Posted on June 11, 2008 by Flames
I finally got a chance to play Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium, with Rafael Chandler as GM, at a local gamers meetup (NC Game Day). For those of you with short attention spans: it rocked! Fast and bloody action, almost-freeform investigation mechanics, interesting tactical/mechanical choices during conflicts–all-in-all a solid “traditional” game with some quirky “indie” tricks up its sleeve.
I was about half asleep, arriving at the ungodly hour of 8:45am to be sure I found everyone before the 9am start time. I see the new cover–a bit more cheesecake and comicy feeling than the original “screamer”–and sidle over to meet the last person I would have guessed as the designer of this guts and gore game about which I’ve read. Nice-looking guy, in polo shirt and jeans, well-groomed short hair. “You waiting for the Dread game?” I ask.
“Hi, yeah, I’m Raphael Chandler.”
Oh. “Ah, cool, Dave Artman–we’ve been in some of the same threads online, I believe.”
“Sure, yeah. Have a seat; here’s some pre-gens, or we can make a new character for you in about five minutes if you have an idea?”
As it turns out, there was an interesting investigator pre-gen that I only had to tweak a bit to fit the notion of a war correspondent that I’d been kicking around on the drive to the con. A change of stat here, a bit of background massaging, and I was ready to go… as were the other four to join us. Yep, character creation is pretty fast and easy, if you come in with an idea as to why you’re a demon hunter, how you first became involved, and who is in your demon-hunting circle of friends. The game works to protect character niches in the fairly usual way: discrete classes, three in total, representing either direct combat, investigation, or magic specialties. What else do you need to find and kill demons, basket-weaving?
Raphael had a prepared scenario involving (we later realized) two distinct demon types. One is big on stalking a particular type of victim, the other is a classic possession-style baddie. In tandem, they would prove to be confusing to the largely non-veteran group with which I was playing today. But we sorted it out soon enough to get the blood flowing before lunchtime.
So we’re told of three scenes of unholy mayhem and violence, involving someone crucified with rebar on the exterior wall of a church, a YouTube video of a guy literally tearing his own skin off before disintegrating (shattering, actually), and a bag of various body parts at the morgue which, upon reassembly, proved to be from two different people. What to do? Split up, of course–and Raphael did a fine job of juggling us between scenes, picking good times to cut and keep everyone engaged. There’s nothing in the rules to force such pacing… but neither is there in most games; it’s a GM skill, and it worked.
So there I am, at the apartment of a victim, apparently very nastily killed in the bathroom. The cops that are there are shaken, and I pull a bit of a bluff to get past them–the out-of-date CNN press pass works as well as any badge flash in a cop movie. This showed me that blocking isn’t a part of investigation, in Dread: sure, go on ahead, nothing to be gained by thwarting a PC with some random extra. Cool!
So I enter the bathroom from which one cop had fled puking his guts out. And Raphael says, “OK, what’s it look like, what do you see?”
*beat* *beat* Oh, it’s this kind of game, cool! I can do shared narration! Even at 9:30 in the morning, while I’m still half awake. I describe… well, suffice it to say I got some “Ugh” and some “Eww” all around. I believe I began with, “Well, the first thing I notice is that the shower curtains aren’t curtains at all, but the flayed skin of the victim…”. Yucky, Friday-the-Thirteen gory fun!
So in our various way, we haggle, con, and deal with interference and connections to arrive at Clues. Here’s a cool part of Dread play: after three Clues, we Investigator folks get to roll dice and, based on their successes, are told a number of trivial, minor, or significant facts about the demon that we are stalking. This information works to both narrow down the demon type and to help us figure out its patterns, motivations, or favored prey. We’re on track, now!
In normal Dread play, this is where henchmen and cultists would begin to interfere: the mook-battering is designed to wear down the PC’s Fury so that the final conflict is tough (and usually deadly, to one or more PCs). But being a one-shot con game, Raphael paced the scenario faster and got us on the trail of the first, possessor demon fairly quickly. A few chats with a scatter-brained crackhead, a store clerk, and other contacts, and we realize we’re on the tail of the mayor, possessed by a demon that loves to destroy the lives of its victim before finally destroying the possessed itself and moving on to new hunting grounds.
At this point, I’d like too speak to how this scenario was structured and played out. Raphael had a sheet for each location and, I believe, for each threat (demons and some law enforcement folks). There was no railroad, no bullet list of events and hoops through which we had to jump to win our prize (final showdown). Rather, he kept careful notes on each sheet, to remind him of what we narrated into the game world, what clues we’d uncovered and where, and how the demons were reacting to our sniffing around their new lunchroom. Cool stuff, when one is used to “Room 34, Encounter A” obstacle-course style of play common to so many games. Dread puts at least as much of the game world’s facts into the hands of the players as into the hands of the GM; all the GM really knows is some key locations, the setup of events that come to the attention of us hunters, and the demons and their standard modus operandi. And Raphael had far more than such planning tools to bring to bear: he clearly loves this style of fiction and game, and he was a strong role player of NPCs and narrator of scenes that weren’t left to us to frame.
So after finding a “warm” trail, and using some Sorcery to track one of the demons, we end up in the ubiquitous abandoned warehouse, the possessor demon free of the mayor’s body and slavering there before us. This was all according to our own plan to get it alone, away from “civilians” like cops and other non-super-powered folks. (Did I mention that all hunters are super-powered? Read some of the capsule reviews.) We’d gone to a press conference put on by the mayor, a spell made the possessing demon writhe in agony (seeming to be the mayor in duress), our stolen ambulance rips around the corner (two of us driving), and we’ve got the mayor in it, speeding through downtown streets.
We exorcise the demon and immediately bind it into an oxygen tank (only good for a minute, though!). The mayor comes around, sees the likes of us and the demon struggling, and one of us yells, “Get out of here!”
A glance at our sorcerer and the black bile oozing around the ambulance, and the guy literally pulls a luge-run out the back door of the moving vehicle, bouncing down the street behind us on the freewheeling and non-steering gurney. A Classic Gaming Moment.
But we had to get off the main roads before the real ambulance arrived and the cops sorted things out and put out APBs. Slam brakes, bash down warehouse door, and fling the container into the middle. Lock and load.
OK, my guy couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Literally. This demon was in a paralytic sorcerous hold, and I’m standing at arms length, firing away, and missing with my meager 2d12. OK, time for a Stunt. Dread’s stunts, and their descriptions, are highly refined Coolness. For my next trick, I picked a stunt which must, by the rules, be a mad, hare-brained scheme that probably would result in my own injury. Fine by me: I’d been hording Fury just for this fight, and had nary a scratch. So I shove my gun and down the demon’s throat, and empty the magazine somewhere about its epiglottis. BOOM! Its chest blows out, taking a finger of mine or two with it, and it’s curtains for that demon.
Just in time for us to focus on the OTHER demon (remember it?) that has stalked us to this final fight scene, and that has one of our number hard-pressed across the warehouse. Stunts go to 11, spells fly, bullets fly, kicks fly… and the demon dies. Whew… what a wild ride, what a fast combat–from a HERO player, this is hardly a compliment, but even compared to “light” games, Dread is fast and yet still carries a lot of tactical meat, with the Stunts and Fury system. We turned to go….
…Right into the muzzles of the SWAT team fanning out behind us in the warehouse, the shaken mayer at their side in flak armor. Ah, right… save the city and go to jail as terrorist. Just another day in the life of a hunter.
As a first play, I couldn’t have asked for better than to have it run by the author. But even a neophyte GM with a decent handle on the horror milieu could pick-up Dread, read it (and the OMG!?! reveal in the GM section), and be running with no problems or hick-ups. It’s a tight, simple system with myriad tactical options through wild narration. What’s more, a GM’s prep is really minor, as so much of the direction of play and color of a session is up to the players. Yes, this could mean a tricky ramp-up for reactive, passive players who just want the GM to make all the fun. But for players who want to collaborate on a story about kicking ass and–well, who cares about names, anyway?–Dread can’t be beat in the splatter-punk, horror genre.
This is not your Buffy or even Angel. Dread is METAL, like the incarnation of classic 80s and 90s heavy metal album covers. And when you get into repeat, campaign play… well, I don’t do spoilers, but things are NOT what they seem, in the universe that is Dread. Get your gun, warm up the pick-up, check your spell books one last time… GO!
Review by David Artman