This spooky season, I played the RPG Ten Candles, a tragic horror storytelling game designed by Stephen Dewey. In this Ten Candles review, find out what happened when I sat with a group of friends in the dark, burned paper, chanted rituals, and roleplayed a part in a terrifying story!
What is Ten Candles?
Ten Candles is a tragic horror, one-shot, role-playing game that you play by the light of ten tea lights.
In the game the world has mysteriously gone dark, no sun, no stars, just darkness. It’s been like that for 10 days. The world has gone into panic and They have arrived. The only weakness of Them is the light, and there’s not much of that going around. People have been disappearing. It must be Them.
Gathered around a table in a dark room lit only by the light of ten tea lights, your group will tell the story of the final few hours of your character’s lives.
Your GM will introduce one of the 25 modules from the Ten Candles rule book to give you the setting for your tale. We played the “Dead Air” module. The world had been dark for 10 days. The radios had gone dead. The last messages came from Fort Victor where people seemed to be gathering. We needed to make it from our shelter in the centre of town, over the bridge on the outskirts and onward to Fort Victor beyond the woods.
After the setting is introduced, you’ll create your characters and Them. It’s a quick and fun process, and as you’re creating, your GM will light the ten candles.
Each candle represents a scene in the game. When a candle goes out, that scene ends.
From the moment the last candle is lit, the game begins.
The players play out the actions of their characters until they make a decision which leads to a conflict roll against the GM. If the player wins, they get to narrate what happens next and the scene either continues or ends depending on what the player wants to do. If the GM wins, they get to narrate what happens next, the scene ends and a candle is extinguished.
When the final candle goes out, it’s the end of the game and your characters!
Character creation is fun, quick and surprising. It literally only takes a few minutes.
You have five pieces of paper and one each you write very little!
On this, you write down one word that’s a positive character trait. Traits like brave, selfless, optimist, pragmatic, etc.
You pass the Virtue to the player on your right.
On here you write down a one-word negative trait like selfish, liar, jealous, short-tempered etc.
You pass the Vice to the player on your left.
Using the Vice and Virtue you’ve just been given, and your understanding of the module you’ll be playing, you create your character concept. Again, it’s super quick. Basic things like occupation, age, gender, name, physical attributes and general demeanour.
I played a 20-something narcissistic model named Shell who was mentally strong despite the environment.
This is what might give your character hope during the story. Ideally, make it something that could realistically happen to your character in the module you’ll be playing. For my character it was revisiting my childhood treehouse. For another player, it was seeing lights on in a building in the distance.
If you make your moment happen during the game, you will get your hope die (more on that later).
On the Brink paper, write down a despicable thing that your character saw another character do. It could be torture an animal, burn down a building, or drive away and leave their family to fend for themselves.
You pass the Brink to the person on your left.
The GM is involved in writing Brinks too. So the player to the left of the GM has a Brink written by the GM and no other players know what it is. We found out at the end of our game that this player’s Brink was, “I have seen you praying to Them.”
The player to the right of GM gets to write the Brink for Them and therefore gets to define something about Them. We found out at the end of our game that this was, “I have seen Them and they smell of ammonia.”
The last thing you’ll do during character creation is to record an in-character message before you set off towards your goal. Our GM used the voice recorder on his phone which we passed around the group.
In my group, we had an arrogant ex-police woman, a narcissistic model, a nervous cannabis smoker, and a mild-mannered serial killer. Quite the motley crew thrown together at the end of the world!
Each scene plays out like a typical RPG. Players act out and narrate their character’s actions and the group interact as though they are the characters.
Whenever a character tries to do something that the Game Master thinks warrants a dice roll to succeed, then a conflict roll happens…
At the start of each scene, the players are given a communal pool of 6-sided dice. They are always given the same number of dice as lit candles. So in the first scene, they have 10, second scene 9, etc.
The GM always has as many dice as there are unlit candles. So the GM begins the game with no dice in their pool and gains dice as the game is played. Thus, the GM increases their chances of winning conflict rolls as the game progresses.
During a conflict roll, the players and the GM roll their dice.
For players to succeed in a conflict roll, they need to roll at least one 6 and more 6s than the GM does. If they succeed, the player who rolled gets to narrate what happens next (usually good!) and decide if they want to extinguish a candle and end the scene. If the player fails, the scene ends, a candle is extinguished and the GM gets to narrate what happens next (usually bad!).
Any die landing on a 1 is removed from the player’s dice pool for the rest of the scene.
As the scene develops, the players lose more and more dice, making it less likely they will roll any 6s and succeed.
One of the incredible things about Ten Candles is that players can burn their character’s papers for various effects. You decide the order of your papers at the start of the game and they must be burned in that order. Your Brink always goes at the bottom of the stack.
Vice and Virtue
You can choose to burn a trait to re-roll any dice that land on a 1. This can give you another chance to roll 6s to win the conflict roll or reduce the number of dice lost because they landed on a 1.
When a trait is burned, it is still part of that character.
If a moment arises where your character has the opportunity to live their moment, you can announce your intention to live it.
For my moment, my character Shell, was just about to enter the garden at her childhood friend’s house where she was hoping to find the treehouse she played in as a child. I announced that it was time for my moment.
Immediately, I had a conflict roll. I failed. The GM took narrative control and told me that the tree where the treehouse used to be wasn’t there anymore, I burned my Moment and the scene ended.
Shell was broken. This was her one thing that would give her help in the dark world of Them…
Had I succeed, I would have gained a Hope Die. Your Hope Die is very powerful. Only you can use it. Every time you make a conflict roll, you add your Hope Die to the pool. Hope Die succeed on a 5 or a 6 and cannot be lost if they land on a 1.
The Brink is always the last paper to be burned. It’s used when your character is at their absolute limit and is pushed to the brink.
When you play your Brink, you can reroll all the dice in the pool. Succeed the roll and you keep your Brink, fail it and you burn your Brink and the scene ends.
End of scene ritual – Speaking Truths
Each scene ends and opens with wonderful ritual. The GM says:
“These things are true, the world is dark.”
Then going clockwise around the table, everyone including the GM says one truth. The number of truths is always equal to the number of candles that are lit. The final truth is always the same.
Truths are a great way to move the story along, create atmosphere, provide insight into a character or anything else besides. Anything said as a truth becomes part of the story and cannot be changed. Players can’t say any truths about Them and the dark, only the GM can. For example, in our group, we had truths like,
- “I’m playing with the switchblade knife in my pocket.”
- “It’s started to rain.”
- “I feel guilty for leaving my friends.”
- “I secretly eat half of the beef jerky.”
The ritual phase ends with everyone saying the final truth together for the final lit candle:
“And we are alive.”
The next scene begins.
The Final Stand
When there is only one candle remaining, The Final Stand has come. It’s You vs Them. The only truth spoken before this starts is:
“These things are true, the world is dark and we are alive”.
By the time our Final Stand came, we were corned. We were in the radio tower at Fort Victor, and They were hammering at the door. It was only a matter of time before They broke through.
And so, with one die plus a Hope Die (for some of us) we entered The Final Stand knowing that when we failed a conflict roll, our character died.
Then, our final candle went out.
Plunged into total darkness, our GM narrated the final few moments of our characters’ lives. The image of glowing red eyes staring out of the mist directly into the weak light of the last character’s torch will stay with me forever.
The GM said,
“These things are true. The world is dark.”
But there was no reply of, “And we are alive.” from the characters…
A message from the past
Sitting stunned in the darkness, the GM played the messages we recorded 3 hours earlier.
This moment was surreal. You feel like you know these people and it hits you like a hammer blow.
We all sat in silence for a minute or two after this.
Wow. What a game.
My favourite bits
Ten Candles is an incredible game. There are so many wonderful elements that come together to make it so unique.
Burning pieces of your character, chanting ritualistic truths between scenes and playing in the dark around a circle of candles – you feel like you’re a part of something. Something way bigger than you.
Natural tension builder
As those candles burn down, you really do feel the tension building.
Maybe it’s because the room is getting dark, maybe it’s because the GM has more control, maybe it’s because your character has lost so much of themselves they are at their Brink. Likely, it’s all of these things combined. But wow, does the game get intense.
The ten candles are way more than a gimmick for this game. They are absolutely central to it.
The world is dark in-game, so it’s dark for you too. Squinting by candlelight to see how many 6s you’ve rolled is not the easiest thing to do, but you are peering into the dark just like your characters are.
The candles also set the pace for the game. When the last candle goes out, it’s the end of the game. A tea light lasts approximately 3.5 hours, so the game won’t go on any longer than that.
You need the candles to burn bits of your character and give those glimmers of hope.
Light is a precious resource for your characters in-game and for you as players. Whenever a candle goes out (even accidentally) that scene ends and you’re one step closer to the end and the room is darker than it was before. Tread carefully when you go to the bathroom!
In Ten Candles, you know all the characters die at the end. There’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s such a fantastic play on the dichotomy of RPGs. You, as the player, know your character will die at the end, but your character doesn’t know that! So you play with hope just as they would.
You’re there to tell an incredible story. Do that, and you’ve won.
No GM prep
The Ten Candles rulebook states very clearly that the GM should do no story prep at all. All the GM needs is the Module to run the game. The players have most of the narrative control at the beginning of the game, so they create most of the world themselves.
Ten Candles was our GM’s first time running an RPG so he prepared a couple of potential encounters, characters and locations. But by his own admission, we only came across one of them. The rest was improvised according to the story we told.
He did an amazing job, so I totally believe that no prep is needed.
Things that could have been better
Don’t walk home in the dark afterwards!
After the game ended, my boyfriend and I had to walk home in the dark. It was 2am.
Is something watching me from those steps? No, it’s just a hedge.
I swear something moved behind that car! Oh no, it’s just a shadow from a car headlight.
Did you hear that?! Phew, it’s just a couple of drunk guys…
I couldn’t get to sleep till 4am!
Ten Candles is an emotional rollercoaster. You will need time to decompress afterwards.
Build that time into your planning, along with some time to discuss the game.
Because we started playing after 9pm, we didn’t finish until 1am. Then we spent a whole hour afterwards talking about how amazing the game was and reliving scenes!
Seriously, make time for singing along to show tunes on YouTube, playing JackBox games or Mario Kart. You’ll need it!
Conclusion – Ten Candles Review
If you like RPGs, you’ve got to try Ten Candles. The atmosphere, the rituals, the pacing, the tension – it’s incredible. And it’s a one-shot so if you don’t like it, it’s only one session.
You can buy it directly from the game designer, Stephen Dewey, at the Cavalry Games website.
For more on how Ten Candles came to be, check out the original Kickstarter page.