There’s no shortage of roleplaying games with horror settings. If the book is well written, and the players are receptive, they provide a compelling horror experience. But a horror roleplaying game – where the mechanics themselves exist to scare players, not characters – that’s much rarer. In my perhaps limited experience, only two games come to mind: Ten Candles, the candle-lit tragedy I reviewed last year; and Dread, the one with the Jenga tower.
In Dread, every action requires pulling a block from the tower. Collapsing the tower condemns the character to death, or a fate-worse-than. PCs skilled in an action can argue for less pulls; to quantify these specialties, the GM prepares questionnaires beforehand for each character, often with leading questions that tease out relationships and setting details, as well as character expertise. The advice on writing leading questions is great – it’s genuinely impacted how I’ve run other RPGs – but preparing the questionnaires is no small time commitment. It’s a shame a game with such basic rules, so suited to pick-up-and-play gaming, doesn’t have a no-prep character generation system, if only as an option.
The best thing about Dread is its pacing. Pulling from the tower is a surprisingly intense experience, and watching the tower’s stability deteriorate as the horror ramps up is a powerful reminder of dwindling mortality. The worst thing about Dread is you play at Dread’s pace, not yours – regardless of narrative suitability. Perhaps you’re planning a blood-soaked final half-hour, gently rising tension in anticipation until – oops! The tower fell 15 mins earlier than expected, and since the tower is now rebuilt, everyone else safely pulls for the rest of the session, without fear of knocking it over. The game advises to remove some blocks from the tower each time it falls, but not very many. Unless you’re tweaking those numbers, it’s uncommon to lose more than one PC a session, a low death toll by horror standards.
I’ve heard some argue it’s “unfair” for a character’s life to hinge on their player’s out-of-character dexterity, but I’m not sure why. There are many games where survival depends on memorising obscure mechanics or ability combos, and being good at Jenga is hardly a less relevant skill than that. What matters is whether the core mechanics are successfully unifying the mood of players and their characters. If the stress of my games is any indication, Dread definitely earns that achievement.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)