Sunday, August 28, 2016

[CRIT] Surviving "Ten Candles"

I have fallen hard for Stephen Dewey's Ten Candles. The mechanics are tight, the atmosphere is palpable, and "tragic horror" is a fresh genre that I am eager to explore. Seeing how my players portray characters whose deaths are inevitable will be a thrilling experience for us all.
But as a Storyteller, I cling stubbornly to life. To me, the enticing thing about horror is not the deaths themselves, but the impact those deaths have on the survivors. How do they change? Who do they become? When they have reconciled with their trauma - if they ever do - how do they cope with the next one?
Of course, I plan on playing the game straight a few times, but I have come up with two methods for constructing thematically-appropriate endings for characters in Ten Candles when total annihilation isn't the intended outcome.

Bargaining with Death

Sometimes death is too merciful an end.
In my setting Blue Mountain County, those who die - and many do - had their deaths planned from the start by the machinations of the God-Machine, predetermined liberation from the captivity, regret, and unattainable desire inherent to their mortal coils. Some, however, have seen the God-Machine's blueprints. They can dodge its agents, the gears grinding ominously in the aether cuing their arrival. Though attempting to dismantle the cosmos-spanning Machine is a noble goal, it is a fruitless one; they must abandon their lives and stay one step ahead of the agents who pursue them, scrambling to decipher the butterfly effect before it catches up to them.
This is not a life worth living. And if a character survives Ten Candles, their life shouldn't be either.
If a character would die, the GM can instead offer them an alternative, tailor-fitted to the character but feeding into a single overall outcome. Some characters will have the traits requisite to accept such a fate - bravery or cowardice, loyalty or treachery, faith or spite - and others will not. This should be a difficult choice, one that expands upon the themes presented in Ten Candles by having characters barter with death:
How much is their ability to die worth to them?
In the case of Blue Mountain County, those who escape death would become subversives against the God-Machine in their own unique ways, recording new final messages that depict the finality of that choice. They become beacons in a darkness that will always be racing to snuff them.
"These things are true. The world is dark."
"And we are alive," the survivors will respond. But their voices quaver with uncertainty. The notion of "alive" is hollow in a world that has gone dark without them.

The Final Girl

Sometimes death cuts short the catharsis of horror.
Every horror movie has to have its Final Girl: the individual who against all odds is the only one left to confront the killer. Often, this individual is selected based on certain criteria, the chiefest of which is whether or not it would be interesting if that character survived, or if it would at least be more interesting than if they didn't. Having a Final Girl gives everyone someone to identify with and root for, the vehicle through which the catharsis that horror brings is delivered.
The GM chooses to spare a character based on logic of their design. Is the character the most or least likely to survive? Is the character the best loved or the most hated? Is the character the only one who didn't run off into the forest to fuck? Regardless, it is now this character who has the responsibility of making everyone's sacrifices mean something.
And those lives need to weigh heavy.
The Last Girl keeps the memories of the dead kindled, matches struck against the vortex of the darkness. They record final messages on the behalf of themselves and each other character, perhaps perverting their identities to fit their agenda. Whether or not the Last Girl goes on to become a beacon in the darkness is irrelevant: she survived, and she should not have. The Last Girl converts all the anguish present in Ten Candles into catharsis, but at what cost?
"These things are true. The world is dark."
"And I am alive," the Last Girl responds, shifting under the burdens those who died for her left behind.