10 Candles: My experience experimenting with player narrative control
I had a chance to run “10 Candles”, the horror/tragedy storytelling game by Stephen Dewey. The game is designed as a cooperative experience with the gamemaster directing the story and tying together the input from the players. As the game continues the gamemaster gains more and more narrative control of the story until all the characters meet their doom. As an experience gamemaster, I can honestly tell you that one of the most frightening things I’ve ever had to say to a player is, “Ok, you succeed. What do you find?”
A quick summary of 10 Candles; it is played in a dark room by the glow of ten tea light candles. The candles are both the light source and the timer for the overall game. As the lights go out due to failed die rolls or a candle just burns out, the players have less and less dice to roll and less chance of controlling the story. The gamemaster creates the scenario, the characters are created at the table and the omni-present “Them” who are hunting the characters are partially defined by a player at the table. The players have 4 index cards that define aspects of their characters, which they can burn to gain a benefit and a flare of precious light. The other interesting aspect of the game is that none of the characters make it out alive, they’re all doomed. The characters can think there is a way out, but once you’re down to one candle, the players all start to narrate the deaths of their characters.
That all aside, the gamemaster in most games has a lot of, if not total, control over the narrative of the story/adventure they are running. In 10 Candles the gamemaster and players dice for control of the narrative and if the player has control they call the shots when it comes to the outcome of the conflict check. Hence, that scary question, “What do you find?”
That amount of control over the story can be equally surprising to the players as well. It gave more than a few players a moment of pause, as they weighed ways to advance the story and how what they were introducing could come back to bite them; sometimes literally. The crafting of a successful result did bring the game to a stand-still a couple of times. I think that with players more familiar with the game these “pauses” would lessen.
· It’s Atmospheric, you play in the dark and as candles go out the faces of the people around the table vanish into shadow. The light becomes a diminishing commodity as the players race to their characters’ end; it’s very immersive.
· Minimal prep time. As the person running the game there is very little to set up. The formula for each scenario is the same, the sun went out 10 days/hours/years ago, 5 days later “They” arrived. The location and details are up to the storyteller, but since characters and aspects of who “They” are is created at the table before the lights go out. For that reason as the storyteller you can’t plan too much ahead, or at least have options as to where the scenario can go.
· There are no “passive” participants, everyone at the table is telling the story, building on the frame work the storyteller has made. In the beginning of the game the players have a lot of narrative control over what’s happening. So the players have to tap into their own creativity when they succeed at moving a scene forward, and as the gamemaster, you need to be flexible enough to incorporate the players’ input into the story.
· Zen and the art of gamemastering. 10 Candles is like an improve crash course for the person running the game. You need to “yes, and” the players’ additions to the story, though you’re not completely surrendering total editorial control either. There was at least one occasion where a player was struggling to come up with what their character’s success looked like, so I asked if they minded if I took narrative control to move the story along. My advice to a gamemaster doing this for the first time is do not have any preconceived notions where the story will end up.
· It’s a new concept, granted group storytelling is as old as human kind, but the extent the players can affect and move the story forward is a bit of a new concept to experienced gamers. Most RPG players are used to the GM setting limits and telling them what their character’s success looks like. That moment when the player realized their complete control of the story can cause a bit of “analysis paralysis”. Though I did find some players took to it with no problem, even really giving me some really nice hooks to play with.
· It’s Atmospheric, yes this is both a plus and a minus. Since the game relies so heavily on the dark and intense atmosphere, the smallest distraction can pull players out of the story. We played at a small private gaming convention put on by Dark Phoenix Events, held in the hosts’ house. We were in the basement, (great) starting a noon (not so great). I blacked out the windows as best I could and had a loop of creepy sound effects playing in the background, using Syrinscape, to mask some of the ambient sounds of the house. Unfortunately for some of the players, the occasional outbreak of laughter or folks moving around upstairs was too much of a distraction. Plus, running a 4 hour game requires at least one break, which will pull your players out of the zone as well.
· Draw backs to playing in the dark, playing by the light of 10 tealight candles sounds cool, and does add to the atmosphere; however, there are some logistical problems with that, mainly reading dice rolls. I chose high contrast dice and brought a dice tray to keep dice from falling on the floor, the problem was the dice tray was a pit of darkness that very effectively hid the dice from our sight. The players overcame, but I had written myself serval notes about the scenario that I was unable to read. I rolled with it and relied on the players’ input more than my notes and had a more interesting story for it.
· Pacing/rush at the end, It took the first candle an hour and a half until it was extinguished by a failed die roll. That is a long time for one scene to play out and having only a 4 hour slot I was worried about finishing on time. Once the candles start going out, they tend to do so at an increasing rate, which can make the ending feel, in the best case, hectic and desperate; in the worst case, rushed and forced. Once you’re familiar with that fact you can plan for it, but first time through, it can surprise you.
I liked 10 Candles a lot. I love horror roleplaying/storytelling games with interesting mechanics, like “Dread” and will definitely run this game again. I will change a few things for the game set up and be able to better manage the pacing of the end of the story, but I really loved the role of gamemaster and being kept on my toes by the players and creating a story with them none of us knew how it was going to end.