Designer Diary – Bringing Dread to Mega-City One!

Today on the blog RPG designer Epidiah Ravachol (Eppy), creator of the award-winning Dread RPG and author of Dread: Dredd, gives an introduction to the new game and tells us how he adapted the system to suit the streets of Mega-City One!

Greetings, citizen. I’m Eppy, the designer and author of the brand new Judge Dredd tabletop role-playing experience, Dread: Dredd. The good folks are Rebellion Unplugged have asked me to give you a little introduction to the game. But before I jump into that, we should make sure we’re on the same page.

What Is Dread?

Given where you’re reading this, odds are, you know who Dredd is, but you might not know what Dread is. So let’s start there. Dread is an indie tabletop horror role-playing game of some modest renown. If you’ve heard of it at all, you probably know it as the Jenga role-playing game. Which is fair enough, though I should point out that these days there are quite a few more of them out there (for example Star-Crossed, The Wretched and all it’s ilk, as well as my own Dread House and Dread Geas of Duke Vulku.)

There are no dice in Dread, only Jenga. You play characters trapped in a tale of horror, trying to survive by your wits, luck, and prowess. Like most other role-playing games, you make decisions about what the characters are doing and how they react to the grisly events unfolding around them. But instead of rolling dice, every time you try something difficult or perilous, you have to pull a block and place it back atop a Jenga tower. If you can do this, you succeed. Or, if you wish, you can choose not to pull and suffer the consequences of failure. This can be a desirable tactic, because whatever the price of failure, as long as that tower remains standing, you are surviving.

But should that tower fall, for whatever reason, your fate is sealed. Character death in Dread is left solely in the hands of their players and the whims of gravity. Every time you touch the tower, every time you bump the table, every time you make any sudden movement, the hungry gaze of death is upon you.

There are no stats in Dread, only questions. Each player is giving a questionnaire specifically crafted for their character. Some of these questions offer opportunities. What tools do you keep close at hand at all times? When all has seemed lost, where did you find the strength to go on? Some of these questions highlight challenges for the characters. What fresh injury has kept you from competing? Why are you no longer licensed? Some delve deep within the character. What childhood regret still haunts you? Who else knows you’re a fraud? It’s up to the players to answer these questions. Their answers may help us decide what the characters are capable of with or without pulling. They help the host of the game mold the tale to the characters. And most importantly, they give the players a little one-on-one time with their characters, so they may better understand what’s at stake whenever they’re pulling from that tower.

It is this combination that makes Dread so well suited to the horror genre: characters you care about and a visceral mechanic that casts its shadow over their very mortality.

That is just about all you ever need to know to play Dread. There is a simple, perhaps brutal, elegance to a game that focuses your mind and senses on the growing tension of the horror story you and your friends craft together.

Designing Dread for Dredd

When I first met Dredd he was hidden on the “Mature Audiences Only” shelf at my local comic book store. Forbidden fruit for a young teen in the 80s, but I had an in, a friend whose mother granted him written permission to purchase any comic in the store, regardless of the content. It wasn’t exactly illicit, but we felt a thrill with each issue, like a couple of perps catching their breath in a bolt hole as a Lawmaster roared by outside.

A Dredd setting for a Dread game has come up more times than I can count over the past couple decades. Never something official. Never something beyond a little adventure for between friends. Never something I got around to doing. And then this hit, a now or never chance to score big in Mega City. We had to work under a tight deadline, but the muscle memory was there. I was more ready for this than I had known.

Combining Dredd with Dread is not as straight forward as it might seem. While Mega-City One has its horrors, there’s a slow-burn to the style of horror best suited for Dread that does not quite fit with the pacing of a 2000 AD prog. The game needed some retooling and a tighter focus to fit world of Judge Dredd. The scenario we landed on placed the players not in the roles of Judges, but as democracy agitators who oppose the absolute rule of the Judges. Citizens in search of a better world, where self-governance is possible.

For this to work, the democrats needed hope. Some slim chance of success. Otherwise, the game would be a thankless meat-grinder. With hope, it’s a still meat-grinder, but who knows, maybe you can jam it up for a bit. Additionally, we had to go beyond Dread’s resounding note of fear. Mega-City One is full of terrible spectacles, but also gonzo wonders and the fantastically absurd.

Enter Walter the Wobot, formerly in Dredd’s own personal employ. A droid with a history deeply intertwined with Mega-City One’s own. Certainly Walter has seen some stomm. Within in his data banks there had to be secrets the Justice Department would never want made public. If we gave our democrats Walter and an opportunity to put Walter on the air, we had our hope. If we gave our host Walter, along with his reluctance, his affinity for Judge Dredd, and ample opportunities to put him in the cross-hairs, we have our absurdity.

The plan might not be simple, but it is straight forward. Sneak Walter into the premier game of the first aeroball season in decades—an event so highly anticipated the Judges dare not shutdown the broadcast for fear of citywide riots—and get him in front of the cameras so he can spill the beans.

Whether it is a brilliant or a foolhardy plan, only time will tell. The important part is that you’re committed now. The game begins with the Harlem Heroes super liner touching down just before the big game. The democrats are aboard, disguised as part of the Heroes’ road crew. And Walter has just breathlessly informed everyone of the good news: “Possible action at the Hellcat Memorial Stadium. Be advised, Judge Dredd inbound. ETA 48 minutes.”

And the clock starts.

There are several big ways in which the rules of Dread: Dredd differs from the original Dread. Instead of one Jenga tower, there are two. Or, more specifically, one tower unevenly split into two: the larger Justice Tower and the smaller Liberty Tower. Each has its own set of rules governing how they are to be interacted with, but a key point for our players is that as long as the Liberty Tower is shorter than the Justice Tower, the citizens of Mega-City One will not be ready to hear what Walter has to say. It is up to the players to get that Liberty Tower taller than the Justice Tower before they get Walter on camera.

Then there’s the countdown. Dredd is on his way. For the democrats that means in 48 minutes, wherever they are, whatever they managed to accomplish, the mission is over. Once Dredd arrives, they are doomed. He is as much a force of nature as he is a judge. Nothing of their plan survives contact with Dredd.

But the game is gracious. It knows that each minute spent playing doesn’t exactly equate to a minute passing in Mega-City One. Sometimes you can get more done in a minute of play; most times, less. So, the game assumes an average of 3 minutes of playing time brings Dredd one minute closer. And then it gives the host the ability to shave more minutes off of Dredd’s arrival time if the characters are caught up in especially time-consuming activities.

The players can choose to burn the candle at both ends, if they wish. If the towers don’t look steady, they take their time and do whatever needs doing with careful, painstaking patience. The host ticks off a box and Dredd speeds that much closer, but the players get a reprieve from the tower.

This is the objective, then:

Are you up to the challenge?

Playing Dread: Dredd

There’s a bit more to the game than that. The PDF is just under 40 magnificently illustrated pages and includes all the rules, the scenario, and a few juicy handouts. Plenty to sink your teeth into. But let me end this with some advice for players and hosts.

Go wild! Mega-City One is full of some of the strangest things, and there’s plenty more room for whatever bizarre thing you dream up. Don’t hold back. Hosts, if you want the democrats to come face-to-face with their evil doppelgangers from a parallel dimension just as they are trying to cajole Walter onto the field, make it happen. Players, if want to answer one of your character creation questions with a tale about how you’re the last survivor of a failed alien invasion, I’m not going to stop you.

If you have the time, take it! You want the game to end three minutes before Dredd shows up. Otherwise, you’ve made pulls you don’t need to. Play chicken with Dredd. See how close you can get him to the stadium before you spill the beans on camera.

Work together even as you work against each other. There will be times when the characters disagree or their goals might even be at odds. This is wonderful. Embrace it. But keep in mind that the players all share the same goal, even if their characters don’t. When your democrat is working against the rest of the group, let the other players know how and why. Let them play into it. Together, you can find ways to exploit these moments of dissent and turn them into opportunities to build the Liberty Tower or draw the Judges’ attention away from what is important. Communication with your fellow players is key here.

Make bold choices! You’re on the clock! The more time you spend fretting about your next move, the closer Dredd gets. Make a decision, commit to it and savor the consequences.

Always savor the consequences.

Ready to take to the streets of Mega-City One and bring Judge Dredd down? Order your copy of Dread: Dredd today!