The following is not really a review of Dread by Impossible Dream. Rather, it’s my experience playing the game at GenCon 2011 filtered through the game designer part of my brain. Your mileage may vary.
I was impressed with Dread. It’s the kind of impressed that grows the more you think about it. There was one design element that in anathema to me but that’s definitely in the realm of preference rather than a design flaw.
You’ve probably already heard about the system in Dread, but just in case …. To play, you have to have Jenga. Yes, the game with the little wooden thingies piled high in a tower. Whenever you want your character to do something difficult, you need to pull a block from the Jenga tower. If you pull it out and place it back atop without the tower falling, your character succeeds! If you knock down the tower, then your character dies.
This amazingly simple mechanic is a beautiful piece of design. It reinforces the theme of the game: horror. Succeeding early in the game is easy, but it gets harder and harder as the game progresses. Tension builds just like a good horror story until finally the tower falls and someone dies. This brings respite from the tension, but as player-characters die off, more blocks are pulled away before the story ends.
I’ve been told repeatedly that, when designing a roleplaying game, you want your system tied into the setting. In other words, have a good reason for picking a certain mechanic. If you’re making a game focused on combat, don’t use a rules-light system like Paranoia or a story-based mechanic like Dogs in the Vineyard. Use a system like 3.5 OGL.
Dread is a great example of this. Yes, it’s a bit simplistic–there are no modifiers!–but that’s not what Dread is about. The system fits a game that’s more survival horror than anything else.
Now, the bit I don’t like. When the tower falls, your character dies and you are out of the game. See, I don’t like that. If I schedule a few hours consecutively to roleplay, I don’t want to die early and sit there. Since Dread is more closed than anything else (the story ends at the game’s end), it’s not like you can role up a new character and get back in the action. To put it simple, I don’t like games that stop players from playing the game.
Still, from a design standpoint, it’s awesome. It works–wonderfully so.