Welcome back to another exciting (I hope!) game introduction post. This time I'm going to go into another horror-themed tabletop RPG, Bluebeard's Bride. This is another one of the great storytelling horror games I've had the pleasure of running several times, and it's got some great mechanics that I really love. Magpie Games describes Bluebeard's Bride like so:
Bluebeard’s Bride is an investigatory horror tabletop roleplaying game based on the Bluebeard fairy tale. Find out if you will make it out of your new home alive—and if you have what it takes to chill your friends to the bone….
That last line really sums up the gameplay experience. I do think the game takes a bit of experimentation and practice to play effectively, but if you've got some practice in horror storytelling you can produce some really great stories that stick with the players. In particular, it looks at the horror genre from a feminist lens and that really comes out in the gameplay and writing.
The other nice thing about this game is that it's very geared towards running one shots, you'll typically be able to finish a single game in 3-4 hours. The longest one I've played was around 5, but it was mostly because the players decided to keep buildling the tension until it got really unnerving (and fun!).
For the purposes of this intro I'm going to stick to the core book, but there are several expansions that are also extremely good - I'm a fan of the Book of Rooms, which gives a bunch of example rooms that you can use wholesale or use just for pure inspiration for your own rooms.
Always make use of the safety tools available - X-Card, Lines, Veils, and so forth.
Bluebeard's Bride is a Powered by the Apocalypse game where all of the players play the same character, the Bride. More specifically, they each play elements of her Psyche - there's a bold one, a skittish one, a mystic one, and so on. Each of these is represented as a playbook. Like typical PbtA derivatives, each of those playbooks has unique moves that differentiates the characters.
What's unique here is "the ring". Ideally this is a physical ring, and it denotes who currently has primary control over the bride's actions in the manor. The rest of the players have a say in what action they should take, but the ring bearer has the final say on what the bride actually does. This is done through the five ring moves, which include your typical "smack the thing" move - but it has one very special move which I love: "Shiver from Fear". This move triggers when the player who is holding the ring shudders, shrinks in their chair, utters words of discomfort, and so on. This move is amazing.
Advancing the Plot
The main goal of the plot is to have the bride explore the manor and gather enough keys to open the final door. She does this by going into each room and discovering the
wonders horrors found therein. As she resolves each room, she decides if this is proof of Bluebeard's loyalty, or his deceit. It's up to the players to decide which of those two extremes to pick. Once you've picked up 3 tokens in either category, you're ready to open the final door and resolve the game.
During each of the rooms, a lot of things can happen - you can call for the servants to help you, face monsters, face yourself, see horrors, and anything in between. These encounters can lead to each part of the Bride's psyche (aka, the characters) taking trauma. This is both physical and mental trauma. Eventually - the psyche could break, and fade from the bride's mind, no longer able to influence her behavior. Part of her has quite literally died.
The main social contract for this game for the GM is to make the room interesting - give things for the bride to interact with, things that will make her cringe and recoil. The players, should interact with the pieces and provide interesting feedback on the items. You'll be doing a lot of improv here - call and response works really well for these scenes, for example:
GM: You uncover a small flute, too small for an adult's hands - but perhaps it would be comfortable for a child. Inside it you find something lodged... what is it?
Player: It looks like a tooth. A fang maybe? Perhaps from some sort of dog.
Player 2: Didn't one of the servants say something about a missing hound?
GM: Speaking of that....
Eventually, as a group you'll come to a conclusion about the room. This is partly player driven - they must find and take a token from the room as proof of Bluebeard's actions. Sometimes this will be something the GM came up with, sometimes the players. Embrace the weird and weave the previous rooms into the narrative.
What I love about the game
There are a lot of things to like about running a game in what is essentially an infinitely-replayable-oneshot machine. Let's start off with the Shiver from Fear move. It immediately breaks the meta wall, and it's a mechanic inshrined in trying to tell such a spooky tale your players react from it.
When this move triggers, the player is given a choice: Make the situation worse, get weird, or take trauma. You may give up the ring to mitigate the problem somewhat, but you're still moving the narrative along when this happens.
Another move I'd like to call out is the "Call for Help" move. It's similar to other PbtA games in that it's a mechanical way to introduce narrative elements and "assistance" in to the game - but the consequences of a partial success is that the GM can demand the bride justify her loyalty and if she doesn't do a convincing enough job, the help can come in the form of even more trouble. Just another move that helps slowly ramp up the tension for the players (and the GM).
Room Theme and Structure
Bluebeard's Bride encourages you to explore all different kinds of horror in a single game setting. When you enter a room (either on the fly, or taken from a bank of rooms you've made, or the book of rooms, whatever) that room has a "Room Threat" category, which explore various aspects of feminist horror. The 4 categories presented in the book are Body, Motherhood, Religion, and Sexuality. Each of those categories has many subcategories associated with it.
So, for example, one of my favorite rooms that I created for a game was based on Body -> Beauty Standards. I created an elaborate powder room, filled with mirror stations like you might see backstage at a theatre. It was filled with mannequins used for adjusting clothing. As the room progressed, a dull whisper of voices filled the room with "you'll never be good enough". "You're two sizes too big". "My my, look at those cheeks". The mannequins then became animate, surrounded the bride, and offered her a knife so she could start "fixing the problem", either by herself or with their assistance. The ring was passed more than once during that room.
What I like about that is it gives you something to anchor yourself to when creating rooms that don't feel too much like they're directly tied to tired horror tropes, and lets you put them in a new lens.
There's not a lot to say about the playbooks that I can mention without spoiling things, but I love them. There are 5 in the core book, and I think The Mother is my favorite. One of her face moves allows her to tell one of the other sisters that she's really to blame, and transfer trauma from one sister to the other. It's one of those really fun moves that help drive character conflict - up to and including causing one of the sisters to shatter.
Shattering, in contrast to some other games where the player must then sit out the rest of the game, merely shifts the player's responsiblities for the rest of the game. The player is now also responsible for describing the horrors of the house and how they behave. This is above and beyond the call and response I mentioned above, you can even have them take on deciding what the next room looks like. Which brings us to....
Tips for Running the Game
On Call and Response
As I mentioned above, this game works really well if you have the players help co-create some details for you - the game even includes a specific mechanic for the characters who have shattered to do so explicitly - but there's a bit of a fine line to balance when including those elements and it does require a fair amount of comfort with improvisation in order to pull off well. The golden rule of improv applies here: try to "yes, and" rather than "no, but" - build on the ideas presented even if they're absurd.
Likewise, try to keep the tone spooky and serious, even if a suggestion is on its face absurd. Let's take a quick example:
GM: You move a box aside and see what's been causing the scraping sound - what is it?
Player: An adorable puppy, with golden fur and big blue eyes.
GM: Great, it looks up at you and that's when you notice why it'd been scraping the floor as a severed finger falls from its mouth. Seems it's found itself a chew-toy. You see there's still blood staining the fur of its paws as it looks up at you with those big blue eyes, and wags its tail.
Playing the game Online
I've found that Bluebeard's bride works best if you play it together in a group setting, primarily because it's much easier to see the ring holder squirming in their seat in order to trigger the Shiver from Fear move. Likewise, it's a bit simpler to create the atmosphere you want to cultivate for a horror game.
However, in the age of Covid and friends moving from place to place, sometimes that's not possible. If you're playing online, I advise using a video conferencing tool or a VTT that supports video and as the GM, keep an eye on the player's reactions as you're playing. This is so both that you can watch for that move (and encourage the players to call themselves out on it too!) and so that you can make sure no one is getting too uncomfortable.
Safety Tools and the X-Card
This is the third time I'm going to mention this in the blog post - it is critical that you make use of the safety tools available to you.
The X-Card is a great tool - but the primary issue with that is if someone needs to raise it or tap it, you've likely already started exploring a topic that's making someone the bad kind of uncomfortable.
Have a session zero before you play (since this is a one-shot, either do this immediately before you start, or asynchronously beforehand) where you define the lines and veils you want to play with beforehand so that you've got a good understanding of boundaries. If you've got a normal group which meets regularly, you likely know what those are already - but you should still do this every time, no one is a static being and their needs will change from game to game. If every topic is in bounds, awesome! This makes sure that your players have given their consent, and they may withdraw it at any time with an X-Card and create new lines/veils during play if things get too intense.
This rpg.stackexchange post summarizes the tools better than I can, so go have a look at it.
So that's Bluebeard's Bride in a nutshell. You can go pick up a copy of it from Magpie Games, along with all of the supplements. It's also available on Drivethru RPG.