Welcome, friends, to the first post in a series of game introductions wherein I'll discuss what I like about my favorite games along with tips for running them!
For our first post, I'm going to talk about my favorite game in the tragic horror genre and one of my favorite games period: Ten Candles. There are a lot of things I really like about this game, as you might have noticed by my Ten Candles Settings Series. We'll start by talking the basics of the game, what I like particularly about it, and then wrap up with some tips for running and playing the game.
These things are true. The world is dark.
Ten Candles is a zero-prep one-shot storytelling game of tragic horror. It excels at this format because it's based on two things - the eponymous "ten candles" are part of the core game mechanic. At the beginning of play, you light ten candles (preferably actual tea light candles) and as play proceeds each of those candles will be extinguished. When all the candles are out, the curtains close on the characters - their death is certain. This means the game is time-bound, tea light candles can only burn for so long, and if a candle goes out on its own that is just the same as if the candle had been extinguished as part of play.
Ten Candles is a character driven game, meaning that a lot of the action and the tension comes from the characters and their motivations - which you create at the beginning of play. A character is a collection of traits. Things about them that drive play forward. One character may be "Brave" but also "Violent". Another may be "Cautious" but "Cowardly". Each of these traits are used mechanically... but only once. If you use a trait you may never use that trait again for the remainder of play.
The way in which you use that trait is also very evocative, and I don't want to spoil it in a blog post so I'm going to just leave that to your imagination for now.
Each character also has a "moment". This is a narrative event where the character finds hope when all hope has left - pushing them past their limits. It's the responsibility of the entire table to ensure each player has a chance to play their character's moment and make it awesome.
Most importantly, the characters will all die at the end of the game - but until only one candle remains, the characters will survive unless the player decides that it's appropriate for their character to die (ideally in a tragic / heroic manner).
The Dice Mechanic and Narrative Control
The dice mechanic is incredibly simple - you roll as many dice as there are candles still lit. At the beginning of the game, this is 10. As the game goes on, the player's supply of dice dwindle and the GM's supply of dice increases. What's super interesting about the dice mechanic is that the GM's dice never determine success or failure - they determine narrative control.
So, at the beginning of the game, the players will be narrating the outcome of their dice rolls much more frequently. As play proceeds, the GM will be taking more and more control over the narrative, as the situation slowly spins out of the players' control.
There are a number of things the players can do to either adjust the outcome or wrest control of the narrative from the GM in order to drive the story forward.
Oh, and terrifyingly for the players, each die that comes up a 1 is no longer rollable for that scene - limiting the number of times that you can roll in a given scene.
The ever-present antagonists of the game are "them". They're intentionally left vague to allow space to create their form, powers, weaknesses, etc. during play. One player at the beginning gets the special task of creating a truth about "them", which they will know, but the other players will not.
Sometimes they're creatures. Sometimes they're the environment. Sometimes they're just your imagination... or are they?
At the end of each round of play, the whole group goes around the table and names a "truth". These take the form of things that are absolutely true in the narrative. For example, the players just stumbled upon an abandoned gas station on foot, and they discover a car. During this phase a player could say "the car has a full tank of gas". However, because the GM is also included in this phase they could also say "...but it looks like the battery's dead, you'll need to find another one".
This mechanic helps make play very dynamic, and gives the opportunity to move the narrative forward at the end of every phase. It also gets the players thinking about how they can move out of their next situation.
By the end of the game, when only one candle remains lit, any failed roll results in a character's death. This will often be brutal, sad, tragic, hopeless, or heroic. Lean into that, make the death as awesome as possible.
Eventually, when all the characters have met their end, extinguish the final candle. Congratulations! You've done it.
What I particularly like about Ten Candles
...and we are alive.
To put it as briefly as I can, I think Ten Candles is a masterwork in the Tragic Horror genre. It has a lot of nice little flourishes in it that completely reinforce and absorb the players into the story you're creating together.
The Truth Phase
One of the coolest, most reinforcing things in a Ten Candles game is a lot of the ritual to the game. The Truth phase starts with the GM saying "These things are true. The world is dark. and...", and then each player adds a truth for each remaining candle.
At the end of the truth phase, all players (including the GM) must say in unison "And we are alive".
This happens over and over, with less truths spoken each round until the end of the game. It's hard to express in a blog post just how powerful that ritualistic repetition is to get you into the flow of the game, and invested in your character's ultimate fate.
I mentioned above that the candles both act as a timekeeping mechanism and as a marker of how much game remains. It's a visual representation of how much sand is left in the hourglass, marching the characters forward to their doom. If a stiff breeze blows out one of the candles.... well it's all that much closer to doom.
They also serve as a mechanism to reinforce the darkness. If you're in a dark room lit only by those candles, the room grows darker with each candle extinguished until you're left in the utter blackness playing out the final scene.
The Final Recording
One optional, but in my opinion, extremely evocative piece of running the game is having each player do a recording in character before they set out on their ultimately final run. You play these after the last candle is extinguished, and let the emotional attachment you've built up to these people over the past several hours linger in the air for a few moments longer.
Here's one I did as an example for a game I ran:
Running the Game
So if you're interested (and have picked up a copy of the book) everything you need is in the second half of the book along with a ton of examples - but here are some tidbits of advice I'd give.
Flow of the Game
When there are a lot of candles lit, the players are going to be succeeding at a lot of conflicts. They'll also be winning narrative control for the majority of the first half of the game.
The first two hours of the game is going to be a lot like this and can go a little slowly. One of the things you'll want to do, especially for new players to this type of game is to drive them towards conflict. You still have control over what the players find outside of the things they describe narratively. Push them towards discovery. Put them in scary situations. See what they do. Let them surprise you.
After you've extinguished about 4 candles, things accelerate drastically. Players will be failing rolls more frequently and losing narrative control even when they succeed on the roll. In some way, this is like a pot coming up to a slow boil.... and then you pour hot oil into the plot and everything goes to hell.
It's in the second half of the game where players will be using their traits to try and succeed on rolls more frequently. Help them remember this.
To that previous point, you should be reminding the players of their options for manipulating the dice rolls - and guiding them on using them. It's how the characters develop during play and you get a really interesting set of situations.
Sometimes, like in all story games, you're going to encounter something you don't know the answer to.
That's great! Cede control to the players. Ask: "I don't actually know, what do you hear behind that door?" and riff off of that with the players. It's all about giving everyone a chance to build on the scenario and lead the characters to their end.
The Candles are the Time Pressure, not you
You don't need to worry about driving the session forward - the players are on a literal timer. If they want to take some time to think and plan their next move - let them. You don't need to drive the action forward at all times. When you win narration, that's your chance to let things spiral even further out of control.
So, hopefully I've given you a great idea about how Ten Candles plays and why it's one of my very favorite games. If you'd like a copy for yourself, head on over to Calvalry Games and pick up the PDF, it's been $10 for the past decade and it's well worth the money.