dread : The First Book of Pandemonium
dread : The First Book of Pandemonium Playtest Review by Andy Kitkowski on 08/01/03
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Although marred by some typical editing problems and sometimes schlocky interior art, DREAD is a superior Action/Horror oriented RPG chock full of crunchy goodness that can be quickly picked up and played by anyone.
Product: dread : The First Book of Pandemonium
Author: Rafael Chandler
Company/Publisher: malignant games
Page count: 180
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Andy Kitkowski on 08/01/03
Genre tags: Modern day Horror Espionage Gothic Superhero Other
When I first heard about DREAD, it was explained to me as a game about fighting demons. Unfortunately, I've never really been interested in games with religious themes (save for The End, which is just as much a post-apocalypse game to me as a "religious themed" game). I've never traced down where my lack of interest came from, but I could never get interested in otherwise popular games like In Nomine, Kult, or The Last Exodus.
However, after reading through and playing Dread, I realized that it set itself apart from other "religious themed" games. In fact, I came to quickly like this game and especially the method of play it encourages.
First of all, the game is dark. Like, 'midnight' or 'squid ink' dark. Essentially, the game pits a small team, or Cabal, of heroes from all walks of life together to take on Demons and destroy them. The demons aren't interested in politics, strategy, or such maneuvering; They just want to eat people, tear them apart, torture them, kill them, and live free while doing so. In the game, the characters play people whose lives were ruined in some way or another by demons. They had nothing to lose, and were found and recruited by a mentor. The mentor, a mysterious type who comes and goes, showed the characters how to use their body, mind and spirit to fight the demons, and then moved on to the next city to recruit and train another Cabal. From time to time, the mentor sends word of happenings that he or she needs the PCs to investigate.
The characters themselves are little short of superheroes- while in most ways the character will be average, in one of three areas (physical strength, intelligence/perception, or willpower/charisma) the character will just blow any other human out of the water. They are also trained to cast various incantations by their mentor- Spells can freeze demons in their tracks, exorcise demons, mind-probe humans, control emotions, make your intestines burst out and turn into snakes, or make you grow giant armored crab-arms. It sounds weird, but that's only because it is. A VERY eclectic range of magical spells.
The game essentially plays out like an episode of The Real Ghostbusters with firearms (I like to describe it as a cross between the A-Team and the recent movie Frailty): A mission comes in, the characters suit up and head out, and from that point they put together the clues, find the demon and (hopefully) take it out with firearms, chainsaws, hand grenades, lead pipes and magical spells.
There are tons of demons to fight- almost every demon is different from the next, which makes the game like an episode of the classic X-Files or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. First, the PCs have to find as much information as possible on the demon to track it down, and, if it finally appears, the GM can present them with the description of the demon: Its strengths, weaknesses (if any), and methods of operation. If the GM uses one of the demons presented in the GM's section of the book, they can even show them a picture of the demon (each demon is represented by "photo" or sketch). If the PCs are strong, use teamwork, and are lucky, they can defeat it and head back to their base of operations for beer and TV.
The rule mechanics, for the most part, are incredibly simple and straightforward. The game relies on a dice pool of d12s. For any action, you add the appropriate attribute to the skill, and roll that many d12 dice. Each action has a difficulty number, ranging from about 7 to 14. If you beat that number with any one of your dice, you succeed- That's all. If you are in a contested action, you try to make your highest die beat the opponent's highest die. It's very simple.
You probably notice, though, that dice can't go up to 14. Well, the second part of the die mechanic is this: You look at all the doubles/triples/etc of numbers rolled. You add the number on the die to the number of dice showing that number. For example, if I roll a 4, 6, 7, 7, and 7, my final total will be a high number of 10: The number 7 appears on 3 dice. If I roll a 5, 8, 10, 10, 10, and 12, my high number is 13, as the three 10s beat the 12. That's how you can succeed at "impossible" tasks, which have a difficulty of 13 or 14.
On top of that, you can spend points of something called "Redemption" to roll in an extra die, or even more points to gain an automatic roll of 12: If you had already rolled a 12, you can use this to get a score of 14. That's about as complex as the system gets.
Combat is just as easy. You compare the highest number between contestants. Once you get that number, you add a number for the damage of the weapon (a set number, usually 1 or 2, sometimes 3 for heavy weapons). You take that total and that's the amount of wound points the loser takes. Once they reach 13 wounds, they die. It's a very simple system, but it very much emulates the style of play that the game is going for- cinematic action, fast and dirty combat.
Finally, there are two more core rules in the Dread system which can potentially affect every roll; The "Cool Rule" and "Drive". The Cool Rule basically states that, for every action that is described in a "cool" or "interesting" way, the character gets to add a die. This is a rather unique rule in games- I've seen some systems which tell the GM to give the players a bonus every once in a while or on a special occasion if they are particularly clever or interesting, but Dread brings the Cool Rule into potentially every single roll: Combat, Healing, Repairing a Car, Doing Research, or whatever.
The other rule that comes into play in die rolls is "Drive". Drive is the primary motivation of the character, and is chosen during character generation. Some drives could be "Revenge", "Fear", "Popularity", "Anger", "Justice", etc. If the player describes his PC's action in a way that purposely invokes that drive, they can add another die to the roll. There is no limit to the number of times a Drive can be invoked, so, if the player wanted to, he could potentially add two dice to many rolls they make- Once for describing their action in a cool way, and another if that action invokes their Drive.
Character generation is also easy. Aside from choosing spells, it took me less than 7 minutes to go from "Start to Think About a Character Concept" to "Completely Finished Filling Out My Character Sheet"- and that was while the GM was explaining how the attributes, skills, etc worked.
You have three attributes: Body, Mind and Spirit. You have 9 points to divide between them, but one attribute must be a 5 or a 6 (to signify your specialty). Average for a human is 2. A level of 4 signifies pretty much the peak of (physical, mental or spiritual) excellence: An Olympic athlete, a PhD in a subject, a wizened dervish. And yet, you begin with one score of 5 or 6. This is really evocative of the personal powers you were unable to unlock under the tutelage of your mentor, as well as the cinematic nature of the game.
After that, you get skills- A number of skill points equal to double your Mind score, which you can spread around (1 per skill) or add together (3 in one skill, 1 in another). The skills look actually more like "skill groups" of other RPGs: Things like Criminal, Mechanic, and Athletics. Then, you get spells: This time you double your Spirit score and choose that number of spells. You can cast one of those spell per day up to your Spirit score: If your Spirit is 2, you can cast 2 spells/day.
There's something that creeps up next which is kind of unusual: "Secondary Skills". There are only Three Secondary Skills in Dread: Combat, The Eye (Acute Perception), and Demon Lore. Each character chooses one (and only one) of the above three skills- They can use these in the game to add a die to those related rolls, and they represent the focus or specialty of your character within the group: The Brawn, The Brains, or the All-Perceiving. Even though each of these is tied to an attribute, you can certainly choose a secondary skill that isn't tied to your highest attribute. For example, My first character had a score of 5 in Spirit, yet I chose Combat for his secondary skill because that's the kind of guy I wanted: A preacher-type who could throw down with the best of them to kill demons.
Finally, you write down your character's Drive, or motivation for fighting the demons. Then you make note of your equipment (you basically choose what you want and have it approved) and write down a number of Contacts that you had in the world you left behind- You can draw on them in the game for advice and assistance (Ex: An Ex-Cop might have a friend in the coroner's office, or the crime lab, or even a local dealer-turned-good, whom you can turn to for information in the game).
The PCs all begin the game knowing that demons exist, and have the tools to
(hopefully) destroy them if they can find them. There aren't many secrets in
The Dread game itself is 180 pages long and softbound with a blue picture cover. When you look at it, probably the last thing you'd expect it to be is an RPG. The cover is rather dark and somber.
The interior art is a range of pictures from photos doctored with Photoshop to hand sketches. The range, like most games, goes from "Extremely Evocative and Cool" Great (the photoshop/doctored demon photos are, IMO, the best examples of this) to "Oh My God It Makes My Eyes Bleed Mommy Please Make It Go Away" Bad (some of the sketches fall under this category). The layout of the book is a simple and straightforward 2-column.
There's also about five or six pieces of gaming fiction (at around 2-3 pages each) spread around the book as chapter openers and the like. I normally stay away from gaming fiction, as it tends toward the "short story that takes place in the game world" over the "paint a picture from the game world in words". Dread, however, goes for the latter. And it does it better than any game I have ever read. I may sound like a fanboy when I say that, but before I read Dread I recognized the fiction from All Flesh Must Be Eaten as the best to get you into running or playing a game. The gaming fiction in Dread is just as good as AFMBE: Very evocative of the game, instantly ropes the player into understanding the point of the game, and on top of it all is just plain entertaining. The fiction revolves about a fallen man, his training, him getting used to the world of demons, his Cabal, and some excerpts of missions with his Cabal. It left me wanting more, and, better yet, wanting to play the game.
The book itself, however, is littered with errors. It really needs some errata. There's the typical RPG errors, including:
* "See Page 17", when page 17 has nothing to do with what was discussed
(and obviously pointed to a page/section that was moved or probably deleted).
As independent RPGs go, it's about average on these kinds of errors. However, I was of course hoping for far less.
If I had to make a laundry list of the strength and weaknesses of the game, I'd map them out something like this:
Strength: The game is extremely easy to learn, even for beginners. You can rope about anyone in and get them to understand the basics of the game in just a few minutes. The themes provide instant direction: "They're evil. You're good. You're armed. Go!"
Weakness: The themes of the game won't appeal to people who are into strategic games over cinematic (ex: In Dread, ALL hand firearms do a damage of " 2". Also, the play emphasizes cinematic or "cool" actions over strategically or logically sound ones), or who are opposed to "dark" games. The encounters in Dread tend to come off like combat in movies like Blade/Blade 2, with lots of really cool, but really over-the-top, action. If that doesn't appeal to you, then Dread may not be the game for you.
Strength: The magic spells are unique, bizarre, and help set the mood of the game: "Dresden", "Astarte", "Excoriate", "Moloch", "Viscera".
Weakness: Sometimes the art, when sucky, distracts from the otherwise tight text and feel of the book.
Strength: The nature of the game, with the players in Cabals, and the mentor offering missions, takes all the pressure off a GM for coming up with logical ways for the characters to meet up for the first time, or coming up with a way to introduce adventures without railroading the players. Because it's so easy to grasp, you could, if inclined, run a game of Dread within 30 minutes "out of the box".
Weakness: It may be harder for a GM to come up with a long campaign of anything other than a series of one-shot adventures linked together. If the GM pulls out the "GM's Section Backstory", though, that offers a potentially long campaign story over the usual "Search and Destroy".
Strength: There are tons of demons in the book for you to use, each with their own illustrations: Demons like Chengreolic, Fliacza, Mursallic, and Vouzire. Some demons are simply poltergeists or other ghostlike entities. Others are small parasites, or illusional, or large and octopus-like, or like something out of the Cthulhu mythos. Some are straight-up bipedal combat monsters. They all have their own special needs, have their own habits, and fight the PCs and humanity in different and unique ways. There's enough room for a creative GM to make up their own demon and throw it at the PCs, or for un uncreative GM to just take bits and pieces of the existing 25 demons and assemble something new.
Strength: The Cool Rule. This adds a whole level of player participation to the game as players try to make the game MORE interesting for each other by describing actions in a "cool" manner. The players can offer suggestions to each other to make their character's actions more interesting or come up with exciting ways to resolve problems.
Now, on this last issue, there are going to be some naysayers who object to the idea of having something like the "coolness" of an action left up to the decision of a GM; "It's all relative,' they say, "So I can expect to see fights between the GM and players over what's cool and what's not". Truth is, there's nothing ontological for the players or GM to compare "Coolness" to. To those people, all I have to say is, "You haven't played the game. Just. Try. The. Game." In my few sessions, I've seen the following things happen in regards to the cool rule:
* One player would describe an action. Another player, recognizing that the action was VERY cool, would say "That's awesome! Give him an extra die" or just hand an extra die to the player. On base, simple actions that weren't described in any particular cool way, no one tried to force the GMs hand by saying "Uh… that was … 'kinda'… cool… give me an extra die?". Players had a general sense of what was cool and what wasn't. Something like "coolness" doesn't seem black and white at all, but in the games I played, it effectively was- Everyone knew when something was cool and when it wasn't. Unless you have one person off the deep end, completely socially out of tune with the rest of the group, arguments of "they'll never agree on what's cool" simply don't hold up in actual play.
* In cases where a player could easily describe an action in a cool way and score an extra die, they just skip it and roll. Basically, in this game the PCs are highly skilled in certain areas, and success can be found easily without all the extra die- it's not like the PCs are constantly scrambling for that cool die. In many cases, a player who described his action in a simple way like, "I run away" or "I shoot him" was sometimes asked by another player or the GM, "Is that all?" The players responded with "Yeah, that's all. This time", indicating that they weren't in the mood to pull for the Cool Die. Even though it was written nowhere in the book, just by playing the game, there was a certain sense of "You don't need to be on full power coolness all the time- You have to do some mundane things if you want the cool actions to be that much cooler". This exact same thing happened with other playtesters I've encountered as well.
Is the game worth $30? If you are into action games or dark games, the only correct answer is "Hell Yeah". Also, if you enjoy "survival Horror" games like Biohazard (aka Resident Evil), Silent Hill or Fatal Frame, then you'll be kicking yourself if you don't get Dread. As I earlier mentioned, it's almost (almost) playable "out of the box". It certainly requires no memorization of complex rules that would normally put off a group to learning a new game. Because of the "episodic" nature of the game, it can be run as a one shot between other games or as a mini campaign, and there's no problem if the time between Dread sessions extends to months apart- You can still pick up exactly where you left off. The book, while marred by some bad art and rule errors, is overall an excellent intro piece to the game.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a middle-aged accountant who's in the middle of braining tuber-like demons with a sledgehammer who requires my attention.