With All Hallows Eve fast approaching, many of its most passionate fans are getting prepared in every way they know how. I’ve seen plenty of Twitter threads and blog posts about which movies and video games will best scratch that horror itch. Folks are planning their costumes, scheduling parties, and even preparing for their weddings. Seriously, I still have to find a wedding costume for a Halloween-themed reception in a couple of weeks. These are all great traditions, but for me over the past few years Halloween has been all about one thing: tabletop roleplaying games.
Back in college, I had a group of buddies who would get together weekly to play games like Mutants and Masterminds, Star Wars, and even Pokemon. I still have those buddies, but once a wave of us graduated everyone had to head their separate ways. Getting together weekly became impossible for some members of the group, and while those of us remaining continued our roleplaying ways, it wasn’t the same without the whole crew at the table. One day, I stumbled on the description of a horror game quite unlike anything else I had played at the table. The game was called Dread, and it used a Jenga tower to create a palpable feeling of dread at the table. Designed primarily for one-shot play, I knew the perfect way to get the gang back together – a horror game on Halloween.
Dread became a big hit with our group and, as a result, became a yearly Halloween tradition. Regardless of how busy we all were or whatever else we had going on, we managed to find time to experience Dread together once a year. Whether we played at a dinner party or in an empty church during a thunderstorm, we always found a way to make it work and had a lot of fun struggling to survive at the mercy of the looming Tower.
Last year, we took a break from Dread and tried our hands at a different game. I honestly don’t remember how I found it – I think I stumbled upon someone sharing their experience with the game on Twitter. But as soon as I read about Ten Candles, I knew I had to try it out. Ten Candles is a game of tragic horror that’s all about finding beauty in the final moments of life for a group of survivors. Literally played by the light of ten candles, the mechanics of the game push your players towards death at all times.
Ten Candles proved to be a great Halloween game for us. Our first session felt atmospheric and creepy in the best way and left us hungry for all of the possibilities that the game offered. I’ve had the opportunity to play the game one more time since then, and playing a second time in very different circumstances helped to solidify my thoughts about the game and allow me to see the positives and negatives in a clearer light.
As you can see, Dread and Ten Candles are similar in their core premise. They are horror tabletop roleplaying games with unique mechanics designed for single-session play. However, there are plenty of differences between them too, and with Halloween only coming once a year, a decision must be made about which one to bust out at your roleplaying table. So let’s compare these games on the areas in which they differ to discover which one best suits you and your friends this All Hallows Eve!
The first aspect of the game we’ll touch on is the atmosphere that each game creates at the table. This is key to a horror RPG because horror is all about the atmosphere. A little too much lighting or the wrong music in a scary scene can completely shift the mood and disrupt the experience of tension and fear. Dread and Ten Candles both address atmosphere in their own way – the distinction between them is show and tell.
Dread’s rulebook tells you how to add atmosphere to your game. It talks about dimming the lights and drawing the curtains. It tells you to discuss buy-in with your group and to have everyone agree about the type of atmosphere at the table. There are discussions within the book about different types of horror and the sensations that they create, and what you can do as the game master to try and emulate those different sensations at the table. Even the pros and cons of music are discussed. Dread is fantastic about being informational, and taking the time to thoroughly read it will give you a strong idea of how to craft a horror session.
Compare this to Ten Candles, a game that shows you what atmosphere looks like. It is one thing to advise you how to make your game atmospheric – it is another to build the atmosphere directly into the game mechanics. Playing by candlelight in the darkness, recording your last words before the session begins, repeating a dark ritual throughout the course of the session; these are things you will definitely do every time you play Ten Candles because they are built into the very fabric of the game. Atmosphere isn’t something you add to Ten Candles – the game provides it in spades, all without having to explicitly tell you why it’s necessary or how to do it.
In case it isn’t clear, I vastly prefer how Ten Candles handles the atmosphere at the table. I don’t have to read an instruction manual on the ins and outs of the horror genre – the game does the work for me as long as I play by the rules. However, I’ll add one final note to this part of the discussion: while Ten Candles is better at incorporating a horror atmosphere naturally, this is partly because the game needs a good atmosphere more than Dread. I have played both of these games in their ideal setting: a dark room late at night by dim lighting in hushed voices – and I have played both of these games in broad daylight with a million distractions and background noises. Dread doesn’t feel like a truly scary horror game in those circumstances, but it pulls off campy B-movie horror pretty well. Ten Candles very nearly falls to pieces without the right atmosphere, but when the atmosphere is ideal, the conclusion of the game is hauntingly beautiful.
Every game master has different preferences for how much preparation they want to deal with before a session. Some love to have every detail carefully plotted – others never want to take a single note and love the thrill of improv during a game. Of course, each RPG demands a certain level of prep. Or at the very least it has clear guidelines about how preparation for that game should work. This is another area in which Dread and Ten Candles differ drastically.
Dread demands prep of an extensive nature. You don’t have to build a Tolkien-sized setting from scratch, but you need to know roughly the type of story you want to tell and then design characters suited to that story. In Dread, players create their characters by answering questions on a questionnaire. It’s a fun personality-quiz sort of character creation process that gets players thinking without bogging them down with mechanical details. As the game master, though, your job is to fill that questionnaire with leading questions that push the players to bold, engaging answers. The characters they create need to connect to the setting and give you material to work with in order to create a sense of tension at the table. This can’t happen if you don’t know roughly what to expect. Dread doesn’t ask you to plan every single beat of your session, but it asks you to think about the motivation behind the monster or horror of your story and to establish scenes which are linked to the themes established in the character questionnaires. By the time you’ve come up with your hook, created questionnaires, submitted them for the players to fill out, and then used their answers to inform your prep, you’ve done quite a bit of work for your Dread session.
Ten Candles is at the opposite end of the prep spectrum: you don’t prepare. Period. Read the rulebook, sure, but don’t worry about thinking of monster stats or envisioning key moments in the session’s arc. You won’t now anything about your characters, their themes, or the darkness that threatens them until the day of the session. Just like with atmosphere, this is forced by the game mechanics. Players don’t design their own traits, they trade them, and even the GM is not immune to having the very nature of their villain determined by another person at the table. Because the mechanics of Ten Candles will inevitably fight any preparation you do, it’s better to do nothing more than perhaps choosing the module you want to use to contextualize the scene.
I find my own preferences regarding prep work to fall somewhere in-between these approaches. I don’t like doing a lot of preparation, so Dread can sometimes feel taxing when I have five or six players to create questionnaires for. On the other hand, there are aspects of prep that I do enjoy – they help to curb my appetite for the game, to slake my thirst while I impatiently wait for the night that I finally get to play. The total lack of prep in Ten Candles means I don’t get that pre-session fun that I crave. This is another area where I’ve seen success from both systems – my first Ten Candles session benefited greatly from the improvised, collaborative approach, but the total lack of preparation took some of the teeth out of my second game. With Dread, sometimes my over-preparation made the game feel stale, but the prepared games often felt as if they had more direction, more nuance, and ultimately a more satisfying conclusion.
The final major difference between these two horror tabletops lies in their mechanisms, the rules you use to play the game and experience the horror. This is, perhaps, the most important distinction between the two games – at the end of the day, the rules themselves are what cause Dread and Ten Candles to feel unique not only in comparison to each other, but in comparison to other tabletop roleplaying games on the market. This is because each game uses mechanisms that intentionally compliment the atmosphere it is trying to capture.
Dread, unsurprisingly, is looking for a feeling of tension at the table. Fear is the anxiety and expectation built on hope for a positive outcome, and this is expressed perfectly by the Jenga tower. When your character takes an action in Dread which could potentially result in failure, you pull a single block from the Jenga tower and stack it on top. Successfully pulling the block from the tower means your action is successful – refusing to pull means that you will fail, which can have all sorts of negative consequences for your character. As the characters take more actions and pull more blocks from the tower, it will begin to teeter and sway. The titular dread comes from the understanding that when the Tower falls, it spells death for the character of the player who knocked it over. The mechanism of tension in Dread could not be more perfect – many times at my table, players are walking on egg shells when the tower is weak, afraid to sneeze or bump the table lest they lose their life in the process. Even if the atmosphere in the room doesn’t quite match the level of horror you were hoping to experience, all the jovial smiles will dissolve into panicked concentration as soon as the time comes to pull a block from the tower.
Ten Candles uses the light of ten candles to time the game. When all the candles are out, the whole party is dead. If the dice are blessed and no one ever fails a roll, eventually the fleeting nature of the tea candle will still bring an end to the game. To test for success in Ten Candles, the players roll as many dice as lit candles and the GM rolls as many as unlit candles. As long as the players get one 6, they succeed; whoever has the most 6’s gets narrative control of the scene. A failed action darkens a candle, but can be saved when players literally burn away parts of their character. Eventually, the only thing left of each character will be their darkest desires and most desperate actions, and as more candles go out, the GM gets more and more control of the game. Because dice are lost when a 1 is rolled, the game inevitably marches to the conclusion of the players doom. The slow process of loss and eventual failure is punctuated by moments of respite where the players and GM establish new details about the game in a spooky ritual, restore lost dice, and start a new scene in the story.
Notice that in Dread survival is possible, but in Ten Candles everyone will die by the end of the game. This distinction between survival horror and tragic horror is a significant one, as it gives each game a different feel. Both games are about hope of survival, but Dread allows that survival to happen while Ten Candles is about the beauty of fighting against the inevitable conclusion. Both games have great mechanics that, for the most part, strongly reinforce their themes. Each one has a weakness, too – the ability to willfully push over the Jenga tower in Dread has sucked the wind out of many of my games, and the awkward “establishing truths” phase of Ten Candles dissolves tension in a way that feels jarring and makes it difficult to pace the game effectively during the early hours, particularly if the dice rolls aren’t cooperating and players fail quickly. Overall, both games are excellent at delivering the sensations they strive to create because the mechanisms are cleverly designed.
SO WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU PLAY?
At last we’ve reached the end of the discussion. You now know all about the atmosphere, the preparation, and the mechanisms of both Dread and Ten Candles. Dread is a game which creates an atmosphere of tension with great tactile mechanisms thanks to the Jenga tower. It takes a lot of preparation to ready your scenario and design questionnaires for the players to fill out, but in play the rules are quite simple and even if things go off the rails a bit, coming back to the tower will always create the desired tension for the game.
Ten Candles is all about dying even after the desperate struggle to survive. The players must have hope even though their situation is hopeless, because the mechanisms will always drive them towards failure – if the dice don’t end their journey, the candles will. The rules and rituals of Ten Candles create a dark and chilling atmosphere that, when combined with a group of players willing to buy in to the heavy tone of the game, will lead to a session that is both beautiful and tragic. Ten Candles requires no preparation, but this can be disadvantageous as if your improv skills fail you mid-session, the atmosphere of terror can disappear to the detriment of the game.
In each round of this comparison I’ve discussed pros and cons without choosing a clear winner. This was an intentional choice, not to slyly disguise which game would ultimately win, but to convey that what should ultimately guide your final decision is which of these two experiences best suits you and your group. Do you not have time to prepare a session? Play Ten Candles. Do you want the legitimate possibility of survival to be part of your game? Play Dread. Does the idea of chanting in unison over a ring of lit candles send a thrill through your heart? Play Ten Candles. Do you want your players to have time to create thought-out characters directly tied to a thoroughly prepared scenario? Play Dread. These two games create a very different experience at the table and, though their genres are almost identical, they suit different approaches to preparation and play. There is perhaps no clear winner between them when an objective comparison is attempted, but I’m willing to bet that one of these games jumped out at you as you read this post. That is the game you should play – the one that sounded best to you even when described with all of its flaws and foibles.
I hope this guide is helpful for those of you who wish to add a little roleplaying to your Halloween horror! If you’ve played one or both of these games and have your own recommendations to share in the comments, I’d love to hear your preferences – and they just might help to sway an undecided reader in one direction or the other. I hope that however you choose to spend Halloween, that you have a sufficiently spooky night with just the right amount of magic and fear.