Dread – Hardcore Jenga RPG

by on 06/07/2015

Improv-heavy and story focused without seeming pretentious.
Very high social side, more of a party game than your standard RPG.
No materials required bar pencil, paper, and a Jenga-like game.


Lack of Jenga skills may kill you faster than other players.
Not much to do once you're out of the game.
Unplayable on rickety tables or by people with cats, for obvious reasons.

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Bottom Line

An ace game for one-offs, featuring an enjoyable if transparent way to ramp up dramatic tension in a horror game - if you like more fluff than crunch in your tabletop, this is definitely for you.


Recently, my regular tabletop gaming group finished its 5th Edition D&D Campaign, which started as a 3.5E game about five years ago, went on hiatus, got cancelled, and eventually rebooted during the 5th Edition Playtesting period. We’re working up some Star Wars: Edge of the Empire characters for our next big thing, but until then, we’ve got time to kill. Now, we’ve done our fair share of one-off gaming sessions before; Fate, Iron Edda, Call/Trail of Cthulhu…but never anything like Dread. As the name suggests, things can get quite tense. I’m not sure if it was brought to the table because Wil Wheaton had it on his show not too long ago, but if this article tickles your interest, head over there and check it out.

Dread RPG is a game well suited to the one-shot, I don’t see how you could get a years-long campaign out of it, though I’m told some people like all that diceless malarkey. We tried it with Lords of Gossamer & Shadow and hated it to the point its now a table in-joke. Instead of the aforementioned rolling plastics, conflict and challenge in the game is resolved by playing Jenga (other tower-based block games are available).

How does this work? In a nutshell, if you want a clue, a story point or a bit of self-defence to go your way, you’re going to need to pull one or more blocks from the tower. Decline to pull, and bad things happen – usually survivable, but they might haunt you later. If the tower comes down when you pull, then you’re dead (or at least, die at the most thematically appropriate juncture). The more risk you’re taking, the more pulls you need. Our GM was astounded it took is so long to start dying, but he didn’t count on everyone at the table being a world-class Jenga player.

Childhood innocence or a serial-murder waiting to happen?

This “game outside the game” serves as Dread’s primary tension building mechanic, and while you’re acutely aware of this artificial worry at the time, it still works – as its then reinforced by the story; which in our case was a classic Teen Slasher flick. Our American High-schoolers, from the Jock to the Slacker, go to a cabin in the woods for a party, where guests are picked off one by one. I won’t spoil the ending, but if you paid attention during Character Creation, you might see it coming. There are other scenarios in the rulebook which I doubt are as easy to puzzle out, but on the strength of the “Beneath the Mask” scenario alone, I’d recommend picking this game up. Since its very free-form and collaborative-story, you could copy the plot of your favourite horror just off the top of your head and it’d translate well into the game.

Speaking of Character Creation, Dread goes about it in a Fate-esque fashion, serving not only to help you understand your character, establish the odd skill or two and give you something to doodle on, but also giving the GM ammunition to mess with you. It’s done in a questionnaire style, with several of the questions being linked across each character – The Nerd having a crush on The Cheerleader, for example, with the Rich Kid having a plot to set them up, which in our game, was by splitting the Jock and Cheerleader up with some planted photos of the Cheerleader’s best friend (one of several NPCs at the party before they were all killed).

Two hours in and nobody had died, though the occasional choice not to pull led to modest hysteria. Which was groovy.

Dread would work well as a Cthulhu Mythos game. The tension I felt in Dread was way more than anything I felt in Call or Trail of Cthulhu, separating the numbers from the character and leaving the game stripped down to tense block-pulling and the sheer relief of survival…aside from the Jenga, its what every Mythos game shoots for. The ending too, is very bleak. Nobody is expected to survive in a game of Dread, and the conclusion of a session are supposed to be like the most unsettling of horror movie endings – the killer appears behind the survivor just before the fade to black, or its unclear if the monster is still out there, that sort of deal. I won’t spoilt the ending to our game, but it was satisfying, even if you half-expected it to happen.

In summary, I made it to the end of the article without making a Judge Dredd pun. Also; Dread is a bargain for the price you can pick up the PDF for, and while you could probably play it without the rulebook, I’d want to give it a few games before I felt comfortable enough writing a story or adapting a movie for it. The Character Creation questionnaires are a novel idea and really work, as does the Jenga-tension, despite it being about as subtle as a sledgehammer to a Cheerleader. As we put it at the table, “Top Kek, 10/10, would die again” – but you’re going to have to judge Dread for yourself.

…oh, damn.