HORROR MONTH #17: Dread, by Epidiah Ravachol (2006)

Type of Media: Tabletop Roleplaying Game

Tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons have been on the rise recently, as they're a great way to exercise your creativity while being social and disconnecting from technology for a few hours. However, a lot of RPGs are geared toward telling a specific type of story. D&D is great for heroic fantasy adventures, Shadowrun is good for crazy cyberpunk, etc. A few horror RPGs like Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness are popular, but they're very much focused on telling stories within their own established worlds and multi-session campaigns. For a single night of horror RPG fun that you and all your friends can enjoy, I recommend Dread.

At Dread's heart is a unique mechanic that defines it as a horror game. Instead of using dice, like most other RPGs, success or failure in Dread is determined with a Jenga tower. Every time a player wants to do something difficult, like hide from a hunting werewolf or fight off an encroaching zombie, the game master tells them how many blocks they have to pull from the tower. If they manage it their character succeeds in the action, but if they knock the tower over their character meets a grisly end.

The Jenga tower does so much to give Dread a unique rhythm compared to other games. First, pulling from a Jenga tower takes longer than rolling some dice, so every key moment is drawn out and suspenseful. Second, it makes early challenges easy to pass as there are plenty of good blocks to pull, but as the game goes on pulling successfully gets harder and harder. To make matters worse, every time the tower falls it resets to a shakier position. That means each death makes things harder for the remaining survivors.

Third, pulling from a Jenga tower is a test of skill rather than pure luck. If you knock the tower over early because your elbow slipped that's your mistake, and conversely getting a successful pull late in the game feels like an earned victory. The tower also makes Dread great for people who haven't played RPGs before. With dice you often have to check your character sheet to see if you managed to roll well enough to do anything, but everyone immediately know when someone succeeds or fails with a Jenga tower.

If you want to play Dread but don't want to be bothered coming up with your own story, the manual also contains three pre-made scenarios you can run through. I think making your own scenario is more fun, but it's still a kick to run the pre-mades because it will always be fun to watch your friends squirm as they try to coax one more block out of a crumbling tower. Even if they succeed, that only means the next poor player is going to have an even tougher time keeping their character alive.

If you have a regular RPG group and you want to do something scary for the season, or if you've been looking at RPGs and want to host a unique social gathering for Halloween, Dread is a good system for a terrifying one-shot session.