After our Honey Heist session and a short escape into creating aeros with Arium:Create we had planned a horror session. We wanted to try Don’t Walk into the Winter Wood anyway, which Benjamin has already successfully and repeatedly led. I on the other hand had Ten Candles in mind. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a date in October, but now we had finally made it.
This review is about a game in which the world is dark and THEY came. Ten candles shall prepare us for the end, the inevitable end.
Short and crunchy:
In Ten Candles, the entire group tells a tragic horror story. A story of hope but also of a world before its end. Why together? Because the players and the game master share the right to tell the story at the table. Why tragic? Because no matter how much hope the characters may have, they all find their end in this story.
Ten Candles is a time-based game, as the ten candles on the table herald the end of the game. When all candles are extinguished, the game ends. The game master selects a scenario for the evening, which is a rough description of the situation and world, as well as some places that are visited and might be relevant that evening. A goal in the scenario should give hope to the players but also to characters. Character creation is limited to a few characteristics of the characters instead of large character arcs and the dice system is a d6 dice pool.
Publisher: Cavalry Games
Release Year: 2015
Page Count: 97
Price: 10,00 $ as PDF or 28,00 $ for the Softcover Edition
A short and flexible description of the world of Ten Candles is given. The world went dark ten days ago. The sun is no longer shining and the sky is black. Five days ago THEY came.
The world is nearing its end. THEY took people by surprise and hunt them down. The civilizations of the world fight against these beings, but lose bit by bit, because the only weakness of THEM is the light.
This allows several freedoms. First, it is not clearly defined who THEY are. THEY are beings who came after the worldwide darkness fell. During character creation and the game you learn more about THEM and THEY are different in every game. THEY are exactly what the group needs to tell an exciting and tragic story.
Although it is assumed that the world is in our modern times, scenarios also allow for a completely different setting. The basic premise should only be: The world has recently gone dark, THEY have come and the characters are citizens who fear for their survival. They are people, like you and me.
Rules of Ten Candles
The rules are not too complicated for this narrative game and we outline them in essence and not completely.
Character creation requires five tabs for information about the character:
The concept of the character (name, appearance and what role the character plays in the story, e.g. electrical installer of the airport)
a moment where the character can find hope and
the brink of despair and hopelessness a character would cross.
The brink can be a dark and maybe even deadly secret, which could make the character forget his remaining humanity.
These are the traits of the character. During creation, the playing person to the right of one describes the virtue of his character and the playing person to the left describes vice. The moment that gives hope is defined by you, as are name, appearance and role.
What is special is the brink that one crosses. Because the player on the right writes on a piece of paper “I have seen you…” and describes a situation that describes the brink of the character. While writting those brinks, the game master also writes such an observation for the character to the left of the game master, but from THEM’s point of view. For the note says: „THEY have seen how you …”. A special role is therefore played by the character to the right of the game master. He writes down what his own character has seen, what THEY are capable of. i.e. the player defines something about THEM. It must not be a weakness. The only weakness THEY have is the light.
These features of character also have mechanical effects, which we will not discuss further in this review. It should be said, however, that one symbolically burns a feature of the character at the table to indicate that it has been used.
Character creation ends with the recording of the last words of the character by the players on a smartphone or other dictation device.
Dice Pool and Conflicts
The game extends over ten scenes. Each candle represents one scene. If one candle goes out, the scene changes. At the beginning of a scene, the players together receive as many dice as there are burning candles. For each extinguished candle the game master receives one dice. Here it is helpful if the dice have the same color, because if a character’s action is unclear, a conflict roll must be made.
To do this, the player throws the remaining dice of the dice pool. Each die that shows a 1 is banned from the dice pool until the beginning of the next scene. The conflict roll is successful if a 6 is rolled. If no die shows a 6, the conflict is unsuccessful and the scene ends. A candle must be extinguished.
Why dice of the same color in the dice pool? If a character’s moment is lived out and is successful, because the moment requires a conflict roll, the playing person receives a hope die for the character. In a moment of hope, the character has found it. The hope die can be rolled in any conflict of the character and achieves success on a 5+. A 1 does not put away the hope die either.
The game master rolls their dice during a conflict to see who has the right to tell about the conflict. If the player has more successes (dice showing a 6) than the game master, the player has the right to tell the story of the conflict. Otherwise, the game master has the right to tell the story. The player can also decide to keep or get the narrative right. To do so, however, a candle must be extinguished.
This roll is only about who has the right to tell the story, not whether the conflict is successful. A single 6 on one of the player’s dice is sufficient for this.
This allows the players to participate in the story, but you should always keep it in mind: It tries to tell a tragic and dark story about the last hours of these characters.
When a candle goes out, the scene changes. Two things happen: the pool of dice is filled up and the group establishes truths. In return, the game master initiates this phase with these words: „These things are true. The world is dark.”
If a candle has gone out due to a failure in a conflict or has been blown out in order to retain or obtain the right to tell a story, the person who made the candle go out starts to establish the first truth.
In turn, the group now defines truths. You may define as many truths as candles are still burning. These truths should be as small as possible, e.g. “Daniel finds a flashlight in a small box inside the subway”. The story should be continued in this way and prepared for the next scene. New characters, objects, circumstances or other situations can be incorporated into the story in this way. The game master also participates in the establishment of new truths and can also build on ideas of other players: “We found the door to the bunker”, “When we opened the door of the bunker, we were warmly welcomed by a group”, etc.
However, the final truth must always be: “And we are alive” and should preferably be said simultaneously by all players who are alive.
When only one candle is left burning, the last phase of the game begins: the Last Stand. The only truth that is established is: “And we are alive”.
How the showdown of the story looks like is the domain of the game master. Every unsuccessful conflict roll of a character ends in death. However, the last moments before death are told by the player and thus end the character’s life.
When all the characters have died, the last candle is extinguished and the game master heralds the end with: „These things are true. The world is dark” and then plays the recorded and last messages of the characters in complete darkness.
Because of its simple design the book is lean and fun to read. There are few illustrations and the introduction to the game is described in a few pages and from the eyes of Gene, a woman in the last days of the world. It sets the tone for the rest of the book and the mood of the reader.
Chapter beginnings indicate whether the next section is a reading area also for the players or only for the game master and the reading flow goes from the chapter “HERE THERE IS LIGHT” to the final chapter “HOW IT MUST END”. The reader is absorbed into the world of hope and into the light, which keeps THEM away until the book drifts into darkness and the end.
IThe appendix describes official modules and fan modules. Modules are scenario descriptions on a solid half page and bring ideas for the characters’ situation (e.g. at an airport with a last fully fueled plane and a capable pilot or the characters are a group of soldiers who seek survivors to take them to a bunker), places they could go in their story and goals they could reach during the scenario (e.g. fly away with the plane, take the survivors to the bunker, solve the mystery around THEM etc.).
The game brings its own atmosphere. Establishing truths, introducing and ending the truth phase with constant almost ritual phrases („These things are true. The world is dark.” as well as “And we are alive.”), the burning of personality traits of the character when “used up” and finally the diminishing light at the table by blowing out candles and recording and playing back the characters’ last messages.
So it is not only the atmosphere in the scenarios and in a terrible world that is created, but also the mechanics at the table itself.
René as GM
My expectations of Ten Candles were high. I think that horror games tend to build tension rather than real shock moments. But because of the shared narrative right, the whole group tells this story. I would also always try to expand the narrative right. Like in a PbtA, the players should not only be allowed to describe the successes of conflicts, but also to actively tell the dark story.
Ten Candles creates a nice atmosphere with the candles, the dark room and the shared story, where everyone knows: We have already recorded the last words of our character… You still have to build up threats in the story and describe the senses for immersion, but the setting is already eerily dark.
Running this zero-prep game is pleasantly simple and very fulfilling. The rules are straightforward and probably the most important preparation. A cheat sheet allows a quick overview so that no phases or rules are forgotten. The scenarios can be played multiple times, because the group tells the story together and so each scenario can always look different. During the game in our scenario, where the characters were supposed to visit Terminal D and a refuelled plane, I was already forging the idea during the game that we would continue playing in the plane and flight because they could reach their destination too quickly. Why end up at the airport terminal? The candles are still burning and THEY are still on the hunt.
As it turns out you can have a happy ending in the game. Achieving the goal of the scenario can be a satisfaction even with the death of the player characters. Will the NPCs get to safety by plane and survive? Can we save these poor souls from their certain end?
Ten Candles will have an important place in my shelf and play arsenal. My expectations have been met and for what Ten Candles wants to provide, it does it extraordinary.
Candles can not only contribute to the mood, but can also be an atmospheric as well as exciting playing mechanism – Ten Candles convinced me of that completely!
Similar to PbtA, the system is more a genre emulation than a full roleplaying game, but focuses on a specific genre. The special feature: The genre works in all possible game worlds. Ten Candles is an unusual and impressive gaming experience that I would like to repeat in another setting.
In our group we rarely stay serious at the table for a long time. But Ten Candles has managed to do this surprisingly quickly and with a long lasting effect. The mood created by the candlelight and the certainty that the characters are already dead created the right atmosphere for me from the very beginning. The idea of letting the character speak a voice message with his last words at the beginning and playing it in the dark at the end of the evening created a moment of silence at our table.
What I found innovative was the approach of character creation, in which in a few steps a character with a sufficient background is created that is playable for the evening. The rules are catchy and also the shared d6 dice pool was convincing.
Through the change of the narrative right, which moves more and more towards the end, towards the direction of the game master, I always had the feeling that everyone at the table was telling and creating a shared story.
The knowledge as a player, no matter what I do, when the last candle goes out I am dead, gave me goose bumps in the evening every now and then. This was supported by the deconstruction of the character, symbolized (and put into practice) by burning the virtues, vices and moments standing for the character. All in all Ten Candles is an atmospheric horror game supported by methods that are new and creative for me.
Ten Candles creates an unbelievable atmosphere with simple means when you get involved in the game. I was surprised how much the fates of the accompanying NPCs touched me – always driven by the hope that at least they could be saved. Contrary to my original assumption, the pre-defined ending of the characters did not lead to a disinterest in the story. The removal of a ” win” in the game led to a deep immersion in the fate of these characters in our round. Definitely recommended as a one-shot in the dark winter months!
René fell prey to TTRPGs years ago starting with ADnD. His favorite TTRPGs are currently DnD 5e and Shadow of the Demonlord. Besides TTRPG he is interested in playing TableTop (Age of Sigmar), Boardgames and Video Games on his PS4.