In most collective storytelling games I have played we’ve worked toward a happy ending. More often than I would like, a campaign will fade to nothing after one too many scheduling conflicts—such is the nature of a game played by Busy Adults with Many Important Things to Do™. And sure, there is the occasional TPK (total party kill, for the uninitiated), but usually the party is working toward a triumph. Even when the characters are evil and that triumph is very different from what the players would consider a happy ending, that sense of victory remains.
That is not the case in Ten Candles, written by Stephen Dewey for Cavalry Games. Ten Candles is a tragic horror game set in a sunless post-apocalyptic world where a nameless threat lurks in the darkness and it differs from all other horror games I have played in one major respect: Everyone dies.
While this may seem very sad, I think this game is best used as a tool to explore what it means to hope. The details of the world, the apocalypse, and even the enemy change every time you play this game which I think leaves storytelling groups with a joyful glut of possibilities.
The Setup of Ten Candles
To play you need a stack of index cards, a black marker for each person at the table, 10 six-sided dice of one color, a handful of six-sided dice of another color (one per player), a voice recorder, a fireproof bowl, and 10 tealight candles. Set the candles up in a circle around the bowl, pass 5 index cards and a marker out to each player, place the 10 six-sided dice of one color within reach of all players.
Characters are made up of Traits, a Moment, and a Brink. Traits are a one-word descriptor written on their own index card and each character has two—a virtue and a vice. Moments are an event that will happen during the game that will give your character a chance to find hope in the darkness. Brinks are hidden traits that are only available to the character once they’ve exhausted everything else—they are the desperate, secret, and dangerous parts of your character.
These cards are arranged in stacks with Brinks flipped over face down on the bottom of the stack, and no more than one character’s Moment active on top. Whichever card is on top is active, but all aspects of the character should be roleplayed at all times, regardless of whether they are active or burned. Once the stacks are built they may not be changed.
When characters are built and all candles are lit, each character takes turns recording their last voice message for the world. This serves to set up the game and center the players on their character’s goal.
The candles serve as ambiance, gameplay tool, timer, and light source (preferably the only light source) during the game. Candles may not be relit under any circumstances.
Characters will encounter conflicts and will roll the available communal dice pool to resolve them. If the roll has even one six the result is a success, if any die shows a one that die is lost for the remainder of the scene. If the roll has no sixes, it is a failure and a candle is darkened. When a candle is darkened the group moves to the next scene. Using these conflict rolls narrative control is passed back and forth between the Game Master (GM) and the players. Whoever gains narrative control with each conflict roll will narrate the outcome of the conflict.
To reroll all ones, a character may burn their trait—literally burn it. The player sets the index card alight on one of the candle flames and places the card to burn in the fireproof bowl. If a trait is burned in a conflict, it must be a part of the narration of the conflict resolution. Once burned, that Trait is no longer available to the player to reroll, but must still be roleplayed as an aspect of the character. The process of burning reveals the next card in the stack which now becomes active.
When a Moment becomes active, the story steers toward that event and when it becomes a conflict, a roll is made. If the result is a success, then the character has found hope and gains a hope die, one of the handful of six-sided dice that is a different color from the communal pool. This die is not lost on ones, and can succeed on a five or six. When a Moment is lived, regardless of success or failure, it must be burned to reveal the next card in the stack.
A Brink may not be played until it is active, once all other things have been burned away. Then it may be burned to reroll ones in the same way that a Trait would be. If the conflict roll succeeds then the game proceeds as normal, if it fails then the character loses any hope die they had.
Why It’s Useful
Ten Candles is a game where all the characters are doomed. Everything about the game works to create tension. The low light helps you feel the dread your characters would feel in a world with no light, where they lurk in the darkness.
The fact that you cannot relight a candle once it out makes people careful and purposeful with their movements, lest they darken a candle by accident and limit the most precious resource they have—light.
With each darkened candle a die transfers from the communal dice pool to the GM’s dice pool. This means that as a game goes on the players have a lower and lower chance of success and the GM has a higher and higher chance of gaining narrative control. The slow burn of this increased helplessness aids in creating a story in which characters cling to the smallest embers of hope that they can find.
With each darkened candle you go through a ritual as a group called Establishing Truths. The GM starts by saying “These things are true. The world is dark.” Then the group goes around the table starting with whoever has narrative control at the time and establishes one small truth about the world for each lit candle. The final truth for the last candle is always said by the players in unison: “And, we are alive.”
This ritual increases in solemnity and dread as each new candle is darkened. When only one candle remains the totality of the ritual consists of the GM saying “These things are true. The world is dark” and the players responding “And we are alive.”
Apply Ten Candles to Your Writing
The tension and desperation that Ten Candles is set up for helps when writing about tragedy, martyrdom, dread and hope. When playing, you find hope and heroism in the smallest most unassuming moments. The players know their characters will all die, but, even so, the characters struggle and fight against their doom.
You will find when playing that the smallest victories are celebrated with fanfare usually reserved for world-saving events. Your characters will cling to strange hopes, argue over tiny choices, and die in ways you would never have imagined on your own.
This game illustrates human desperation in new ways that allows for you to get close and examine the shape of it. Running the game helps guide you in how to best create tension and dread which gives you practice you can use in negotiating stakes and pacing your writing.
It’s an excellent use of three hours that can change your perspective drastically, and I highly recommend it.
Tell us in the comments: Have you ever played Ten Candles?
Kris Hill is working on several genre fiction novels because she has difficulty sticking to writing one project at a time. In her daily life she attempts to navigate the corporate world as a data analyst. When Kris is not working, she can be found sprawled on a couch reading or running tabletop adventures for her friends. She lives in Canada’s capital city with her husband, her best friend, and three cats.