Disclaimer: If you have not seen Netflix’s Stranger Things, there will be spoilers ahead. Also I do not own any of the intellectual properties presented in this blog post, this includes: Stranger Things and the Stranger Dread scenario.
This is not a D&D based blog post, but it is still an RPG based post. In the spirit of Halloween, Team BAJA and I decided to revisit the splendor of the indie RPG game, Dread. Last year, our group was introduced to the game through Geek & Sundry’s Tabletop which featured Dread and a scenario. The players took well to the event last year, going to far as to dress as their characters. With the recent popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things, I felt that it would be fun to combine Dread and Stranger Things, I had previously discussed combining the ideas of Stranger Things with D&D in a previous post. But Ian Frazier, lead game developer for Mass Effect: Andromeda, concocted a wonderful Stranger Things scenario for Dread, which was featured on writer, Kira Butler’s blog. This post was later featured across Polygon and Geek & Sundry’s blogs and websites, spreading the scenario to a wider audience. Over the course of making preparations, I made some changes that I felt fit aesthetically with my players, including some of the questions from the questionnaire, added a 7th player (while the standard Dread scenario has a maximum of 6), and even incorporated a brief D&D mini-session as a sort of prequel to the madness.
I promised Ian Frazier that I would report back our adventure through the scenario and give some feedback on it. I want to again thank Ian Frazier and the many playtesters who helped contribute to this scenario. It was a lot of fun, my players are still talking about it with plenty of funny and terrifying moments. The most notable aspect to our experience would the dedication that our players committed to this particular game, they set up christmas lights and dark lights to help draw the ambience of the play area. Since the scenario involved being in a county fair, we had corn dogs, chicken wings, and popcorn as snacks. I provided the musical accompaniment for our gameplay, as one of the suggestions from Ian in the PDF for running the scenario.
The Setup – Questions, Questions
The original 6 Questionnaires for the Stranger Dread scenario follows some specific archetypes: the Jock, the Cheerleader, the Best Friend, the Twins, and the Goof. The first half of the questionnaires are for the teenage companions with the latter being the pre-teens who are friends with a kid named Cory. In situations where there are fewer players, the Twins can be consolidated to a Super Kid that reminisces Eleven from the series. The Jock can be played off by the Gamemaster as well if the playgroup reveals itself to be smaller. In my situation, my group had 7 prospective players. I needed a 7th questionnaire. The Best Friend archetype carries a few of the rebellious teen troupe, instead I decided to split the Best Friend questionnaire into a more iconic “good kid trying to do the right thing for the Cheerleader who they have a crush on” and separate the rebellious aspect into a full fledge Rebellious Teen archetype.
From a relationship aspect, the Jock, Cheerleader, and Best Friend can be part of a love triangle, it’s practically encouraged. To give the Rebellious Teen a tie-in into the drama of the group, I had questions regarding the Twins, some work related tie-in with the Jock’s family, and even a secret that the Jock and Rebellious teen share.
For the Jock, I added some more questions regarding their ambitions and goals along with more details for his missing brother, Bill.
For the Cheerleader, I tried to keep most of the questionnaire the same but added a few more questions about the previous break-up and what she does as hobbies.
For the Best Friend, I included more questions about their relationship with Cory (the Cheerleader’s younger brother) and asked more hypotheticals about relationships and the ilk. I did not want to the love-triangle to the be way the story focuses on the three of these characters. While it does add discourse within the group, I wanted the past resentments committed by the Jock to carry more weight and added a few more questions regarding that portion.
The Twins were largely unchanged with the exception of delving more into the family life and their fears. I added 2 more questions regarding those topics on top of the original questionnaire.
The Goof was an odd one, I understood the archetype but had a time trying to play their role in the whole story. Yes we need some comedy relief every so often and they serve as a sort of beacon of hope and commodore but I wanted to add more of a wildcard element to this particular archetype. There were questions regarding the older brother, so I tried to emphasize the brother and what sort of role it played on the Goof’s psyche.
The Rebel borrowed much of its structure from the original aspect of the Friend questionnaire but dealt more with being the social outcast and what sort of odd events the Rebel has dealt with the Twins. Additionally, I wanted to tie in the Rebel and Jock as the sort of “two friends who went opposite paths” approach. I asked questions regarding what sort of secret the two shared, both had parents that ultimately worked at the Facility for the Department of Energy. The exception is that both of the Rebel’s parents died and is being taken care of by their grandmother.
The Story – The Path to Madness & Dread
After reading the original plot for this scenario, I decided that certain elements would need some adjustments or fine-tuning but tried my best to not change too many portions. My reasoning was that in an open-ended narrative game such as Dread, ultimately the players will do things that do not always coincide with the overall plot. But as the Gamemaster, I have key plot points that need to be reached and will steer the story those points in ways that fit naturally to the characters and narrative situation.
Many of the locales in the scenario were kept, but I changed a few of the names to fit my needs.
There was one aspect to this particular Dread scenario that I truly wanted to implement and add to fulfill the Stranger Things vibe. I wanted a D&D session incorporated into this scenario and have it impact the game. Since the original scenario mentioned Queen of the Demonweb Pits, I decided to find a copy of the adventure and researched what portions I could add to give the feel and semblance of a D&D session. The adventure was originally penned for AD&D (2nd Edition), I had to adjust many of the facets of the adventure since my players were not accustomed to the older systems and only had any real play experience with 5th Edition. So adjustments were needed to be made to make it feasible to my players. If I ever redid this scenario, I would definitely like to run the game with the original AD&D ruleset to get that true 80’s feel of nostalgia.
I gave D&D character sheets to the Twins and the Goof and informed those players they would need their D&D dice on game night.
Just like the show itself, I started the scenario with Cory as the Dungeon Master, narrating the latter portions of the adventure to the Twins and Goof. I had them treat this has a normal D&D session, which proceeded to making various skill checks to evade traps and even make attacks against various enemies. I tried to keep it short because ultimately this was a Dread game and did not want to bore the other players with this portion of the game. I kept the D&D session to 30 minutes in real-time, which finished with the Twins and the Goof fighting against the Demon Queen, Lolth. The powerful god-like being would toss powerful mind-affecting spells which targeted all three of their D&D characters, which made the encounter extremely difficult.
How does this D&D session affect Dread you ask? For every initial D&D failure, whether it be skill checks or saving throws, the failed player would have to make a pull from the Tower of Dread. Before even going to the county fair, they already made 6 pulls. The epic boss battle was cut short due to the time, thereby leaving a hint of unfinished business for their characters.
Because the D&D session took up more time, it removed several opportunities for the players to explore the fair. But it should be emphasized that I still offered options for them to explore if they chose. The Jock and the Cheerleader ended up going to the Tunnel of Love but not in the way you would expect. My Jock player was actually uninterested in the Cheerleader other than for the company, therefore had no desire to go into the tunnel. The Cheerleader on the other hand was more forward and tried to kiss the Jock while in the tunnel. I had the Jock make a pull from the Tower to avoid kissing the Cheerleader. It was spectacular! My players consider that the highlight of the game session, which honestly still has me laughing just merely thinking about it.
Like in true Stranger Things fashion, a kid goes missing under mysterious circumstances.
The players tried to unearth what happened to their friend, the only clue was the Twins had pulsating headaches. When calling the Sheriff, I had the Sheriff be at the opposite end of town dealing with an ongoing investigation and could not be reached. The deputies were either off duty or with the Sheriff and could not provide an assistance. While leaving, the kids noticed a group of black vans pull up to the fairgrounds. The players decided to double back and spy on the fairgrounds, perhaps hoping they could wait until they close and explore the area again to find Cory.
This is where the story truly developed on its own.
The kids managed to stealthily crawl their way and spy on the fairgrounds, finding government agents taking the carnival works in handcuffs and even shooting the few that fled. The players knew that something strange was happening on the fairgrounds, especially when the Twins marked a character named Simmons. Unfortunately, we had our first collapse of the Tower of Dread, losing one of our Twins. She ultimately suffered PTSD and became comatose from the mental shock.
The players did their best to return back to town and try to sleep off the horrors they unearthed.
The Goof unlocked his older brother’s chest and retrieved a few keepsakes, including a handgun and some provisions. The Rebel had a piece of equipment from his parents that could detect certain types of radiation and electrical fields. Funny enough, the Cheerleader was uncomfortable being at the house by herself and opted to crash at the Friend’s house for the night and subsequently steal their parent’s car. They decided to recruit the rest of the party for a possible expedition into the fairgrounds again.
At this point in the story, I offered still the army surplus store and the fireworks sales tent which were completely ignored by the group as they zipped forward toward the fairgrounds the following night.
The group returned back to the fairgrounds but now with MPs, black suited agents, and scientists in hazmats. Luckily the group managed to sneak past the guards and head towards the funhouse, our last Twin player opened the portal to the Upside Down equivalent. The group journeyed to the center of a dark, washed out forest, they find Cory and try to rescue him. The large Creature appears, the Goof tries to shoot it with his brother’s gun but ultimately dies (another Tower fall). While escaping, the Cheerleader assumes that the creatures were after the Twin and tried to stab the twin with a sharp knife but instead gets a shot in the head from an MP that entered the portal.
The remaining characters were apprehended by the MPs and Simmons before being assaulted by the small spider-like creatures that had hatched from several pods where Cory was found. The group managed to make through the portal and decided to close the way behind them by burning down the Funhouse.
Ultimately, the teenagers and Cory escaped out of the fairgrounds and queue the Epilogue.
Impressions on the Scenario
I talked to Ian Frazier a day or two before I ran the game, he mentioned that there were some issues with the scenario running slow, especially if I incorporated a D&D session. I used the D&D session in replacement to the a potential bully encounter, and doing the fair rides. I still allowed my players to explore the fair and experience some of the carnival ambience. I wanted the D&D session primarily to engage the atmosphere of a Stranger Things game while not mandatory, it really helped my players feel like the start of a Stranger Things episode.
The overall narrative structure was very well contained and drove the players without necessarily railroading them. The players had choices that could impact their success or failure in later portions of the scenario, if they opted for them, they likelihood of needing to make additional pulls would be reduced, but what is a Dread game without a character deaths?
My players did not take the opportunities to explore the Army Surplus Store or the Fireworks tent, even though I mentioned them passing them while in town. The players felt the urgency to save Cory that they did not adequately prepare themselves entering the Upside Down or Abyss in this case.
I used the tips section that Ian provided in the scenario PDF, using nearly 20 different soundtrack pieces to draw the ambience and mood when the players reached particular scenes and milestones. The chase out of the Upside Down had them shaking when they had to pull from the tower. I had partially expected at least one character to be removed by Act 2, which happened. I did not expect the back-to-back deaths that followed afterwards. The music really aided in the storytelling and narrative, building dramatic tension, all of which added to the immersion that took place for this particular game.
This was a fun scenario to play for fans of the show and for the few players who had not seen the show, they were deeply intrigued about it now.
The secret to running a Dread scenario is to know your turning points or narrative milestones, scenes and situations the need to happen to drive the narrative to the next act. I had cut out many sections either due to timing or because my players skipped them all together. The best defense against excessive improvisation is to have extra scenes and locales in the event the players go somewhere unexpected. I had prepared even some more details for the Police Station in case they wanted to talk to the Sheriff directly, but they didn’t so that scene never got used.
My biggest suggestion is to read the Tips for running the scenario that Ian provides in the PDF. Most of those tips came from other playtesters and suggestions from people.
If you want to run a D&D session, I would suggest running it from the end point of the session and not start a whole one at the beginning of the Dread game. I spent about 25 to 30 minutes in that particular part and your gameplay might run a little shorter or longer. But try to keep everyone at the table involved, while you’re waiting for the players to resolve their D&D calculations, have the Jock & Cheerleader run a scene or the Cheerleader with the Best Friend. If you’re using a D&D session to help do early pulls from the Tower of Dread, then you can choose to incorporate the Goof’s bully or the rides as needed. My players luckily have terrible dice luck so it worked out for me that way so I removed the bully and few other potential scenes.
Hallucinations and traumatizing flashbacks are your friend, use them.
If your players end up going to the Facility due to one of the characters (or the Twins) suspecting there will be more information, have some things prepped for that. But generally the narrative directs the players in a way that leads them to go back to the Fairgrounds by the end of Act 2. For Act 3, include pulls to make sure they do not get lost, that will be nerve-wrecking one way or the other. The more players you have, especially in mine with 7, the higher the chance for the tower to drop.
Keep in mind with your player’s skill with Jenga, mine are proficiently good and therefore I amended the Dread rules about the GM making pre-pulls only when the playgroup is less than 5. I pull three blocks after the first death, and three additional per death. So by the time we had our 3rd character out, I had 9 premade pulls before play could resume. Luckily for me, that was during the end of Act 3, which mean mistakes could easily be made.
My players enjoyed this scenario so much they wanted a narrative sequel to it.
If you want to try out a different RPG system, definitely take a look at Dread. If you liked Stranger Things and also Dread, check out this fun scenario. Halloween is over, but the Dread is never over.
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