by Gerald Cameron
Published by The Impossible Dream
Written by Epidiah Ravachol
Art by James Edward Raggi IV, Laura Jalo and Aino Purhonen
167 b&w pages, 5-1/2" x 8-1/2"
Dread is a survival horror roleplaying game; it is intended to
produce stories in the vein of movies like Alien (and
Aliens), Friday the 13th, and Final Destination. It
is intended for single session play, and, as you might expect from the
genre, most of the PCs will be dead or otherwise incapacitated by the
end of play. Getting there promises to be a tense, exciting ride,
The Rules: They Only Require a Nutshell
Dread has been available for a few years now, and it is rather famous -
or notorious - for using the dexterity game Jenga (not included)
as its resolution mechanic. When a character undertakes an action that
is important to the narrative, that character's player must approach the
Jenga tower and remove a block. If the tower stays upright, the
character succeeds and play carries on. If the tower falls, that
player's character dies (or, in rare instances, is otherwise removed
from play). It's that simple.
It also has a distinctive, but less famous, character creation system:
the GM - called the Host in the book - creates questionnaires (each one
is different) that the players fill out. Many of the questions will be
deliberately leading, and the answers the players come up with describe
the characters' skills, ties to the situation, and personality and
background hooks. Characters do not need numbers or special powers
thanks to the genre and the resolution mechanic.
And these, other than a couple minor twists and wrinkles, are the rules
of Dread. The rest of the text offers advice on making your game
as much fun as possible, plus three sample scenarios. Dread is
one of the most elegant roleplaying games ever developed. Its systems
zero in on the heart of survival horror - character and untimely death -
without a hint of cruft.
The Jenga tower is an especially brilliant choice. Each skill
check makes the tower more unstable, so early checks, when the situation
and characters are being established, are trivially easy, but the
tension mounts quickly. When a character dies, the tension decreases
temporarily, but it does not return to square one because the GM gets to
make a couple pulls right away, and more after each subsequent death.
This does a marvelous job of emulating the pacing of survival horror
stories. While there may be other survival horror games out there that
do as good a job of reproducing the feel of the genre as Dread,
none do so as simply.
The Other 160 or So Pages
Typically, games that are this elegant focus on an extensive setting or
come in the form of a small booklet. Dread is relatively meaty,
even without a default setting, because it includes extensive advice on
how to play well. This is a practice that is becoming more common in
RPGs, but very few - Spirit of the Century and Dirty
Secrets are two that I'm aware of - can match the extent of
Dread's tips and techniques.
First, the rulebook features numerous sidebars that drill down into edge
cases and flag problems the players may come across. There are also
sections in the systems chapters on what to do when players refuse to
engage with the rules in the spirit with which it is designed.
The character creation chapter also gives GMs extensive advice about
developing questionnaires that are likely to generate characters
appropriate for your game. In fact, this advice is so good that I
have used similar questionnaires as an adjunct to character creation in
Dungeons & Dragons, and I intend to do so for other games as
The rest of the "rules" consist of advice on how to run the game well.
It covers the fundamentals of running a game of Dread, and then
describes how to set up a scenario. Several short chapters follow with
more specific guidelines on running games in the various
subgenres of survival horror.
While a bit of this will be familiar to experienced roleplayers, most of
the advice is carefully crafted to address the specific issues presented
by Dread's unusual system and the survival horror genre. It is
carefully thought through, well-presented and well worth following. I
noticed a couple useful concepts were missing (a discussion of Bangs, in
de-jargonized form, would be useful to any Dread host), but this
is still one of the best advice sections I have read. For example, many
RPG writers would not offer a cursory survey of subgenres, let alone
pages of specialized play advice for each one.
The book finishes with three (!) example scenarios. They are diverse -
one is a science fiction tale - doing a good job of showing off
Dread's range. Two of them cover territory that fans of the genre
already know well, though. I'm not convinced that the scenarios'
presentation is up to the high standards set by the rest of the book. In
particular, I suspect that many new hosts will cling too tightly to the
suggested scenes, instead of using them as a jumping off point. I would
have preferred to see them boiled down into a list of ideas and seeds
that would feel more like advice rather than a game plan. This is a
small problem in a book that is chock-full of solid hosting advice,
Dread is an excellent RPG. Easy to understand and well-explained,
it is an excellent tool for any horror fan, or even a GM who could use a
single-session RPG. While it is not quite a pure pick-up game - the host
needs to have well-thought-out character questionnaires in advance - it
would not be hard to set up a couple of scenarios to have them on hand
when the need arises.
Any would-be designer would also do himself a favor by reading
Dread and taking notes on the kinds of advice it presents. It is
a model of clarity and utility. Also, a lot of the advice presented in
it could be applied, perhaps with some modification to allow for the
different systems, to other horror games.
Unless you have no interest in running a horror RPG, I would recommend
buying Dread to see what innovative RPG design can do.