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The Strange: Strange Revelations - Bruce R. CordellA couple years ago I reviewed Weird Discoveries, a collection of ten “Instant Adventures” for Numenera using an innovative scenario format featuring:

  • Two page description of the scenario’s background and initial hook.
  • Two page spread that has “everything you need to run the adventure”.
  • Two pages of additional details that can be used to flesh out the scenario.

The general idea being that the GM will be able to pick up one of these scenarios, rapidly familiarize themselves with it, and be able to run it with confidence in roughly the same amount of time that it takes for the players to familiarize themselves with some pregenerated characters (which are also included in the book). Basically, you lower the threshold for spending the evening playing an RPG to that of a board game: You can propose it off-the-cuff and be playing it 15 minutes later. And since I’ve been preaching the virtues of open tables and the importance of getting RPGs back to memetically viral and easily shared experience they were in the early days of D&D, that’s obviously right up my alley.

Last year, Monte Cook Games released Strange Revelations, which basically took the exact same concept and applied it to The Strange, their other major game line. I did not immediately read through it because, at the time, there was a plan in place for me to actually play in a campaign where the GM was going to use these scenarios. Those plans fell through, unfortunately, but now I’m in a position where I’m running a campaign of The Strange and I’m naturally tapping Strange Revelations as a resource for scenarios.

INSTANT ADVENTURES: THE VERDICT

Since 2015, I’ve actually spent a considerable amount of time interacting with MCG’s Instant Adventure format under a variety of use-types: Using them as one-shots, incorporating them into ongoing campaigns, running them at conventions, using them with and without prep, etc.

Unfortunately, the more time I spend with them, the less I like them.

Part of the problem, I think, is that the basic structure of the format is a limitation: It only really works with certain kinds of adventures. Unfortunately, it’s become a one-size-fits-all format for Monte Cook Games, and so they end up trying to cram every type of adventure into the format. (This is something I talk about in the Art of the Key: When you become a slave to your format instead of using the format and structure that’s appropriate for the specific content you’re creating it never ends well.)

There also seem to be some systemic problems with the specific execution of the format. These prominently include:

Keys. As discussed at length in my original review of Weird Discoveries, the Instant Adventure format uses Keys to highlight essential elements for the scenario — either some crucial item or clue without which the scenario cannot be resolved. But rather than simply include these Keys in the scenario, they are optionally coded into different scenes or locations using an icon which refers back to a table on a different page that describes what the Keys are.

The most immediate problem is that by putting literally the most crucial information on a different page, MCG fundamentally sabotages the entire concept of the central two page spread being the only thing you need to look at during play.

But the more insidious problem, as I’ve discovered, is that good scenario design is not in the generic; it is in the specific. Figuring out how information flows to the players during a mystery, for example, is a key difference between a good mystery scenario and a mediocre one. By genericizing the core elements of the scenario, the Instant Adventures format lends itself to mushy, generic scenarios that are, as a result, largely forgettable.

Bad Cartography: Inexplicably, many of the two-page spreads consist of sketchy, vague maps that have keyed content “associated” with them by having arrows pointing at semi-random locations on them. Strange Revelations is slightly better in this regard than Weird Discoveries, but it’s still frequently problematic. For example, here’s the map from one adventure paired with the graphical handout depicting what it’s supposedly mapping:

The Strange: Strange Revelations - Alien Spaceship Map

Confusing Graphical Handouts: This ties into another problem with the book. It includes 10 pages of pictorial handouts — referred to as “Show ‘Ems” — that are designed for the GM to hand to the players. I absolutely love pictorial handouts. The problem is that I would classify the majority of these as being functionally unusable. They do things like:

  • Depict things which don’t match the text of the adventure (like the spaceship above).
  • Include random characters who don’t appear in the text of the adventure. (Are they meant to be the PCs?)
  • Spoil surprises. (For example, there’s one scenario where the PCs are supposed to get attacked by bad guys after arriving onsite… except the Show ‘Em depicting the site shows the bad guys standing there waiting for the PCs. I ended up photoshopping them out in order to use the picture.)

To be fair, many of these problems have afflicted pictorial handouts since The Tomb of Horrors first pioneered the form. But I nevertheless remain disappointed every time I see these get fumbled (partly because I always get so excited at the prospect of it being done right).

GM Intrusion Misuse: For some reason, MCG’s Instant Adventures frequently describe scenario-crucial event as “GM Intrusions”. (Possibly because the format doesn’t include any other way to key this content in some cases?) The problem is that, in the Cypher System, players can use XP to negate GM Intrusions. (See The Art of GM Instrusions.) So what these scenarios basically end up saying is, “Offer your players the opportunity to spend 1 XP to NOT receive the clue they need to solve the mystery.”

Too Short: Probably the most significant problem, however, is when the struggle to cram material into the two page spread causes a scenario to come up short. Literally. There are simply too many examples of Instant Adventures that are supposed to fill an evening of gaming or a 4 hour convention slot which consist of only 3-4 brief scenes. For example, there’s a scenario in Strange Revelations which consists of:

  • Seeing a wall with a symbol spray-painted on it.
  • Talking to an NPC.
  • Talking to a second NPC.
  • Being ambushed by a single NPC.
  • A final fight vs. a single NPC.

Maybe your mileage varies. But for me, that might fill a couple hours of game play.

WHY YOU MIGHT STILL BUY IT

… if you’re a big fan of The Strange.

I’m not sure whether Strange Revelations suffers more regularly from these systemic failures than the scenarios in Weird Discoveries, or if I’ve just gotten more sensitive to these problems as a result of running face-first into them so many times. If it’s the former, I suspect it’s because Strange Revelations is so often struggling to force material that’s not really appropriate for the format into the format. Cordell does some very clever things trying to make the format work, but it’s clear that he’s got some really cool ideas for scenarios that are just being hamstrung by the necessity of making them work (or sort-of work) as Instant Adventures.

And it’s that “cool idea” factor that is why, ultimately, I found value in this book and suspect that you might find value, too: Above all else, Strange Revelations gives you 10 separate scenarios for $24.99 (or $10 in PDF). At as little as $1 per scenario, it can have a lot of rough edges and still be worth the effort sanding down the edges. At the moment it looks as if, with near certainty, I’ll be using at least 8-9 of these scenarios at my gaming table (with various amounts of tender loving care), and in my experience that’s a pretty good hit rate for a scenario anthology.

It’s just incredibly frustrating to see an idea with so much potential greatness as the Instant Adventures so consistently come up just short of achieving that greatness. It’s also frustrating to see that MCG has apparently decided to produce ALL of its scenario content in the form of Instant Adventures, which severely limits the scope of the scenario support they’re capable of offering for some absolutely fantastic games.

Bottom line for me: If Bruce R. Cordell offered another collection of 10 scenarios for The Strange, I would scarcely hesitate before dropping $10 on them.

Style: 4
Substance: 3

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Monte Cook Games
Print Cost: $24.99
PDF Cost: $9.99
Page Count: 96
ISBN: 978-1939979439

Review: Tales from the Loop

August 7th, 2017

Lately I’ve been reflecting on the “nostalgia kids” subgenre of urban fantasy / supernatural horror. It’s epitomized by Stephen King’s It and Hearts in Atlantis, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, and, of course, the recent sensation of Stranger Things.  There are a lot of different elements which make this subgenre work, most of them shared by supernatural coming of age stories in general (e.g., E.T.) — the innocence of the protagonists; their vulnerability and isolation; the supernatural elements as metaphors for both the unseen aspects of a child’s life and also the “secret lore” of the adolescent passage to adulthood; and so forth.

But I think the aspect of the “nostalgia kids” stories which makes them unique and distinct is the contrast between the nostalgia-tinged view of the past and the supernatural abnormality. Most supernatural horror movies, of course, feature a rupturing of our expectations of the real world. But the nostalgic milieu heightens the sense of “rightness” and, thus, the fundamental wrongness of the supernatural element which disrupts our image of a well-remembered yesterday.

Well-told versions of these stories operate even when the reader/viewer is not personally nostalgic for the era in question, because the narrative conveys the nostalgia itself. (This is the case for me with, say, Back to the Future and It, which are soaked in nostalgia for an era I did not personally experience. Conversely, Stranger Things and Ready Player One both conjure forth eras I personally experienced, albeit in very different ways.)

You can see this same fundamental tension between nostalgia and the disruption of memory in the artwork of Simon Stålenhag:

Simon Stålenhag - December 1994

Stålenhag conjures forth a nostaglic image of the ’80s and then disrupts that nostalgia through the presence of giant robots, rusting remnants of colossal technology, and levitating vehicles. You can see how the fantastical elements of these images are heightened by the context of the nostalgic imagery:

Simon Stålenhag - Standoff

If you simply took the image of this giant mecha, for example, it would be pretty cool. But placing it the context of the ’80s police cars lends it a very specific and particular resonance.

RECURSION ERROR

So at some point the designers of the Tales from the Loop though it would be cool to set a roleplaying game in the world created by Stålenhag’s art.

Tales from the LoopBut there’s a problem. When you take elements of Stålenhag’s art, use them to construct an alternative history of the ’80s, and then say, “this is the world your PCs think of as normal, but there will ALSO be these other elements which are totally weird and supernatural and stuff” you end up with a recursion error: The game wants you to evoke nostalgia and then disrupt it with the fantastic in order to create a very specific mood and emotional response… but then tells you to NOT feel that mood or have that emotion in response to these OTHER fantastical elements. The fundamental dynamic of the “nostalgia kids” genre is disrupted because the game is constantly undercutting the thing which the game is supposedly about.

In actual play, we found that this tended to result in Stålenhag’s elements being minimized or even eliminated during play. But isn’t the entire point of the game to be an RPG about Stålenhag’s art? (I think they might have been better served making a game about those police cars: Embrace the alternate history and make a game about law enforcement needing to deal with the complexities of mecha and robots and hovercraft in the ’80s. But I digress.)

CHARACTERS ARE COOL

What works great, on the other hand, is the character creation system. It generates really rich PCs with very game-able home lives in a surprisingly small amount of time: It is absolutely possible to sit down with a group, walk them through character creation, and have a meaty and significant first session of play all in a single evening.

At the end of character creation, your Kid will be fleshed out with a drive, anchor, problem, pride, favorite song, and significant relationships. And what makes this really work is that the mechanics make these elements immediately meaningful through gameplay. For example, the action of play will generally leave your Kid afflicted with Conditions (like Upset, Scared, Exhausted, and Injured). The only way to deal with these Conditions (before they pile up and overwhelm you) is to either have a meaningful scene of interaction with the other kids (which helps a little) OR to have a meaningful scene of interaction with the adults in your life.

This constant “touching base” with the home life of the character is really essential for the game to sing (and something we’ll be coming back to in a second).

SYSTEM IS BROKEN

Unfortunately, the biggest problem with Tales from the Loop is that the system is broken. Not quite in a “this is terrible and unplayable” way but in a “this is really making for a mediocre experience” kind of way. (It’s like driving a car with a shattered windscreen: The car technically performs its function, but it’s not exactly ideal.)

The key problem is that the success rate for the core mechanic is abysmal. You Kids will generally have about a 40-50% chance of succeeding at a test, and that’s before you get hitched into the death spiral that’s the typical result of failure. (Failure generally applies a Condition; Conditions drastically reduce your chance of success.) It creates an incredibly frustrating experience. And maybe that’s intentional (you’re playing Kids), but it becomes really problematic in a game designed entirely around mystery scenarios with skill tests as the gateways for navigating those mysteries.

As an experienced GM I had a number of ways of routing around these problems, but watching a relatively new GM ram her face into the mechanics and having her scenarios grind to a painful halt over and over again was unpleasant. (And even rerouting around them is, obviously, a needlessly frustrating experience.

The system is also kind of curiously random in the narrative control it gives to the players. For example, the game features the “description on demand” technique in which the GM randomly asks a player to fill in the details of the world (because, hey, that’s like having narrative control, right?). And it mechanically does stuff like giving players the ability to create NPCs out of whole cloth with whatever skill set and background they want without the GM being able to say anything about it. But then it runs in abject TERROR at the idea of letting players decide what NPCs can be reasonably convinced of and strenuously emphasizes that the GM can veto it.

It also contrasts even more oddly with the book’s raging hard on for railroading. A frequent refrain is, “Are your players not interested in something? Remind them of their Drives AND TELL THEM TO GET WITH THE FUCKING PROGRAM.” (I might have made the subtext into text there.)

UNSTATED ASSUMPTIONS

Contributing to the systemic problems of Tales from the Loop is that the designers seem influenced by games like Apocalypse World, but don’t seem to fully understand what makes Powered by the Apocalypse games tick: They’ve got Principles and a discussion of how mystery scenarios can be constructed… but don’t seem to grok that the reason these things work in PbtA is because they’re mechanically supported RULES. After a great deal of experimentation, I’ve concluded that the game works best if you follow three “best practices” (which are, unfortunately, not clearly called out in the text):

First: Fail Forward Resolution. This makes the abysmal success rates less painful, and the game does include the Conditions mechanic which can be used as a default consequence: You’ll still achieve your goals, but you’re going to pay for it with a physical or emotional condition which you need to deal with.

Second: Narrative Resolution. Partly because this approach lends itself towards fewer checks resolving larger chunks of narrative (which reduces the number of tests and makes the whiff rate of the core mechanic less painful).

Third: Treat the suggested mystery structure as LAW. Most notably, make sure you are consistently alternating between Mystery Scenes and Everyday Life Scenes. When confronted with a mystery scenario, many gamers will dive in and not come up for air until the scenario is resolved. Although, somewhat incoherently, several of the scenarios in the book don’t lend themselves to this style of play, the Conditions mechanics will push you in this direction naturally and we consistently found it was essential to get anything remotely playable out of the system.

CORE SCENARIOS

Speaking of scenarios, I should note that the core rulebook for Tales from the Loop is chock full of scenario material. (It actually takes up a majority of the 196 page book.) This includes four traditional scenarios and a “Mystery Sandbox”.

The latter is interesting because it’s tied into the character creation system: If you use the default character creation options, the resulting PCs will be inundated with scenario hooks for the sandbox. Unfortunately, the actual design of the sandbox mostly consists of scenario ideas that the GM needs to develop into fully playable material. I think this is a misstep: The space spent on the fully-developed scenarios would have been better spent fully-developing the Mystery Sandbox so that GMs could just run it out of the box.

It doesn’t help that the fully-developed scenarios are… questionable. There’s some cool ideas in there, but their continuity, structure, and content will frequently leave you scratching your head. I think my “favorite” moment is the scenario where the Kids are out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter, they stumbled across a cabin, and the owner of the cabin basically says, “Would you guys like to take my car? Here are the keys. Make sure you don’t scratch it on your way to the next plot point!” Which is really weird.

There are a lot of these types of interactions which will leave you wondering whether the scenario authors have any actual understanding of how adults talk to children.

The setting and scenario material is not helped by the attempt, in the English language edition, to adapt the original setting (a small set of islands in Sweden) to an American alternative (a desert town in Nevada). This localization effort is carried out by placing American names in parentheses after the Swedish originals. For example:

  • Riksenergi [DARPA]
  • Gunnar Granat [Donald Dixon]
  • Nordiska Gobi [Sentinel Island]

It’s a clever idea. The result, unfortunately, is an abysmal failure. First, the parentheses aren’t consistently executed, resulting in scenarios that are only half-way converted and creating an immense amount of confusion for the GM trying to keep frequently large casts of characters consistent. Second, it turns out that just swapping names isn’t enough to re-contextualize Swedish islands to American desert.

For example, one scenario features the wreck of a Russian mining ship. That makes sense off the coast of a Swedish island. In Lake Mead, however? That demands some sort of explanation… and none is forthcoming.

CONCLUSION

My initial experiences with Tales from the Loop leaned heavily towards the negative… but there was a spark of potential in there that tantalized me and brought me back over and over again to see if I could fan that spark into something greater.

I described the recommended procedures and approach I eventually figured out above. But my overall impression kind of boils down to the core mechanic: The reroll mechanics help. The rules for Helping help. A GM making extensive use of the Extended Trouble mechanics will help. Using narrative resolution techniques helps. But you still end up with a very tenuous bubble, and you’re still running headlong into some very hard limits based on some very limited resource pools that strongly curtail the flexibility of the system.

But even using all of these recommendations, we ultimately found the system to be… meh.

What I’m left with is a game which largely shares the enigma I found in D&D 4th Edition Gamma World: Is a really kick-ass character creation system enough to save an otherwise mediocre and/or broken gaming experience?

For Gamma World, my answer was Maybe… and then I never played it again.

Tales from the Loop seems to be a better game than that, so I will answer: Some times.

And I say that in large part because we found that the strengths of the character creation in Tales from the Loop extended deeper into actual play, resulting in some very emotionally powerful play. I also suspect many will find much greater utility (and even revelatory innovation) in the game’s Mystery Sandbox than I do. (It was certainly refreshing to see such an approach headlined so prominently and centrally in an otherwise mainstream RPG.)

Style: 5
Substance: 3

FURTHER READING

Tales from the Loop: System Cheat Sheet
Tales from the Loop: Nintendo Slugs

The End of Watchmen

November 29th, 2016

Watchmen

I really enjoyed Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie. I felt that, despite the limitations of its form and the flaws in its creation, it still managed to capture many of the things that were amazing about the original work. (And the opening tableau is jaw-droppingly awesome.)

But he totally prat-falled when it came to the ending.

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

First, the plan from the original story shifts from framing aliens humans will never find but would be able to at least hypothetically defend themselves against (as evidenced by the fact they just made a mistake in their invasion plans) to framing a guy who humans absolutely, positively cannot defend themselves against (as demonstrated by the fact he just casually destroyed two major cities) and who is going to live on Mars. This fundamentally changes the tone of the plan from “humanity will come together to face a common foe” to “humanity will behave itself or the angry god will come back to punish us”.

More importantly, Snyder screws up the execution. What makes the line haunting in the comic book is that you linger in a moment of stillness and silence; the reader basically joined Rorschach and Nite-Owl standing in a stunned silence as the horrible implications of that simple, casually spoken statement. (I’ve also always read the line as being delivered the same way someone might say, “I picked up the groceries today.” But I recognize that that’s idiosyncratic.)

Snyder doesn’t give you that moment. He doesn’t let the meaning of the words settle over you. He doesn’t give your imagination a moment to catch up to the rest of your brain and go, “HOLY SHIT!” Instead he:

  • Cuts away from Ozymandias just before he says the line to a reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl.
  • Has the camera in motion.
  • Has the score rise to a crescendo.
  • Hard cuts away from the line to immediately show what happened 35 minutes ago.

The entire effect is to anticipate (and thus undercut) the line; and then place the emphasis on the action to follow instead of the line itself.

All of that, by itself, would completely ruin the effectiveness of the line. (Which is why you never see anybody quoting the line who hasn’t read it in the comic book: In the movie, it’s simply not quotable.)

He also rewrites the line. The first of these (changing “Republic serial villain” to “comic book villain”) is largely irrelevant to the current discussion (although it does needlessly remove nuance; one of the major points in Watchmen is that in a world where superheroes actually exist, they aren’t perfect heroes — it isn’t the Marvel universe where the Marvel comics are actually published; it’s a universe where superhero comics didn’t exist). But the crucial change is from:

  • “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

to:

  • “I triggered it thirty-five minutes ago.”

And the semantic shift, though subtle, is not insignificant. If you trigger something, you have set it in motion (which inherently means you could still stop it). If you did something, on the other hand, then it’s done. This, too, effectively undercuts the ability for the finality of the line to land.

If I was teaching a class in film editing, I would cue this up along with the special editions of the Star Wars movies as examples of how subtle the difference in editing is between a great film and a mediocre one.

It actually reminds me of the story told by the scriptwriters for Casablanca. That film was infamously being rewritten basically up until the last day of shooting, and they had just written the famous ending to the film the day before it was filmed. (“Round up the usual suspects.”) So the director films it, it gets edited, and then they call the writers to tell them that the ending isn’t working. So the writers head over to the studio and they discover that they’re basically trying to do it in one take, “Major Strasser has been shot.” (looks at Rick) “Round up the usual suspects.”

And the writers say, “No, no, no. You have to say, ‘Major Strasser has been shot.’ And then cut to Rick. And then cut to Renault. And then cut to Rick. And then cut back for, ‘Round up the usual suspects.'” You have to see the thought. And so they recut the scene and, of course, it’s a classic.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Since I’m talking about this, I’d also like to delve a little deeper into what makes the original Moore/Gibbons storytelling in this moment so utterly compelling.

Look at the composition of the full page:

Watchmen - I Did It Thirty-Five Minutes Ago

It consists of three panels, each taking up the full width of the page. (You can click any of these images to see them at a larger size.)

The first panel, of course, contains the definitive quote. The fact that it takes up a full page width causes the perceived moment to extend in the reader’s mind.

The second panel is a completely silent reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite Owl. Their faces are completely blank in shock; like they’ve been hit in the face with a two-by-four. Notably, the panel is framed to show a bank of clocks in the background. The current time in New York is shown as being one minute to midnight: Which is where the Doomsday Clock has been for the entire comic. Snyder tries to do the same thing, but (a) puts the reaction shot before the revelation and (b) makes the metaphor literal by showing the the actual countdown clocks of the operation at 00:00 (which also means he cuts away from the moment).

The third panel shows a street in New York. Utterly silent. It is, in fact, the fourth page in a row which has the final, page-wide panel depict that New York street:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

The previous instances had Ozymandias talking over them in captions; but this one does not — it further extends the moment of silence that persists in that room between Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Nite Owl. And it simultaneously reveals that all those shots of New York you were seeing were, in fact, in the past… which inevitably leads you to imagine the destruction which is about to happen.

And then you turn the page and there it is. But you still don’t actually see a giant explosion. You see people react to it. And then you see them vaporized by it:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

It’s absolutely brilliant visual storytelling in every single way.

Snyder, of course, goes for the disaster porn instead.

A Very Brief Review of Chobits

September 2nd, 2016

Chobits - CLAMPChobits is the story of a young boy who discovers a robotic girl (a chobit) in a garbage pile, takes it home, and turns her on. It quickly becomes apparent that this is no ordinary chobit, and a great deal of mystery builds up around the chobit’s true identity and the strange abilities she appears to possess. Along the way, CLAMP kind of flirts with commenting on the objectification of women (but seems to mostly just use that as an excuse to objectify them). The central enigma and the flirtation with deeper commentary on the “fan service” of modern manga kept me reading until the end and then… Well, let me just tell you.

REALLY SERIOUS SPOILERS

This is the truth behind the great engima of Chobits:

We discover that Chi — the chobit discovered by our protagonist — was created by a pair of computer scientists who wanted to create a fully sentient AI, and they think of her as their daughter. One day, however, Chi realizes that she wants to experience true love. So she comes up with a foolproof plan to do that:

“I will give myself amnesia and enter a comatose state. I want you to throw my comatose body on a trash pile and hope that my one true love finds my unconscious body there.”

I… umm… Wow. Okay. That’s really stupid.

Not done yet, though, because then her mother says: “We wanted our daughter to find true love, so after she went into a coma and couldn’t consent, we reprogrammed her so that if her first boyfriend didn’t marry her she would not only commit suicide but murder every other android on the planet.”

Guys, that’s not really a great plan, I think–

“Also, we specifically made our daughter so that she could fall in love with someone. But then we designed her body with an off switch in her vagina so that if she did fall in love with someone and then they had sex, it would delete her entire brain and functionally murder her.”

What. The. Fuck. Is. Wrong. With. You?

And just as you’re reeling from the big reveal that this entire story is about the secrets kept by some phenomenally fucked up people, they follow it up with: “Why did you call them chobits? Why not just call them robots?”

“Oh, because we didn’t want them to be bound by the Three Laws of Robotics.”

Because, obviously, that’s how the Three Laws of Robotics work: You just name something a robot and the Holy Spirit of Asimov fills their corporeal form and binds them forevermore by the Three Laws.

Fuck off, CLAMP.

GRADE: D

A guide to grades here at the Alexandrian.

Review: Ten Candles

May 19th, 2016

Ten Candles - Stephen Dewey

Ten days ago something, or someone, blotted out the sky. Now no stars can be seen, all communication with satellites has been lost, and the sun no longer lights up the sky. Five days ago, They came. No one knows who or what They are, but two very important things are clear:

They fear the light.

They’re coming for you.

Ten Candles is a masterful storytelling game by Stephen Dewey. The basic premise of the game remains the same every time you play: The sun and stars went out. They came. You and a handful of other survivors are clinging to flickering sources of light and trying to find a safe haven. But the mechanics of the game vary the identity, nature, and goals They possess, and this can be combined with an almost endless variety of starting conditions (which the book amply demonstrates by including twenty-five radically different modules) to create something unique and special every time you play.

Your characters will die. The story we’re going to tell today is not one of survival, but one of hope and loss. This is a story about what happens in the dark and the final few hours in the lives of a group of survivors fighting against it, losing themselves within it, and inevitably being consumed by it. Though their endeavor may be doomed to fail, it is our duty to make this story of their struggle as meaningful as possible.

During character creation, two major things will happen: First, your character will be defined by a Vice, a Virtue, a Hope (a moment which will give your character hope if it occurs during the game), and a Brink (the place to which your character can be pushed when things become desperate; and a place to which one of the other characters at the table has seen you go before). Second, ten candles are lit in the middle of the table.

Once character creation is completed, the first scene begins. The players receive a communal pool of 10 six-sided dice (equal to the number of lit dice). Whenever a conflict roll needs to be made, the character initiating the conflict rolls the communal dice pool:

  • As long as you roll at least one 6, the conflict is successful.
  • Any dice that roll 1 are lost and discarded for the rest of the scene.

If the roll results in failure, a candle is darkened and the scene comes to an end. At that point, the communal dice pool is restored to the now reduced number of lit candles, and the GM gets a pool of dice equal to the number of darkened candles which can be rolled in order to seize narrative control of successful conflict rolls away from the players.

The major wrinkle to this simple resolution mechanic is that players can choose to burn their character traits: Each trait is written on a card and placed in a stack when the game begins, allowing each player to burn the top card of their stack. Literally burn it: Light it on a candle’s flame and toss it into a burn pot in the middle of the table. (This doesn’t destroy the character trait in the sense that it still defines who your character is, but it does force each trait of your character to be placed in the spotlight as the game proceeds.) Vices and Virtues can be burned to reroll 1’s. You can attempt to achieve your Hope by staging the moment and making a conflict roll. And your Brink, which is always a character’s last card, can be used to reroll all dice in a check repeatedly… until a check ultimately fails, at which point the Brink card is lost.

Once only one candle remains, unsuccessful conflict rolls now result in the death of the character attempting them. When the last character dies or the last candle burns out, the game concludes.

PERFECT PACING

The atmospheric effect of playing Ten Candles in a darkened room is tremendously effective: The candles going out one by one. The ritualistic elements of burning the cards. It all greatly heightens the mood of horror, suspense, and fatal tragedy engendered by the game’s premise.

But what makes Ten Candles a great game is its perfect control over pacing: Each scene builds in tension as the dice pool dwindles… and dwindles… and dwindles until failure seems absolutely certain and a candle is darkened forever. The restoration of the dice pool relieves this tension, but now the path to desperation is shorter. And so each scene generally becomes shorter, more intense, and more desperate creating an ever-escalating cycle of tension and release.

This simple pacing pattern is expertly disrupted, however, by the Brink mechanics: As the game nears its end, more and more of the characters will be pushed to the edge. And because each Brink survives until a roll is failed, at the very end of the game — as things reach their most desperate level — there is a momentary suspension of hope.

All of this is then thematically colored by the GM’s growing dice pool, allowing the GM to seize narrative control more and more frequently and viscerally creating in the mechanics the loss of control being experienced by the characters.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

A few years back I talked about how the fundamental failure of Dread — despite the strength of its core novelty — was the fact that the mechanics of the game ultimately created pacing that was deeply and irrevocably flawed: The collapsing Jenga tower created a similar “rising tension” to the Ten Candles scene mechanics, but on a scale of time which combines poorly with early player elimination and which lacks a satisfying conclusion. Although Ten Candles uses a completely different set of mechanics, I’ve repeatedly found myself comparing the two games because of the similar pacing hard-coded into their mechanics.

And, at the end of the day, I feel like Ten Candles basically just kills Dread and takes its stuff.

The only limitation of Ten Candles is that it’s tied to the central conceit of the sun going out and Them appearing. But I don’t think the ties are particularly tight: Although you might lose the thematic connection which exists between the candles and the loss-of-light premise, there’s really only one step in the character creation process which would need to be adapted for other premises. (There’s one card during Brink phase on which a player writes the Brink for Them. You would need to shift the nature of that card to match whatever survival horror scenario you were running.)

In any case, Ten Candles is great. I’ve only had the game for a couple of weeks and it’s already hit my table multiple times, which is a strong testament to its quality. An even stronger testament, perhaps, is that multiple players have bought copies of their own and are either planning to run or have already run their own sessions. That only happens when a game is getting something very, very right.

In short, Ten Candles nails it.

THESE THINGS ARE TRUE.

THE WORLD IS DARK.

AND WE ARE ALIVE.

Style: 5
Substance: 5

Author: Stephen Dewey
Publisher: Cavalry Games
Print Cost: $28.00
PDF Cost: $10.00
Page Count: 90

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