Author: Malignant Games (Rafael Chandler)
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 2003-04-03
Just over a year ago, a guy showed up at the Forge and asked all sorts of leading questions about role-playing horror. He 'fessed up soon enough that he was working on his own game and asked for playtesters. I'll immodestly claim some credit for the Forge, because Rafael's first draft of the game had ... well, certain flaws. It underwent substantial criticism by plenty of folks, and Rafael responded with astounding willingness to learn, yet keeping true to the original vision of the game, as found in his initial posts. Dread represents one of the best examples of "baked at the Forge" around, because the resulting game is still wholly Rafael's - as the game he never thought it could be.
It also raises the issue of "author voice" in role-playing texts, which I'm more and more impressed by as Forge games proliferate. I can tell when I read a Ralph Mazza game, a Vincent Baker game, a Sean Demory game, a Paul Czege game, a Seth ben-Ezra game, a Jared Sorensen game, and so on. The cadences of the sentences, the tone, the slang employed or lack thereof, all make the game texts into personal acts of communication, rather than manuals shaped to fit some mythical hobby-specification. Dread prose is raw, slightly hectic, full of fiction and colorful examples. It's like that crucial, plot-driving, ranting explanation in a paranoid thriller, intercut with disturbing images. It's Rafael, no one else, and I think that's pretty cool.
As of November, 2002, just nine months after people ripped into the inital manuscript like rabid gerbils, Dread became available as a full-on hard-copy book, available only through on-line sales. On the one hand, this is an independent-publishing triumph, putting Rafael into the front rank of Hard Knocks Consulting. On the other hand, this mode of print and fulfillment is a hard row to hoe for a publisher, as discussed in my Universalis review. I look forward to seeing how it works.
What's going on? Demons rampage about the modern day, and the characters represent a cabal of folks with a rarely-seen mentor who's taught them how to fight them. The setting is a semi-abstracted, good-'nough-for-Hollywood modern day, and the demons usually attach themselves to and aggravate situations of human weakness and anger: child abuse, drug abuse, depression, mob violence, and so forth. So the basic Situation is pretty standard - Charlie's Angels, really, as represented in dozens of other games ranging from Nobilis to Forgotten Realms AD&D, any game in which you're a squad who gets assignments. However, just to be clear, it's not very Buffy, as the characters' personal lives aren't central to conflicts, and all of play is graphic, brutal, and kind of grubby.
In Dread, all of this is well-explained up-front and very strict in terms of parameters for creating characters and preparing scenarios. Also, the book as a physical object carries a strong early World of Darkness aesthetic, ranging from the bizarre names for spells and abilities to the graphics-heavy, kind of basement look. It's ideal for short-prep games.
Player-characters are easy to understand and build. Let's see, you have three attributes, one of which must be excellent (score = 5 or 6), which forces the other two down to very low-grade. These and the few skills are highly abstracted, producing characters very much like those in Unknown Armies but with vastly less point-divvying. It takes about about five minutes to have one's character locked and loaded, especially if the player isn't too picky or anxious about choosing the perfect spells.
Actually, a word about those skills and spells ... I consider the skills to be too niche-y, in the sense that this guy's the "driver guy" and this other guy's the "crime guy," and this other one's the "computer guy." It carries a strong Shadowrun or maybe A-Team feel, but maybe that works all right for this mode of play. The spells, on the other hand, are (1) plentiful and (2) bizarrely colorful, and although many of them are redundant in effect, they are almost all extremely effective and go a long way to make Dread distinct from similar games.
Finally, player-characters are rounded out with a few bonus areas (e.g. fighting) and a Drive, which like Obsession in Unknown Armies, is a blanket bonus when Drive seems to be important at the moment.
How does it all work? Attribute and skill are added together and you roll that many dice, Storyteller-style, looking for high values. However, the value is derived as in the Silhouette system or The Whispering Vault, based on the highest die plus single-pip bonuses based on tied values. Oh yes, and you're using d12's. So if I roll five dice and get two 12's my total is 14 (12 + 2 for the two tied dice), as it would be if I got five 9's (9 + 5). Usually one is rolling against someone else's roll, but spells call for target numbers.
One gains bonus dice from one's Drive, some specialties, and from the Cool Factor, which, Sorcerer-like, is based on the impact of how a player states an action. The examples all promote a street-type Robert Rodriguez kind of cinematic cool - over the top, to be sure, but that's Dread.
The game boasts fantastic character access, because everyone loves a real loser who one day puts on a black trenchcoat, becomes really good at something, and resolves to make a difference. The game's rules and fiction state outright that the characters are looo-zers, bottomed-out, almost totally disconnected from normal life. I strongly recommend emphasizing this to players to break them of certain "modern setting" habits: instead of a SWAT expert, you have a militia wannabe. Instead of a brilliant research jock, you have a defrocked and embittered ex-faculty. Instead of an ace cat burglar, you have a three-time loser 7-11 sticker-upper. They may have a score of 5 or 6 in something now, but the assumption is that they only got that way through the mentor's recent intervention.
The group also really liked the "what's the context" material for play, in which the setting and general tone of play are set through discussion, including things like the typical weather in the area, or the way people tend to talk to one another.
As for play itself ... did you ever play Shotguns? Shotguns works like this: it's an RPG, you play yourself, and you have twenty-four hours to equip yourself for being air-dropped somewhere (you don't know where) to deal with something (you don't know what); go. It gains its name from the most commonly-observed item to be brought along. Dread is sort of like this. I had a distinct Shotguns feeling when the characters stocked up for their big showdown, emerging from the Army Surplus store with fire extinguishers, fire-resistant coats and tarps, and a big knife.
The d12 system worked surprisingly well, producing a somewhat more stable relationship between extreme examples of "who's better and who's worse" than Sorcerer does through its use of ties described above. On the other hand, roll totals tended to cluster pretty tightly, such that I'm not sure that a plain old 3d6 add'em-up wouldn't have done just as well.
A couple of questions did crop during play.
1. When do you announce your player's action? Right on your turn, right? This works fine in play, with all of the limitations implicit in such a system (i.e. "freeze-framing" action from player to player).
2. How does one handle ties in initiative? Order of action is slightly clunkily resolved by 1d12 rolls which subtract a value, lowest going first. A lot of the time, multiple characters get 1 for an outcome. In our game, we used lowest rolled-value to resolve these ties.
The biggest difference between Dread and its most immediately-obvious gaming relatives (Vampire, Unknown Armies, and Call of Cthulhu) is that it has no personality/sanity mechanic at all. The whole flip-out thing is absent - these characters already did that, before play, and now they're back, scarred and trained. The only thing that will take them out is dying, and putting oneself at risk thereof turns out to be much more important to play than might be apparent at first.
Our general tone of play ended up not quite as dark, moment to moment, as the game text or another group's play would suggest. We leaned a bit, but only a bit, more toward Tremors than Andrew Vachss, tending to slip into one-liners ("I'm casting that Betty Black spell") rather than just hitting with cold cool steel ... however, the moral heart did come through in the crunch.
Here's why: the Redemption rules, although very limited in scope, work extremely well. Redemption is a batch of points gained by putting oneself at risk for the benefit of others, and it can be lost by wimping out. The points are used mainly for metagame roll-enhancement and damage recovery. They're much "lighter" than the rather scary TROS Spiritual Attributes, Orkworld Trouble, or Sorcerer bonus dice. Minor as the points are in metagame terms, though, Redemption is the center of play.
The combination of Drive, Redemption, and the Cool Factor adds up to a great little action package. The characters end up saving one another's bacon quite frequently in conflict scenes, as it's pretty easy for one of them to get waxed by a solid roll from an opponent, and then for the opponent to get waxed by another player-character's roll. The risks involved for both, especially if the conflict in question concerns a sympathetic NPC, tend to rack up the Redemption and thus cement player-bonding as well. It's very action-movie like in this regard, and I like the way the rules reinforce the effect without explicitly forcing it.
So it's all about gaining Redemption through grit, putting the motive thing into action. I think the key to really satisfying Dread games may not be immediately obvious: slightly negative Drives. We found both Obedience, space-monkey style, and Injured Pride to be excellent in our game, as opposed to (say) Justice or Saving Innocence.
This is a complex topic, so I'll start with a comparison of prepping and playing Dread and kill puppies for satan in the same time period. First, their similarities. Both games present quick-and-dirty, low-handling-time Simulationist design. They both have a strong warped religious basis for their conflicts. The player-characters are losers with no clout, no credit, and no hope, armed with minor magic powers. They must frequently be ruthless, at the very least. They have a sinister angel mentor in Dread, and in kpfs, they have Satan, more-or-less. They have contacts and relationships which occasionally, if not willingly, help them out, and loyalty and determination matter greatly in play.
However, in certain other ways, the games are very different. In Dread, characters are probably grungy in their habits and dubious in their standards of right and wrong, but they try to do good and they're not degenerates, which in kpfs they most certainly are, of an especially atrocious and cruel sort. The adversaries in Dread are unequivocally foul in both metaphysical and moral terms, whereas kpfs characters just abuse or try to avoid whoever's in their way. Dread characters are given missions from their angel mentor, whereas kpfs characters basically stumble into absurd and demeaning mixups. Dread in play is violent and occasionally depressing, with a lot of pathos regarding NPCs, whereas kpfs play is repulsive and hilarious, with contempt and satire directed both toward player-characters and NPCs alike.
My conclusion hinges on the main reward mechanic. In kpfs, the characters are unredeemed scum who both gain and spread Evil, and they like it that way. For Dread characters, though, they bottomed-out before play begins, and Redemption is available for them, at great personal risk, in small bits. The difference reverberates through all aspects of play - and it exposes one of my biggest problems with Dread as well.
Here's the example. In our game, play centered around a tragic but slightly cruddy human story concerning a dead junkie, his gay lover, his fiancee, and his parents. Everyone's miserable, partly because the two lovers of the dead guy were rivals while he was alive, partly because the parents are in denial about the whole thing, and partly because a guy is brutally exploiting the young woman with the parents' partial collusion. It's bad stuff to be sure, but not much is actionable, nothing that couldn't happen ordinarily. In the game, the nastiness is emphasized rather than fully instigated by the demon stuff.
What happens? Given some investigation, given some judgments, our heroes go in, stop some demons, basically beat a guy (not a demon) to death with a baseball bat, and mess up a home. The emotional result was a bit of a small triumph, mainly the beginnings of a reconciliation between the two lovers of the dead guy, but not much.
Without demons, this behavior would be very disturbing. With them, "it's OK," at least sort of in the Dread-style, nothing-left-to-lose way. So, as it stands, this bit of thematic discomfort is already kind of interesting and disturbing, at least enough for the retrospective "H'm," which I think is enough, or almost more than enough, for Dread to sustain. It's enough to provide that crucial distinction between kpfs and Dread play.
Now for the problem: the back-story of the game's setting. Granted, it's only about five pages of text, and it's just about the only part of the rules that could be snipped out wholly without affecting play much, but if you do use it, the impact is profound, and in my view, not positive. According to this background, the whole paradigm of "we fight demons, guided by an angelic mentor" gets deconstructed. The angels are not from Heaven and the demons are not from Hell, and the player-characters are just throwaway pawns in a desperate and short-term delay tactic by a frankly not-very-bright Kosmik Guy who's been piling mistakes upon mistakes since the start of Creation. It's bleak as hell.
Never mind that the backstory/setting leaves me cold, in that I think it reads like Sandman fanfic. That's not the issue. What I question is devaluing the player-characters' efforts and most specifically the ultimate value of Redemption. This is more than just an aesthetic concern - if you devalue Redemption, you potentially convert the characters into dupes at best, and utter scum at worst - more like kpfs characters, in fact. Some groups may welcome the utter nihilism as a framework for further efforts at protagonism or adventure, but the risk of deconstruction seems high.
Limitations And Caveats
In the just-a-detail category, the demon combat rules are pretty well-hidden in the book; we missed'em until after the first session, which is why a demon went down way too fast in that session.
More generally, beware of high Spirit characters loaded with combat spells, who will pretty much walk circles around everyone else including the high-Body combat dudes. Or if you don't beware of them, then arguably everyone should take the high-Spirit approach and sub-specialize within that using the huge number of spells available from that score.
Fights with demons in Dread tend to look alike, mainly composed of whittling the demon's considerable Body scores down over many rounds. Add to this that most of the demonic Imprecations are similar ("damage everyone nearby by 1-2 points"). Also, the Cool Factor can be tiring after the fourth or fifth time, which tends to happens since the bonuses' effects only increase success by a little bit.
So much for the System stuff, now for more theme. The question as raised by members of our group is, does the mixture of pathos and violence that the text drives for really work? Or is Dread play pretty much vigilante Champions all over again, or powerz-heavy Vampire combat scenes, or (horrors) more-or-less Violence, even? One player considered the demons to be "just ogres," meaning big gross bastards who need killin', and he's got a point.
Dealing with this question - what's the point of play? - is easy, but necessary. Comparing Dread play to Call of Cthulhu and Unknown Armies, the game may seem a little light for people who've already modified Cthulhu to multiple settings and modern-loser postmodernism (which is what Unknown Armies is), mainly because PCs don't bottom-out morally or snap. Also, unlike these games, leading characters by the nose from clue to clue isn't possible, mainly due to spells like Bete Noir and Discern - "guess my secret" GMing is right out the window. Fortunately, the text provides a great solution: the most accessible version of the relationship-map method for scenario preparation that I've seen to date, with a solid and playable example.
GNS (Slipping It In At The End)
Just a couple of years ago, I would naively have called Dread a Narrativist game design, based on its strong text to train people away from railroading and on its Cool Factor (bonus dice for description). Now, though, I'm pegging it as High Concept Simulationist, with utterly focused mechanics, meaning that whatever isn't central to play is simply washed right over. Resolution is strictly one-action to one-action linear, and more generally, the Situation isn't adjustable or (ultimately) player-driven despite the excellent group creation stuff.
All this is a good thing. The game is what it is, completely: highly coherent, clear, and extremely accessible, among my top choices for straightforward, rules-say-reality violent adventure. If you're frustrated by existing games whose "horror" slides into railroading and/or maundering, and just want to get down to the point of the moment in the right atmosphere of grunge and black bleakness, then Dread's the way to go.