The Dreaded Questionnaire

  • Why I like the process of character creation in Dread
  • What we can learn to possibly enhance our character creations

Fluff

The 2006 horror game Dread has received both praise and criticism. For those of you that don’t know it, Dread is a horror game focused mainly on oneshots. The main conflict resolution involves players drawing a GM-determined number of blocks from a Jenga tower. Once the tower is knocked over, the character whose player was responsible for the collapse dies at the next plausible situation. The game comes with a number of free one-shot scenarios, including an outline of the events about to unfold and kind of-premade characters.

And though of course the most remarkable thing about Dread is the enormous suspension built by the waning integrity of the Jenga tower, many people have already offered feedback and advice about possible applications and improvements. Instead, I am going to focus on another part of the game that is often overlooked, but presents a most remarkable innovation as well – the character creation.

Crunch

In Dread, there are no attributes or skills. Characters consist entirely of their narrative depth, so the character sheet is a mere questionnaire for the player to fill in.

Wait, the player fills in the questionnaire? Didn’t I say the characters were pre-generated?

This is where the extremely simple genius of the game kicks in. All the questions about the characters are suggestive questions. They already contain a backstory for the character and ensure that they fit the mold they are meant to in the scenario’s initial setup. Still, they offer enough freedom for the players to really color and add depth to their character, which is a trait most one-shot games lack.

When I designed my own first Dread scenario, I quickly noticed the enormous potential hidden in the approach. Without giving the players any kind of briefing, I was still able to convey most of the setting, character backstory, and initial setup only through offering them the opportunity to define their character.

Soon, I decided I would use this technique’s power to shape character creation processes for different games and even campaigns as well. Coming up with a questionnaire of about 5-12 questions (I use Google Forms to deploy them to my players) offers a lot of advantages:

  • Depth: Naturally, answering questions about a character (including questions not directly related to the game) will give them more depth and believability. These kind of questions help players discover their character and learn more about them, in turn providing help for portraying them later in game. Also, of course, does the GM learn more about the PCs as well and can prepare for a certain type of personality for them.
    • “What is your dark secret?”
  • Role Description: Having a set of answers for different situations ready can make it much easier for players to accurately portray their character and stay faithful to their personality. It forces them to really develop a temper for their character, thus providing assistance whenever they don’t know what would be a good in-character decision. Also, it can add special quirks or behavior to a character that their player would never have considered.
    • “What is your typical response to unfair situations?”
    • “What is your most precious keepsake you would never ever abandon?”
  • Adequacy: Because the GM can suggest living conditions for the characters, they can assure that the character will fit into the setting. They can leave everything else open for the players to decide, but still have the questions contain enough necessary background to guarantee a match with what campaign the GM had in mind.
    • “How did you arrive in Los Angeles and why did you choose to stay here?”
  • Getting Started: Especially for the first meeting, the GM can use the tool of a suggestive questionnaire to get all players onto the same page regarding the initial situation of the game. This is both true for simple position of the characters, and for their relations and associations.
    • “Why were you invited to the great debutante ball, and why did you appear?”.
    • “Although you and Marianne are fundamentally different, you still have managed to become friends. What is the thing that connects the two of you the most?”
  • Mutuality: Usually, when GMs demand intricate backstories for the PCs in order to weave them into the setting, this triggers a back and forth kind of communication, where the player tells something, the GM finds things inappropriate, wants them changed, or wants the player to have some additional information about their character’s background only they are to know, and thus sends the story back with change suggestions, gets back a revised version and so forth. Prompting a kind of backstory that answers all the necessary questions and/or gives all the important information right from the beginning solves all of these issues, resulting in a much cleaner and clearer preparation for both sides.
    • “When you were 7 years old, you found a crystal ball in an abandoned house near your parents’ farm. Why do you still hang on to it?”
  • Relevance: Because the GM demands only those information they need about the character, everything included in the questionnaire will be both interesting and relevant and can be processed into game world consequences almost in its entirety.
    • “What is your approach towards necromancers?”
  • Clarity: All background intelligence is presented in a streamlined and structured fashion, thus making occasional reference much faster and more precise.
    • “Where did you grow up?”

I really like the possibilities these questionnaires open up, and have thus added them to my repertoire of preparing game session. What do you think? Would they be a valuable addition to your games as well, or are there reasons for you to rather restrain from a technique like this? Let me know in the comments!

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