There are a couple of core facts that are common to almost every role-playing game. Even for newcomers to role-playing games, people not like me who have been doing it for decades; one of the most basic items of every game, one that seems intrinsic to role-playing is dice. Unless you are playing a pure storytelling game which is just storytelling and not really a game at all, you need some sort of random result generator. For most of role-playing history this random result generator has been some form and number of polygon or polygons with different symbols painted on the sides. Usually, those symbols have been numbers but words, symbols and even advertisements have been used. For some games, they have branched out to other randomly generated results like cards. These options add a bit more strategy to the game and even a little skill but are still based (literally) on the luck of the draw. And of course, there have been combinations of the of different random result generators.
Dread stands the idea that dice or cards to randomly generate result are needed to play a game on its head. Instead of dice, the game uses a stacked block tower (hereafter referred to as a “Jenga” tower because, no one calls them “cotton swabs,” either.) There may be some debate about how much influence the player’s dexterity and skills have over the effects of the game as opposed to the inherent abilities of the character, but there is more than a little brilliance in the simplicity of this device.
The tower becomes almost a character in itself. And it is a powerful metaphor for the story that as it progresses. As it grows taller and more unstable, every pull becomes a more dangerous prospect. Players begin to study the tower, contemplate it, obsess about it. That physical stress echoes into the storytelling that is going on in the game. Instead of having to build tension purely through storytelling, which can be a difficult prospect, there is inherent tension in the mechanics of the game. It becomes more likely that a character will fail any action as the game goes on as opposed to the sheer randomness of a dice roll which a character is equally like to fail the first time as the hundredth.
No matter your character’s abilities, there is no +1 to your block pulling ability as a player, there is no spending a benny to get to pull again, there is no using an aspect to force someone to pull a block instead of you. When something dangerous happens, something that could eliminate your character from the story, you pull a block. If you manage to do so, then you succeed. If you knock the tower over, your character is eliminated (usually, but not always killed.) The tower is then restacked and the story continues, if the plot requires it.
The only things that adjust this simple rule are the number of pulls that the Host can demand for a character to accomplish and action and whether or not your character should have to pull at all. The first of these adjustments should be determined by the Host based on how difficult, dangerous or complex the task is. The second is determined by the character sheet.
Without having requiring character abilities to modify dice rolls, the concept of a character sheet seems a bit out of place. With the character’s fate determined more by how steady the hand of his or her player is than by the theoretical abilities the character has, it becomes a question of why the game should bother with a character sheet at all. And the character sheets look very unlike anything in most Role Playing games. Instead of an expansive list of abilities, talents and/or skills, it is simply a list of 13 questions with the final one always being “What is your name?”
These questions serve as both a device for the Host to guide character creation and to help the players truly define their characters. Some of the questions can be simple and invite straightforward answers while others can be much more subtle and leading, inviting players to really delve into their characters to determine their true nature and what motivates them as well as their abilities. A Host can use these questions as a tool to help shape the sort of story they want to tell and how the players’ characters will react to it as well as how they will deal with them.
And the answers to these questions often determine whether or not a player will have to pull a block. On the one hand, if an answer would suggest or outright states that a character has a certain ability that pertains to a situation, then the number of pulls required by the player are reduced or entirely negated. On the other hand, an otherwise innocuous situation might require a pull because of the answer a player gave to a question. For example, “What degree were you pursuing before you switched to Ancient Aztec studies?” would provide a character with an additional knowledge base the player could choose for the character that might come in handy while “What were you doing when you had your last life threatening allergic reaction?” could both define the allergy and create a stressor if a similar event threatens the character.
At first, thirteen seems like a lot of questions, but when you consider just how many questions are answered on a character sheet in a typical role playing game, they hardly seem enough at all. If they are worded right and if the player goes into the process with the right attitude, it is surprising just how much these 13 questions can end up defining about a character.
Still, it can be quite hard for a Host, especially a newcomer to the game or role playing in general to come up with 13 different questions for each player in their game, and it should be noted, the questions for each player should be different, except for the last “What is your name?”. This means that an average group of 4 – 5 players plus a host will require either 48 or 60 questions. A daunting task for most people. To help with this, there is a running list of sample questions at the bottom of each page of the book. With over a hundred examples, some of them are not only informative but provocative in and of themselves. Many of them are the sort of questions that tempt a person to create a game just to use them.
In addition to the questions on the bottom of the page, there are a number of sidebars that help concisely explain the rules being presented as well as suggestions for the Host to help them run a game. Perhaps it was the nature of the electronic format that I was reading and the problem would be alleviated in hard copy but these sidebars were difficult to tell from the main text from time to time. A little more delineation would have made them much easier to read, though there is no faulting the quality of their contents.
Besides what is given in these sidebars, there is a great deal of advice on how to frame an adventure and how to describe the scenes that make up those adventures. One of the most important pieces of advice involves describing scenes using all the senses. Images and sounds have a long history of tropes and clichés in the horror genre but in a role playing game, a Host is free to branch out to taste, smell and even touch, adding all new levels of surprise and shock.
The book also explains how to deal with inter-character conflict. Given how inherently stressful the stories that Dread is designed to tell are, the characters are sure to end up at each other’s throats sooner or later. For that matter, there are whole plots that should resolve around the characters suspecting and accusing each other for the horrible things that are befalling them. And given just how disastrous every pull can be for a character, it is important for the Host to be able to moderate such conflicts fairly.
The different types of horror genres and how to implement them in a Dread game are discussed as well. Given the various combinations that this handful of genres can be combined in, it would be difficult to think of a horror story that could not be told using this advice and a little creativity.
One particularly interesting part of these discussions is that there is an inherent assumption that any time period is fair game for a Dread scenario. Most horror stories in other media are modern tales with futuristic stories being a close second. In Dread, they almost casually mention historic and fantasy settings. Given how prevalent ignorance, seclusion and superstition are in these settings, they are inherently appropriate for a horror game. In a time when you don’t know anyone outside your village and couldn’t reach them without travelling for a day or two even if you did and don’t know how the world works or the creatures that fill it, it is all too easy to be terrified of everything, all the time. The mysterious stranger becomes even more frightening when you only meet one or two strangers a year and becomes a better antagonist and red herring, especially when everyone else you’re around are people you’ve known since childhood.
Although they discuss ways of turning a Dread scenario into a campaign, the game is somewhat antithetical to such play style. While a tumbling tower does not always mean death, it does mean that a character is eliminated in a fairly permanent manner. And, nothing pulls the teeth from a horror story more than knowing that there are no long term repercussions to failure. It is far more fitting in such a tale for all the characters to die than it is for only one to be injured only to show up again next week. Dread is much better as a series of one shot games than a long running campaign.
For people who aren’t sure how to run a game, either because they’ve never run any games at all or simply because of how intimidating a game like Dread can be for a Host coming from more traditional fare, there are three example scenarios at the back of the book. These scenarios grow progressively more complex, allowing a newcomer to learn steadily until they are quite proficient and ready to create their own scenarios by the time they finish the last scenario. In all honesty, even with the experience I have as a game master in other games, I’m not entirely sure I could jump straight to the last scenario and run it well, but it is clearly just the kind of game that works perfectly with the Dread game.
In true indy fashion, the authors of Dread specifically say that you should pass the game on to others once you are comfortable playing it. Instead of being desperate to squeeze every dollar out of every player that they can, they simply want as many people as possible to play their game.
Horror games are always hard to run, often because players can get lost in the details of their characters and all the numbers on their sheet. The almost inevitable desire to plan and manipulate things so that those numbers are optimized in a situation breaks the tension even more. Dread, by the very nature of its mechanics, alleviates both these problems. And if the basic rules are not enough, try running it with a countdown for each pull. THAT is really terrifying.