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Reviews - Dread
by Gerald Cameron

Dread coverDread
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, though.

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 well.

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, though.

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.

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