Dread and the Tragedy of the Commons

“Shaun of the Dead”

I once had a friend who, as an experiment, attempted to run a role-playing adventure that felt like a zombie-apocalypse-style horror movie. He set up a creepy soundtrack and gory movies in the background for ambiance. There was a fairly 3d representation of a house that we were trapped inside, and he had clever ideas about how to make the building fall apart over time. There were food and drinks and fun and everyone bought in to the theme…

But in the end, we called the game a failure. Horror stories are built around a growing scarcity of resources. People run out of easy solutions, like a too-convenient revolver, and are forced to survive with the worst kind of tools. Eventually, characters die as even human beings become a resource that continues to fail. D&D is not a game where resources disappear. A fighter remains just as strong whether they are fully healed or at death’s door. So there just isn’t enough tension!

Fortunately, there is a game designed to bring the tension and terror of these kind of stories to you and your gaming group. Dread, the world’s only Jenga-based roleplaying game.

The rules for Dread are simple. When you want to do something, pull a block from the tower and place it on top. If you knock over the tower, you fail and die in the worst way possible. If you knock the tower over on purpose? You die in the worst well possible, but you succeed at your final task! These simple rules allow for plenty of variations. Harder tasks may take two or even three pulls. I often add specific injuries that can require extra pulls in certain situations.

There is nothing like looking at a wobbly tower and knowing that you have to make a pull to move the story along. When death itself is on the line, what do you do? I hope you take this moment to reflect on one of the greatest Dilemmas of game theory.

The Tragedy of the Commons describes how groups of people tend to use up plentiful common goods without worrying about the consequences. Imagine a big group of friends in a room playing games together. Someone opens up a box of donut, but sets them in the neighboring room. Friends can walk into the room and eat a donut in private, but they are asked to only have two each to start. If there are more left, which seems likely, they can each have more.

I can admit it. I’m a donut eating monster. I’ll have my two, but I probably won’t ask if everyone has had two before grabbing a third. As long as I expect other people are taking care of themselves, I might even grab a fourth. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when my friend, purchaser of the aforementioned donuts, gets real mad that all the donuts are gone, declaring “I will never bring donuts again.”

The Tragedy of the Commons occurs whenever a group of people think about themselves as individuals rather than as a community. Communities are fair, attempting to find the greatest good for everyone. Individuals are looking for their own greatest good, and hoping that no Consequence steps in to shut things down. This is the problem of leaving your dishes in the sink and hoping someone else cleans them. This is the problem of bribery and pollution. It’s big.

In Dread, the Tragedy of the Commons shows up right away. As the story begins, players start pulling blocks for silly reasons. They want to check their email or search through someone’s room. The game is designed to be fun, so players act on that impulse! But eventually, their fun makes the tower wobbly. And now no one wants to act, because the consequence of continues action might be their character’s imminent demise. On the other hand, players may hold back from making pulls unless they are truly helpful to advancing the mission, leaving the tower stable and reducing the chances that all the characters die.

So how much fun should you have? Should you forsake fun for the sake of your group achieving it’s mission? I mean… I don’t know about you, but I’m all about maximum fun. And if that means I’m the class clown that gets taken out in Act One, well at least I’ll go out trying to see if I can water ski across a tightly packed zombie horde.