The didactic potential of Ten Candles

I recently took Ron’s People & Play course and feel like, more than anything else, it gave me language and context to talk about things I have experienced but lacked proper terminology for. One of the interesting concepts was that of zilchplay, and the idea that, oftentimes, play doesn’t even happen, which is something that, again, I have experienced many times, but now I can conceptualize better. I would go as far as saying that now, instead of thinking of “good” or “bad” sessions, I’m thinking of sessions where play was actually achieved vs those in which it sort of fell through the cracks of hanging out.

And in the vein of play vs not play, I would like to talk about the game Ten Candles as a didactic game, in the sense that I feel its procedures manage to make it hard for play not to happen. It manages this by taking advantage of some gimmicks, constraining itself to a one-shot and arguably not being something you’d want to play every week (at least not with the same group), but it does manage it.

I ran this game once a few years ago, and I believe it has been the most successful session I have ever ran (not the most successful one I have played). At the time, it simply felt that this game had sort of “ran itself”. Now, my impression is that what this game did was give us a really robust framework to almost guarantee that play would happen. Let’s see if, with a few more concepts in my arsenal, I can better dissect why that was:

  • Ambiance: To get the obvious gimmick out of the way: you play this game in the dark, lit only by 10 candles that are extinguished as the game progresses, until every character is dead and the room is dark. It is hard to be looking at your phone, or be distracted by anything other than the only lit part of the room where the game is happening. Not intrinsic to the play experience (thus a gimmick), but certainly very helpful.
  • Backdrop & Situation: The game’s backdrop is very tightly knit with the situations that will be played. There is no roster of important NPCs, factions, locations, etc., that the players may eventually encounter. What matters is that a few days ago the world went dark, after which “they” came. You don’t know who “they” are, just that they live in the dark, they avoid the light and they’re out to get you. That is the backdrop, but it is also the situation you find yourself in.
  • Tragic Ending:You are playing the story of how these characters die. Everyone knows this going in, so everybody is in the same page regarding how the session is going to end. Also, death happens at a specific stage in the game, so players are never on the defensive: they’re either going to unavoidably die in this scene or they’re going to survive it, and that is surprisingly liberating. To me this is also somewhat gimmicky, and it narrows the scope of play significantly, but it is very effective.
  • Mechanical Creep: The above mentioned predictable death does not mean, however, that the stakes are low. On the contrary, there will be 9 failed rolls, and then players will start dying. The dice mechanics are such that success is almost guaranteed at the beginning of the game, but on each subsequent scene tests becomes harder. A failed roll also means that play progresses to the next scene, so failing rolls is actually fundamental for the game to progress.
  • Truths: Scene transitions are marked by the speaking of truths, where players take turns saying things that are irrefutably true. This is now strikes me as a very clear and didactic example of authority passing through everyone in the table, with the added bonus of pretty straightforward reincorporation: if Bob says you found an empty house with the lights on, then you did and that’s where the next scene is happening. Also, it really lightens the load of the GM.

As I said, I feel that this game was the most successful session I have ever ran. Having it done only once, I also see how my appreciation of it is not very statistically significant. Also, the experience it gave me was not one that felt novel to me. On the contrary, it felt very familiar (it was play), but what was surprising how easily it was provided. Prep was minimal, some players that were confused at the beginning of the game quickly found their footing, and in general things just seemed to fall into place.

So, I posit that this game has a high didactic value not because it teaches you how to play or how to run games, but because it makes it likelier for new players to encounter a very effective, bare bones, experiential introduction to what the value of this activity we call role-playing is, something more than just hanging out and passing the time together.

5 responses to “The didactic potential of Ten Candles”

  1. Hey Pablo, thanks for writing about your experience. I’ve never played Ten Candles, and I’m glad it turned out to be a positive experience for you and the rest of the adventurers in the dark. Some of the things you said however make me curious, and make me want to ask you more:

    – “procedures manage to make it hard for play not to happen” is, for me, a very strong phrase, and one that, in the face of some previous interventions on Adept Play, prompts me to be more inquisitive. This self-playing game, with its predetermined and at best delayable ending, is, to my first impression, a toy loaded to achieve a predetermined outcome, a tragedy arc of survivors dying hopelessly only “disturbed” by the white noise of the players and their actions. Of course, this does not have to be the case: after all, a game like My Life With Master teaches that a predetermined ending does not invalidate the agentiveness of the players, because it is not in that moment, but in the previous ones, that what we call play has been exercised. In this case, my curiosity is right here: what moments did you or your fellow players feel were the result of a contribution not massaged or driven by the procedures of play, but as your own effort that pumped enthusiasm to the table? Which ones made you feel that if there had been other players at the table, they would not have been achieved?

    – I am interested in these Truths that are spoken in the game: are the contributions each person spends between scenes compartmentalized-meaning, does each person say their Truth independently of the previous contributions, in a kind of stacking, or are there particular constraints? Does the player who opens the next scene have to take them all in? I would like to understand how you have accommodated these mechanics, which remind me of a particular experience I had with Lovecraftesque. One of the examples I found online of Truths spoken for a scene was:

    * “It’s started to rain.”
    * “I feel guilty for leaving my friends.”
    * “I secretly eat half of the roast beef.”

    And it raises several alarm bells for me. But I’d like to hear a more genuine opinion like yours first.

    • I’m in the same state as you, Adriano. I’m willing to discover that Ten Candles has more to offer than what I’m reading in it (and reviewng Sympathy and silence right now), but that will have to arrive in play. At present, I’m not driven to care enough to organize that myself, so someone else will have to take on that role.

      All that said, to Pablo, what you’re describing from play makes sense on its own merits. So I’m not concerned with this text in some ultimate or review-ish sense, nor should anyone here be concerned about that, but instead with the reality of what you and the others did at the table, with the qualities that you’re talking about.

    • «a toy loaded to achieve a predetermined outcome»

      First off, I think this is somewhat accurate, but compare it with so many campaigns and modules that are similarly loaded with much more moving parts that are as likely to break as they are to work. Even most class and level systems predetermine so much about a character’s arc. In this case, the “what” is pretty set, but the “how” is very open ended. And, as I said, this is sort of gimmicky and limits the game’s replayability, but the trade off is that the loaded toy has a much higher success of working.

      «what moments did you or your fellow players feel were the result of a contribution not massaged or driven by the procedures of play»

      The first thing that comes to mind here is one of the players whose character was a former torturer under Pinochet’s government (the game was played, and set, in Viña del Mar, Chile). His was the last character to die, and it wasn’t “them” who got him, but other survivors who had decided he had it coming.

      There was also a whole middle act to our session where another group of survivors had a prisoner they claimed was one of “them” in disguise. (In the game, the player to the right of the GM gets to decide one aspect of “them”, and this player had decided that he had seen them adopt human form.)

      Finally, the final scene was brought on not by a failed roll, but by the torturer’s player chuckling at a snarky comment and accidentally blowing a candle, which caused quite the commotion.

      «I am interested in these Truths that are spoken in the game»

      Regarding the truths, the ones you quoted I would consider, in order, fine, irrelevant, and half-assed (eat the whole damned roast beef or GTFO). The second one is straight out missing the point of establishing truths about the world. The third one is just too mild for its own good.

      As it stands, you’re supposed to establish facts. “We find another survivor”. “We arrive at the shelter”. “The car breaks down”. Etc. The only rule is that you can’t contradict already established ones, so it is sort of “yes and” rules.

      In our game, I remember one of the players was struggling with the concept of truths, doing this sort of inter-scene solo play “I do this, I do that” and not really engaging with the world. But then he got it, and the first external truth he established, as the group was driving through deserted city streets, was that suddenly a parked car flew into the air and crash landed in the middle of the street (which everyone at the table agreed was a pretty cool detail).

  2. I ran Ten Candles once, about two years ago, and my experience was similar to Pablo’s: I found the highly structured approach (blowing out the candles and ritual phrases in particular) very helpful for my group (which normally plays a wargamey D&D game). The players loved the atmosphere this approach created.

    I was drawn to Ten Candles because I hoped that the PCs being doomed – and this being communicated upfront – would free up my players to get away from their usual problem-solving approach. I don’t remember the details, only that I was pleased on this account.

    One player continued ‘solving problems’ to the end and thus opted to die trying to take down a few more monsters, even though this was clearly futile. However, he had accepted this as a player and was merely portraying how his guy would go out.

    Others spread their wings a bit more – dunno if I remember this correctly, but one PC may have died as a result of the player having her panic and run into the night (or something to that effect).

    For what it’s worth, I think this means we got a story characteristic of the people at the table (though the overall trajectory is of course mandated by Ten Candles).

    Good times and I loved reading your account and this discussion!

  3. I wanted to add some thoughts to this discussion. I like Ten Candles in that it makes for a fun thing to do with coworkers after hours around Halloween or an easy choice for a con game. I do think there’s some stuff that needs to be banged into shape from the way the game’s text presents them.

    “Narrative Control”

    The book makes heavy use of this phrase. I want to point out that I treat “player narration” more or less exactly as one would treat the Monologue of Victory in The Pool. Basically, the players have narration authority by default unless the GM’s dice beat them and the GM has narration authority over failure always. I keep those narrations focused on the outcome of the situation the die roll is concerning and not much beyond it.

    There’s an example in the text of a player rolling to kick in a locked door and then getting to narrate what they find on the other side. I don’t play it that way. I don’t have players roll to narrate their way into a blank space they then get to fill in like that.

    There’s a similar moment in my “sympathy and science” game Ron linked to where the players are trying to break into the evidence room of a police station because they believe it will contain useful supplies. When the player succeeds I do ask them to tell me what kind of supplies they find because that is an extension of the core uncertainty we were rolling for, “Can we get useful supplies here?” Do you see the subtle difference?


    It is very, very, very easy for the truths that get stated between scenes to get lost. So, I try to reincorporate them as fast as possible. In fact, I often use them as scene framing constraints for the next scene, if possible. I bring in as many truths as I can into the immediate next situation.

    To that end, I basically think of the truths as downtime actions between scenes. Sometimes you have to start a scene almost immediately after another one ends but whenever possible I assume significant amounts of time pass between each scene. Thus, as much as possible, I treat the truths as things that were discovered or achieved between the scenes.


    Moments are my least favorite thing in the game because they very quickly become “plot targets” if you don’t word them carefully enough. There’s an example in the book where a player’s Moment is “the vault doors closing”. That is way too specific. Basically, if that’s in the player’s stack we immediately have to start playing toward that the second it comes to top of that player’s stack.

    I ask players to word their Moments as things that can be identified or brought into play rather than things we need to make happen. “I will find hope when I make a significant scientific discovery.” Okay, awesome, your character is going to be doing science-y stuff all the time. Chances are there will be discoveries and you can identify any one of them as “significant” whenever you feel it’s appropriate.

    So, at the end of the day, I do an awful lot of reining in on the game’s procedures. I don’t personally view these as deep rewrites, so much as considered applications and best practices. However, I’m not convinced Ten Candles is a great fit for people unsure of how to play in a basic sense. I think there’s too many places to get really sloppy about things without some skillful discipline.

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