Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dread: Horror Role Playing with Built-in Atmosphere

In my Iron Reviewer entries, I am going to focus on what I consider the key concepts that I apply when
looking at the playability of any RPG. Rules will be talked about, but not rated on any kind of standalone basis. At the end of each section I will include a "TL; DR" summary for those who just want to get the gist of it.

The Idea

Dread is a game that attempt to capture the feeling of the American horror film. From Alien to Friday the 13th, Dread wants to be able to invoke both the creeping fear of a slow reveal as well as the jump in your seat startle when the monster leaps out from behind a door.

The question to ask is “does it succeed”?

Mechanic System:Atmosphere

The first of my key concepts is the one that I consider to quite possibly be the most important. Do the mechanics of the game successfully capture the atmosphere the game is trying to create? Below I will discuss various aspects of the mechanics in relation to the atmosphere of the game.

There is exactly one REAL mechanic in Dread. Everything else is based around the story telling. The mechanic in the game is a Jenga tower. This is where the statement I made in my subject line comes in. Jenga is a game that creates a tension all in its own. The designers felt like combining that tension with a tale of horror would go a long way towards capturing the seat-gripping suspense of a horror film. In my opinion, they succeeded.

In Dread, the GM does nothing mechanically. He merely weaves the tale and guides the players down the dark and depraved path to their ultimate rewards. Basically, when someone wants to perform an action where something is actually risked, the game master will call for a pull from the tower. If the player successfully pulls from the tower without toppling it, she succeeds. If the tower falls over, she fails. If the task is one in which a particular character can accomplish it easily (for example, a situation that requires an action that she has clearly listed on her character sheet that she's capable of), there is no pull required.

Failing in Dread is not good. If you take out the tower while making a pull, your character doesn't just fail at her action. She gets written out of the story entirely. Oftentimes, she dies, but it is possible that the character gets written out by the GM another way.

Players can also choose to make pulls on their own. If you want your character to succeed at something exceptionally, you can choose to pull more than once from the tower. Should you succeed at your pulls, she succeeds above and beyond. You can also choose your own actions to pull for should the desire arise.

The state of the tower also helps the GM to pace the game. If it's early on and there are a lot of pulls, it might be a good time for the GM to decide to slow the action up a bit and build suspense. If there haven't been any pulls for some time, he may decide to get the action going more quickly and cause several pulls in a row.

Character Creation
Character creation in Dread is the only other real "mechanic," and it really isn't even one. There are no statistics, no abilities, and no rolls of the dice. So how does one create a character? Simple. You answer questions.

When a game master creates a story to run in Dread, he will create a questionnaire for each character. Each sheet has different questions on it. At the beginning of the session the GM will hand the sheets out to each of the players and they spend time answering each of the questions.

This process is almost a game in and of itself. Players will try and answer the questions in such a way that they might actually be able to accomplish a task without making a pull. This situation can also pit some of the character against each other.

Most importantly (I feel), creating the characters via questionnaire helps the player grow attached to it. This helps drive the suspense even more as they grow attached to them. Lastly, as there are no numbers of any kinds to worry about, this frees everyone up to focus on personality.

TL; DR Summary - Mechanic System:Atmosphere
The Jenga tower mechanic is meant to create an atmosphere of tension that bleeds into the game itself. As characters "die" when failing at any pull from the tower, it succeeds at raising the stress levels around the table.

Character creation also helps build the atmosphere. In a genre where characters actual abilities often come to not, Dread removes them completely. Characters are created by answering questions. The answers to those questions are the character.

Mechanics:Atmosphere Rating - 5/5


Complexity of a system can not only have effect on general playability, but also to how newbie-friendly it is. Because of this, the complexity of a game is the second of my key concepts as it applies to the Basic System, Players and GMs.
Basic System
There is nothing really complex about the base system. If you don't automatically succeed at something, pull from the tower. That's it.

Really the most complex thing for a character in a game of Dread is character creation. I've found that, with characters who like to get into their characters, the creation portion of a session can take some time.

The other part of the game that might come across as more complex to some is how narrative it is. There are no rolls determining success or failure, so the storytelling is all in the description of how a character succeeds or fails.

The job of the GM can go either way when it comes to complexity. If a GM is running a prewritten adventure, there isn't much more to it than keeping things on track and keeping the storytelling interesting.

The hardest part of a GM's job in Dread is probably keeping the pacing up. A GM has to make sure that pulls aren't called for too frequently or two infrequently. He also wants to keep things interesting, include lulls and frantic action in moderation as well. This will also come into play when a GM is designing his own stories.

TL; DR Summary - Complexity
The basic mechanics of Dread are very easy to pick up. There isn't much complexity to "try something risky, pull from the tower." Players do need to put some thought into character creation, so that can take some effort. Lastly, GMs have to work at keeping the pacing appropriate, which is probably the hardest part of being a GM for this game.

Complexity Rating - 5/5

GM Section

I am primarily a GM when I play, so the third of my key concepts is how useful the GM section of a book is for potential GMs. Some are extremely in depth and some are basically useless.

How to Host a Dread Game
This chapter first touches on the basics of running a game of Dread. After that, it moves into what NOT to do (stay away from the tower, don't monopolize the story, etc.). After the don'ts, the chapter moves on to advice on keeping the pacing appropriate to the story and the timing of pulls from the tower. The last part of the chapter talks about how to address potential problems in a game, from players who refuse to perform actions requiring pulls to characters dropping dead early on in a game.

How to Create a Dread Game
This chapter helps a GM understand how a Dread story is built. It discusses how to develop the story and create events not directly related to the plot. It also gives advice on how to keep the characters feeling isolated and in danger and how to put everything together in a game designed to build suspense and danger while still being fun.

The" ________ Game" chapters
The final GM chapters are six chapters devoted to genres. This entire section of the book is broken up into advice on different styles of games. What kind of questionnaires to design for different genres, pulling from the tower, how to weave the story. For those creating their own Dread stories, these chapters are quite the gold mine.

TL; DR Summary - GM Section
There are multiple chapters devoted to running Dread. One is specific to running the game itself and a second is devoted to creating a game in general. The last group of chapters breaks running/designing stories down by genre.

GM Section Rating - 5/5

Included Adventure

The fourth and last key concept for any core book is the sample adventure included. Ideally, this should give GMs an idea of what a general adventure in the system should look like while keeping it easy to reference.

Number of included adventures: 3
Dread introduces three complete stories for a GM to run. Beneath the Full Moon, Beneath a Metal Sky and Beneath the Mask. Each story embodies a different genre of horror.

Beneath the Full Moon
Beneath the Full Moon is a supernatural suspense horror story. A group of students camping in the woods. The guide is mauled and the students are lost, being stalked by something, and the full moon is in the sky.

Beneath a Metal Sky
Beneath a Metal Sky is a science fiction horror story in the styling of Alien or Pitch Black. A salvage crew comes across an abandoned space hulk and investigates, only to find it isn't really abandoned. It's then they discover their own ship is gone and there are noises in the walls.

Beneath the Mask
Teenagers at a camp on a lake. People being murdered in their bunks. The only people present are the campers. Which of them did it? Yes, the last story in the Dread core rulebook is a slasher/mystery story. One of the characters has gone off the deep end and it’s up to the rest to figure out who and why.

Each of the stories presented here in the book give questionnaires to hand out to players. They include side scenes that can help flesh out a plot or keep things interesting. Lastly, each gives advice on specific scenes that should be present in one way or another to keep things running smoothly.

TL; DR Summary - Included Adventure
Dread includes three stories to be run, each in a different genre (Supernatural Suspense, Sci-Fi and Slasher Mystery). Each gives character questionnaires, potential side stories and suggested mandatory scenes to keep the plot moving. The stories do a good job of laying out what a story should look like as well as providing a good jumping off point for new GMs and players alike.

Included Adventure Rating - 5/5

Potential Concerns

This section isn't only devoted to things I don't like about a game, but also potential problems that don't bother me but might also bother others. This section isn't rated as it is even more subjective than the rest of my review.

There are a couple of areas I need to touch on in this review regarding potential concerns. The first is the Jenga tower. Jenga isn't for everyone. The biggest complaint about this game is that the mechanics rely on manual dexterity and not character skill. This is a valid complaint and might turn some people of completely. I know at least one of my players has refused to even try the game for this very reason.

The second area of concern is the narrative storytelling. Dread doesn't leave as much in the players’ hands as some other narrative games, but it still leaves plenty up to the player. If they succeed at a pull, they need to decide what they did to succeed and narrate it. Like other narrative games, if a player is a major simulationist, this game might not be for them.

To finish this review off, I just want to say that this is one of a few new games I've tried in the past year that have helped me to fall in love with a more collaborative and narrative play style. The mechanic of pulling from a Jenga tower is completely unique and very much in line with a tension and suspense created by horror films. In the first game of this I ran (with a group of strangers at a FLGS), in the last scene one player actually dropped to his knees next to the table shaking after making the final pull to escape on a helicopter. THAT is how players should feel during a horror RPG, as far as I'm concerned.

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