Dread is an innovative horror RPG with (perhaps) the most unusual resolution mechanic out there: a Jenga tower. Although not for everybody, this excellent storytelling game is a tour de force of a rules-light system perfectly matched to its genre – with an exemplary presentation as well.
The system is light and elegant. Whenever a character attempts an action that could fail and/or have consequences, the player must pull a block from the Jenga tower. If the pull succeeds, the action succeeds; if not, the character is removed from the game (either violently or otherwise). This is a great mechanic in that it provides a physical representation of the game action, upon which the entire group can focus. The uncertainty and anxiety that occurs with a crucial pull builds to a much more satisfying crescendo than with a single die roll.
It also sets the pace of the game. Equating failure to character death may seem draconian, but the expectation is that the session’s structure will align the dangerous pulls from a rickety tower with the climactic moments near the end of each session (or at least act). Again, the players can watch this ticking clock and viscerally feel the danger developing.
But this also demonstrates the primary drawback of the system: task resolution depends not on character abilities but player dexterity. Players challenged by such exercises will not enjoy Dread, and accidents can happen early on, derailing a story and eliminating one player (though there are rules to help in these situations). I think a good GM can work around this, but it will require both care and experience, so this can legitimately be a deal-breaker for some.
Of course there are a few more wrinkles to how this works (like “elective” pulls to represent passive perception or a character hoping to succeed beyond the norm), but the engine itself is very straightforward.
The second great aspect of Dread is character creation. There are no statistics, simply background, and Dread builds that and ties it to the current story with a questionnaire. These dozen-ish GM-written (but player-answered) questions allow the GM to plant important story points or background elements but let the players run with them to develop their own character and make them their own. There definitely seems to be an art to constructing these – the book devotes a whole chapter to advice, and the lower margins are full of examples throughout the book – and will take some practice to get right. But the facility of these short sentences to focus on interesting details (“What were you doing when you got that stain?”) or open surprising doors for the story (“In your travels, which three animal languages have you learned?”) while encouraging player creativity and collaborative “setting” development is really impressive. I have already stolen this idea as a tool to draw players into the story in my own campaigns.
The book is extremely well-written, with lots of advice for dealing with these unusual mechanics as well as for tailoring story to the various horror sub-genres – chapters focusing on suspense, the supernatural, madness, morality, mystery, and gore provide general notes on story construction and GM advice as well as more specific recommendations on utilizing (and pacing) the tower effectively and on tailoring the questionnaire to these kinds of games. There is also a long chapter chock full of advice for GMs running Dread (mostly applicable to horror games in general, and some advice even more wide-ranging than that).
The book concludes with three sample scenarios; one highly detailed and two left more free-form (but all contain a full set of questionnaires). I won’t give away any details, but the three hit some of the major tropes of the genre very well.
In summary, Dread is an elegant and impressive horror game with unique mechanics. The central premises – character creation through questionnaires and task resolution through a Jenga tower – are quirky and certainly not for everyone. But, even so, I recommend the game as a great read for its advice and analysis of the GM trade and horror genre.
Note: I received a free review copy (in pdf form) of this title through DriveThruRPG.com.