It’s Tabletop Tuesday, and this weekend is Halloween! Now if you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re probably too old for trick-or-treat. So maybe you need some horror-themed fun for the creepiest holiday of the year. Well I have a suggestion, a horror tabletop game that I greatly enjoy and highly recommend to anyone who loves to get the willies.
The game is called Dread, and here’s who you need. You have one person, called the Host, who is in charge of the game and performs the same role as the Dungeon Master or Game Master in any other RPG. The Host designs the story, controls the non-player characters, and tells the players the results of their decisions and actions. Other than the host, you have five or six people who are the players. You can play with less – my group of tabletop fans often plays Dread with only four people.
Dread is pretty light as far as supplies. You just need paper, pens, the Dread rulebook (currently $12 on sites like DriveThruRPG and RPGNow), and a Jenga tower. If you really want to get creepy, use some kind of off-brand Jenga. My group plays with Jumbling Tower, and that adds a lot more dread to the game.
The paper and pens will be used for character sheets. Characters in Dread are prepared by answering questions on a questionnaire created by the Host. Each questionnaire assigns the player a role in the story, and asks questions specific to that role. As an example, I’m currently prepping for a Dread game where the five players were assigned roles based on the iconic characters of The Breakfast Club (the Princess, the Athlete, the Brain, the Criminal, and the Basket-Case). Your roles will vary depending on the kind of setting that the Host designs.
Your answers on the questionnaire define your character’s abilities. For example, if you say you’re good at cooking, then cooking a nice meal will be easy for you. Conversely, if you say that your character often burns food, then it will take some effort to cook even a basic meal.
Effort in Dread is represented by pulling blocks from the Jenga tower. Whenever you make an action that could succeed or fail, and your questionnaire does not suggest that you are good enough to succeed as a routine action, then you pull from the tower. Pulling a block and stacking it back on top successfully means that your action is successful – that meal is cooked well. Pulling a block and knocking the tower over, on the other hand – that means that you die, or are at least removed from the game. Maybe your food gives you food poisoning. Maybe you set the kitchen on fire. Whatever the case may be, knocking over the tower means that it’s game over for you.
Now you can always refuse to pull a block if the tower is looking rickety, but that means that your action is a guaranteed failure and will be causing you some serious problems. You’re other option is to knock the tower over on purpose – this represents your character making a heroic sacrifice. You’re going to die, but you’ll die in a blaze of glory and your actions will be very beneficial to the group.
So those are the basics. The Host creates the questionnaires, you answer the questions to create your character, and then the Host gives those characters a scary world to explore. What kind of world? That’s one of the best parts of Dread. Any possibility is open to you. So to finish off my promotion of this amazing game, I’m going to tell you about some of the adventures my players have had while enjoying this game.
Our first ever session was based on the board game Mansions of Madness. Lovecraftian horror all built around monsters that boggle the mind. I did some research on monsters that aren’t used very frequently in films or fiction, and the result was a disturbing chase through a mansion that included a man being eaten by a door (he lived), another man being licked by a hippopotamus woman (he lived too), and a third being kicked in the head by half of a horse (he did not live). The players ultimately had to plunge a cursed dagger into a vat of acid in order to cleanse the mansion of its horrifying inhabitants.
For another session I chose to delve into the classic zombie apocalypse story, with slight twist – it was set in a fantasy world, a medieval-era apocalypse where the zombies were becoming stronger and smarter as time went on. The party desperately struggled against revenant hordes while also trying to prevent their lusty bard from sleeping with the wife of a very scary man who made an even scarier zombie. When no cure could be found, that same bard elected to become a zombie willingly, and the rest of the party was violently murdered by a zombie colossus.
Yet another session found my players designing aliens at an intergalactic dinner party. They played a fun and mysterious mystery where they had to figure out which one of them was the killer, and kept secrets from each other as they made pulls from a tower hidden in a separate room from the rest of the players. Turns out there was a real murderer in their midst, a murderer that could be revealed only through a series of very torturous backroom interrogations.
These are just a few of the many, many possibilities with Dread. The fun of it is that you can invent any kind of scary story you want – ghosts, vampires, werewolves, cthulhu, serial killers – the only limit is your imagination. Pulling from the tower is terrifying and makes every action scary – which means that the satisfaction when you succeed is that much more rewarding. The gasps that accompany the moment when the tower wiggles, and the painful finality of hearing the blocks strike the table – the combination of horror and hope makes a great atmosphere and a really fun game.
If you’re into tabletops, I highly recommend you try out Dread. It’s a ton of fun and it’s perfect for the spookiest holiday of the year!