cards (again per a different previous post), as well as one set for myself. That means each PC would get three adjective, of which they'd only need to keep two, and define the PC with a name and a short description. For example, I got Stormy, Old, and another adjective I can't remember. I kept the first two, and made Bubba, a very stocky, heavy set, human woman blacksmith, that at first looks like a dude, and definitely looks like a dwarf. In my case I knew that Bubba was my NPC, as the GM, and her life would be on the line immediately (since I wouldn't be pulling on that tower).

Dread session panoramic, with players H, a sibling, player J, player S, and player A.

Dread session panoramic, with players H, a sibling, player J, player S, and player A.

Before long into the session, the party was on a boat and ran into a raft on the lake, which was inhabited by these same very 5 NPCs, refugees from the war. What the PCs didn't know is that I had tied their NPC's fate with their own. Even though I was asking for pulls quickly, which made all of them nervous, I knew that when the tower fell for a PC, the first time, it'd kill off the linked NPC. If the tower fell a second time, then the PC's life was at risk.

I was debating telling them something to that effect prior, but thought it'd make it too easy for them to pull. In retrospect: I should've done so. Let them kill off those NPCs more quickly and take more risks... it would've furthered the game faster, and eventually they would've been at risk anyways.

On the flip side, it was great when the Elf Ranger shot an arrow to get one of the big bad guys, and when the tower fell, it informed the story as such: The arrow missed the Orc and flew past, to that place the Elf wasn't watching, and landed straight in the chest of the NPC that the player had created. Now the Elf was blaming herself for that death.


The tower fell twice, and two NPCs died. Tension was had. The story progressed. A good session was played.

Player feedback

I made sure to ask the players for feedback here, especially because I could sense some things could have been done better. I ended up emailing them each separately the next day; this way there'd be time for the session to sink in, and also each of them could report in separately.

Some feedback was useful, some less so, but all players responded, which was great. I'll let their words speak for themselves, before I weigh in...

Player S wrote: "More dice!"

Player J wrote: "I really enjoyed the music and the free form mechanics.  The dread system is a lot of fun really.  Honestly this session worked really well for me, the review at the beginning was important because of the time lapse.  And the structure and forward plot was a lot of fun.  It was different playing with no character sheets but still kept to the characters.  I just want my experience points!!"

Player A wrote: "I enjoyed the game night. The music didn't come through as well as before, not sure if it was an acoustic factor (or not loud enough) or something else. The Jenga does add a different element but not sure if best for all situations. I felt that we were aware of the likely period when the jenga would fall and we would take our actions to suit that. Maybe combination of dice/jenga? Dont know, playtest."

Now, player H is a bit of a rambler. Which is to say great for feedback... I'll leave it all here, with a few typos fixed, and let you try to decipher it, if interested:
"been thinkn bout this one last few while shitting, showering, drivn, jerkn and what not: i'm in the idealogical camp of, "the medium is the massage" 
in other words,
how jenga blocks make really good anxiety inducing, heart pumping incrementally risk building that inevitably
leads to ruin, narratives and game play in a controlled timescape but,
your shit outa luck if you are a godam invested  and i mean mulitple session character building max.min designs
wrapped around a commited narrative killer hobbo vaneer type of game play.

now, i don't mean theyre mutally exclusive mind you, just like the title says "the medium is the massage" dynamics are at work:

say, narratively a frikn deathwish long sequence "car chase-crash" is in full effect well, i'd pick jenga.
or, your in a mindblock psy battle, i'd pick jenga
or your doing a bank heist and gotta sneak then pick locks disarm traps n shit or things go boomboom i'd pick jenga,
or you doing some fast talkin' disguise wearing rip off artist trickery, i'd use jenga.

but!, if say i'm leveling up my character, and gettin' loot, entering a dungeon crawl or pitched battle
i'd pick savage worlds.

or, conversely - i was world building i'd use blah blah blah
or a pitched competitive world building (ending) i mix blah blah and jenga.

anyways- also consider the audience, if your w/ sophisticates you know hardcore multiple professional RPG orgiasts
you have the luxury of candy flippin' systems per session or during sessions, probably with just a few quick blinks or none at all after they get in the flow of things between all the stuff going ons,

but you got your fucken hymen intact frigid as nonfuck RPGer group and probably you gotta ease that shit in now-

other thing with the NPC group as a moderating force for the kill mechanic of jenga was effective

although i would have liked to know that before hand but-balance that meta-knowledge with an incentive rule where we would want to keep that NPC alive/group members alive as much as possible- and interweave it into narrative form.  like the more that die, the harder shit gets and or we lose some sort of advantage or gain some sorta disadvantage, plus it seemed like psychologically we were attached to certain NPCs too."

Lessons learned

I summarize what I've gotten from the feedback as:

  • They missed the dice (and the more predictable mechanics) of Dungeon World. Although Dungeon World is so narratively driven (compared to something like D&D, or Savage Worlds), it is probably a little more structured than a Dread game. 
  • Although there was a system change for the session, they'd feel like they missed out on XP if I didn't let that carry through, especially some of them that risked more by pulling more blocks. In retrospect it would've been nice to have some sort of translation of # block pulls * formula = XP, so there would be another form of incentive, and for consistency (especially since this wasn't technically a Dread game, just a Dread-based session in a DW campaign). I'm going to assign some XP, but it'll probably a bit ad hoc, since I didn't keep track of pulls and such; but I will reward the biggest block pullers a little more, I reckon.
  • I feel like I should've been transparent about the NPC - PC link ahead of time. Maybe after they created the NPC, but before we started getting into the pulls. It would've made for a little metagaming, but hey, RPGs are games, and I think they would've had some fun with it. It would also have worked well if I had made the NPCs effective, so that they were actually useful and causing enemy deaths, or other good travel benefits, so that their deaths would be felt greater. Maybe have each NPC give a distinct advantage... YES, maybe even a Dungeon World advantage such as bonuses to travel moves, like Quartermastering, Scouting, etc. (since this session was about journeying quickly).
  • I definitely would use this type of session sparingly, as I know some players may feel cheated at death in Jenga, given that we started the campaign with the tacit agreement this was Dungeon World... it'd feel a little weak to die by blocks, when none of the DW character stats or mechanics gets any play, when you've worked so hard at getting a PC to level 6 or whatever.

So there you go. Lessons learned.