Content Advisory: domestic and sexual abuse or trauma
This weekend was Midwest GameFest, the other tabletop convention here in town after KantCon in July. It’s a solid tabletop convention on the other side of the city and serves a somewhat different crowd of gamers. It also happens to be within a week of my birthday every year, so I usually take a day off work and treat myself to a gaming weekend before we head into the holiday season.
It’s a four day event, but Thursday can be a little sparse. I wasn’t planning on taking another day off work, but a friend of mine was running a game I have heard really good things about and I knew I would have to add an evening onto my schedule to make it happen. The game is Bluebeard’s Bride, a Powered by the Apocalypse system written by Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson.
Powered by the Apocalypse games are a family of games by different designers that all descend from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World. They generally share specialized character sheets called playbooks, which differentiate your “class” from other players and provide specialized moves. “Moves” are the actions of PbtA games, and are structured around certain die rolls under specific circumstances with highly defined outcomes, like
When you directly engage a threat, roll + Danger. On a hit, trade blows. On a 10+, pick two. On a 7-9, pick one.
- resist or avoid their blows
- take something from them
- create an opportunity for your allies
- impress, surprise, or frighten the opposition
With this example move from Masks, you can either avoid damage or change your situation with a 7-9, not both. Success always means making choices.
Bluebeard’s Bride is built around the classic fairytale. (Short version: A woman marries a noble who gives her free reign of “their” new house, with explicit instructions never to open this one room. Of course curiosity eventuality gets to her and she discovers the room filled with his previous wives, all killed for their failure to follow his instructions. He finds out, kills her, the end.) Players take on the role of the five Sisters, each a psychological facet of the new Bride, and must compete or work together for control of their shared body to pursue the mystery: what sort of man is your new husband? Is this mysterious Bluebeard a dream come true or a nightmare? It’s a dramatic psychological horror game that plays out like an adult version (VERY adult version) of Inside Out, with the Sisters subbing in for Anger, Sadness, or Joy.
I played Mother, the authority figure of the Sisters who is both respected and feared, passing out nurturing and judgment in equal measure. It put me in conflict with both the Virgin and Fatale, who were driven by their instincts moreso than what was “proper”, and made an ally of the Animus, a masculine energy that was forceful and logical. Our Witch was a wildcard, tapping into our energy to influence the supernatural around us and embrace some of our darker desires.
If the whole thing sounds very heady and gendered, that’s because it is. In the wrong hands this game could go very, very poorly as voyeuristic torture porn that heaps suffering on its female protagonist(s). Done properly, it’s a particular flavor of horror viewed through a feminist/feminine lens focusing on a woman’s station, body horror, gaslighting, power dynamics, and one’s proper conduct in society. The game is putting the spotlight on an uncomfortable gender dynamic, and it’s built into the system at the base level.
The mechanics even give you a window into the Bride’s struggle to accept her husband’s past as a non-issue, where each room of horrors can either be justified as proof of him being a good, faithful man in some way or proof that he’s a sociopathic monster. This mechanic lead to one of my favorite moments in the game, when the Sister in charge of the decision (which can and will change from room to room) bent over backwards to justify how abandoning his disturbed mother in a locked bedroom for her “safety” for a few years was proof of his faithfulness. The mechanical benefit is that we all regain a health point and prevent the damage caused by staring down the horror of the alternative. She had to take a position we were almost certain was false in the face of all the evidence in front of us because she felt compelled to do it for self preservation. She didn’t want to believe he was bad because of what it would mean for us and carefully ignored what he did. We could see her push the decision even though her heart wasn’t in it. As an analog for the pattern of thinking in an abusive relationship or a partner unwilling to believe hard truths about their spouse, it was a powerful moment baked into the core mechanics of the game.
Make no mistake, this is an adult game with serious themes and absolutely warrants the inclusion of the X Card, lines and veils, or any other mechanic that lets your players know they are free to maneuver in a safe place. The description of the session was unambiguous on the convention paperwork, we had a discussion before we started, and our GM asked us for limits during character customization. As a result of that conversation, pregnancy and children were off the table: no scenes featuring characters under the age of 15 were going to happen. By setting the lines we could move forward and know we weren’t going to veer into territory that goes beyond uncomfortable for a player and ruin their experience. The horror should come from the situation in the game, not the conditions at the table.
I think the game has a lot of depth, implements the Powered by the Apocalypse system in some novel ways, and is my first foray into a system with a shared character element. I would definitely play it again, and would be interested in having a GM who identifies with the themes of womanhood and power built into the system to bring even more of it out. The book is beautiful and just came out, so I recommend going to check it out if you have the chance.
For next time, we’ll discuss a new Fate session I wrote that merges board games and RPGs in Rock Chambers & The Forbidden Island.