Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Jenga Mechanic

Apparently, using Jenga as a mechanic was pioneered by an indie game called Dread.  I've never played it.  I first heard about it on Playing D&D With Porn Stars.  I instantly thought this could be a useful tool for a DM and want to brainstorm a little on when and how you might use it.
So, I went and bought two sets, the official and the off brand.  The off brand is about half the price but not as good in quality.  They cleverly stacked their blocks to obscure the fact that they are actually smaller than the standard Jenga block.  But, I really don't think it's going to make a difference for our purposes, hell, you could use your own wooden blocks if they are uniform enough.

Some Things I Like
1) It's likely to be lying around somewhere like old monopoly games and checkers so can use what you have (rather than buy it like me).

2) It's a very social mechanic.  I can't think of any other resolution system that is quite as showy and dramatic.  So, it's easy for everyone present to watch and be interested in the results.  Harder to achieve that with dice.

3) It's interesting because it's a different kind of mechanic.  It's about seeing how far you can push your luck, not diminishing returns, but a dimishing chance that the risk you just took won't blow up in the party's face.

So, When do we use it?
Seems like, because of #2, it would be best with something involving the whole party.  Yes, you might use it to determine when an individual player makes a lycanthropic switch, but it wouldn't be capitalizing on the group aspect.  So what then?  It seems it would be best where the actions of any of the party would affect all the party.  So maybe:
  • Reputation or trustworthiness in a place - caught in lying or stealing
  • Going incognito or not/fitting in - breaking taboos
  • Raising an alarm - individual noises
  • Overusing a resource - rubbing the lamp too many times and the djinn is freed, how many chests can you load on the barge before sinking it (in a way it's a greed mechanic isn't it?)
  • Come to think of it, lycanthropy or going berzerk might be well suited - one pc's transformation will affect the whole group.  Have a list of things that set them off (challenges, being hurt, hurting someone else) and make them pull each time one of them happens.
One thing that would be necessary is to know about how many pulls until failure. I have probably played this game once in my life.  I'm guessing 15-30 moves?  Anyone with more experience please weigh in.

So, for example, if the role playing situation is scoring political points against opponents at court by making cracks about them without pissing off the monarch, each pull gives you something good but means you're closer to getting thrown out of the court.  30 wisecracks seems like a lot in that case.

Using Color
You might utilize the colored blocks somehow here, if a jibe is red and a compliment to your allies was blue, the courtiers would soon be shifting their verbal strategies as all the easy to pull red blocks are pulled.

By giving a certain category of trigger a color we limit the amount of those triggers that pc's can get away with before calamity.  How much we limit depends on what pattern you stack the colors in, but if you stack them randomly (say, drawing them from a bag) I think it would divide that number by three.  So, from 15-30 down to 5-10 red blocks.  Does that sound right?

Who Pulls? You might make the person who caused the pull to do it as a kind of punishment, or allow the players to nominate someone to pull for all of them (although this might soon lead to one person pulling every time).

Other Considerations
I don't want to keep setting the blocks back up, so this mechanic should represent something dramatic and consequential.  It should be the focus of the rest of the session if not, multiple sessions after.

But . . . not campaign-ruining, because my sense is if you set the blocks up, people are going to keep pushing until they fall, especially my drunkie players.

Other ideas about when or how you might use Jenga in your old school games?


  1. Combined with morale checks, to determine whether the last mishap at sea caused a mutiny or not.

  2. I really like the whole idea of the Jenga mechanic because it is a precise visual representation of the dangers of potential risk. If you've got a full tower, you feel more comfortable making risky decisions than you would if you had a rickety tower of potential death in front of you.

  3. I'm definitely using this in my next session. I'm going for a saltbox high seas thing and I like charlatan's idea of a mishap of see, but I think I'd do something else other than mutiny.

    Maybe something just sort of the ship crashing/breaking up.

  4. I'm glad you mentioned alcohol. That's likely to be the determining factor on # of pulls.

  5. How many turns? I think the answer is hidden somewhere here:
    or here:

    If 15+ moves is too many, you could also just require d4 blocks, or some set number of blocks, be moved at each 'trigger'.

    I think using Jenga to track mutiny (at sea or on expeditions) sounds good. Sounds like a good way to track a pack-ape's temper too. "Out of bananas? Pull out a block! Made the ape go first? Pull out a block! Snakes? Pull out a block!"

  6. In the future, I may try elaborating Jenga as a kind of accounting: Rather than "pull out a block", "give me a block". This allows me to reward inspirational feats with a previously withdrawn block, without creating a lot of paperwork for me along the way.

  7. Awesome comments.

    @charlatan75: Mutiny is a perfect example of something that this would be suited for. And the block exchange idea is interesting too.

    @Jamie: yes, I'm hoping it will work that way, a kind of reminder, "hey folks, we're in trouble here" when we return to the imagined world after our many digressions.

    @Seth: It seems like that could work well, say a pilot is trying to get closer and closer to a rocky shore.

    @Richard: heh, I hate to mention it, because you can certainly have fun playing rpgs without imbibing. But my group drink like fish.

    @mike: Believe it or not I looked at that first one and just didn't understand it. Wikipedia also has a discussion of the most possible moves but it is more philosophical than practical.

  8. Ever since I discovered Dread, I've been looking for a way to incorporate Jenga into my games. I'd love to use it for a magic system, but I haven't quite worked out the details yet. But I love the suggestions that you mentioned above.

  9. Thanks, Risus. It does seem like it would work for a system of magic, doesn't it. Maybe a kind of wild magic that when pushed too far releases chaotic random effects. Maybe alienist magic that when too many demands are made releases things to eat your soul.

    Spell range, intensity, aoe, etc could be linked to numbers of blocks requested. And recharging sacrificing etc, could use charlatan's great idea of giving them back blocks if you didn't want to make the slide into calamity irreversible.