Dread, the product that I am reviewing here, is not to be confused with Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium, an entirely different product published in 2002 by Malignant Games. Dread is currently in print and supported by The Impossible Dream, while Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium is out of print and no longer receiving official support from Malignant Games (in fact, to the best my knowledge, said publisher no longer exists as a business entity). While both games do address the genre of horror, they are remarkably different in design and scope, as well as execution. One would be remiss to mistake one of these two Dreads for the other.
What is Dread?
Different. That one word sums it up. Unlike a great many independently published games, however, Dread is entirely modest about this. Dread doesn’t boast of its own innovation, doesn’t claim to reinvent the wheel, and doesn’t take every opportunity that it is presented with to pat itself on the back. Dread doesn’t even claim to be a roleplaying game - rather, it proclaims to be “a game of horror and hope”. In a niche market that seems to be defined by its self congratulatory fervor at times, this kind of modesty is incredibly refreshing. Having said all of that, it is my opinion that Dread is a great many things that it doesn’t seek to take credit for.
Unlike many games that openly fly the banner of innovation, Dread doesn’t simply provide the reader with a new way to roll dice or reinvent some common terminology. No, if Dread did make a claim of innovation, it would be one of the few games that could do so honestly. Dread is, as my friend Jack is fond of saying, a look at what roleplaying can be, not a look at what it already is. Replacing dice with a Jenga tower and defining characters only with words, Dread is several steps away from what many people commonly think of as a ‘roleplaying game’ - and several steps towards redefining out hobby, not just a few commonplace terms.
As the authors themselves plainly state on the first page of the book, Dread isn’t for everybody. They go on to remind the reader that the primary purpose of all games is to facilitate fun and that Dread, like a good game of Truth or Dare, should make players uncomfortable from time (it is, after all, a game of horror and hope). Finally, they do something that I have seen very few publishers do ever - they suggest that if this does not sound like fun, you should not play their game. And that, folks, is genuine modesty if I’ve ever seen it.
There was a point in time when ordering an independently published game was a crap shoot where physical production values were concerned. As recently as two years ago, several small press publishers were trying to pass off spiral-bound, black and white, xeroxed copies of their games as being of professional quality. Things have obviously changed a lot since then, largely due to the advent of a service known as Print on Demand. That said, some publishers are still taking the spiral -bound, copy center, approach to publishing. I’m happy to say that The Impossible Dream isn’t one of them.
Measuring approximately five and half inches by eight and a half inches, Dread is a slick package consisting of 167* pages perfect bound inside of a simple, white, soft cover that is punctuated by a bloody, crimson, hand print rendered in actual size. I’ve often been a fan of ‘less is more’ when it comes to graphic design, and the publishers of Dread have made very good use of this philosophy. As a huge fan of horror, both in film and in gaming, I wouldn’t be able to pass up Dread if I saw it on a store shelf. As a good cover should, Dread’s cover does a lot to sell the book.
What little artwork is scattered throughout the book is, for the most part, skillfully rendered and subject appropriate. There are two pieces that seem to have been cropped a bit too much, and subsequently aren’t easily identifiable (pages 106 and 113), as well one genuinely disturbing piece on page 115 that nobody under the age of eighteen should probably be looking at (it is genre appropriate, merely very graphic). Overall, the art works - it taps into my zone of discomfort and makes my skin crawl, which is exactly what the art in a horror game should be doing. The aforementioned picture on page 115 makes me genuinely ill at ease.
The layout itself is simple and functional, but nothing to write home about. The good news is that Dread is entirely legible and, for me, that wins big points. I’ve seen a lot of really neat looking, but largely unreadable roleplaying products and I’m glad that Dread isn’t one of them. Additionally, Dread makes good use of sidebars called “The Flesh” and “The Marrow” (the Flesh sidebars present examples and insights, while the Marrow sidebars present fundamental rules for quick reference). I find a lot to admire in the simplicity here.
The Rules of Dread
Before I get into the rules proper, it is worth reiterating that they are different than what you’re used to, regardless of what other RPGs you may have played. Dread simply isn’t your run of the mill roleplaying game, and anybody going into it with that mind set will be either horribly disappointed or horribly confused. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for something different - well, it just doesn’t get any more different than Dread.
Characters in Dread
You’re going to notice something different right off the bat here. Characters in Dread are not described using numbers. Unlike in the vast majority of roleplaying games, characters in Dread are described using only words, much as an author describes a character in written fiction or a film buff describes a character from his favorite movie to a friend. Dread accomplishes this by having players answer a battery of questions used to form their character profiles, much as a psychiatrist has patients answer a battery of questions that they use to form a personality profile. The choice to use words in this capacity, rather than numbers, greatly changes the play dynamic endemic to most roleplaying games in a couple of different ways.
First, using words to define a character places the focus during actual play solely on the character’s personae. Where most roleplaying games divide their focus between a character’s persona and their numerical descriptors (attribute ratings, skill values, etc), and others simply dispense with a focus on persona at all, Dread makes this the only important aspect of a character - much as films and written fiction do. You don’t see Stephen King describe his characters in terms of skill ranks or character levels, and you won’t see Dread players describe their characters in such fashion, either. As they are in spine tingling weird tales, personae - not numbers - are the focus here.
Second, using words in this manner smashes many of the walls that a focus on numbers during character creation erects by design. If you’re playing a game of Dread about several characters trapped in an abandoned mansion with a psychotic killer, you won’t have to worry about rolling high stats or micro-managing a pool of character points to make those characters viable - you’ll merely have to describe them. In practice, I’ve found that many seasoned veterans of roleplaying games find this concept incredibly bizarre at first - after all, it’s as easy as stating what your character is and then writing it down, a thing usually relegated to the status of a ‘finishing touch’ in traditional roleplaying game systems.
As the authors noted early on, this definitely isn’t for everybody - if you’re a firm believer that stats make the character, Dread will have very little to offer you. Similarly, if you’re not comfortable stepping into a character role as an actor or author does, Dread will likely not strike your fancy. If, on the other hand, you’re tired of counting numerical modifiers during actual play and relish the opportunity for immersive roleplay, Dread will certainly pique your interest.
Resolution in Dread
This is easily the most overtly different aspect of Dread, when you compare it to a traditional roleplaying game. In Dread, action is resolved using a stack of fifty-four wooden blocks (better known as Jenga to many people). While the idea initially sounds awkward and complicated, it’s really quite simple in actual practice. Here is how it works in a nutshell:
Whenever a character wants to do something that isn’t clearly impossible or easily accomplished, the host (or GM, if you will) will likely require a pull. A ‘pull’ is the act of, well... pulling a block from the tower and then placing it on the tower’s uppermost level. If a pull succeeds (i.e., the player whose character is taking action manages to remove a block without toppling the tower), then the action being attempted succeeds. Conversely, if a pull fails (i.e., the player whose character is taking action topples the tower), so does the action being attempted.
That’s the basic thrust of the system. There are, of course, a few other wrinkles - for starters, a players is never required to take a pull. If a player would rather not risk a pull, they may decline to take one, in which case the action that they are taking automatically fails. Given the somewhat dire consequences of toppling the tower (discussed below), it can sometimes be more beneficial to simply accept failure than risk a pull. Speaking of which...
Should the tower be toppled by a player, their character is removed from the story. Such removal may occur in many different ways, from crimson-spattered death to gibbering madness, but it is almost always unpleasant given the nature of the game. That said, the goal of Dread is to facilitate the creation of compelling stories, not necessarily to survive the night intact. Players who keep sight of this goal will have a lot of fun with Dread, while players who try to approach Dread as a survival exercise will very quickly get frustrated.
The biggest draw to this resolution mechanic for me was one of thematic metaphor - the tower, like the plot of a good horror story, builds tension naturally through actual play, eventually culminating in a climactic moment of stark terror. In point of fact, as big a horror junkie as I am, I’ve never seen a game mechanic that actually inspires anxious dread in its players - until now. Wondering if your next pull will be your last is tantamount to wondering around which corner the machete wielding madman lurks in your favorite summer camp slasher flick. It definitely builds tension, and when the tower finally topples, you may find yourself suppressing a sudden urge to scream.
Advice for the Host
The bulk of Dread is not composed of character creation guidelines or task resolution rules but, rather, of advice - much needed advice. Like Nightmares of Mine by Kenneth Hite (a great work dedicated to horror in gaming), Dread thoroughly examines many tenets and tropes of the genre, as well as how they can best be applied in the context of a Dread game. Whether you’re a newcomer to horror or an old hand., this information is useful.
As I mentioned elsewhere, I’m a huge fan of horror in roleplaying games and other media, but I would have no idea how to properly pace a Dread scenario or how to handle a dramatically inappropriate toppling of the tower if left to my own devices. If my own experiences are any indicator, I suspect that such issues will constitute the most common hurdles faced by new players. Issues such as these are, thankfully, discussed in great depth throughout Dread and some solutions that prove very, very, helpful are provided.
Mechanics aside, the in depth discussion of horror as a genre in Dread is cause enough for me to recommend this product to any fans of horror in roleplaying (in fact, I’ll likely start recommending it alongside the aforementioned Nightmares of Mine to genre newcomers). The quality of the writing is excellent and manages to clearly and concisely convey some very complex information in a manner that is both easy to understand and fun to read.
I’m sure that you’re all wondering about alternatives to the Jenga tower by now. I know that I was wondering about this before my review copy of Dread ever arrived. It’s not that I dislike Jenga, but I wasn’t particularly sold on having to recommend a game to people if being able to play it meant that you were required to buy another game to boot. The good news is, strictly speaking, that a Jenga tower isn’t necessary to play Dread. The bad news is that, of the few alternatives to the Jenga tower presented in the rule book, none of them are fleshed out very well.
The most robust alternative to Jenga presented in the rule book is, without a doubt, die stacking - yes, stacking dice on top of one another. In this variant, a ‘pull’ is represented by placing a die atop one of five stacks that grow precariously unbalanced as play progresses. It’s a decent alternative, but not a great one unless, perhaps, you have some fairly large dice. Using standard sized dice proved to be problematic for me, as their small size combined with the narrow spacing of the stacks made it far to easy to topple one (a stack that it). On the upside, this alternative provided inspiration for one of my own design that ended up working much better.
Cards. More specifically, a house of cards. This simple and easy alternative works the same as the dice stacking variant in principle, but rather than stacking dice, you stack cards (naturally, toppling the house of cards carries the same weight as toppling a stack of dice or the Jenga tower). Since this is my own alternative, I’ll not say anything else about it in the space of this review, other than to repeat that it was directly inspired by some of the alternatives present in the Dread rule book (I seriously doubt that I would have thought of it on my own).
Tales of Terror
No game would be complete without an introductory scenario - Dread gives you three. Beneath the Full Moon is a tale of several college campers being stalked by a werewolf while on Spring Break, Beneath a Metal Sky is a sci-fi horror piece that revolves around the alien inhabitants of derelict spacecraft floating in deep space, and Beneath the Mask is a violent whodunnit in the vein of Italy’s best giallo films. Of these three scenarios, I was particularly taken by the last one for this reason.
A ‘giallo’ film is a violent mystery punctuated by brutal murders committed by an unknown assailant for unknown reasons (check out Dario Argento’s excellent Profundo Rossi for great example of the typical giallo). The denouement of the giallo is typified by the shocking revelation of the mysterious killer - and Beneath the Mask nails this dead on. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that one of the players is the killer - but they don’t know it themselves until the denouement is complete ;)
These three scenarios play specifically to Dread’s strengths, but what’s most important is that they can be played multiple times and, given the organic play style that Dread encourages, have a different outcome every time that you play them. If you want to spoil your fun, you can check out these scenarios for free at The Impossible Dream website (you’ll find them in the Dread dedicated forum), but I got a lot more out of reading them in the context of the main rule book (perhaps because I better understood how they worked in the context of the game itself).
The Unfair Complaint
For all of the gushing over Dread that I’ve been doing, I do have one complaint - and it’s a slightly unfair complaint. Dread is very obviously structured around short, self-contained, story arcs as opposed to ongoing campaigns - and dammit, I wish this wasn’t the case. This is an unfair complaint for two reasons. First of all, short, tension-packed, horror one-shots are great fun and Dread really does a stupendous job of facilitating them. Second, there is no way, in fairness, that I can complain about a game not doing something that it was not designed to do. If Dread did facilitate extended campaign play, I could easily see myself using it for all of my horror gaming. I’m so incredibly sold on it that I wish this was the case, but it isn’t - thus the unfair nature of my complaint.
The Final Verdict
As the authors said and as I reiterated, Dread isn’t for everybody. It’s a very different roleplaying experience with roots firmly planted in immersive roleplay and organic story creation. If you’re looking for this kind of something different and like your horror one-shots dripping with tension, you’ll definitely want to pick up a copy of Dread. If you’re merely looking for a new setting or a new way to roll dice, in all likelihood, Dread will be a tremendous disappointment for you. What you’re looking for has everything to do with how much Dread will appeal to you - some people will love it and some people will hate with a passion unrivaled by the flames of a thousand burning suns. Love it or hate it, however, nobody can deny that it is different than any other roleplaying game currently being published.
For me, as a fan of both immersive roleplay and horror roleplaying, I am completely sold on Dread in every respect with the exception of my aforementioned unfair complaint and my preference for a house of cards, as opposed to the default Jenga tower (really, I don’t dislike the tower, but the cards are much more portable). I’d be more than willing to lay down $22 for the game and am more than willing to recommend it to my friends. For me, Dread is a scream. For you, it may just leave you screaming. Ultimately, I’m just here to tell you what’s in the product - it’s up to you to decide whether or not you like it ;)
*The Impossible Dream website says that Dread is 180 pages long, but the copy that I have is only 167 pages long. That said, I do have a second printing of the game which may vary slightly in format from the original printing, thus accounting for the discrepancy.