Why Dread Is A Heart Attack-Inducing Horror RPG

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“Without hope, horror is only despair.” –Dread

Dread is a horrifying tabletop role-playing game unique unto itself. Created by Epidiah Ravachol in 2005, it was made with the design assumption that role-playing games were simply too reliant on numbers. Therefore, Dread uses Jenga as its task resolution mechanic.

You’ve seen Dread on TableTop. You’ve seen  Ivan Van Norman try to turn a campfire into a killing field. Well, later this week, you’ll be able to watch it all again as Ivan and his crew return to Dread with Sagas of Sundry! And to prepare you for all the chills and thrills coming courtesy of Ivan & Co. later this week, we wanted to bring you up to speed on their game of choice, Dread.

Why? Dread features a marriage of mechanics and genre unlike any other in gaming. Horror RPGs feature spooky settings, and mechanics that will often time reflect the damage done to characters by the supernatural. Dread is unique, however, in that its mechanics are legit frightening.

Dread, being a game of horror and suspense, uses a Jenga tower as its problem-solving mechanic. In Dread, “Any time a character attempts something that they may not be able to do, or that the current situation may aggravate, their player must pull a block from the tower.” If they do so successfully, the task succeeds. If the tower fails, they fail and die.

Well, okay, maybe not die, but they are “removed from the game.” And in any movie starring Jason, Freddie, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, or a xenomorph, we know what happens to characters that get “removed.”

That said, the game has loads of suggestions for other ways for characters to be removed from the game, such as being knocked unconscious or regressing to a childlike state, since death is not the appropriate result of every failure, even in a horror game.

But it is in the tower mechanic that the genius of Dread lies. Gamers have always delighted in die rolls, and seeing what numbers roll up, for good or for ill. But Dread takes that moment’s work and stretches it out into agony, just like the agony of knowing the killer is in the house when our heroes think they are in the clear. Dread describes the moment of the tower pull thusly:

“When the tower is rickety, it stops the action and demands everyone’s attention. It may sound counter intuitive, but it slows things down in order to speed things up. The tension rises with each pull. Breath is held during the pull. Once it is over, all that pent up energy rushes right back into the story.”

After a tower fall, it is reconstructed with a few extra pieces pulled out before restarting the game to keep the tension up.

Like Newton and the theory of gravity, using a Jenga block as a game mechanic seems so simple and beautiful that in retrospect it is shocking no one thought of it before Epidiah Ravachol in 2005. Yet that is often the way of genius, to reveal something which in retrospect seems obvious.

In an interview with Geek & Sundry, Ravachol said this of the creation of the Jenga mechanic:

Dread started as the ridiculous accusation that games these days depend too heavily on numbers. That’s where the Jenga came from, as a way around dice and the numbers they bring. It wasn’t even a horror game at first, but once you got Jenga, horror follows pretty naturally.”

The game is so mechanics light that it allows the gamers to focus on the ambiance more than the mechanics. In what would be an act of extreme altruism for a bibliomaniac like your humble correspondent, the game actually says that once the game has become useless at the table, “we encourage you to pass it on.” (“The only way you’re getting my dead-tree copy of Dread is by prying it from the rigor mortis of my stone cold hands!”)

Ravachol suggests playing after sunset, with minimal lighting, and spooky music playing in the background. He goes so far as to suggest candles, but not on the same surface as the Jenga tower, and having food at hand so that gameplay is not “interrupted by a quest to sate such carnal desires.”

This advice may sound overly particular, but this is what mastering the art of running a role-playing game sounds like. It is a thousand small decisions that combine to make a game incredible, and Ravachol has distilled his advice into the text of Dread.

In a further example, Ravachol suggests that players cut down on out-of-character chatter at the table. You might want to know where the Doritos are, but it can certainly kill the mood.

Ravachol has multiple chapters of advice for the “host” or game master to help run Dread. The vast majority of it is trenchant, wise, and applies to almost any other horror role-playing game. If you’re new at gaming, it’s a fantastic introduction to running for your friends. Even old hands could pick up a trick or two from Ravachol’s compendium of game advice.

Ravachol told Geek & Sundry that he playtested Dread for five years before finally putting it down on paper. Even then, he needed a little extra motivation to get it done.

“I had been dragging my feet on writing most of the book up to a few months before GenCon 2005…. So if I missed that deadline, it would be yet another year before I get the book together. And I probably would have welcomed that year. A deep fear of self-publishing had been hammered into me through years steeped in creative writing programs. But early one Monday morning that fear was slain by a deeper, more existential fear, when some a%$#@*%! shot my apartment window. I had most of the book written before that weekend.”

Get Ready for More Dread With Sagas of Sundry!

Eager for  Dread? Good, because more of it is heading your way. Watching the G&S crew is as suspenseful as it is addicting, and you’ll want to catch every tower pull and gory doom starting this Thursday on Sagas of Sundry on Alpha!

What makes Dread so scary to you? Let us know in the comments below!

Feature image credit: JRLibbey| Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

Image Credits: The Impossible Dream, Geek & Sundry 

Ben Riggs speaks five languages and has lived in four countries on three continents, but still manages to lose his keys in the bathroom. A friend to man, animal, and werewolf alike, you can discover more of Ben’s thoughts on game, the universe, and everything on Twitter, or on the Plot Points podcast. He is also the liberal voice on Across the Aisle, a podcast where a liberal and conservative work together to solve the 21st century’s problems. 

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