I spent the last weekend at a semi-regular gaming meetup. The beauty of this thing is that while it does host more than a few dozen people, but all of them are invited known persons. Friends and family one could say.
Blechpirat and me usually use this gathering to playtest the more different games we find. This time, the candidates were Ten Candles and Bluebeard's Bride. (And then there was a Dresden Files game that was full of vengeful pirate ghosts, so the horror theme was thoroughly observed :) )
Both, Ten Candles and Bluebeard’s Bride are games where the characters can’t really win. Even more so than a Cthulhu game, where the PCs usually are at least able to avert the apocalypse for now. Both of these games will end badly, period.
Ten Candles says so very clear on the tin: When the last of the ten candles on the table is extinguished, all characters will die, no way out of it. This is a game that tries to tell a story of hope and light in the face of utter darkness and hopelessness. And it does so quite well, at least most of the time. The player characters are stranded in a sea of darkness, clinging to the light that promises survival.
The titular ten candles are actually lit on the game table. One by one they will get extinguished whenever the players fail on a dice roll. If that happens, the current scene is ended and the narrator cuts to the next one, made bleaker and less hopeful by that failed roll. But the players get to narrate facts for the next scene, one for each candle still burning. These facts can be positive, but they don’t have to…
Apart from the gimmick with the actual candles on the table, the game offers a really interesting mechanic: During character creation, you create a small stack of traits and moments. Each of these is written on a small piece of paper, and these are then actually stacked on top of each other.
Literally burning one of these will give you a small bonus, but you can only burn the one that is right on top of the stack. So the order you stack these becomes important during gameplay.
Pro-tip: If you prep for the game, hand out papers that include the prompts and the mechanic that kicks in when burning. It’s something that is easily forgotten or confused during gameplay and having it right there will surely help.
The other thing to realise, especially for the person running the game, is that at some point, most tests the players roll will fail. And failing a test will not only progress the game by ending the scene, but also make the next one even harder. So choose the moments for these tests wisely, otherwise your game will speed up towards the end on autopilot during the last four candles or so.
But those are miner nitpicks: If you like to buy in to the „everyone will die“ premise, Ten Candles is a very fine and quite atmospheric game. And even scenes that got cut short within the first 20 seconds managed to convey a good sense of bleak dread and despair, precisely by being cut off before any real hope can surface. One example of our session was when the drifting yacht briefly bumped onto the pylon of an oil rig, only to drift away into the darkness right away…
Bluebeard’s Bride is quite another kind of horror. It is more personal, even intimate. Instead of several people, the players each pick one aspect of the Brides personality. During character creation they establish how the Bride thinks and feels and the narrator (called Groundskeeper by the game) is encouraged to mine these things, to use them against the Bride.
It is described as „feminine horror“, and it does indeed focus heavily on themes that are stereotypically feminine: How to cope with societies body standards, views on sexuality or body autonomy. Yes, these are sexist themes, but the point is to come to grips with that sexism, to see unfairness of it escalate into horror.
As Ten Candles, this is also a game where most of the story and challenges have to be created ad hoc during gameplay. And as the aim is to tailor these parts to the players, to address the things that make them shiver, I find it even more challenging with Bluebeard’s Bride to do so. It helps if one has a collection of set pieces at hand and the rulebook gives you plenty of examples and prompts.
Personally, I found it surprisingly hard to populate Bluebeard’s mansion with NPCs. The rooms were easy, but adding people into that creepy room, people that add to it instead of taking attention away was.. difficult. In the end, there was about a handful of them scattered through the house. As a result, the players didn’t get to make some of the moves, simply because there were less people to interact with.
Still, the game gives excellent prompts to add horror to basically any aspect of the setting and I got to see the players shiver a lot.