Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Dread

Every role-player worth their salt understands the tension of rolling a 20-sided die in order to make a saving throw, especially those old-school gamers who remember when there was a saving throw category tauntingly labeled as "Save vs. Death Ray". Play stops as the player invokes whatever their dice-related OCD was and they shook the die in their hands a few times and send the icosagon bouncing onto the table evoking either triumphant cheers or mournful wails.

The problem with this tension is how fleeting it is. The tension starts with the DM telling you to make your saving throw and it only lasts as long as the die-rolling ritual, culminating with the die bouncing to its conclusion. As soon as the saving throw is made, it's back to swinging your two-handed sword once again.

Sure, your story, setting and theme can evoke a sense of tension, but the mechanisms of most games tend to breeze past the tension.

That is what Dread, the independent role-playing game by Epidiah Ravachol, tries to capture: the sense of on-going and sustainable tension.

However, Dread is not like most other role-playing systems. A lot of it differentiates itself from its brethren.

First of all, the system and mechanisms are not created for sustained campaign play. The system is designed to play single, one-shot stories, each with a suspense or horror theme. Most stories are generally resolved in just a couple of hours, making the play time roughly equivalent to the time it would take to watch a horror flick.

Next, characters are not defined by stats and numbers like most games. There are no abilities or even descriptors for the characters. Instead, character creation is based upon answering a questionnaire specifically tailored to your character. Questions might simply be "Why did you choose your major in college?" Or they may start to get deeper, provoking more thought into your character's personae, such as, "Your father beat your mother when you were a child. Why didn't he ever beat you?"

The thing about this method of character creation is that it immediately thrusts the players into the personae of their characters. And instead of min-maxing their numbers and stats, clever questions can deconstruction characters to instead expose their vulnerabilities--something that is crucial in a horror setting.

All role-playing can lend itself to an acting exercise of improvisation. However, what Dread's character system does is to reinforce it. Characters are not defined by the number next to their ability and take on an assumed mantle befitting that salad of numbers and skills. Instead, characters are defined in manners in which the Host (the system's version of the DM or Storyteller) can provoke. Instead of giving someone an 18 Strength to be the "strong guy" of the group, you can instead give a character the question, "Athleticism has always come natural to you and you are easily stronger than most of your peers. What happened that made you decide to hold back your full strength around others?"

This defines not just a character's trait, but a character's personae.

The next thing that sets Dread apart from other role-playing systems is its method of conflict resolution. Generally there are things that are trivial for a character to perform and things that are impossible for a character to perform in any role-playing system. There are rarely any systems involving the resolution of these since either resolution should be assumed. However, the meat of a game's system comes from how to resolve the things that occur in between.

Most systems would have you roll a die or dice at some target number to determine if you succeed or fail. In Dread, you play Jenga.

Jenga is a tower building game where the tower is made of alternating rows of three wooden planks. On a player's turn in Jenga, you pull out one of the wooden planks and place it on the top of the tower. With repeated pulls, the tower becomes more and more unstable and it will eventually collapse and fall when a player removes a plank or places it on top of the now-wobbly structure.

Conflict resolution uses this system. Players want to perform something and then must take a wooden plank from the tower and place it at the top to succeed. Generally, this makes checks easier in the beginning, but soon the tower becomes unstable. And, if a character attempting a pull topples the tower, they are removed from the game--generally by brutal death, although depending upon the situation, other means could be applied.

What this does is establish and build an ongoing sense of tension. Players can opt not to pull and instead fail their action, though with consequences. Players can also start to pull and, if they gauge the tower to be unstable, stop their pull and take the failure.

What happens is, as the tower becomes unstable, every player sees their character's impending mortality before them. In most RPGs, the tension and threat are not so visceral and you'll see players volunteering to head off to investigate the sound at camp in the middle of the night. However, the tension created by Dread and a teetering Jenga tower has players give pause. Straws may be drawn to see who goes. Or possibly no one musters the courage to go forth.

There are a few more mechanisms for resolving the Jenga pulls. A player could perform a trivial task, but opt to take a pull to succeed far and above normal means. Some actions might be difficult enough to require multiple pulls, each successful pull only completing a single portion of the deed. Finally, a player can opt to voluntarily push over the tower and topple it when making a check. If they do this, they make a heroic sacrifice. They succeed at the task they were attempting, but they are removed from the game.

A good host will use the questions answered by the players to the advantage of the theme. If a player answered that their character is afraid of heights, it might take them an extra pull to maintain their composure while trying to cross a rope bridge over a ravine. Similarly, a character who had answered that they had survivalist training might not require a pull at all.

Dread does has a few potential flaws. First of all, it is not a fitting system for players who suffer certain physical disabilities. Second, poor players can ruin the theme. If you do not pull, you fail your action, but you do not die. So an intractable player could simply refuse to ever pull, assuming that they will then never die. However, players like that should not be playing a thematic game like Dread. So that is more of an audience problem than a problem with the system mechanisms themselves.

Next, the system does require the Host running the game to improvise in odd ways if a mundane task pull results in the tower toppling. If you are out investigating a sound in the middle of the night, trying to find the tracks of a stalking wolf, or if you are crossing that rope bridge across the ravine, a failed pull lends itself to easy and obvious methods of elimination. But what if you are giving first aid? Or translating a book? This requires the Host to be ever ready for potential methods of elimination.

Somebody is about to die.
An early topple could also eliminate a character prematurely. Having never played Jenga before, I was uncertain how stable the tower would be and how early we would see a topple. If there was an early topple, I decided that I would play it as if the character cheated death and knew it. Any action they took from then on would require multiple checks. This would have allowed the player to remain in the story until it reached a deeper point and would have also built more tension.

Honestly, when I first read Dread, I thought that the Jenga system was just a cute, quirky gimmick. However, after playing it, I see how it really captures the mood and brings in tension. There is a physical metaphor of your character's mortality teetering before the eyes of the players. I've seen players refuse checks and whimper as the planks are tested for stability. As the tower wobbled on the table before them, I've seen players immediately call out that they are not doing something, until another player steadied their resolve and stepped up to perform the task at hand.

Dread is perfect for setting the tense atmosphere of a suspenseful horror story. The character creation questionnaire has helped bring in a non-role-player into the story. But most of all, the physical representation of death sitting before the characters invokes enough suspense and tension to flavorfully propel the game.

This is not a system for everyone and, truth be told, it is a system that really only tells a limited genre of stories. However, what it does, it does well. I look forward to playing more Dread as a light RPG filler game and writing my own scenarios for it. If nothing else, this may become my new thematic Halloween game to play.


  1. I (James D. Hargrove) did not write or publish Dread, although I did review it many years ago on RPGNet. The actual author/designer is Epidiah Ravachol.

    1. Ah! My mistake for doing a quick search instead of getting up and walking over to grab my book. Apologies for the mistake and corrected!