What’s the good in a game that brings out the worst in people?
What’s the point of telling stories about the end of the world?
This past summer I took the high school kids in my congregation on a service/learning trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It was a week long chance to build relationships with them and try to teach them something about community, accompaniment, faith, love, and servanthood.
It was also a chance to play Ten Candles.
Ten Candles is a newer indie-RPG by Stephen Dewey in which the end of the world happens and the characters all die. Here’s the description from the website, where you can purchase the PDF for a very much worth-it $10:
Ten Candles is a zero-prep tabletop storytelling game designed for one-shot 2-4 hour sessions of tragic horror. It was released in December 2015 and is best played with one GM and 3-5 players. It is played by the light of ten tea light candles which provide atmosphere, act as a countdown timer for the game, and allow you to literally burn your character sheet away as you play. Ten Candles is described as a “tragic horror” game rather than survival horror for one main reason: in Ten Candles there are no survivors. In the final scene of the game, when only one candle remains, all of the characters will die. In this, Ten Candles is not a game about “winning” or beating the monsters. Instead, it is a game about what happens in the dark, and about those who try to survive within it. It is a game about being pushed to the brink of madness and despair, searching for hope in a hopeless world, and trying to do something meaningful with your final few hours left.
My kids got super excited about playing this game. It was all they wanted to talk about, but when the Bible camp counselors caught wind of the game it was like the Satanic panic of the 1980s broke loose all over again. “What is this game?” they asked with a certain degree of fear. Why on earth would I want to play a game with the kids that’s about death? It didn’t help that the game had a pseudo-ritualistic bent to it, involving a dark room late at night with burning candles that are slowly extinguished. I imagined them wondering, “What prayers to the dark powers was this crazy pastor indoctrinating these kids with? What’s the point in a game that encourages and tempts the players to succumb to their darker sides?”
Ten Candles is like Dungeons & Dragons in that in an imagined world the players run free, sin flows a little more freely. The consequences of stealing or lying or running around with your pants off or even killing aren’t as big as they are in real life. But that’s precisely why games like these can be such a powerful tool for teaching, growth, and revelation.
I assuaged the fears of the counselors, and even got one of them to join us in playing. I ran a bigger game than recommended, and as the 11 of us gathered around the table late at night I introduced what was about to happen,
The game we are about to play is a tragedy. The sun has gone out, light is failing, and the one certainty is that death is coming for each of you. Like Romeo and Juliet, and like life itself, there’s no getting out of this alive. And yet hope remains. Each of you will be tested. Each will be tempted. Each will face desperate circumstances. The darkness in each of your characters will offer a temporary respite, but it’s up to you if you embrace that darkness or if you will die still holding onto what is good instead.
Like the book of Revelation, this game is an apocalypse. The world is ending and the truth is being revealed. What will it reveal about you?
The Bible is full of stories of the end of all things as we know it. Apocalyptic is a genre throughout the scriptures, one that Jesus himself uses on multiple occasions. The end of all things brings a freedom with it, a freedom from long-lasting consequences, a freedom from established social norms and cultural structures, a freedom that reveals the deep truth about all things. Who are you when no one is watching? Who are you when the mold of daily life is broken? Who are you when it matters most? Who are you at your deepest level of self? Who are you?
The blessing of role playing games is that they can give us a safe space to experiment and test and discover who we are. It’s a safe space in which we can face our deepest fears and temptations. In playing we can experience both what it’s like to give into our darker sides and what’s it’s like to overcome them, without facing the real life consequences of doing that experimentation with our own selves. The failed character who gives into a lingering drug addiction can be set down when the game is over. Giving into a lingering addiction in real life carries much graver consequences.
So what’s the good of a game that lessons the consequences of sin? It’s the ability to experiment and to learn.
Of course, role-playing in and of itself is just a tool. It can be used for purposes good and ill. The efficacy of the lessons learned depends in large part on the guidance of the Dungeon Master. But this tool is a powerful one. Playing at the end of the world can reveal the deepest and most profound truths of who we are.