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Dread: A Game of Horror and Hope

Today, we look at a game that merges the story telling of an RPG with Jenga style tower building. Take fate into your own hands…literally!



Publisher: Impossible Dreams
Number of Players: 2 – 6
Time to Play: 3 – 5 hours

Imagine a world of the horrifying and macabre.  Where the only hope is your own wits and nerves of steel.  Truth be told, even that might not be enough to survive until morning.  For fate does not rest in a throw of the dice, but in your own hands.

Enter a World of Suspense and…..Dread

Dread is a wonderful role playing game designed by Epidiah Ravachol.  In Dread there are no dice.  No character sheets.  And very few rules.  Like the name suggests, this system focuses on horror themes.  And it does so perfectly.  Instead of dice to help move the story along, it instead uses a Jenga tower.  This adds to the tension of the narrative by literally putting fate into your own hands.  By removing blocks from the tower, a player can help set the narrative.  Success and failure are known immediately.  Did the tower fall over?  If not, it’s a success.  If yes, it’s game over.

The rules of the game are really that simple.  The game master takes the role of the storyteller.  Throughout the story, the players will be asked to take whatever action they feel their characters would take.  Then, they are asked to pull a block, or multiple blocks from the tower depending on the difficulty of the task.  If the tower is knocked over, the player is eliminated in usually a gruesome way.  The players may choose not to pull from the tower but it’s considered an instant fail.  That’s when bad things start happening in earnest.  Players also have the choice to knock the tower over on purpose to make a heroic sacrifice.

To start the game, the Jenga blocks are arranged in the usual manner.  Three blocks in a row and then three more stacked on top crisscrossing each other.  Then, depending on the number of players, a block is pulled.  If there are five players, each player pulls one block.  If fewer players, it’s three blocks for every player fewer than five.  Savor the feeling, this will be the only time any players are safe if the tower falls.  

Next, the players will take a small questionnaire.  This will be provided by the game master to help the players flesh out the characters they will play.  It will also give the game master some insight into the players themselves.  This is a horror game after all.  Expect the game master to prey upon your fears. 

Unlike most other RPGs, the goal isn’t necessarily to finish the story.  As Shakespeare once said, the play’s the thing.  It’s very unlikely all the players will make it out of the story alive.  It won’t be a safe journey, but it will be a story to tell.

The Dread experience can be summed up in one word: tension.  Tension is at the heart of horror and that’s where Dread shines.  It is a unique experience to be so enthralled with the story and have your hands shaking and then be told to pull a block from the tower or die.  The game master won’t make it easy as he describes in horrific detail while the player desperately tries to remove just one more block.  That’s where the metaphor of the tower comes in.  It’s a physical representation of tension.  Tension keeps it standing.  Tension allows some blocks to be easily removed but not others.  Tension is the game.

The Game Master

The Game Master has a much different role.  It’s their job to be the storyteller.  They must be able to paint a picture in the minds of the players and keep up that tension during play.  It’s a delicate dance of adding tension but also allowing some moments of triumph before piling it all on again.  The Game Master must be able to read the players and know exactly how to manipulate them in order to keep the story moving.  Game Masters are also the arbiters of justice in that their word is law.  It’s imperative that they are fair.  Remember, the goal is to tell the story, not get everyone killed.

Between the simple gameplay mechanics, immense atmosphere, and brilliant opportunities for story moments, Dread is an excellent system.  It’s simple enough where start up and explanation won’t take up the entire evening.  Most players will be able to grasp it fairly quickly.  If you’re looking for the experience of being inside a horror movie, this is a game worth playing.

However, if a player is a bit hesitant to jump headfirst into a horror story, this might not be for them.  Tension is the point of the game so it won’t have the same tone as other genres.  The loose structure of the game makes it a bit difficult for new game masters but with some practice and learning how to paint the scene rather than describe the scene it can be a positive experience.  The system itself is more in tune with one-shots.  There are rules on how to run it as a campaign but it’s much better as a one-and-done story.

If horror is your thing, this is the game for you.  The good news is the entire Dread book can be found online for free with a google search. It’s not hard to get sucked into the story and it’s guaranteed to give that sense of Dread.

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