Dread Horror RPG (The Impossible Dream)


Dread is a Jenga-based horror-themed roleplaying game -- if you aren't already sold on it, it's probably not for you. Rather than rolling dice for action resolution, Dread makes you pull Jenga blocks. If the tower falls, you fail... and often die a gruesome death. Though the premise seems patently ridiculous, it is actually more thematic than it seems. As the game progresses, the tower becomes more unstable due to the strategies that other players were using. If you've been risky and reckless througout the game, you'll fail much faster. If you've been cautious and capable, you may be able to ward off death for some time... but it's still inevitable. 

How is Dread Played?

Dread is a storytelling roleplaying system. There are no stats; there are simply characters and backstories. Run with 3 to 6 players, the game itself is targeted to around 4 hours. The game is not in a fixed setting. "Dread" itself is really just the system. Everythng else is up to the table. The rulebook offers three scenarios, including science-fiction, horror, and slasher. 

When creating characters, characters are generally specific archetypes, such as "The Scientist." Characters are given some generic questions, such as "What do you look like?" and more loaded questions, such as "Why are you attempting to sabotage this mission?"

The gamemaster describes scenarios and players react to them, pulling only when they are attempting an action that could potentially fail. Failure leads to either death or becoming the "walking dead," unable to take further challenging actions and likely being disposed of at the first narrative chance.

Playing Dread: Sheep in Space

In keeping with our current one-off theme, we were sheep -- in space. We were exploring a destroyed vessel, attempting to recover anything of value. Characters included an engineer hooked on methamphetamines and an alien secretly hiding their identity. 

We played Dread with seven people, which is not advised. This undoubtedly contributed to the lack of consistent back-and-forth, but there were still some issues. We found that throughout the game, really only about three people consistently participated. Without a turn order or any type of structure, it was hard to make sure everyone got a chance to chime in; ultimately, the most forceful voices won out.

On the other hand, Dread's main structural component -- the blocks -- absolutely added to the tension. We found our group was almost too good at this; it took roughly an hour and a half for the first tower to fall, and it likely would have taken about the same amount of time for subsequent towers to fall. By the end of our session, only one person had ever really been at risk of "dying," and that was even with multiple pulls for certain actions and taking actions fairly consistently. There are only so many life-and-death situations a person can narratively run into, and dying on something like "looking at a book" can seem cheap.

Dread's probably not a stable system to use as a staple, but it's worth an experience once or twice. It's a creative implementation for horror-themed, tension-driven games, and it's probably best played with 3 or 4 players rather than a full roster of 6.