First things first: as of now I haven’t actually played Dread. I played a really interesting hack of it a while back, but as far as Dread out-of-the-box I haven’t played it yet. I just recently read the rulebook and I thought it would be an interesting exercise to note down some thoughts I have just from reading the book and then, hopefully, I’ll get a chance to run or play it at some point and I can compare that experience with what I post here.
Dread is a horror RPG. The core mechanic is “The Tower” — represented by stacked blocks like, say, Jenga. As the game progresses the GM require players to make “pulls” to accomplish things. The rule for a pull is to pull any block below the highest level and place it on the top — levels are 3 blocks with blocks alternating direction on adjacent levels. I’ll go into more about what requires pulls, but first I want to talk a bit more about the tower itself.
The tower is interesting on different levels. The most obvious is hey, that’s pretty different. I’ve seen games that use dice, I’ve seen games that use a normal deck of playing cards, I’ve seen games that use a custom deck of playing cards, but a Jenga tower? That’s different and intruiging.
Also, it makes a great metaphor. If the GM and players are doing things right tension in the game should slowly rise throughout a session. And as players are making pulls that’s mimicked in the tower — as more pulls are made the tower becomes more unstable, as the tower becomes more unstable pulls are more difficult to do and can become pretty tense. In the Dread hack I played in I was in the unfortunate position of making the last few pulls of the game. Everything was pretty much hinging on me. I can honestly say I’ve never had such a physical reaction to what was going on at the table. I’ve had characters I’ve deeply cared about, I’ve had them in crazy situations, but this was different. I was standing up, leaning over the table trying to finagle blocks out of the tower. My heart was racing, my brow was sweating, and my hands were shaking. It was probably the most intense moment I’ve ever had during a tabletop gaming session and it was fucking fantastic and simply rolling the dice will never be able to create that sort of physical response in me (and probably most, if not all, people).
Characters in Dread are completely statless. Instead the GM crafts a questionnaire for each character. Usually around a dozen questions and they’re tailored specifically to a situation that the GM has come up with — characters in a zombie survival game will likely have very different questions than characters for a slasher-type horror game. Questions should be open enough to generate interesting answers (which the GM will use to flesh out the story), but tight enough to be relevant for the situation-at-hand. Players are encouraged to embellish a bit — no simple yes or no answers (yes, why? no, why?).
So back to making pulls from the tower. What requires a pull? Well that depends. If based on the answer’s on a character’s sheet it’s pretty reasonable for a character to be able to accomplish something, they do. No pull necessary. So, if a character was a nurse and someone needed stitches, it’d be fair not to require a pull and just let it happen. However, if that character was something else where it’s not immediate obvious whether they would be able to stitch someone up successfully then that would require a pull. More difficult tasks require more pulls — so maybe you need to stitch someone up but you don’t have the proper materials you might need to make a pull to improvise stuff to use and another pull to successfully stitch a wound closed with them.
Once you’ve endeavored to accomplish something and it requires a pull you can 1) go ahead with the pull or 2) refuse the pull. If go ahead with the pull and don’t knock the tower over, you’ve succeeded. If you opt out of the pull then you fail. Knocking down the tower means your character is removed from the game in some way. This is heavily context sensitive — you might be brutally murdered by a psycho, you might go irrevocably insane, you might just give up. It could be just about anything, really. NOTE: knocking down the tower from a failed pull is not the only time this might happen. If any player for any reason causes the tower to fall, whether they were pulling, or they sneezed, or they bumped the table, it’s goodbye! Also, if anyone very deliberately pushes the tower over they can sacrifice themselves. They can succeed at what they were attempting to do, but they’ll still be removed from the story.
The final pulling mechanic is that any player can at anytime make an elective pull. A player might make an elective pull to look for interesting details or maybe they’re already doing a task but they want to make an elective pull to accomplish it faster or better. It’s completely on the players’ shoulders to call for these pulls.
Overall I really like what Dread has to offer. On top of the mechanics of the game itself the book spends a bit of time discussing how to make good horror and how to balance horror with hope for a really compelling story. Horror is probably not a strong suit of mine. I’m not really a huge fan of the genre. I rarely watch horror movies (mostly because so many of them focus on cheap startle tactics). It’s just not something I’m really drawn to often, but Dread makes me want to play a horror game.
There’s also a lot of advice on how to craft questions for characters. There’s a bit of an art to it. Luckily the book offers lots of advice and lots and lots of sample questions (the bottoms of the pages for most of the book has a sort of running list of question suggestions — even if you don’t use the specific ones they might inspire you).
I already know how nerve-wracking it can be to try and get a block out of a precarious tower and it’s something I definitely want to see again.
However (there’s always a however), I have a really hard time reconciling any mechanic that removes a player from the game (staying around as a spectator doesn’t count). I really get the design motivation behind it here, because without the threat of losing your character, there’s very little tension and pulling a block and you can’t just have simple failure when the tower falls, because it would take a while to get to that point and there’s no tension because the characters are always succeeding. So, I get it. But, I have a hard time liking it. The book does have some suggestions on ways to keep a player engaged in the game if they cause the tower to fall, but they’re options and won’t always be thematically relevant anyhow.
Don’t get me wrong, I still very much want to play the game and I’m definitely willing to give it a chance — I don’t want to be one of those assholes that completely writes something off without trying it. Here’s hoping I get the opportunity to give it a shot sometime!