Dread: A Report and Light Review (from RPG-or-Die!-Con and MACE)

Dread, A Game of Horror and Hope…

The second “event” in my RPG-or-DIE!-Con was a session of Dread, an incredibly elegant horror-themed game.  After lunch on Saturday, Britt and Carol (blissfully married to each other), Tom, Kenny, and I sat down together to explore this game through the same scenario that I ran back at MACE.  It was actually Carol’s very first role-playing experience ever, but I was confident that Dread would be a good one.

I let them choose their characters from just the general description (literally a couple of phrases) and then helped clean up from lunch while they filled out their questionnaires.  If you weren’t aware, character creation for Dread is literally just filling out a questionnaire designed by the “Host” (what Dread calls the GM).  The questions should help define personality, establish skills, and more than anything else, give them investment in the coming story.

The other “system” element in Dread (and really, it may the only other system element) is the use of a Jenga tower.  Any time that the characters try to do something that could fail, they have to pull one or more blocks from the tower.  If it falls, they fail and their character is removed from the game, usually because of  death.  But there’s also the possibility of intentionally knocking down the tower, which still results in the death of the character, but also grants them success in a very dramatic and meaningful way.  And if you’re thinking, “you lost me at using Jenga… that’s just stupid,” then you are simply not fathoming the depth of tension and impending threat that an increasingly rickety tower can generate.

The Scenario: Unauthorized Human Trials

I have five character questionnaires ready for this scenario, but only four players, so I sort of steered them away from the one that seems the weakest.  By the time they had made their choices and filled out the questionnaires, though, this was our cast of characters:

  • Louis Featherbottom (Britt) – a sickly, stuttering coward with a powerful secret
  • Gene (Kenny) – a mentally unstable dude with a crazy delusion and a fear of doctors
  • Mary Jo Johnson (Carol) – a twice-divorced lady addicted to clinical trials and who was missing a toe
  • Luke Binford (Tom) – a homeless ex-army interrogator trying to get his life back on track

At the start, all of the characters have come to participate in some sort of clinical trial for a biomedical company named PrimaGen.  They had all been asked to come in for some interviews that would explain more details of the trial, and were escorted to a conference room to wait for a few moments.  They sort of introduced themselves to each other and settled in to wait.  An hour or so passed, however, and things started to get a little tense.

Leslie McCann, the trial coordinator, then burst into the room looking scared and out-of-sorts.  She explained that there had been a slight breach in security, and that they needed to sit tight for the time being.  As she spoke, however, the lights dimmed and a red strobe began to flash as a loud alarm started to sound, saying “Security Breach – Lockdown in Progress” over and over again.  She turned sharply and left, the heavy door locking behind her.

Now, let me step out of the story for a minute to talk about a few other elements going on at this time.  First of all, we had set up the Jenga tower on a desk a few feet away, mainly because it was a little more stable than the plastic-top table we were playing on.  Since there were only 4 players, I had them make 3 pulls before we even got started.  And one thing that I always try to do (at home games, anyway) is to use music to my advantage, so I had spent some time developing a soundtrack for the game with appropriately themed music to set the atmosphere.  I also actually recorded the “Security Breach – Lockdown in Progress” alert (complete with a really cool alarm sound), and inserted it several times into the playlist (’cause I was using my iPod to provide the music) so that it would come up after every song or two.

Now back to the story…

After Leslie left, things sort of went to hell in a hand basket rather quickly.  They began to hear shouts and gunshots from down the hall, and everybody started freaking out.  After a few moments of silence, they heard more gunfire from right outside the door, followed by the sound of a man screaming.  Suddenly, there was a loud crash as something heavy hit the other side of the two-way mirror, denting it in towards them.  Then, there was only silence from outside.

Tom was in the bathroom trying to kick anything loose to use as a weapon, while Britt was cowering under the refreshments table.  Carol was under the main table, but Kenny decided that they needed to get out, and that the mirror was the best chance they had.  He picked up one of the conference chairs (made a pull from the tower) and smashed it in.  Blood and gore showered him as the safety glass gave way, spilling the upper half of a man onto the floor before him.  So then it was Kenny’s turn to completely freak out, run screaming to the bathroom, and try to wash the blood from his face and out of his mouth.

Tom had come out of the bathroom by that time, and was carefully looking into the observation room beyond the broken mirror just about the time that Britt, seeing any escape from the room as a good thing, came out of hiding and leapt through the hole.  Slipping and sliding on the blood-covered room beyond and bumping into the lower half of the unfortunate man who had been torn asunder, Britt hit a new level of panic.  Thankfully, the blood soaking through his pants hid the fact that his bladder had lost all control.

Eventually, the other characters managed to convince Britt to open the door and let them out.  They then made their way to the reception area, only to find that heavy, steel doors had descended from the ceiling and totally blocked the elevator and all other exits.  In searching for anything that they could use as a weapon or to contact the outside world, they stumbled across Leslie McCann, severely wounded and barely conscious.  She managed to achieve enough clarity to point them towards one lab in particular (where “it” could be found), apologized, and then died.

On the way thought the halls, they came across a security station with a heavily dented steel door.  They managed to use Leslie’s ID card to open it, and found a dead security guard on the other side.  Not much farther along, they found three labs.  The first two were filled with several animals, all of which were the result of some sort of genetic or otherwise abominable testing straight off the island of Doctor Moreau.  In the third lab, however, they found a large cage with a broken door.  Three scientists lie dead about the room, badly beaten, mauled, and possibly even eaten.

As they searched around the rooms, however, the animals suddenly grew more agitated, and they heard the sound of something heavy moving down the hallway towards them.  After a few moments of indecision, they hid in the two other labs, hoping that whatever was coming would not bother to open the doors.  When they were still alive after a few minutes, they summoned the courage to stick their heads out, finding that whatever it was had gone.

Unsure of what to do, they started to head back to the reception area, but on the way noticed someone hiding in one of the rooms they passed.  She was a very young woman dressed only in white PrimaGen coveralls.  Her head was shaved, and bore the marks that extensive testing had been performed on her.  After calming down, she told them that she had been held captive for over a month, so the group took her with them as they searched for another exit.

Very soon, however, the alarm was silenced, and they could hear the sounds of other people moving and talking in the direction of the reception area.  Unfortunately, they also heard the sound of muffled gunshots.  Within moments, a half-dozen men in black commando uniforms rounded the corner several yards in front of them, shining lights and pointing laser-sighted asault rifles at them, barking commands for them all to lie down.

Britt felt that he had been rescued and broke out in a run towards the men.  The young girl, however, was terrified and began to run the other way.  After a couple of warnings, one of the men shot her three times in the back, sending her flying forward and landing crumpled and lifeless.  Britt froze and one of the men beat him to the floor.  The rest then advanced to cover the others and secure the area.

Then something strange happened; the young girl started moving and moaning.  Three of the commandos circled her and demanded that she lie still.  But instead, she burst forth into a hulk of grey, mangey fur, grabbing one of the men and tearing him in half.  The other two opened up on her, but she appeared to barely feel the attack, leaping upon them and killing them both in an instant.  She then stood to her full, 9-foot height and looked towards everyone else.

The next thing that happened was my favorite part of the whole session.  Kenny’s character was under the delusion that he too was a werewolf, so in the moment of distraction caused by (and inspired by witnessing) the girl’s transformation, he charged at the leader of the assault team, sank his teeth into the man’s neck, and tore his throat out.  Kenny, of course, knocked down the tower at this point, and chose to end his life to help the werewolf and his new-found friends.  As he yelled “Run!!!”, he was cut down by the other commandos, but this distraction let the werewolf close in and take them out as well.  The girl/werewolf then continued down the hallway away from the three remaining characters, leaving them alone for the time being.

The tower was then reassembled, and given that a couple of hours had passed and another character was missing, they had to make 12 pulls before we got started again.  That alone cranked the tension right back up.

With the death of the commando leader, the alarms began to sound again.  But this time, they said “Gas Deployment in 1 hour” instead of just “Lockdown in progress”.  As the time counted down and having no place else to go, they followed the werewolf back to reception, where they found it pounding uselessly against the steel doors.  In a surprising move, cowardly Britt actually stepped forward from the rest of the group and approached the beast.  He made pull after pull from the tower as he attempted both to keep from being killed and to eventually get her attention.  When it appeared that she wasn’t going to listen to him, he made a change.  He exploded from his clothing, growing perhaps even larger than the other werewolf, and reavealed what the beastly secret he had hidden all along.

Britt managed to keep control of his feral instincts, though, and led the other werewolf to concentrate their efforts to open the door.  They were interrupted, however, when another security squad rounded the corner and attacked.  Using the element of surprise and a more organized plan, they concentrated their fire at the girl werewolf’s head as she attacked them, managing to take her down before she could take them all out.  But her momentum bowled them over, and Britt was on them in a flash.  Tom and Carol also opened fire, and soon only one remained.

Initially, the last commando refused to give them any information about how to get out, but Tom’s experience with interrogation proved to be useful.  After a few strategic applications of pain, the man told them that the captain’s badge would open the door to the elevator.  Just as the countdown hit one minute, Tom swiped the badge by the door and it began to open… only to stop again due to the heavy dents caused by the pair of lycanthropes.

About this time, the other werewolf again began to stir.  She was crazed, wounded, and out of control, though, and immediately came at the group.  Britt met her, though, and immediately knocked down the tower to sacrifice himself and keep her tied up for the duration of the story.

The tower was again rebuilt, with Carol and Tom making 15 pulls before we got back to the action.  They made a couple of more pulls to pry the elevator doors open from the bottom, and then another for Carol to squeeze through.  We were discussing how Tom could squeeze through as well, but then he too went over to the tower and knocked it down, letting the doors close as nerve gas began to pour into the room, ensuring that only Carol would be able to escape to safety.

And that was Unauthorized Human Trials.  If you’re interested in looking at (or even using) this scenario, here are versions both as a Word document and as a pdf.

Differences from MACE

When I ran this at MACE, it turned out similarly, but there were also a few interesting differences:

  • The ex-army guy was a complete psycho.  He was crazier than the crazy guy, and frankly, disturbed me a bit.  He was having hallucinations and flashbacks and stuff like that, and at one point even thought that the werewolf was his commanding officer (which ended up losing him a hand).
  • The female character lost a little girl a couple of years before the story happened, so at MACE, she identified very strongly with Andrea Hall (the girl who turned out to be a werewolf).  She was very protective of the girl, and even sacrificed herself to connect with her and persuade her to leave the other characters alone once she had changed.
  • Britt added all of the cowardly element to his character, so the first time around, he was pretty much the leader of the group.  But when they had the final faceoff with the werewolf/Andrea and he changed for the first time, he actually knocked down the tower accidentally and was killed almost immediately in the conflict.
  • Kenny’s character (the delusional guy that thought he was a werewolf, as played by Nicholas below) was the big hero of the day, managing to distract and even wound the werewolf enough to let the last other character escape.

I didn’t give a lot of details about the game in my MACE report (mainly because I knew I wanted to run the scenario again locally), but you can check it out here.

Rachel, James, and Nicholas stress over the tower at MACE…

What I Think…

Dread has a lot going for it.  And I’ll start with the element that won it the 2006 “Most Innovative” Ennie – the Jenga tower.  As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think that you can really understand exactly how effective the tower is until you see it in action.  Purely as a tension-building device, it’s just brilliant.  Because every pull that is made makes the structure more and more unstable, and everybody knows that it’s leading to an eventual accident that will have very real and very drastic implications for one of their characters.  And as opposed to most “random” methods of conflict or task resolution, results never feel arbitrary or inappropriate for the situation.

And that leads me directly to talk about how the tower is a perfect pacing mechanism for the game.  Early on, making a pull is stressful, but not really a big deal.  As the tension of the story grows and actions become more important, the stress of the pull itself also increases.  There is a real feeling of building towards something in the story, and almost inevitably, the tower falling (or being knocked down intentionally) coincides with a very pivotal part of the narrative.  Afterwards, there is a natural break in the tension (as there usually is in horror stories), but it gets right back on track since you now have to rebuild the tower and make extra pulls for everyone that has been removed so far.  So you get a very organic story structure that still accelerates towards the end, with rising drama throughout.

The other element of brilliance in Dread is the questionnaire.  Simultaneously, it informs the player of a few basic facts about their character, gives the opportunity to define skills and background, throws up roleplaying flags both for the player and the Host, establishes motivation and personality, and more than anything else, helps the player identify with and care about their character.  It takes what is essentially a pre-generated character for a one-shot game and turns it into a fleshed-out and beloved PC.  And don’t in any way discount the importance of this process, because for a horror game to work and for the tension to be real, the player must care about their characters and what happens to them.

Dread is a game where characters are going to die.  You can certainly tweak how deadly it is with how often the Host requires pulls from the tower, but the whole structure is set up for at least one or two people to buy a farm during play.  But more than any other RPG I’ve ever played, Dread tends to drive towards those character deaths being meaningful and dramatic.  The whole sacrifice mechanic allows players to choose the terms of their character’s ending, to make it meaningful to the story and to who they are.  And even when the tower falls accidentally, the mere possibility of sacrifice makes that death seem so much more tragic and real, because everyone can realize the lost potential of that character.  I’ve played some cool games that created really entertaining stories before, but never one that could connect so viscerally with the players.

And the last thing that I’ll say about Dread is that it, more than any other game I’ve ever played, is all about pure role-playing.  It’s almost the definition of a game where the mechanics “get out of the way” and let you explore your characters and the story.  But unlike so many traditional RPG’s where you just have to ignore obtrusive rules, the “system” of Dread actually supports and encourages play in every way.  It’s simple enough to be someone’s first foray into roleplaying (as it was for Carol), but it’s good enough to fascinate even an old roleplaying veteran like me.

The Verdict

Dread isn’t quite a “perfect” RPG (I’d love it if there was a way to eliminate the “solo laboring” of the Host), but it’s about as close as I’ve ever found.  Whether you’re looking for an easy entry point into roleplaying, or you’re just wanting to focus more on character and story rather than system and statistics, Dread is a great choice.  I give it the absolute hightest recommendation I can, and just to put a number on it, I rate it a 9.5 out of 10.


Tom, Kenny, Carol, and Britt playing Dread!


  1. I don’t think I’ve ever embraced – no, leapt into – a PC death like I did in this game of Dread. The questionnaires are indeed a wonderful touch, and yours were particularly good. I loved how I as the player wasn’t entirely sure if my character was actually a werewolf (or even a potential werewolf) or just crazy until I asked you; yet the questionnaire forced all my thoughts to revolve around that concept. Sometime I’d like to borrow the actual book from you; I’m curious as to how much and what kind of advice they give to GMs setting up the questions.

    This leads directly into your sole (and I think legitimate) issue with the game. Despite its very ‘indie’ narrative bent and task resolution system, it’s steadfastly old-school in one way – the GM has to do a lot of heavy lifting before the players show up. The questions provide a wonderful way for the players to interact with and inform that prep work, but there’s no denying that one person at the table is still going to have to come up with the lion’s share of the game.

    As for the task resolution mechanic itself, it’s brilliant. I’ve read so many people online asking how can you legitimatly build a sense of tension in horror RPGs – the simple Jenga-pulling mechanism does that in spades. I noticed there was a tiny bit of silliness and table-talk among our group; yet whenever someone went over to pull a piece from the tower, the tension came right back.

    Your scenario did a great job of pulling people into the game without railroading us. The closest thing to a change I’d recommend is that while marking my character and Britt’s character as ‘being suitable for Phase Two’ on their cover sheets was neat and thematic, it was also a bit of a red flag – I knew I wanted to play one or the other of those characters. Having said that, if you do want a way for people like me to self-select for stuff like that (handing the GM a big ol’ handful of story hooks is great in my opinion), then ignore me and keep doing that, because it sure worked for me.

  2. Dread was my first RPG since 1994…yikes that is a long time! I had a lot of fun with it.
    Carol admitted afterward that she enjoyed completing the questionnaire, but had no idea what she was doing nor what to do doing the game. This is most likely due to her lack of experience with any kind of RPG, but she was a good sport for trying it. Carol enjoyed the experience, but also admitted that she felt that Dread began to get a little long in the tooth towards the end of the scenario, especially with multiple Jenga rebuilds. Fiasco, on the other hand, kept her engaged throughout, and she seems to like it better.

    I enjoyed Dread, and it definitely emphasized roleplaying over luck of the dice. The Jenga tower was great and the tension when pulling a piece was palpable. There were times when I agonized over pulling another piece and not pushing my character. I recall Tom backing away or choosing failure for his actions because pulling another Jenga piece was too risky. The Jenga tower is an excellent mechanic.
    BTW…I am the JENGA KING!!! 😉

  3. Chris Norwood

    Since the “system” is so light in Dread, most of the book is all about Host advice to develop questionnaires and run the game.  In fact, it’s probably almost a “must read” for any GM, just because of how awesome all the advice is.  I’ll bring it to you next Tuesday.

    And in regard to the “solo laboring” of the Host, it’s really not that bad.  I wrote it up pretty formally, because I thought that I’d probably publish it here at some point, but it’s not really a “high prep” game.  The questionnaires are the most difficult and time-intensive part, and they went through 2 or 3 drafts before I got them like I want them.  But again, the book helps a lot with that, and running across the bottom of every single page is a continual string of possible questions to include.  The book even includes three very well-planned scenarios that you could use with no prep, and more than anything, Hosts are encouraged to be sketchy and vague in planning.  You have a cool premise, load and point the characters at it, and have a few neat encounters in mind that you can work towards.  If you read (or have already read) the scenario posted above, you’ll probably see that I just “winged” quite a few things, and that I completely ignored the Control Room because y’all never mentioned it.

    I’m glad that you had a good experience with it.  And I hadn’t really thought much about the “suitable for phase 2” statement being that big a deal before.  I wanted it (and everything else I wrote on the cover sheet) to be a flag to players, because I gave so little to go on otherwise in choosing the character.  In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter too much, since you still get to decide so much about who the character is and how they will act.  And if the best roleplayers leap at the chance to play the two most pivotal characters, that may be a good thing as well. 

  4. Chris Norwood

    Britt, whether or not you last roleplayed 16 years ago or 2 days prior, you were freaking incredible!  The roleplaying world has been diminished for not having you for so long.

    I suspect that Carol’s problem was probably more with the basics of roleplaying than it was with Dread as a game, though.  The questionnaire is a guided process, designed to foster creativity through relatively limited and leading questions.  But once we got into the game, the game really backs off and relies on people finding their own motivation.  So in some ways, the wide-open nature of play can actually be harder for new people to jump into as opposed to Fiasco or even some traditional RPG’s, where action is more clearly defined and directed.  I probably should have pushed or guided her a little more near the end of Dread, but I also didn’t want to make her uncomfortable by forcing her into the spotlight if she didn’t want it.

    All hail the Jenga King!!!

  5. Thanks for the kind words.
    Work has suppressed my creative side for the past few months. So RPGing was just what I needed to get the creative juices flowing.

    I agree completely in regards to Carol. In retrospect, I think that she would not have minded a little “push”.

    Overall it was a great day. Let me know when you plan to play again. Too bad that Hypermind does not host a weekly RPG night.

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  9. I let them choose their characters from just the general description (literally a couple of phrases) and then helped clean up from lunch while they filled out their questionnaires

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