Dread, created by Epidiah Ravachol from Dig a Thousand Holes Publishing, is rules-light horror and supports any sub-genre–slasher, zombie, vampire, cosmic, weird, occult etc.. It doesn’t use dice, and instead of the traditional character sheet with lists of stats and equipment, players create their avatars by answering a list of questions prepared by the DM (usually a dozen or so). The questions afford a certain amount of freedom–enough for the players to feel they’re crafting something unique–but they also enable the DM to “lead” the party in a certain direction by establishing set parameters and interpersonal relationships before the game begins (I’ve included a sample questionnaire at the end of this post so you get the idea). The DM can decide the party is going to have x females and y males and that at least one character is a paranormal psychologist, as reflected in the questions he or she asks. Otherwise the rest is up to the players. In addition to background info, the questionnaires also suggest skills the characters might possess, as well as weaknesses they suffer from. There’s no set inventory but the questionnaires often ask “what is in your pockets”, or “what items have you packed for the trip.”
Play proceeds much like any other RPG. The DM describes a situation and the players react by describing what they’d like to do. And this is where things get interesting. If the proposed task is simple enough–open a door, jump a short distance, apply a bandage to a shallow cut–then the DM usually tells the players that they succeed. But if the task at hand is more complex–something that has the possibility to fail–all eyes fall on ‘The Tower.’
The Tower is a fully assembled Jenga set, placed in an easily accessible place on the table, but somewhere stable, where it is unlikely to be accidentally knocked over. To succeed on a difficult task the player makes a “pull”, which is exactly what it sounds like. They try and take a block from the tower and if it falls they’re out of the game. They don’t necessarily die. They might go mad, or have an unexpected accident, or find out a loved one at home is sick and have to rush away (I’m getting these examples from the rule book). But for whatever reason, they’re out of the scenario. If a task is particularly difficult, the players may be called on to make multiple pulls. The number of pulls can also be used to determine degrees of success or failure. For example, when applying first aid to a serious wound, more successful pulls means better treatment and less eventual impediment to the injured party.
The tower is not specific to any one character. The precariousness of each pull is necessarily predicated on the pulls made by previous players. In this regard the tower is a metaphor for the overall sense of dread and suspense that pervades over the scenario. Everyone is in this together, and the further they descend into the horror, the more tense and dangerous things get–for everyone.
It’s an astounding mechanic. No matter how far player’s attentions have drifted from the scenario, as soon as someone is called on to make a pull, everyone snaps back to the intensity of the present moment. In my game, one particular family member wasn’t taking things too seriously, and in any other horror game this might have ruined things. But thanks to the tower, the tense, frightening atmosphere persisted. The rule book gives suggestions for how to pace the number of pulls over the course of a given scenario, although it assumes that a certain number of players are going to die.
And that’s my only problem with the game. Early death. As the scenario progressed and I began to think about how the tower was suffering, and the player’s position deteriorating, it became apparent that someone might die long before the scenario ended. Like any other RPG Dread session can take hours, and the system has no mechanic to include those who are forced to sit out at an early–or even mid–stage. It’s true that it’s a fun game to watch, to participate in the tension of watching others work on the tower, but not so much so that one will be willing to do so for the two hours remaining in a long game.
One potential fix for this, I thought, would be to give each person their own tower–perhaps a mini travel Jenga–but I fear this goes against the core philosophy of the game–the metaphor of the tower as collectively applicable to the group. The other possibility is that in the early portions of the game, the falling of the tower doesn’t signal death, but rather a set of serious drawbacks which come back to haunt the players in the final act, when death is a possibility. In my game, I decided that the tower would represent either the “good” ending or the “bad” ending. In this case, it fell and the players experienced a bleak conclusion to the story I’d prepared.
Ultimately, it’s up to a skillful DM to time and pace the pulls so that the tower doesn’t fall at a point that would ruin the game for the afflicted player. And I suppose keeping the experience fun for players, as always, supersedes even fidelity to the philosophy of the system.
It also occurs to me that the tower mechanic might have a place in certain sessions from other systems. I can imagine a one-off DnD adventure when I could place players in a horrifying situation in which they might be driven mad, but instead of using the optional rules for insanity found at the back of the DM’s Guide, I’d employ the Dread mechanic. There’s a lot of potential here.
So how did my unsuspecting and long-suffering family like the game? I think they had a good time. As long as your non-gaming friends are okay with horror, Dread provides a perfect opportunity to introduce them to the hobby. Jenga is an immediately recognizable “casual” component, character creation is creative without being overly complicated, and the free-form nature of the rest of the rules allows a good DM enough freedom to craft the kind of adventure that can appeal to those unfamiliar with the particularities of the standard RPG experience.
Sample Character Creation Questionnaire
You are 35 years of age, female, married to player 2, mother of Emily (five years old).
1. What is your name?
2. Do you resent being a stay-at-home-mom, or are you proud of it? Why?
3. What is the worst thing you’ve ever done to Emily? How does remembering it make you feel?
4. List a precious or especially useful object you have packed for this trip.
5. Do you believe in the Devil? Why? Why not?
6. What part of your appearance are you most proud of?
7. What character flaw do you find most repugnant in others?
8. Why don’t you speak to your father?
9. What do you love most about your husband?
10. What do you resent most about your husband?
11. Name one physical strength.
12. What about Emily makes you most proud?
13. How did you choose Emily’s name?