Recently someone asked me about a rule in Dread, and as this is a question that has come up periodically over the years, I thought I’d answer it here for everyone.
I have a major doubt about the following rule: “If the player refuses to pull a block, then the character’s attempt fails. This can result in any number of consequences, but none of them may remove the character from the game.” I think this causes a loss of realism in a lot of different scenarios, and even could put the story on hold. What happens when the tower is so unstable that the players simply decide to fail their actions all the time? I know that this will be unlikely most of the time, but you know there are all types of players out there. My question is, there is not a point in a game in which you should face the decision of make a pull or die anyway?
There are several answers to this.
First, in over a decade of running Dread at conventions and for friends, someone not pulling has never been a problem. There have been players who made it through an entire session without pulling, but it never caused a problem for their enjoyment or others’ enjoyment.
Second, “not removed from the game” doesn’t rule out all sorts of unpleasantness. “pull to avoid being cut in half” (see below) or “pull to avoid having the worm implanted in your brain” or “pull to retain your grip on the reality around you” are all perfectly valid situations, as far as the game is concerned. (When the stakes are that high, I might figure out a way to break it into more than one pull, both so that it’s higher, but also so that it’s less all-or-nothing, and the player has the option of choosing which consequences they want.)
Note that in my first example, being cut in half, both in the real world and certainly in a fictional world, isn’t necessarily instantly fatal. But if they do accept those consequences rather than pull, they or someone else are going to have a whole bunch of pulls to make to deal with the new situation.
Third, not pulling limits player activity, so most players will pull much of the time, though weighing their priorities and not pulling some of the time. Not pulling is choosing to take yourself out of the story to a degree. To contribute to the story, and have a say in which direction things go and what decisions are made, you will eventually have to pull for something.
Fourth: It’s your game when you play it. If you want there to be consequences that include death for failing to pull, you can do that. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Because then there’s no difference between not pulling and knocking the tower over. So you’ve taken away that choice from a player—instead of choosing between pulling, which is “succeed-or-die”, and not-pulling, which is “fail”, now their options are “succeed-or-die” vs “die”. It might get people to pull, but they aren’t really making a choice any more.
If you decide to ignore this advice and create situations that are pull-or-die, you’ve fundamentally changed the underlying dynamic of the game. At a minimum, make sure that the players know right from the start that such a thing could eventually come up, and make sure that you’ve spelled out that consequence before they decide whether or not to pull (this is not the time for a pull with vague stakes).
Finally, there’s another solution to this “problem”: play with the stakes, and break situations into pieces. If you think that “fight the werewolf” should be a thing where the only options are success or death, don’t say “pull to avoid being killed by the werewolf.” Instead, ask for pulls to avoid the werewolf catching their scent, to find a weapon, to keep their nerve when the werewolf shows up, to distract it long enough to have a chance at escape, and so on. When they actually end up in a confrontation with the werewolf, you might say “one pull to keep it from mauling you; one pull to avoid being bitten; one pull to keep your nerve to do anything else useful, an additional pull if what you want to do is attack, an additional pull to succeed at hitting it, and another pull to actually do any harm when you hit it”.
Rather than make a single pull a do-or-die situation, the whole game should be (in games where the most sensible way to be removed from the game is to die). It is the accumulation of actions, and therefore pulls, that leads to a character’s removal.