08 February 2020

Ten Candles: A Unique Roleplaying Experience

The title text of 'Ten Candles.' The text is written in an uneven block letter font, and to the left of the title is a line drawing of a tea light candle.

I recently watched an interesting video entitled '10 Great RPGs That Aren't Dungeons and Dragons.' That was how I learned about Ten Candles, a zero-prep one-shot roleplaying game by Stephen Dewey and published by Cavalry Games. It sounded interesting, so I read the description to the Dork Spouse, who expressed immediate interest.

After purchasing a copy of the rules, I called up a couple of friends (who were suggested by the Dork Spouse), and we all arranged to play a game together. So we sat down to tell the tale of a quartet of doomed individuals, trying to escape from an airport during the end of the world. I later ran some other games for other groups, and now I would like to share my experiences with you.

Ten Candles is somewhere between a normal RPG, like Fate or GURPS, and the one-shot mostly-free-form storytelling venture that is Fiasco. Unlike Fiasco, there is a GM, and dice rolls are still used to determine success or failure, but more in the style of Fiasco, it takes place in a single session, and the goal is less about succeeding in a mission and more about telling a great story.

An Overview of Ten Candles

The GM chooses a module (there's no reason you couldn't also create one yourself). That's the extent of preparation. Then you sit down around a table with some friends and create characters. This is done with index cards; each character gets a virtue (a single word describing some positive characteristic), a vice (a single word describing a negative feature), a moment (something that could potentially happen to bring your character hope), and a brink (some unsavory or unethical thing that your character has done in the past, and that you are likely to do again in a dark moment). Each of these is written on a different card.

Then the players record a final message (in the style of 'whoever finds this message, I want you to know that we tried'). All lights are extinguished except for the ten candles in the centre of the table, and play begins.

Ten used tea light candles in a circle on a wooden board, with several black dice and two red dice in the centre of the circle.
The candles which give the game its name, and which serve as an important part of the game's core mechanic.
The premise of the game is this: ten days ago, the world went dark. The sun didn't rise, the stars and the moon vanished from the sky, and even our satellites seemed to disappear, cutting off most communication. Five days later, They arrived.

They are nebulous and ambiguous. The GM can't even make any decisions about who or what They are before the game begins, because the players influence what They are, how They behave, and what They are able to do. They change each game, and not even the GM knows exactly what they are until the game is underway (sometimes even later).

The one thing that is always true about Them is that They avoid the light. So long as you stay in the light, you're safe.

But after five days of burning through power reserves, the world's generators are blown out. Power failures are occurring with increasing rapidity. Your characters are in a safe place for the moment, but the lights are going to go soon. Whatever the goal of the chosen module is, you have to try to accomplish it whilst there's still time.

But here's the thing: Ten Candles is a game of tragic horror. Horror, because it's frightening. Tragic, because your characters are going to die.

The game always ends with every character dying.

At the end, after telling a story of tragic heroism, of struggling against the dying of the light only to die along with that light, the players listen to the recording they made at the beginning of the game. They then sit back and enjoy the tale they have told together.

Some Detail

Players roll a number of six-sided dice to accomplish any task or attempt to be successful in any sort of conflict. If any of those dice result in a six, the task is successful. If none result in a six, then not only does the task fail, but the scene ends, a candle is extinguished, the dice pool is reduced by one, and players undergo a brief ritual in which they 'establish truths;' that is, they make a single statement about the world that must be accepted by all players (including the GM) as truth. This can be as simple as 'we found our way to the house', or as grandiose as 'the government created Them as genetically engineered monsters to serve as soldiers.' Then play continues in the next scene.

Once a candle goes out, it may not be reignited. Whether this is intentional (as the result of a failed die roll) or accidental (someone sighed heavily and blew a candle out), it brings the players one step closer to the end.

In most cases, some dice can be rerolled by burning one of the cards that contain your character's virtue, vice, moment, or brink, and when you burn your moment, you may gain a hope die which is more powerful than a regular die. But generally, it's a simple case of 'roll all the dice and hope that at least one lands on six.' 

Additionally, when a roll is successful, it will often be the player, rather than the GM, who narrates the outcome of that roll. This gives the players greater control over the game than in most RPGs.

The Games We Played

In my first game, the Dork Spouse and I sat down with three of our friends to tell the tale of three people and a service dog trapped in Terminal A of an airport, after seeing Terminals B and C go dark. Then a voice over the intercom announced that there was a plane at Terminal D that would take off in three hours. 

A curmudgeonly old man, a flight attendant, and a greedy head of a non-profit organisation joined forces (along with the dog, who's human had vanished before the game began), to find a runway service truck they could drive to Terminal D. There, they found some more survivors and boarded the plane just before the lights went out in the terminal right before taking off. Afterwards, an argument amongst the passengers escalated until a fire broke out in the plane's cabin. The last surviving PC died in the ensuing crash.

All the players enjoyed the game. They said it was an interesting experience to play a game they knew from the beginning they weren't going to 'win.' And knowing that the characters were going to die allowed them to really explore their personalities.

The second game was about a group of former sorority sisters getting together at Christmas in an isolated rented mansion in upstate New York and trying to survive when cut off from civilisation. The third game was about people who had just moved to a new city to make a fresh start in life and were staying in a hostel as they try to find a permanent home when the lights went out. In that game, they had learned that there was an arena across town that was being set up as a refuge, and the local schools were operating as waystations, and all they had to do was find a way to make it there.

The Point of Ten Candles

Obviously, that's a double-meaning expression. On one hand, the point of Ten Candles is to tell a great story. But the larger question: 'what's the point in playing a game in which you know before you even begin that your character is going to die? You can't win, so why bother playing at all?'

You may as well have asked why members of Star Fleet take the Kobayashi Maru test. It's not about winning. It's about what you learn from the experience.

From the rulebook:
It is a game about loss, but it is also a game about hope. Through it all, you must remember this: Though your characters will die, you must have hope that they will survive. That hope will live on, even in the end. But hope can be lost when those who guard it are pushed to the edge. It is in those moments that the darkness around becomes the darkness within, and that is when They have truly won.
And that, I think, is the real 'point' of Ten Candles. By telling stories in darkness, we strengthen the light. By playing games of fear, we reinforce our own strength. Or, to put it another way (and in the words of G.K. Chesterton), 'Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.'

Ten Candles is not about telling stories in which there is no hope. It is about telling stories in which, in the end, hope is all that's left.

So that's my impression of Ten Candles. I recommend you give it a try! Until next week, remember as always to

Game on!

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