It’s unsurprising that horror is a popular theme in tabletop roleplaying games. After all, roleplaying is all about immersing yourself in a world or scenario and some people just really enjoy being scared – myself included. Hence the likes of Call of Cthulhu, Vampire: The Masquerade and Dread.
An indie roleplaying game released way back in 2005, Dread was designed by Epidiah Ravachol and was something a little out of the ordinary when it came to TRPGs. Whereas RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons 5E have specific worlds for players to explore, Dread doesn’t have an official setting. Instead, the book contains a set of rules for the games master and the players portraying the main protagonists to use within a variety of horror settings, from haunted carnivals to derelict spaceships and beyond.
Horror roleplaying games have always stalked their own unique design paths, but Dread is especially odd in that – unlike D&D and its ilk – it involves absolutely no dice rolling whatsoever. Instead, the majority of the players’ interactions are driven by the looming presence of The Tower. Using an official Jenga tower – or otherwise unofficial ‘wobbly tower’ – players perform actions such as sneaking, fighting and whatever else they may need to do to survive by pulling blocks and placing them on top of the tower. Success and failure is entirely decided by whether they are able to do this without knocking the tower over.
Why use a toppling tower instead of dice rolls? It’s all about the build and release of tension.
Just as the tower rises and falls, so does the feeling of tension in a session of Dread. It’s a genius technique of getting the players to actively engage in the pacing of the story. As more blocks are gradually removed, actions become harder to perform without the threat of the tower falling. Dread is rather merciless in this regard, as any player that causes the tower to fall spells instant death for their character – with no exceptions. Players can even choose to voluntarily knock the tower over to perform a heroic self-sacrifice of some sort, perhaps to leap in front of an incoming bullet or to engage an obnoxious sphinx in an eternal riddling match.
Whenever the tower falls, it is rebuilt with several blocks missing to ensure that the level of tension remains high enough to keep players on their toes. A good piece of horror media doesn’t let its audience get too comfortable, but doesn’t burn them out too soon either. Dread helps the GM to maintain that balance by providing an actual tool for them to manipulate their players’ mood with.
The best Dread campaigns lean more into the survival-horror style of scary stories, rather than the kind where people are able to actively fight back. You can see this in the fact that player characters are almost entirely personality-driven. Rather than deciding how many points to put into strength, dexterity and other statistics, making a character in Dread involves the player filling out a questionnaire focused on their character’s past, motivations, personality, strengths and weaknesses, as well as their limits when it comes to stressful situations. In Dread, characters don’t have statistics, abilities or equipment – these characters simply aren’t built to be heroes.
In fact, building a selfish or morally dubious character is an entirely viable option in Dread. Life-threatening situations such as being chased by monsters or hiding from ghosts can cause the very essence of a character to reveal itself. Courageous characters will attempt to slow a threat to aid other people, while cowardly characters will look for ways to save their own skin at the cost of others. Dread is the kind of roleplaying game that thrives on fully developed personalities and rich storytelling, not modifiers or abilities.
Aside from making well-rounded characters, the GM can enhance their game of Dread by embracing the RPG’s obvious love of atmosphere. The best examples of horror understand the importance of creating atmosphere. The audience is more likely to feel immersed in a scary story if the narrator takes certain pains to build a sense of impending doom. This can be done by gathering the entire party into a suitably low-lit environment – I find candlelight to be very effective – employing the use of some physical props such as handwritten notes or maps and, most crucially, sticking on an appropriate soundtrack.
The game comes with several free downloadable scenarios, including one set on a derelict spaceship and another clearly inspired by slasher movie Friday the 13th. However, I really recommend coming up with your own stories. Dread is also an excellent roleplaying game to indulge your favourite pieces of horror media with. I was able to explore my deep obsession with sci-fi horror by creating a Dread campaign set in a space station controlled by a rogue AI. Whereas a friend ran a campaign clearly inspired by The Thing, with players running around an isolated outpost in the middle of a frozen tundra.
Unfortunately, Dread doesn’t work too well online – finding a functioning digital tower is nigh-on impossible – so it’s definitely one to share with house members at the moment. Nonetheless, it’ll be well worth the wait. Dread is unlike any roleplaying game I’ve ever played. It’s an RPG with the potential to instill a genuine sense of unease in its players and hands its games masters an incredibly versatile set of tools to create horror with.