A little over a year ago I purchased Ten Candles from a game store in Massachusetts while I was home for a family reunion. At the time the game was rather elusive to find in the wild, so imagine my surprise finding on the shelf at game and comic shop just outside the University of Massachusetts. Sadly it has sat on my shelf since purchasing, well, that was until a few days ago.
Ten Candles is a shared storytelling game of horror that will spin out of control the longer the game is played. Ten days ago the world went dark and no one knows why. The earth is beginning to cool and darkness pervades everywhere and in everything. Gas supplies are running out and generators are beginning to fail. Five days ago “They” came and people began to disappear. Your only hope is to stay in the light, for every time someone you know or love ventures out of the light and into the darkness they are never heard from again. With generators failing and light becoming a precious commodity, the game challenges the players to create a shared narrative about how they come together and survive long enough to create the story of their demise. The game holds no punches in saying all the characters will die during the end scene if they have not martyred themselves before then.
Characters are little more than a few small pieces of paper. Each player will have five pieces of paper in front of them when character creation is complete. These include — Virtue, Vice, A Moment (a chance for hope), A brink (something you resort to), and finally, a character concept that includes your name, description and a short statement about who you are.
I really like the step of creating your virtue and vice. My players agonized over it only to be told to pass them either left or right when they were all done. That threw them for a loop! The same is true for the Brink. each player wrote what the Brink or breaking point of another character was, but they knew that going into that step. Creating Brinks is a little different in that they all knew they were writing for someone else, but the player to the GM’s left had their Brink written by me and the player to the GM’s right wrote the Brink for “Them”.
The last important thing to note about the creation process is that players only have the equipment or items that they physically have on them at the start of the game. All other items can be found in the game as part of the storytelling process.
The rules are very simple since the backbone of the game is everyone working together to tell a shared story. First things first, ten tea light candles are lit at various stages of character creation. The tenth candle is lit as soon as creation is complete and now the game is ready to start. Once the game starts, the players retain almost all of the narrative control. They get to say what their characters are doing, saying, interacting with, but as with everything, there’s a catch.
Whenever the outcome of a situation or event is unknown (ie. I search for food in the storeroom) the GM will call for a role. The players all use a communal pool of D6s, one for each candle that is lit. When a “contest” is called for the player who initiated the situation will roll all the available dice. Simple right? It’s that simple! If they roll at least one 6 they succeed. If they roll any 1’s these will be removed from the dice pool until the end of the current scene. If they rolled no 6’s the contest is failed. The entire purpose of rolling for these contests is to determine who has narrative control when describing the outcome. If the player got at least one 6 they get to narrate what the successful looks like. Conversely, if they rolled no 6’s the GM gets to narrate the failed outcome.
A candle is darkened for each failed contest!
At the start of the game, players will always have narrative control for their successful contests. It’s when they fail a contest and extinguish a candle, they lose access to one die. The ownership of the die switches to the GM. The GM will also then roll for each contest. When contests are called for, the GM is not rolling to oppose the player, but rather to determine who gets to narrate if the contest is successful. If the GM has equal too or more 6’s than the player, the GM gets narrative control, but the outcome is still successful for the player because they rolled at least one 6.
Those scraps of paper in front of each player are potentially usable following a contest. The “thing” on the top of the stack is active and only active things can be used. Virtues and Vices are used to reroll all ones that were just rolled regardless if any 6’s were rolled or not. This does two things for the player. If any of the rerolled dice are any number but a 1, they are not lost; 1’s on the rerolls are still removed from the pool. In the event that no 6’s were rolled on the original roll, any 6’s rolled as a result of using a Virtue or Vice would make the contest a success. The catch is if a Virtue or Vice is “burned” it must be incorporated in some way into the narration. Moments and Brinks are different than Virtues and Vices.
Moments, when active or on the top of the stack, are usually situational. By that I mean it could be something like I find hope in the sweet sounds of gunfire. If that was your moment, you would have to be in a situation where there was gunfire, If that condition is met you can roll all the available dice in the pool and if you succeed, you get a Hope die. If you fail, a candle is darkened as this is still considered a contest. Hope dice are earned and by a player and are not added to the pool. Whenever a player that has gotten their Hope die rolls for a contest they will also include that die as well. Successes on a Hope die are 5s and 6s and rolling a 1 does not remove hope dice from play. Brinks are triggered when, like a Moment, the situation warrants its use, but it must be after a failed contest. A Brink may be something like. I have seen you encourage people to leave the light when food runs low. Brinks, like Moments, are contests and if successful the player activating it gets to reroll all the dice and they get to keep their Brink active if they’re successful. If they fail the roll again, it’s failure and they lose their Brink, their Hope die if they have one, and they darken a candle.
With the exception of a Brink, one a Virtue, Vice or Moment is used it is removed from play for the rest of the game. It is to be burned literally or figuratively.
The last mechanic to mention is that once a candle is extinguished and one of the dice is turned over to the GM. Players and GM will now take turns going around the table stating new truths, one per remaining candle. Truths are those things that are indeed true and future player narratives cannot change truths. For example, Player 3 says The car is running out of gas because the gas light just came on. This is a truth and nothing can contradict a truth. Truths become part of the narrative. Truths can be used to propel the story forward such as someone making the statement that the car arrives at the police station. Even when the previous scene ended at the high school. It should be noted that while truths cannot be contradicted, they can be added to by way of the narrative concept of “Yes, but”.
When there is only one candle remaining, play continues as normal, but every time a contest is called for and the roll fails, the GM will narrate how the character dies. Player successes (rolling a 6) allows the player to remain alive for a little longer.
Remember this is a shared storytelling game that will ultimately end in character deaths. Everyone should have fun working together to tell this tale.
PLAYING THE GAME:
I can say with certainty that I really enjoyed the two games that I ran recently. The feedback I received from my players was all very positive in so much as they really enjoyed the narrative control they were given; unlike more traditional games where the GM takes point when it comes to narration duties. My players were very creative in working with the know truths of each scene and took the stories into weird and unexpected areas which kept us all on our toes.
For our first game, we played the “Dead Air” module. The premise of Dead Air is simply the radios have gone dead and all previous radio chatter indicated that Fort Victor is the place people had been going to as a rallying point. The characters had to make their way from the Town Hall’s fallout shelter to Fort Victor. That’s where things went chaotic as the players got a feel for the narrative control they had. They were very quick to make decisions and declarations about what they were doing, many of which triggered dice rolls. Their dice rolls were horrible; quickly losing dice and were rapidly forced to extinguish candles. By the time they arrived at Fort Victor, they were in trouble…
For our second game, we played the “Adrift” module. The module put the players on a cruise ship set adrift in the ocean. Much of the ship was black due to power failures and the ship’s motors stopped working. Well, that was until the motors mysteriously started back up and began propelling the ship on a new course. Unfortunately for the characters, the new course put the ship on a collision course with an oil derrick. Just know that the players found themselves trapped in a helipad mechanics tool room as they slowly died trying to escape the encroaching darkness.
Several of the players want to know when we’re playing again; that’s the mark of a good game!
WHAT I LIKED (PROS)?
The shared storytelling experience
The uniqueness of the dice pool mechanic
The use of the candles as a tension builder
The nearly non-existent learning curve
Approachability of the game
The tragic horror theme, it pervades everything!
A huge array of module/story ideas included in the book
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE (CONS)?
Traditional gamers might be a little intimidated by the narrative control they have
Everyone needs to stay focused to keep up with the ever-evolving story
It should already be evident, I really enjoyed this game and it is my new favorite game! I have lots of story ideas swirling in my head. I felt the game played very well once we all understood the narrative control we had, especially the players. Traditionalist gamers, as I mentioned above, might have an adjustment period as they wrap their head around the narrative control they have. That aside, I think this is a game most gamers will really enjoy and appreciate the shared experience. I plan to bring this with me to conventions this fall, but for safety reasons, I will be using flameless candles. I don’t believe they will change the play experience in any measurable way as we didn’t have any candles get accidentally extinguished in either of our games.
I’m not telling you to buy this game, but you really need to. Stephen Dewey has created a brilliant gem and you should experience it, tragic horror has never been so fun!
I need to give a shout out to Hyper-RPG for their Ten Candles recording on YouTube. They have modified the rules slightly and in my mind, it has resulted in an even better play experience. I will be using their minor modifications in my future games to make the games a little longer, richer, and more horrific!