REVIEW: Ten Candles by Stephen Dewey

This game was instrumental in changing how I feel about non-traditional roleplaying games.

Playing this game reminded me of White Wolf’s Exalted. Exalted used a system derived from the Storyteller engine first developed to run Vampire: The Masquerade. While various tweaks and alterations were made to this system over the years, it remained one of those games in which every task required you to roll a literal handful of dice. I remember once playing a game of Exalted in which I came up with a combination of powers, feats, bonuses, and quirks that had me rolling about 20 dice at once. I remember having to borrow dice from every player at the table including the GM, holding them all in two hands, rolling them, and watching them spill out over the table like a flood of multicolour plastic. I remember the noise they made as they hit the table and banged against glasses. I remember some of them spilling over onto the floor. I remember everyone counting up the successes with me.

On the one hand, this reminded me of why I tend not to play that many games with dice-pool systems as the rigmarole of asking to borrow dice, counting dice, rolling dice, calculating successes, and then passing the dice back to their respective owners took so long that it wrenched everyone out of the game’s fictional space and deposited them back into the material world of dice, tables, and chairs. If you do this ten to fifteen times a session then you might as well give up on the whole concept of immersion. You are no longer playing an RPG; you are sitting at a table rolling coloured plastic shapes.

On the other hand, that movement from fictional abstraction to material reality is pure theatre. When I stacked up those powers and rolled those dice, the act of throwing that many dice gave in-game events a sense of physicality and occasion that would simply not have existed had we simply been applying modifiers to a single dice roll. I don’t remember anything about the adventure, the character, or even the outcome of that particular roll but I remember having my character punch some dude in the face and throwing a bucket of dice to resolve the task.

Game rules are abstractions presented to us in the form of texts and as such, they have no substance in the real world. However, game rules serve to shape the system that powers a gaming session and systems have a physical presence.

Think of the way D&D used to push the idea of DMs having access to secret knowledge, think of the way that this vision of the relationship between GM and player encouraged many GMs to buy screens that physically separated them from the people sat at their tables. Remove the idea of GMs having secret knowledge and you remove the need for screens. Remove the need for screens and suddenly your table looks and feels very different. System matters in many ways, some of them social and some of them physical; Exalted’s rules encouraged people to roll lots of dice and so made the physicality of dice-rolling a part of its system.

Systems are the things that shape gaming experiences. Different kinds of rules can result in different kinds of systems, but there are other ways of changing the system. Stephen Dewey’s Ten Candles is proof that you can have a rich, powerful, and evocative system with very few actual rules.

Ten Candles bills itself as a “storytelling game of tragic horror” with the tragic aspect being that all of the characters created for this game are fated to die: No hope. No future. No reprieves. No salvation. By the end of the session all of the characters will be dead, the game lies in how they reach that point.

The set up for the game is that the host chooses a broad background that serves as a kind of writing prompt for the story-telling that will follow. There is no character sheet; instead the players are invited to write a handful of character traits on some cards and then pass those cards to other players. This is the first piece of table theatre in which the game indulges and it serves to destabilise the players as it means that they will spend the game session desperately trying to a) integrate this character trait into their original character concept and b) find a situation in which this character trait can be deployed. This results in characters that are alienated from themselves and largely unsure of their own capacities. This feels very appropriate for a game all about regular people confronting the end of the world.

The game’s setting is that the world has unexpectedly gone dark. Technology is failing, institutions are disappearing, and lines of communication have been shut down. The skies have gone dark and the only thing people know for sure is that there is something out there lurking in the darkness and the only thing that keeps it away is artificial light. Regardless of which prompt you use to start the game, the characters find themselves having to move from a place of relative safety because the lights about to fail and the things out there are about to come in.

Darkness is absolutely central to the experience of Ten Candles. The game takes its name from the fact that you are supposed to play it in a darkened room lit only by ten candles. In a wonderfully theatrical move, Dewey has you light the candles in a specific order as you move through the game’s set-up. This not only staggers the amount of burn each candle will have seen, it also serves to represent the players’ descent into a darkened world. The game starts when the set-up is complete and the lights go off… this is the most well-lit the gaming space is supposed to be.

The rules of Ten Candles are extraordinarily simple: You start out with ten dice and everyone takes a turn narrating what their character is up to. When you reach a point where conflict resolution is needed, you roll the dice and a single six counts as a success while any 1s get removed from the dice pool until the end of the round. The dice then pass from player to player until nobody gets a six at which point the GM gets to narrate, the scene comes to an end, and one candle gets extinguished.

Ten Candles is a game about hope in the face of inevitable doom and that sense of hopefulness is made physically manifest in the form of the light generated by the candles. You start with ten candles and a lot of hope, and then gradually the candles go out. Each time a candle goes out; a dice is permanently removed from the players’ dice pool and passed to the GM who gets to roll in opposition. The dwindling light is linked not only to the dwindling dice pool and the fact that successes get harder to come by the more the dice pool shrinks but also to a sense of each task becoming more fraught as the GM rolls more and more dice on behalf of the things out in the darkness. The move from light to darkness means not only that things get harder to achieve but also that the forces of opposition get stronger and stronger. You can really feel those possibilities slipping away, just as you can feel your friends slipping into darkness as the candles go out.

Another brilliant piece of table theatre is the idea of having each player record a brief message at the beginning of the session. This not only tells you who the characters were but what they were hoping to achieve.  You play all of these messages at the end of play, just as the last candle goes out. A reminder not only of the characters’ doomed status, but also of the hopes and dreams that died with them.

Ten Candles is a game that owes less to the history of game design than it does to the history of religious practice. Yes, the rules work very nicely and are evocative of the themes that the Dewey wanted to explore but in truth, the effect of rules on the gaming experience is only part of what makes this game so special. Think about it: That process of lighting candles and watching them dwindle could have been taken directly from a Catholic Mass or a ritual described in the Book of the Law because religious ritual is about using symbols and experiences to produce particular effects in the minds of the faithful. Cathedrals were designed on a massive scale in order to inspire awe, occult rituals combine symbols and fragments of myth to plant specific ideas in the minds of the people enacting the ritual.

These are processes and skills that have been known to humans since the drawn of time. You find echoes of them in art, cinema, and literature but the root of the matter is using symbols and sensations to plant ideas in people’s heads without the need to speak those ideas directly. Over the last decade or so, RPG culture has become increasingly enamoured with the idea that rules can convey themes or produce feelings and Dewey is making a run around all of that by taking inspiration from older technologies and bringing elements of ritual practice into the RPG experience. The effects are so incredibly powerful that I’m not actually sure that I want to step back behind a GM’s screen in a well-lit room and ask for simple dice-rolls. I want more and this game is why. Ten Candles has not only changed my opinion of non-traditional RPGs, it may have fundamentally changed how I look at RPGs in general.

 Ten Candles is a brilliant game; Minimalist at the level of rules but complex, powerful, and evocative at the level of system, it yields fantastic gaming experiences by tint of sheer theatrical brilliance. I cannot think of a better way to emulate the end of the world.

This being said, I do think that the game could do with a second edition… The problem with moving away from traditional styles of RPG play is that you cannot rely upon people’s muscle memory to get across the idea of how you’re supposed to play. Having purchased and read with book a couple of times, I had to go out and listen to a couple of podcasts before getting a handle on how the game flowed and the different style of play left me unprepared for a couple of things that came up in play. For example, one of my players really struggled with the amount of narrative power placed on her shoulders. She was fine with reacting to ideas introduced by other people but whenever she was in the position of having to introduce something herself, she would go wildly off-piste creating a dynamic whereby she would do something weird and the other players would then drag everything back to the stuff that they had been passing back and forth. Yes… this player was behaving oddly, but her weirdness prompted the other players to centre their own stuff thereby making the problem worse. In a traditional RPG, I would have been able to step in and say ‘this is what actually happened, this piece of narration was more valid than that’ but the non-traditional structure of Ten Candles meant that there was no real way of resolving these kinds of tensions other than through rolling the dice. I understand that these kinds of problems with RPG horizontalism and shared narration are not unique to Ten Candles but the game gives you no clues on how to deal with this kind of problem. I would like there to be a second edition of Ten Candles as I think that this very short book could stand with being about twice as long. It needs more advice to players, more advice to hosts, and a bit more description in general. The fact that I read this book twice and still felt unclear on the basic flow suggests that some re-writing and expansion might be useful. So, if you are considering buying this game (and I really suggest you do) then you might want to seek out some podcasts and YouTube videos before sitting down for your first session.

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