The previous session of KantCon 2018 was detailed here.
I closed out my first night with another new game: Ten Candles. It came out in 2015 and I haven’t been listening closely enough to hear anyone discussing it. It started showing up in conversations alongside Dread (more on that soon!) and when one of my favorite GMs had a session running, I had to sign up. It is very much in the story-game world of improv and rules ultra-light, with some ritual elements and shared storytelling going on. The premise is that each session is a different chapter in humanity’s final moments against Them, otherworldly horrors that lurk in the permanent darkness that has blanketed the Earth for the last few days. Your characters’ inevitable demise is the story being told.
It fits somewhere between Dread and Fiasco in terms of who tells the story and how much rigid framework there is to support it. Basically, the players come up with Traits for each other, the GM proposes a setting, and the players finalize character creation with a Concept (which has no mechanical bearing on the game but provides a name and description), a Moment they want to accomplish for their character to gain a bonus called Hope, and a Brink trait that another player designs for them that defines the character at their limit. 10 votive candles are lit, and they time the game: when one goes out, the scene is over. Conversely, poor rolls can end a scene, in which case the candle gets blown out on purpose. Essentially, the game lasts as long as your longest-lived votive candle, with the GM gaining more control as the candles blow out. When you can justify your Traits, Moments, or Brink impacting a scene, you gain a mechanical bonus and burn the trait card. Physically light it on fire, never to be used or seen again. It’s chilling, a stark reminder of your precious resources, and briefly illuminates the other players as you huddle around your few remaining candles.
At least, I assume it would be, as we were in a convention center and they had graciously allowed us to turn all the lights off in that third of the convention hall. We were already pushing it with the lights out and votive candles, so an open bonfire of character sheets was not really an option. It was our first night, after all. So we tore them up, tossed them in the bowl, and gathered around it in the parking lot after hours and burned them all anyway. It’s a neat moment, since it also reflects a stand against Them in the story (whose only weakness is light), and is the first example I can think of in which an RPG embraces a “legacy” mechanic, whereby a choice in-game permanently alters the physical circumstances. Imagine a miniature game where you break fallen soldiers, never to be used again, or an RPG where you tear pages out of the book when certain in-game events occur. Your actions permanently alter the game space, and that has power.
Our session had us exploring a resort town on a tiny Caribbean island (which we made up) and followed our little band as we hunted for light sources and turned on each other. I had an early moment to “Reunite a Family” and the other players totally stonewalled me. Which I respect, in this circumstance, as the other two players were hiding Coward vices in their stack of traits, and the fourth one had Selfish. My proposing we traipse off into the woods to follow some drag marks and laughter/crying was not going to go well, and it didn’t. Our GM did introduce alternative circumstances to give us an opportunity for my moment to play out, for which I was grateful, and was an excellent example of our GM editing on the fly to give us a chance to do our thing.
The mechanic that may take the most getting used to in Ten Candles is the speaking of Truths. After each candle is extinguished, the players (including the GM) can utter Truths, starting with “The world is dark” and ending with “And we are alive.” The middle is a number of statements equal to the number of burning candles that must be considered true for the next scene. They can range from “I found matches under the seat” to “A spotlight burns on the hillside” to “And the car is running out of gas.” You say it and now it must be addressed. No rolls, no vote, just cold, hard Truths. I find it a little hard to embrace, honestly, even though I come from Fate where players make stuff up all the time. I just get in my own way in terms of doubts: Am I cheating if I help myself out? Am I a prick if I break our lifeline? How weird is too weird if I introduce new material? It’s a balancing act, and it would be different with each group and each GM.
The story ends during the final candle. PCs start dying, and if any of them make it to the snuffing of the final candle, they die offscreen. No one’s survival is in question, because no one survives. It takes a huge load off your shoulders, honestly, and gives you the freedom to go for the big moments and take on the hard choices. Abandon friends for personal gain, push a child down to to escape a monster, steal medical supplies to get your next desperate fix… It’s all fair in Ten Candles because you will get your reward. Play nice, fight dirty, it all ends the same way. And in the final moment, in the dark, each player plays a recording they made on their phones at the start of the night: their character’s last message, in case they don’t survive. In the dark, knowing none of us walked away, we gather around dimly lit screens and hear each character justify their choices, or beg for forgiveness, or stand at the edge of giving up. We recorded the messages hours ago, before the story started, and now we hear our voices for the last time.
There’s nothing quite like it. Our session saw a lot of party in-fighting, hoarding weapons which would do nothing but make us feel a little better about the shapeless things calling to us from the ocean, and ended with one of us trying to escape the others on a stolen jetski only to snuff out his torch and roll it into the sucking waves. I wandered into the surf and dropped our original (and now last!) flashlight from numb fingers, sinking to my knees as the waves rushed up to greet me.
It was a wild ride, and not one for every group. I mean that without being pretentious or judgmental: This game won’t work for everyone. The little ritual call and response at the end of each scene could be hokey and the Truths gamebreaking. The players could dodge their vices and try not to fail. The GM may not up the ante and keep the party honest to their traits and truths. A lot of things can go wrong, right down to the group doesn’t gel or the sheets get too hard to read in the dark. But it didn’t go wrong that night, and I won’t be able to forget it.
I likely won’t release any Ten Candles scenarios as any of my Nerdhaus One-Shot Adventures, since they are just a paragraph long. I may do a bonus release that is just a quartet of scenarios set in Nerdhaus worlds and use the Ten Candle engine to facilitate tragic stories, but it won’t be a focus. But I’ll be playing it a lot in the future, I know that.
This thing sticks with you.