“Ten Days ago the sky betrayed you. The world went dark. The sun vanished. Five days ago, They came. Now the radios promise rescue that never comes. Now the lights flicker low and the dark is where they hunt. Now you hear the screams. Now They’re coming for you. Keep moving. Don’t lose hope. Stay in the light.”
From it’s terrifying premise until long after you’ve finished play, Ten Candles will sneak up on you.
Ten Candles is a ritual about Something. That may not seem special, all RPGs are about something, even if that something is killing goblins and taking their treasure, right? But Ten Candles is about a capital-S Something. Something about us. Something inside us. Something with sharp edges, that lives in the periphery of our vision. Ten Candles is about the idea that you are not enough, that you will struggle, that none of it will matter, and that every success in your life is just delaying your inevitable failure and ultimately your death.
Or maybe Ten Candles is a ritual about Something Else. Maybe it’s about hope, about goodness. About how, no matter how dire the world is, you will still rage against the darkness. That you will strap your knuckles and fight, and every small victory you steal means something so much more than itself. And that though you will inevitably die, you are armed with the capacity to make your last moments mean something.
If those two ideas both seem too heavy to be truly experienced by an RPG, Ten Candles is sneaking up on you too. The game doesn’t throw these ideas at you, it just does the emotional heavy lifting through its mechanics. Unlike so many other RPGs, it’s not up to the players to generate the emotional kick, the game will do that for you, all you have to do is play. We began in a closed bar, with house lights on a table in the corner. Then, we lit some candles, and Ten Candles starting sneaking up on us.
The lighting of those ten tea candles began the first delayed understanding, of which there were many. The house lights were still on and we were creating characters, brainstorming ideas in these comfortable lounges. At this point it all felt kind of interesting, academic even. We’ll play this game, light is your most important resource, and eventually everyone will die. Sounds like fun, right? But, remember, Ten Candles creeps. We turned the lights out, and were struck dumb. We suddenly understood both the power and fragility of those tiny candles. They threw light around the room, but they flickered. While we were laughing and joking, those candles were burning, and they couldn’t burn forever. Ten Candles felt insidious.
When a candle was darkened (due to a character’s failure), the group expressed Truths of the story. These began with “These things are true, the world is dark” and continued around the table for as many candles as we had left burning. There were only three rules: No contradicting a previous Truth, no establishing weaknesses of Them, and the final Truth is spoken aloud by the players in unison “and we are alive.” At first, players marveled at the degree of power granted to them. They found fuel, a gun, a car that works. Even the rain stopped! But, remember, Ten Candles creeps.
As each candle darkened in turn, players were rolling less and less dice. More and more resources were burned (literally) to keep the group moving forward in safety. Characters found hope, gaining extra dice, and some characters succumbed to the darkness within. But the biggest moment came when the first player realised an inevitable fact of Ten Candles: They were getting less Truths each time, which meant soon only one thing will be True “we are alive” and then...not even that would remain.
Ten. Candles. Creeps.
The game ended, as all Ten Candles games will, on the final candle with all of the player characters dead. Some had found goodness within themselves and died holding it with both hands. Some had broken, become as monstrous as the things that hunt them. But all met mortal ends, and the one remaining candle alone fought back the shadows. After the final failure, the final death, we moved to the last round of Truths. “These things are true, the world is dark,” for the first time not followed by the assertion from the players that they were alive. The candle was snuffed, and the game cast into darkness. Oppressive, crushing darkness that was around us the whole time, but unnoticed. We sat in silence, in darkness, and carried the burden of the story we’ve told. This is the second-to-last trick Ten Candles has played on us.
The last time Ten Candles crept up on me was not when the lights were turned on, when they washed over me like a hot shower after cold rain. It’s not when I laughed, or marveled, or commiserated, with the players around me. It wasn’t when we discussed our favourite bits, or cleaned up the ash, or went home on trams. It was 7 hours later, when I woke up in the half-light of a too early morning, rolled out of bed and flicked the switch beside my door. And the electricity ran through the filament, washed over me, and reminded me that there was light. Not just in walls and wires, not just in fires, but inside us. That there is as much hope as there is despair. That we fight against darkness each and every day and sometimes we lose, but even then we can find a little bit of goodness in that loss, and that’s worth something. I thought about the last trick Ten Candles had played on me as I pulled out my phone.
“Good Morning Dad. It’s Sid. I just wanted to talk, I miss you today. No reason.”