Sharpen Your GM Mood and Suspense Skills With This Starter Guide To Dread

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GM Tips, hosted by the talented veteran Game Master Satine Phoenix, is our show to help Dungeon Masters and Game Masters improve their craft and create memorable roleplaying experiences. Last week, we covered permissions, and this week is a special look into mood and… wait for it… Suspense. (Okay, I know that was cheesy)

As game masters and storytellers we try session after session to perfect our craft and create an immersive experience for our players. If you watched enough  Critical Role or have gotten hooked on another show Sagas of Sundry, you’ve witnessed experience storytellers enhance suspense and mood with every episode. Of course what you see and hear, is the result of practice, writing, preparation, and talent all mixed together with both players and storytellers bringing there A game. But, bringing that to the home game might require some practice.

Ivan Van Norman returns to GM Tips with Satine Phoenix to talk about creating mood and suspense, with one of the best game systems ever— Dread! Get caught up below.

Since Satine and Ivan touch on most aspects of mood and suspense in the video, the article below will focus on how to set up your very own Dread one-shot, and why you should.

Why Should We?

Dread is the brainchild of Epidiah Ravachol and Nathaniel Barmore that was published in 2005 by The Impossible Dream. Besides winning an Ennie Award in 2006 for innovation, it started to explode in popularity after its appearance on Tabletop. Now it is the centerpiece of shows like Saga’s of Sundry. But why should you as a GM take time out of running your regular weekly game to do a one shot?

Because it will let you flex your GM muscles.

This horror RPG will help polish your storytelling skill faster than kids being murdered at a campsite (which is about 2-3 hours depending on the killer). With no fixed setting, no monsters manual, and only one ominous tower of death—it puts the focus on suspense and setting creation entirely in your imagination. The main rulebook is exceptionally well priced for a $12 e-book because the material within’ carries over to any game you will ever run.

Getting Started

The basics are typical: 1 tower of wooden blocks not-unlike-but-totally not-a-Jenga-tower, a handful of players, the rulebook, and an adventure module. I particularly recommend grabbing the free adventure called Only the Food by David Schirduan.

For the storyteller, you need to be aware of a few things up front. First, you will be killing every PC during this adventure. It’s a one-shot, so just come to terms with that. The characters who survive can easily tie back into whatever long running campaign you have going on. I’m a big fan of making the survivors NPC’s for future encounters.

The second thing you’ll want is to spend time filling out questionnaires with your players. This step is absolutely critical to the game. Each question serves as their character sheet. Let’s say a player has a question of “In high school, what was one thing you really excelled at?” If the player writes down football, then during the game don’t have them pull from the tower for football-related tasks.

Third, be ready to wrap up a story in narration mode to a party of dead players. There is a very real chance your players just won’t survive the adventure. That doesn’t mean the story has ended. Make sure you practice a closing epilogue to lament your players demise and reveal the horrors that have been unleashed. We storytellers should always be asking ourselves what happens if the players fail.

The First Adventure

Once you start playing, try to set some mood lighting up and make sure all snacks are off the table with the tower (I’ve had a few chip related character deaths). Characters will be pulling from the tower in increasing frequency as the module, but usually when you as a GM tell them too. You have to keep an eye on that towers stability through the whole adventure. At the start of the module, it’s a good thing to have all players pull for something like this: “You’ve all been in a car crash on the side of a snowy road—now make a pull to survive.” It sets the stage weakens up that tower some.

After the initial set of pulls, any time the characters are in danger — like running from chainsaw wielding lawyers — a single successful pull means the character got away. It’s not round by round combat, its pass-fail. As the tower gets more wobbly, don’t make the characters pull for something not life threatening. If the tower isn’t wobbly, and you are coming up on a life threatening encounter, feel free to toss some extra pulls in for investigation.

At the end of the adventure, you should hopefully only have one or two PC’s that have managed to survive and a group of tense, but relieved gamers. Dread is one of the most suspenseful games you can run for players, and it really does help you sharpen your storytelling skills for other games.

Have you ever played a Dread game? Tell us your experience in the comments below! And be sure to check out  Sagas of Sundry on Alpha – you can sign up for a free 30-day trial at

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Featured Image by: Bunions Flagons by Hugo Cardenas (| Youtube)

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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