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A Review of (the Rule Book to) "Dread," the Role Playing Game

I was asked to moderate a game of Dread last weekend.  The narcissistic part of me wants to believe I was chosen because I'm skilled at storytelling and suspense, but it might be that I just didn't say "No."

Anyway.  Dread.

Explaining Dread is kind of frustrating for me because the only way to define it neutrally makes you sound a little bit like some acolyte to the president of a middle school horror fan fiction club.  (It's not the nerdiness that bothers me, you understand; it's the presumptuousness.)  So, let me try it this way.

The neutral description: Dread is a horror-themed role playing game in which players are kept in a heightened state of tension and resolve their actions by pulling blocks from The Tower.

The way I would describe it: It's a role playing game, but you use a Jenga tower instead of rolling dice. Whoop dee fucking doo.

I don't mean to sound bitter.  The actual game itself is fine and a lot of fun - the same as any other role playing game, really.  If you have the right players, the right attitude, and the right preparation, you're in for a night of thrills, chills, and spills.  Have at it.

But I guess the reason I feel so cranky is because I read the rule book.  So, maybe this isn't really a review of the game, but rather the book.

I guess the first problem I have is with the tone.  It manages to be both condescending and uninformative, which is really the worst kind of mix for something (or somebody) that's supposed to be giving you directions.  (Ya hear that, former bosses of mine?)  It means that rules are often unclear, but you really don't want to re-read the text because you just keep rolling your eyes.

Tellingly, eight of the eleven chapters in the rule book aren't even explicitly about the game.  They're more of a philosophical deconstruction of horror and Creative Writing 101 primers on how to create tension and tell stories.  I guess this could be useful for somebody who has never attempted fiction before in their life, but otherwise it's just a lot of words to answer questions nobody asked.

The bigger problem, though, is the ambiguity.  So many of the rules are soft, undefined, or just plain non-existent.  Most of the game mechanics basically boil down to, "Play it however you like.  Just keep it ~~scary~~."

So what happens is you end up having a question like, "How do you keep the game interesting if a bunch of players die?" and the answer is a two paragraph explanation of why death is terrifying.  Gee, thanks.... I wasn't sure that dying in the game was a bad thing until you told me.

If you think I'm exaggerating, try checking out the Quick Reference website the game creators set up where you can find all the set-in-stone rules.  Hell, if you don't like clicking on links, you can just look at the screencap below.

This is not a joke.  These are the only actual rules.

Don't get me wrong.  The use of a Jenga tower instead of dice is a nifty idea.  It adds a physical element of tension and dexterity that plays out nicely.  But that mechanic is not enough to say that you invented a new game.  It is only a mechanic.  Role playing games are structured exercises of imagination with expectations, limits, and objectives.  There's no real structure to Dread as written; everything is wishy-washy, do-what-you-feel, Play-Doh soft sentiment.

I don't mean to be such a crank.  It's clear the game creator had fun writing his book and I know he's a self-starter just like every other Millennial on the Internet.  I'm just getting too old to waste time on extraneous words.

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