Why Dread is My Favorite Horror RPG

Dread is a tabletop roleplaying game that was published in 2005 by The Impossible Dream. In 2006, the game won the ENnie Award for Innovation. It continues to make appearances on podcast and YouTube tabletop playthroughs like Wil Wheaton’s TableTop.

As a book and as a roleplaying game, Dread is a modest love letter to great gaming and great horror. 15 years after its inception, Dread remains an excellent example of how simple but thoughtful mechanics can make for fantastic (and scary!) gaming experiences.

The hook of the game is this: get some folks together and make a Jenga® tower.

….Er, beg pardon, ‘a tower of fifty-four 1”x½”x3” wooden blocks stacked three to a level, in alternating directions, eighteen levels high.’ Ya know. That thing.

Mystery blocks!

Anyway, once you have your 54 wooden blocks eighteen levels high, the person running the game puts players in a horror scenario (a haunted house tormented by ghosts, a marooned spaceship with unknown cargo, a cabin the same night a serial killer escapes jail).

How players move through a given scenario is centered on the Tower of blocks. If a player successfully pulls a block and places it at the top of the Tower, they succeed in their given action. If a player causes the Tower to fall? Their character dies (or suffers some other terrible fate, like being banished to the cornfield filled with the people fired from the Trump administration).

This article is an overview of why Dread is great, what the Dread book is like, Dread rules and gameplay, and some tips based on my experiences running Dread. DREAD.

This article is not going to give you a step-by-step on how to run a Dread game. If you want that, get the book darn it! And support indie games that are well-crafted with innovative designs!

What is Dread?
In its own words, Dread is for people who love ‘delicious emotions’ like ‘alienation, tension, anxiety, [and] fear.’ Plenty of folks will never find tension and anxiety fun in anyway—maybe you have better therapists? But for horror nerds like me, those words are the equivalent of ringing the dinner bell.

The mechanic of the Tower is so novel and effective, yet so uncluttered. The Tower can also make players deceptively at ease. Jenga® is something we mentally classify as a boardgame. How could something I pick up in the toy section of Target enhance a horror experience? But as Dread players soon find out: 54 stacked little wooden blocks will quickly become a source of terror for you.

Terror, I say!

This game is optimal if you want to focus on a storytelling experience and not get hung up on mechanics like character stats and dice. I am one such person. I prefer to focus on narrative, characters, and the scenario rather than spend a lot of time on rules and math. And it’s definitely not because I never got higher than a C+ in any math class I ever took and am thus traumatized. No. Definitely not that.

This can also be great for folks who are new to roleplaying tabletops. You can focus on the creativity and improvisation of your given story, rather than stress over remembering or looking up the ‘right’ way to play the game. If you know any notorious ‘rules lawyer’-type players, this game is not for them. Maybe no game is for them, but that’s just wishful thinking…

There are more particulars about pulling from the Tower in the Dread book. It involves how the Tower should be constructed based on numbers of players, the rules for a ‘fair’ pulling of a block, how to deal with more complex challenges, sacrifice pulls, and more.

What’s the Book Like?
“The thrill of a Dread game lies within the tension between desire and loss”

When I first read (and I every subsequent time I’ve read) the Dread book, I thought “this book GETS me.”

With language like ‘you must be able to balance that sickening cold swimming in your gut with the glimmering chance of survival’, the book is clearly written by folks who know horror and know why it is alluring. There is an understanding that horror thrives in elements like metaphor and sustaining a flicker of hope to chase. Again, both are elegantly embodied in the Tower mechanic.

The Dread gamebook is modest in length compared to more mainstream rpgs (see: World of Darkness). But it’s also impressively long given that it is not bloated with extraneous rules and worldbuilding (see: World of Darkness). Instead, the book is crafted to enable and inspire solid mutual storytelling.

Scarier than Dread? Trying to remember the different XP costs between Attributes, Skills, Merits, and that other sh*t.

The Dread book starts with setting the tone that this is a game for loving horror, feeding on the stressful fun of the genre. Then rules are discussed—and believe it or not, there’s a good bit of nitty gritty when it comes to this simple action mechanic of a Jenga® tower.

Then the book focuses on good gaming and storytelling methods to implement in scenarios. What makes a good character sheet? What should I consider when creating a Dread game? How do I connect my players with characters and an adventure?

The rest of the book is dedicated to particulars about a creative game crafting process. There are chapters dedicated to 6 aspects of horror to weave into your games: suspense, supernatural, madness, morality, mystery, and gore. The book then provides 3 pre-drafted Dread games of different horror genres (monster, scifi, slasher).

Warning: not a great game for folks with carpal tunnel.

The book has the rules in the main content along with ‘quick tips’, but there are also creative, mood-setting touches like excepts from imagined horror narratives and example questions for character sheets.

This is a model product for folks who are new to but curious about how one runs a tabletop roleplaying game. The creators put a lot of thought into how to use this game to welcome and cultivate new gamers. This book is a great introduction for someone who really isn’t sure how a game comes together, how to tell a good collective story, what the different roles and responsibilities are for the players vs the person running the game, etc. It even offers tips on what kind of music to play or avoid for a game (if you want to play music at all).

I recommend SlipKnot with the bass at max, but that’s because I am ruthless.

The Basics / Methods of Gameplay
Dread gameplay is made up of 3 elements:
• A given horror scenario that the host narrates and the players navigate.
• Character sheets made up of open-ended questions to help players know and establish their characters
• The Tower, which players pull from to determine if they succeed at given actions or if they become victims of the adventure.

Why do you keep using the word Host instead of ‘Dungeon Master’, ‘Game Master’, etc?
In Dread, the person running the game is referred to as the ‘Host.’ I’m noting this for nerd reasons. I find it interesting that there is a variety of terminology used in gaming re: the person running the game.

Some folks use the term ‘game-master’ or ‘GM’ for short. This originates from the Dungeons & Dragons days when the person running the game was/is a ‘dungeon-master’ or ‘DM’. But that language can have as negative impact on game power dynamics—if you are power-mad enough to play omnipotent narrator to 6 people for a few hours, maybe you’ll become a real dick about things if you’re called a ‘master.’ (Don’t get me wrong though—‘Dread Master’ sounds like a badass Finnish metal band.)

In LARPing, people running games may be called ‘storytellers.’ This doesn’t fit in how Dread does things either, because the game is supposed to be about mutual storytelling.

Whereas ‘Host’ is a very fitting title if you think of players like parasites. Ha ha ha. Ha.

Also be mindful when throwing around words like ‘Dungeon Master’, lest you risk confusion and other concerns.

How long does a game usually take?
Dread is usually a one-shot game that will take 3-5 hours to complete. Dread can be a multi-session game, but the only way that could work is if a game session ends when the Tower falls and a character dies. When that happens, the Tower is reset/rebuilt. Thus, you could pause game at those intervals.

How many players should I have?
Sure, having 1 player struggle and strain through a whole Jenga® tower by themselves is an interestingly sadistic idea… But recommended game sizes are about 5-6 people. However, that all depends on what you as a Host and what your player mix can handle.

Sometimes 6 is too many to get through a game effectively. Imagine holding a meeting with 6 theater kids trying to write a play together and everyone thinks they’re the star of the play. Sometimes games go that way, and that can be A Lot. That can be like banging your head against a table and no one notices because they’re all improvising a dramatic monologue on their genius.

Sometimes 6 is great because you’ll be able to go through the Tower more quickly and kill more people off. In which case, maybe it’s ideal motivation to have 6 people talking over themselves.

Whatever works for you!

“One more soliloquy and you’ll be pulling blocks with your teeth!”

What does a Dread character sheet look like?
A Dread character sheet is made up of 10-13 open ended questions. The last question (usually) is the character’s name.

Creating a character in Dread is both simpler and more difficult than in more mechanics-focused games. There are no experience points to divvy up between different skills and abilities. You have to flesh out all the important stuff through basically a creative writing exercise.

The questions should make reference to/give players an opportunity to establish key aspects of a character including skills, limitations, memories, relationships, and personality traits.

What goes into making a Dread character sheet?
As the book says, “Creating questionnaires is more art than science.”

The Host should either establish or prompt players to provide the who/what/where/why necessary for how this character and this scenario fit together. This is where you should seek to find a balance between the creativity of host and player.

Maybe in the Host’s mind, a lumberjack is essential to this given scenario. The character sheet can dictate that, but then would allow the player to decide the why/how of this person being a lumberjack. Is Paul Bunyan a personal hero? Were they inspired by a Monty Python ballad? There’s a lot to think through there!

Trees, an axe, wearing plaid. A perfect lifestyle.

How should I write these questions?
Try to avoid ‘yes / no’ questions. Give a lot of room for players to provide narrative. Add ‘and why?’ tags to questions to encourage elaborations.

For types of questions, the book recommends a mix of what a character can do (abilities, knowledge, items), what a character can’t do (lack of skill, know-how, emotional stability), a character’s psychology or personality, any social ties the character has, and their appearance (which in turn could influence any of the former elements).

Hosts should try to add framing without adding unnecessary control to character questions. Framing can help flush out creativity without constraining it.

For example, what might give a player more concrete ideas?
“You have had horrible dreams since you were a child. What are they about?”
“You have had horrible dreams since you were a child. What sound do you hear in them?”

But most essential: Host and player should provide this character with stakes. Stakes help make a character interesting, they give players something to be invested in through their character, they give a character something to hope for in this scenario.

Ideally, every player will look like this after finishing their character sheet.

So if a player doesn’t pull a block, can they still die?
Characters can never die by not pulling from the Tower. You can’t threaten possible death with possible death, after all. But players can better overcome challenges or avoid serious harms whenever they pull. For example: a character is being chased by a monster. If the player pulls a block, they can jump over a fence and escape. The player chooses not to pull a block. A natural consequence of this within the rules of Dread could be: the monster bites them, and now they are injured.

If you want to get the full skinny on Dreads rules and The Impossible Dream’s tips of great horror storytelling, get the game here. Heck, if I had my way this would be required reading for all tabletop gamers.

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