With the on-going popularity of Dungeons and Dragons, creators Wizards of the Coast have announced a reprint of their much adored Curse of Strahd campaign setting in time for Halloween, there has never been a better time to explore the spookier side of table top role playing.
The campaign oozes gothic extravagance, letting players explore the land of Bravia complete with cursed hamlets, werewolves’ dens and a vampiric castle, with Strahd von Zarovich offering a more than adequate representation of Dracula.
Whilst praise should be given for this re-release and its’ commitment to addressing diversity concerns (in particular the original descriptions of the Vistani; the campaigns allegory for the Romani people), Strahd and his castle are by no means the only or most terrifying option at the roleplaying table.
The cult classic Dread by designer Epidiah Ravachol puts half-orc vampire hunters and 20-sided dice to one side and replaces them with atmosphere, anxiety and… Jenga. Each time the player characters undertake an action involving some form of risk they must pull a block from the Jenga tower at the centre of the table.
The pressure builds as each block represents life or death, be it at the hands of a Lovecraftian terror, or Victorian child in the mirror. The falling of this tower is ultimately responsible for a player’s demise within story. The tower is then rebuilt, and the cycle continues.
Jenga isn’t the true source of scares in Dread, it is merely the wheels that keep the game turning. It is the well-timed jump scare, the scream that punctuates key moments in your story. Because Dread is your story. Character sheets are replaced with Character questionnaires and campaign maps with story archetypes such as suspenseful, supernatural or mad.
The host is encouraged to create a rough outline of the story using the players completed questionnaires, making the horror more personal to the characters. No one game will play the same. This freedom in story telling gives Dread a chance to achieve something Strahd and all its’ horror tropes cannot. The chance to trap players in a nightmare of their own creation.
We spoke to Epidiah to learn more about its creation:
Were the Jenga blocks at the heart of Dread’s conception or were they added later?
Absolutely at the heart. We weren’t even setting out to make a horror game in the beginning. Just messing about with alternatives to dice. But the moment we had Jenga, it was evident it was going to be a horror game. The tension was palpable even from the earliest stages of design.
How long did you playtest for and in what ways did it change the game?
The first game of Dread must have been in 1999 and we didn’t publish the rulebook until 2005, I believe. So about 6 years of playtesting? But that’s probably not a fair assessment. Dread changed dramatically after the first playtest and was almost exactly in the form we know now after the third or fourth. The rest was less about the game itself and more about figuring out the best practices.
That very first version of Dread had lots of nonsense that didn’t survive first contact. For example, there was a standard questionnaire for every character, and it was at least a hundred questions long. Oof. The moment we sat down to make characters, that got thrown out. There were also dice that determined how favorable the conditions were for the player characters. I don’t remember exactly what they did, because we simply forgot them right away. The tower was too engrossing on its own.
One of the most memorable rules changes happened rather late in the playtesting process. Starting in 2000, we were doing a pretty heavy convention circuit, hitting all the local cons we could—which for us included GenCon—and running as many games as we could fit in our schedules. During one of those games, at a critical moment, a player was at the tower, pull a block out, and you could see the whole thing bow. It was going down and nothing could be done about it, but for some reason, it was taking its sweet, excruciating time. Teasing us. The player looked at me and asked if they deliberately knock the tower over, could they sacrifice themselves so the other characters got away. Yes, hell yes, yes! That’s how that rule was born, in the thick of it.
How did you go about constructing the 6 game archetypes; Suspenseful, Supernatural, Mad, Moral, Mysterious and Gory?
This was a collision of a few impulses. Back then, games were mainly all of a certain size. We had what amounted to a rather tight ruleset, but we wanted something that felt like a substantial rulebook. Something that looked like it belonged on the shelf with all the other role-playing games. So what do you fill the rulebook up with, if not rules?
The idea was to present a few different themes to show off the versatility of the game within the horror genre. I didn’t want to tackle sub-genres per se. Other gaming books in my collection at the time did a fairly good job of that, and I had it in my head that the few people playing this game would also have those books. I chose to highlight a few different elements I saw prevalent in horror gaming in particular—as opposed to, say, horror fiction or films—and show how each of those interacted with the various elements of the game.
I figured this would help flesh out the book and give hosts something to work with as they dreamt up the nightmares they would unleash on their players.
In retrospect, are there any changes or additions you would make to those archetypes?
Absolutely. When I look back on my works, I vacillate between vague disgust and warm pride. Sometimes I can only see the flaws in my works, and sometimes I surprise myself with some good bit I had forgotten I wrote. I’m almost afraid to reread these archetypes.
Especially the Mad one. When I wrote that, I had some experience with actual mental illness, but nothing that left me with a particularly sensitive view of the topic. I was not the right person to write about that topic. It’s been 15 years since Dread’s release and lately we’ve been discussing the possibility of a 2nd edition.
One of my major motivations towards that is the opportunity to remove that specific chapter and tackle more directly the sort of themes that we often lump into the idea of “madness” in horror but are really something quite separate from it. There’s a lot to be mined there that doesn’t have to be about stigmatizing mental illness.
Tropes like not being able to trust what you see and hear, or discovering the world doesn’t operate the way you believe it did, or watching your friends and neighbors casually betray the values you thought you all shared, or the cold senselessness that wraps around your brain in moments of true panic. These are things we’ve all experienced. All things that could be explored in Dread without having to label them madness or otherwise attributed to mental illness.
Being the creator of a Horror RPG, how best do you recommend groups address possible lines and veils when coming together to play?
Almost all of the Dread I’ve played in the past decade or so has been at conventions. In those situations, I’m very up front about what’s going to be experienced in the game. There’s no good reason to hide surprises. People who want to be scared will sign up for the things that scare them. People who don’t, won’t. And that’s exactly what you want.
I have a game that is both born from both Dread and Powered by the Apocalypse called The Dread Geas of Duke Vulku that I occasionally run at cons, back when cons were a thing. You play sword and sorcery folks caught in an enchantment that have done awful things under that geas. I need folks to understand that from the get-go. There’s mind-control and you play guilt-ridden villains. That’s for the players to know before they sign up. But also, despite all that mind-control and villainy, I have zero interest in playing a game with non-consensual sex and I need my players to know that before they sign up as well.
But all that’s made possible by a con setting, where you have a large pool of people who are self-selecting in and out of the experiences they want or don’t. Playing with friends is a different situation. Fortunately, Dread has some tools in place that can be adapted to this. The questionnaire, for example, is a natural moment to offer content warnings, ask about preferences and limits, and discuss them with the other players (when you’re also introducing the characters to everyone else).
There you still need to be upfront about your content and intent, but also willing to alter your plans should they prove to be too much for someone. I don’t know if I have great advice for this, but to say embrace the creative constraint.
And I urge anyone who finds they just want out of an uncomfortable Dread game to just knock that tower over and leave. That should not be read as an excuse for folks to run games that test these boundaries. It’s an excuse to leave any game, should you ever need an excuse to do so.
Many others have created scenarios and adaptions based on your system, do you have any personal favourites?
Oh, I’m almost certainly not the right person to ask about this. I don’t know if I’ve ever played anyone else’s Dread scenario. Not out of any sort of snobbery, mind you, it’s just, I’ve played a lot of Dread. A lot. And most of that was before folks started making and publishing their own scenarios. So I really haven’t sampled any that are out there.
I will, however, say that I’m not only happy they are out there, but excited to see Jenga make its way into other games like the two-player romance game Star Crossed and the solo horror game The Wretched, among others! It’s both gratifying to see the ideas in Dread spill out into the greater role-playing cosmos and it’s a relief to no longer bear the burden of being the Jenga role-playing game.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have three big projects on my desk at the moment:
It Lives, It Wakes! is another Jenga-based game, which means it’s probably on the backburner until the pandemic is over, but it’s a kaiju game that takes the block tower a little more literally. You play folks trying to survive a giant monster attack, trying to keep those towers as stable as possible. The game is intended to be played in sessions that roughly equivalent to a movie, with lots of unlockable content as your progress through the sequels and even reboots.
The Gamefield Public Library Curious Research Society is a game of horror meets cozy mysteries. Inspired by some 90s horror TV shows like American Gothic and Friday the 13th: The Series, you play folks who meet once a month at your local library to investigate the spooky goings-on in your little town. No Jenga here, just dice that tell you whether your hypothesis is contradicted or not and when someone falls prey to the peril.
Being a Game of the Trials and Bold Adventures of the Merry Folk in the Greenwood at a Time of Turmoil and Injustice is a game about a subject that I’m going to guess—given your location—you’re probably a bit bored of. You play medieval forest outlaws getting up to some mischief at the expense of the rich and the corrupt sheriff.
Both Gamefield and Greenwood are, in their own manner, hacks of my sword and sorcery game Swords Without Master where the dice you roll (or coins you toss in the case of Greenwood) are less concern about whether or not you succeed and more about how you do it. And although they don’t use Jenga, this lineage of design does draw from my work on Dread, where I learned to give players the option to choose failure. I did not know it at the time, but the design of that game is going to echo through my games until the grim end.
Once again thank you so much for taking the time to do this.
Thank you! This has been a delightful opportunity to reflect on Dread.