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The Terror of Dread

A couple Sunday’s ago, I had the opportunity to play a new (to me) RPG called Dread RPG. It is a rules light, narrative focused, INCREDIBLY LETHAL RPG – well suited to a one-shot game. It can be used for a number of different kinds of game, but by default it is intended for horror.

Oh, and did I mention that it uses a Jenga tower in place of dice?

Background

I first heard of Dread a couple months ago. I started reading (and of course, binging) on a webcomic called d20Monkey. One of their story arcs was of a Dread game. That arc has been among my favorites so far, and it piqued my interest – though not enough to look up the system at the time. That came shortly thereafter.

I tend to lurk (and occasionally post) on Reddit’s /rpg subreddit, and after I read that story arc, I suddenly started seeing people posting about Dread all the time. In reality, I was probably just more cognizant of it since I now knew what it was… But still. After reading the umpteenth person recommend Dread when someone posted asking for a system good for “x”, I decided to actually look into it.

So then, here’s a brief summary of the system and the book, followed by my thoughts on it.

The System, The Tower… The Fear

The basic premise of the Dread RPG mechanics is simple. In most systems, you roll dice to determine success in an action. In Dread, you pull blocks from a Jenga Tower (in keeping with the Dread terminology, hereafter referred to as “The Tower”). If you pull a block without knocking the Tower over, you succeeded at your action. If you knock the Tower over, you die.

“Wait, WHAT?! Failure instantly kills you?!”

That is correct. Dread is not a game for the faint of heart – there is absolutely zero margin for error. If you knock down the tower, you automatically fail whatever action you were attempting, and your character is removed from the game. There is some nuance to this, of course. Though removal from the game will usually mean death, it does not have to. Your character could also go insane, or be knocked unconscious, or get hit by a sudden bout of cowardice and run away… Or whatever method works best for your game.

Sometimes, it may not be feasible to remove the character from the game immediately. Sometimes, someone might knock the Tower over to early in the game (see my story below). Or perhaps the pull they knock it over on shouldn’t really be able to remove them. I would be hard pressed to kill a character who was simply trying to remember what kind of Daisies were in front of him.

In those circumstances, the character becomes Doomed. They can no longer pull blocks from the Tower – which in turn means they automatically fail any action that requires a pull. They basically tag along with the party, until an appropriate moment comes along to remove them. When that time comes… Well, fate is a bitch sometimes, is she not?

The Tower itself is the core of the game, and the spot from which the tension flows. And damn does it flow… Every time you attempt to accomplish something where the results may be in doubt, you must pull from the tower. In some cases, you may have to pull more than once – it depends on what you’re trying to do. You can also choose to pull to get some sort of benefit. This might be some sort of information, “inspiration” in the form of advice from the gm…. Possibly even to edit the scene and find a weapon or something.

Given that the success of the character is based equally on the skill of the player and pure luck, there would not seem to be much room for the characters abilities improving your chances, right?  That is mostly correct. Dread does not have character sheets. At least, not in the traditional, D20 sense. Instead, the GM (referred to as the Host by this system) creates a questionnaire for the players to answer. This ties the characters into the game, while allowing them to flesh out their characters and make them their own. Ideally, these questionnaires should be filled with leading questions – and the players should go along with it.

“What happened last summer that has made you terrified of player #2?” “Why are you married if you do not love your spouse?” 

These are the sort of questions that make for a great questionnaire. Many Dread adventures I’ve seen tend to put the players in certain roles. For example, in the sci-fi adventure in the back of the book, one player will be the mechanic, one is the captain, another is the doctor, etc.  The goal is to create a questionnaire that ties the character into the world, while still allowing the maximum amount of creativity on the part of the players. And possibly giving the Host a way to further mess with his players.

While some players may find the lack of stats to influence events off-putting, there is a certain degree to which they can influence their results. That is, by creating a fully fleshed out character, they may be able to cut down on their pulls. For instance, if your character’s background includes experience with Free Running, the Host might rule that it is not necessary for him to pull to make a jump from one catwalk to another. The opposite can also be true – I made one of my players pull to squeeze every time he tried to crawl through a maintenance duct, since he described his character as being rather portly.

As far as the book is concerned, it’s laid out fairly well. I do not have a hard copy, simply the PDF, so I cannot comment on any of the actual print information, such as binding and quality and such (not that I’d really know what I was talking about anyway).

The book is 96 pages long, divided into eleven chapters, one appendix, and three scenarios in the back. The first chapter gives a brief overview of the system – the welcome chapter, so to speak. The second chapter explains the basics of the rules. The third chapter teaches the players how to fill out their questionnaire. Guess what? That’s all the players should read. That’s right, the first 27 pages of the book (25 if you don’t count the table of contents and acknowledgement page) is all your players need to read. And they technically don’t even need that. The QuickStart rules sum up the mechanics in four pages. Still, if your players want a more in depth understanding of everything, 25 pages isn’t bad at all.

Chapter four and on are all for the Host. Chapter four is the standard GM advice chapter, containing advice on things such as pacing, when to make the players pull (and how many times), potential pitfalls, how to deal with problem players, etc.. Chapter five gives general advice on creating a Dread game from scratch. I chose to borrow someone else’s adventure, so I did not use the advice in this chapter, but it seems fairly self explanatory and well laid out. There are also plenty of examples throughout the chapter to illustrate the points they’re making.

The remaining chapters (six through eleven, for those keeping count) are each focused on advice for running a particular genre of game using Dread. In order, those are; The Suspenseful Game, The Supernatural Game, The Mad Game, The Moral Game, The Mysterious Game, and The Gory Game. The advice in each of those chapters seemed to be pretty helpful, all things considered. And I think their spread of chapters adequately covers the main type of games Dread is good for running.

Next up is a one page explanation of an alternate way to play Dread if you do not have access to a Jenga Tower. I feel like that kinda defeats the purpose of playing dread…. But I suppose there may be circumstances where it becomes necessary.

The remaining pages of the book include three prewritten scenarios for Hosts to run. They appear in order of difficulty to run, and all are excellently written. I did not actually use any of them, but that was only because I found a scenario I liked more.

My Thoughts

To put it simply, I loved playing Dread. It is simple to learn, easy to set up, short (our game took about 2 1/2 hours, plus 45 minutes of filling out the questionnaire due to unique circumstances), and  it is TENSE. I have never seen another game where the players were so attentive to what was happening. Have you ever had a moment in a game of D&D (or whatever system you play) where everyone is super tense, and everything hinges on the result of a single die roll? Perhaps as the fighter is struggling with his last breath to kill the dragon – failure to deal it a significant blow now meaning that a TPK is all but assured. Can you recall the tension in the room as the fighter rolled his attack, the collective breath everyone took as he rolled the die, and the silence as everyone held their breath, waiting to see the result? Yeah, that’s how every single pull felt in this game.

Every. Single. Pull.

It was so ridiculously intense. I loved watching the players jump when the tower came crashing down. I loved the horrified face-palms as each player realized their character was done.  The lethality of the system and the more tactile nature of determining success kept everyone’s attention much better than most games I’ve played. It also truly made you feel like each decision you made was important, and made you really debate whether an action was necessary. It also led to some creative problem solving as the Tower got more treacherous, with the players hunting for ways to deal with (or circumvent) an issue without having to pull (or at least, with minimal pulls). It also meant combat feel quite dangerous, as it was completely possible… Nay, probable, that engaging in combat would result in their death. In most RPG’s, it is rare for players to flee combat. In this game, that became my players go to reaction.

Those rules I mentioned about a character being Doomed if they knock over the tower too early? Yeah, I made way more use of those than I expected. By the time we finished Act 3 of 5, about 3 of my 5 players had knocked over the tower. The first one knocked it over in the first 10 minutes or so of the game. By the start of Act 5, there was a single character left who was NOT Doomed. He actually survived, though I have no idea how. I suspect he has telekinetic powers, and was stabilizing the a Tower surreptitiously, but I’m afraid to call him a cheater.

While I’m thinking about it, I also wanted to throw out a shout-out to David Schirduan for creating and posting his adventure, Only the Food. I was directed to his adventure by someone on /RPG while looking for additional scenarios I could use/draw ideas from, and I loved it. I ended up running it almost completely unmodified, and my players loved it too. Take a look at it – I would put it right along with the first two scenarios in the Dread book in terms of ease-of-running.

The one issue I noticed was that, while the players were Doomed, there was a lot of metagaming going on. They frequently just asked other characters to do stuff, knowing they could not possibly succeed. I had to frequently remind them that their characters would not know they could not possibly succeed, and had no reason to be asking for someone else to do something. This is probably more of a problem with my players than anything else, but the system can lend itself to such metagaming at times. Still, in the future I will simply need to take steps to minimize this.

Also, I absolutely LOVE the concept of the questionnaire. I’m actually strongly considering creating questionnaires for every campaign I run, regardless of the system. It is an excellent way to tie characters into the game, while forcing them to create some degree of backstory for their character.

All in all, if you are looking for a quick, simple RPG to run a one-shot horror or mystery game in, I would highly recommend Dread. It is not for everyone – I would not bother bringing it out around certain members of my other gaming group, because I know they would hate the lethality of it and the fact that they can’t powergame.

It is also not appropriate for every type of game. For instance, I would not play a high fantasy game using Dread, though I may play a hyper-gritty sword and sorcerery style game. Still, it is an excellent system for what it is.

What about you? Do you have any Dread stories? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Let me know in the comments!

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