You know how every time a rules-light RPG comes out there’s always someone clamoring that the game in question is finally the perfect game to introduce newcomers to role-playing games? Yeah well, this is me clamoring that ‘Dread’ IS the perfect RPG game to introduce someone to tabletop RPGs! Or the perfect ‘system’ (apostrophes explained in a moment) to run a game when you have the story planned out in your mind but haven’t had time to come up with/write some stats.
The game was designed for horror games in mind and while I think it’s the most fitting genre for it, nothing should stop someone from trying another genre as long as the characters are in some sort of danger, physical or otherwise. (And is there an RPG where characters aren’t?)
There are character sheets but they’re completely devoid of stats. Instead, the GM will ask the players some questions about their characters which the players have to answer. Some of them can actually impose some facets into the characters’ backgrounds! Example from the book: “What are you recovering from and why do you think it’s taking so long?” These questions can sometimes make someone slightly uncomfortable because they might have to go places they usually wouldn’t when thinking about their characters. The question from the example is obviously something negative that’s happened to them, however the player can take it from there and decide what it is. This way of doing things is actually amazing! As soon as the game starts, my two players already had a really good idea of who their characters were, didn’t hesitate in their characterization and seemed to already care about what would happen to them because during the ‘questions’ process they had thought about who these characters were. They had imagined them as people, what they feared and what gave them hope, and that had made them care about their fate. I have rarely seen players inhabit their roles so quickly in a RPG!
O.k, so about the ‘system’… It’s not really a game system as much as a set of rules to guide a story. First of all, say good-bye to your dice. ‘Dread’ is played with a ‘Jenga’ set! You read that right! The rules make for incredibly fast-paced and incredibly stressful game sessions! Basically, if your character could logically do something, he simply does it. If there’s no logical way he could, then he doesn’t. Simple. In the moments when there is doubt though, that’s when you pull a block! (Or more if the task at hand is difficult!) If the tower topples over, the character is removed from the game and the tower is reset. Players can sometimes choose not to pull the block and deal with minor consequences instead, but not always. For example, if a character has to jump from one building roof to another and the player decides not to pull a block. The GM could determine that the character simply changes his mind and doesn’t attempt the jump. Or if he was being chased by a monster and had no choice but to jump, then he jumped but failed to reach the other building, fell down on the fire escape and twisted an ankle. A lot is left on the shoulders of the GM because the nature of the game is extremely narrative.
Other reviewers have claimed that while this is an excellent game (Which I completely agree with!) it would be difficult to run a long-running story with it because the mortality rate of the characters is supposedly too high, given that as soon as the tower topples, a character is removed from the game. I can see where that point of view comes from but respectfully disagree. The book clearly states that a character being removed from the game isn’t necessarily a dead character. Of course in some cases it couldn’t be anything else. If the character pulls a block to see if they escape from the serial killer and they topple over the tower, the obvious consequence is that the serial killer caught up with them and killed them. But in other cases, toppling the tower can be something else. If the character is in no direct danger, two things can happen. The first is that the character can find himself a ‘ghost’, in that they can no longer pull blocks and directly affect the story, the character is going to die soon and the player knows it but they can still play their role until that comes to happen. Or as a second option, the character could be removed from the game in any other way available. Maybe they go insane from all the horrors they’ve seen and are sent to an asylum. Maybe a family member is in the hospital and they need to be there for them. Many ways to remove a character from the current game can allow for them to come back another time. I completely agree that it might be trickier to run a long-running game with this system, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible.I think that avoiding unnecessary block-pulling will already go a long way if you want the characters to survive for many game sessions.
The book also comes with lots of advice on running a horror game and gives you three example scenarios. One is a werewolf story, the other a sci-fi horror scenario and the third is in the splatterpunk genre. I have only browsed through those at the moment so I can’t review the adventures in themselves, but even if you don’t use them they seem to me like solid examples of how to run a ‘Dread’ game.
So how efficient is this game for horror and how easy is it to play? I bought the book the very same day I ran our first game with it. I was going to read it but fell asleep on my couch and woke up when my friends came over. I quickly read the rules on the spot during the time it took for a ‘Magic: The Gathering’ game between my two players and I was ready to run the game! It is that easy to use!
The game I ran was a sci-fi horror game. Ironically the idea didn’t even come to me because of the scenario given in the book, I’d genuinely been wanting to run one for a while now and the game presented the perfect opportunity to do so. I had an idea in mind and I was ready to go. I think that alone will make me run a lot of ‘Dread’ games in the future, the fact that all you need to run a game is the idea, you don’t need to waste time doing ‘homework’ to prepare it as far as statistics go.
The use of ‘Jenga’ to resolve actions is genius, as the players will feel the titular dread when it’s time to pull a block or two. I was even more impressed when during the game session the players agreed that one action in particular should be much more easy for one of the characters and found myself going along with it, making the older character pull two blocks instead of one for the physical task they had to accomplish.
Oh and a last detail that I found somewhat funny? In a way, the game does encourage the ‘Let’s split up’ horror movie trope! If there’s a dangerous area to explore that will necessitate block pulling to reach, players might not want to start pulling more blocks than necessary from the tower. Good players won’t metagame too much (and in fact mine didn’t) but I think it might affect games at least on a subconscious level.
So to conclude, this might be the greatest horror RPG I’ve ever played. Maybe I’m still in the ‘honeymoon’ phase because I just got it yesterday and the game ran smoothly but that’s how it seems to me right now. And while I haven’t tried that yet, I think this might be the perfect game to bring non-RPG players into RPGs. I highly recommend it.