I dungeon master an annual Halloween one-shot D&D game. This will be my third year doing it. We’ve done a vampire adventure, a mummy adventure and this year it was a haunted house. I always DM with a costume on, and our hostess does up the house and food in Halloween fashion. It’s great fun, but it’s never scary, tense or nerve wracking. I don’t find D&D to be a very good game engine for horror stories. I’ve been in a few spooky Ravenloft games, but the system falls a little short in my opinion.
So, I looked around the internet for a better way to run Halloween one-shots and I came across the independent RPG Dread thanks to Wil Wheaton (twitter @wilw). Dread is a storytelling RPG that uses a Jenga tower to determine outcomes instead of dice. If the tower falls while you’re pulling on it, your character is dead (or removed from game). The stories you tell can be any genre/setting and the tension created by the teetering tippy tower bleeds over into your story.
Honestly, I was a little skeptical. How suspenseful and doom inspiring can a bunch of blocks be? I decided to give it a go, I ran two games of Dread leading up to Halloween. The first was more of a play test and both games used the same scenario. In both cases there was real tension at the table as players had to pull blocks from the unstable tower.
In the second game of Dread, the players dressed in costume and we played by candle light with spooky music. This seemed to enhance and amplify what we were going for. On one occasion a player simply could not work up the nerve to make a pull from the tower. He instead chose to intentional knock it down and make a heroic exit. This intentional destruction is a part of the game and leads to some awesome role-playing.
Following the game I heard back from multiple players with comments like: “That was an awesome game.” and “I wasn’t expecting that, it’s visceral. I could not recommend Dread more! If you’re looking for a Halloween game that your friends will remember, this is it. Also, the rules are so light (almost non-existent) that non-gamers can easily join in on the game and not feel lost. The Jenga tower doesn’t create fear, but it does create suspense and the feeling of impending disaster… aka DREAD.