Horror RPGs are difficult to run because they live and die on strength of tone. The suffocating dread of an excellent horror game delivers a cathartic thrill unlike anything else in the hobby… but when mishandled, it’s fodder for unintentional comedy. Ten Candles is a fantastic game because generating atmosphere is its first priority – it’s dark, thematically and literally. Best of all, it’s a game where you get to set things on fire.
The story is one of desperate survivors battling monsters hidden in the darkness, told by candlelight over ten scenes. It uses a shared dice pool for determining success, but as each scene ends (usually with failure), the dice pool shrinks and the candles go out, one by one. No-one survives a Ten Candles game, and the dwindling dice and light are a constant reminder of that. The only respite from crushing fatalism are the moments you burn your special abilities – setting fire to the card they’re written on – for mechanical bonuses. The dimmer the candles get, the more precious those brief flashes of light become.
Ten Candles, like many story games, doesn’t scale well with increased numbers of players. Because everyone shares the same dice pool, the number of rolls per game is roughly the same – meaning each player rolls less often, and has fewer opportunities to use special abilities. That’s a shame, because burning stuff is half the game’s appeal, and in five-player games, you can wait most of a session before setting fire to anything (three or four player games work better). Pacing can also be wonky, because the length of a scene is random. Early on, when dice pools are big and rolls less frequent, scenes can last five minutes or half an hour, depending entirely on the outcome of dice rolls.
I’m being careful, because this game has spoilers, so I’ll just say that Ten Candles has surprises that made me cry when I read them, and made players cry when we played them. That’s surely enough of a recommendation by itself, but this isn’t a game to just play once. The diverse set of setting modules certainly aid replayability, but mostly I keep playing Ten Candles because that moment of tragic finality when the last candle goes out will never, EVER get old. If you like horror RPGs, you can’t afford to miss this. The genre has a new leader to beat.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)