OK, lemme tell you about my favourite session at Go Play Northwest.
Bluebeard’s Bride (Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, Sarah Richardson) is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about feminine horror. The story always loosely follows the fairy-tale, with play focused around exploration of the many rooms of the castle. The players all play aspects of the Bride’s personality, who pass off control to one another as play progresses; in our game we played the naive and trusting Virgin, the sultry, sexual Fatale and the scheming, slightly monstrous Witch. Bluebeard is absent, but you are likely to interact with his servants.
(Content warning: this is a game that’s fundamentally about abuse, particularly domestic abuse. Actual play inevitably forms a sort of makeshift raft cobbled together from content-warning-worthy subjects. This is a game intended to fuck you up.)
It’s lavishly produced. Storygame production polish varies a lot, from ratty PDFs and queer punk trash aesthetic to cloth-printed scrolls and hand-carved props, but Bluebeard is off the charts. The Kickstarter had a lot of bonus options, and one of our players had opted for a lot of them: custom dice and tokens, a hardback rulebook with gilt covers and lavish colour illustration with a lot of black and gold.
This fits in really well with the theme: Apocalypse World and Monsterhearts are thematically good fits for grimy zine aesthetics, but Bride is about fairytale palaces, an environment of fantastic luxury, Gothic excess and swarming detail. Black and gold. (Or it is by default. I’m sure you could run it as a tacky McMansion or a crumbling Soviet apartment complex.) All of this isn’t necessary during actual play – our MC mostly relied on their own notes, and as players we didn’t look at the books at all. But there were still nice details: the active player is indicated by possession of the wedding-ring, a symbolically fraught object that you can wear, or fidget with, or place carefully in front of you. (This is a game very much about the symbolism and physicality of objects: see also the ring of keys, authority and imprisonment.) There’s a book supplement that’s just room concepts. There are a bunch more books and a tarot deck of Servants forthcoming. It’s a really nice game, produced with the expectation of an audience that appreciates nice objects; more than that, it suggests a game where careful attention to aesthetics and atmosphere matters a great deal.
By PbtA standards, this is a game that leans heavily on the MC to make the game work; in Monterhearts the best moments are often when the MC sits back and lets the players drive the story, but in Bride you need to constantly work to keep the pressure on. It’s a deeply setting-driven game, and it’s horror; strong development of setting and attention to pacing are crucial. (The MC is referred to as the Groundskeeper, emphasizing that they’re primarily a caretaker of place). The place where the MC does get to relax a little is interpretation: the work of saying what this stuff means – about Bluebeard, about the house, about the horrific events behind horrific manifestations – is put on the players, and rarely if ever does the MC have to confirm or commit to it. But it is a game that’s really helped by an MC with presence.
Mechanically it has quite a bit going on, but the things that are surfaced to players are relatively simple. (We also played pretty loosey-goosey with the rules in our session – our MC could have been a lot more aggressive about Shiver with Fear, for instance.) The character sheet is a single, square page without a vast amount of stuff on it. There are only three core stats, no character advancement, a choice of three custom Moves per character.
The right players and attitude are unavoidably important, too; I wouldn’t recommend playing this in an unvouched-for pick-up group, or with people you didn’t feel comfortable around. This is a game that rewards focus, respect for its mood. (I consciously avoided engaging in too much tone-breaking table-talk, and that was the right choice.) We weren’t playing in the ideal environment – a lobby at a small convention, with crowds of adolescent children intermittently flooding past – but we had just enough seclusion to make it work. (We’d likely have gone harder in a less public setting, but it wasn’t prohibitive.)
Everything in the game is a threat. This is explicitly a game about feminine trauma; rooms all carry hidden or not-so-hidden dangers. Curating the rooms of the castle goes a long way to establishing the particular themes of your story; religion and particularly body-image stuff features more heavily in the book than it did in our game, but we ended up doing a lot of stuff about being made to feel – or actually be – complicit in the abuse of others. You could probably play it without heavy body horror or BDSM-like elements, though those might be tricky to entirely avoid.
I would hesitate to play it with a mostly-cis-male group; our MC requested mostly-women-and-femme-identified players. I have very mixed feelings about the thought of running it – I really like the prospect of MCing a game with such an emphasis on the aesthetics of rooms and objects. But this is definitely one of those games in the My Life with Master tradition, wherein the power imbalance between gamesmaster and player is used for themes of abuse; here, the Groundskeeper is responsible for inflicting especially female-coded forms of trauma on the Bride. I wouldn’t entirely rule it out, but it’d take some additional care. I’m interfering with the dynamic to some extent just by being at the table.
A really cool thing that quickly emerged through play was the dynamic between the sisters, the different aspects of the Bride; this is a game about sisterhood, and it makes for a very nuanced dynamic. (A recurring theme at this year’s Go Play was happy, femme-coded, suitable-for-children games about straightforward friendship and mutual support, so this formed a striking contrast). The very different roles set up a system that encompasses a little eye-rolling and resentment as well as a lot of interdependence and mutual support. There were times where we said – god, why did we let the Fatale handle this? But there were also a lot of moments that emerged where the natural and clear thing to do was to hand authority over to a better-suited sister. The Virgin was anxious and panicking about a magically-induced pregnancy, and the Witch said, let me handle this, you’ll be OK. The Witch was hopelessly tangled up in figuring out how to out-think Bluebeard in what seemed like an impossible situation, and the Virgin cut through the knot by doing a straightforward good and kind thing that the other sisters couldn’t have done sincerely. We stumbled into a kinky sexual encounter which we couldn’t entirely read the implications of, and we handed off to the Fatale, who could be confident and powerful on that uncertain ground.
The handing-off also works as a good balancing mechanic: as the Witch I was inclined to get tangled up in theorising and to do horrifying things in self-defence or pursuit of power, but being able to hand off meant that I could hold off getting inextricably tangled, self-destroyingly dark, which also meant that the action could still move forwards when my overanalysis turned to paralysing paranoia. The inactive players can comment – give advice, act as a peanut-gallery – or stay silent, and this showed up in really cool ways, too. Sometimes as the active player it makes sense to ask for advice in general, or check in with someone who might have a particular insight; at times we’d more directly conflict (‘quiet, you’, ‘well apparently I have to do this all on my own’). Having three players did limit the range of our interaction a little here, though; we had a slight pattern of the more cynical Witch and Fatale siding against the naive Virgin, and a four or five-sister setup might have offered more permutations.
The thing that clash was about: theoretically, the game’s exploration is about the question of whether the sisters see Bluebeard as a killer or a misunderstood and good man – which gets reflected back on the Bride as disloyalty or faithfulness. Out of character, thing is, we pretty much know that Bluebeard is a wrong ‘un: that’s how the story goes, and his scripted actions in the game don’t leave a lot of ambiguity. So going for a Faithful outcome is reliant on a certain amount of naïveté or gaslighting, and quite a lot of that is dependent on which sisters are in play and how they get characterised early on. Our Witch and Fatale were not personas who were ever hugely likely to go Faithful; I tried to wrangle the Witch over a little bit but couldn’t get her to buy in as wholeheartedly as required. Again, for this to work you kind of need to consciously gaslight your character. This isn’t too far from normal storygaming behaviour – ‘my character believes something that I know isn’t true’ – but with this framing it’s more potent, and I don’t think we were in quite a grim enough headspace for that.
We also didn’t get to explore the Shattering mechanic, in which a Sister who’s taken too much Trauma twists against her sisters and becomes an aspect of the house, a kind of supplemental MC; shades of the Darkest Self in Monsterhearts and the swamp ghosts of Carolina Death Crawl.
Bluebeard’s Bride does not conspicuously offer uplifting endings. There are an abundance of ways to reach a tragic and horrifying conclusion; a happy-ish ending is possible by the rules, but it’d require some creative interpretation.
The thing about PbtA is that its game verbs are foregrounded as Moves; Moves are where the rubber meets the road, the machines that transform force between themes and play. So I always like to analyse Moves in particular when I’m thinking about the construction of a PbtA game.
Bride‘s Moves are divided into three categories: Maiden moves, which any player can use at any time, and Ring and Exit moves, which can only be used by the current holder of the Ring.
Maiden moves are a lot less potent than Ring moves. You don’t roll dice for them; their outcomes are straightforward. Two of the Moves (Investigate a Mysterious Object and Take Stock) are basically EXAMINE verbs, basic tools in an investigation/exploration game. The other, Care for Someone, is kind of tonally crucial. It’s the only active Maiden move, which means that, uniquely, it’s an act that remains possible even when the Ring is with someone who isn’t inclined to it. Caring is always a possibility for the Bride, whatever else she is in that moment.
Passing the Ring, then, is a significant but not total shift in agency. Maiden moves are soft, well-behaved; Ring moves get you into trouble and blamed for it. When you have the Ring you feel pressure bearing on you and it’s often a relief to give it up; but when you don’t have it you often wish you did.
All of the Ring moves are fundamentally responses to Terrible Shit happening. Some are ways to address the problem (Dirty Yourself with Violence, Caress a Horror, Cry Out for Help) and some are internal responses (Shiver from Fear, Give up the Ring). But they all involve an implicit statement of weakness, of failing to be a Good Woman.
Shiver from Fear is a move triggered by player reactions: “when the player of the Sister with the ring squirms in her seat, shudders, or utters words of discontent.” (Compare Victor Gijsbers’ Vampires, a game not intended to be actually played, in which power is gained by making other players uncomfortable by your in-game actions). Shiver from Fear makes bad stuff happen – the Bride is corrupted, threatened or traumatised by it. (You can lessen the impact by passing the Ring.) Shivering is there to draw attention to and amplify horror, to make foreboding work as a self-fulfilling prophecy – but also to punish the Bride for feeling squeamish or afraid in a situation that’s been designed to make her feel that way.
Caressing a Horror is about leaning into monstrosity, redirecting the damage onto other victims; you can’t defuse or transform it. To do this, the Bride must be vulnerable, intimate or sympathetic with horrors. Caressing a Horror makes you complicit; you are comforting an abuser, abetting further abuse. Clean hands are a luxury you are not afforded.
Dirty Yourself with Violence and Cry Out for Help are pretty straightforward in concept, but the details matter. Again, both tend to assign blame to the Bride or require her to justify herself: all of the Ring moves look as though they’re ways of dealing with problems, but are actually ways of confessing to inadequacy. The central emotional engine of the game is putting the Bride in awful situations and then finding ways to judge and hurt her regardless of what she does.
Give up the Ring is presented as a Move to underline its significance, although in our game we did it very naturally and didn’t need an explicit mechanic for it. Giving up the Ring often feels like ‘I can’t handle this’ or ‘I’m exhausted’; there’s a little bleed here, some feeling of inadequacy as a player. It can be an act of trepidation or of trust, a vote of confidence or a throwing-up of hands in hopelessness. The Ring is a reminder that the authority the Bride can wield is also a chain to Bluebeard. It is a poisonous little thing and meant to feel discomfiting.
And then there’s Exit moves, which are engines of plot in similar ways to Gaze Into the Abyss. Exit moves conclude the present room and advance either Faithfulness or Disloyalty. (The Escape move takes a pass on doing this and moves on to another room.) Propose a Truth is a What Happened Here kind of thing: the player explains what happened in the room, to whom, and why. (Often this is a terrible fate that befell an earlier wife.) This is just an interpretation: the Groundskeeper does not verify the guess, and the other Sisters may choose not to believe it. This is more striking because it cuts against the usual storygame convention of ‘if you narrate it, it’s true’.
So to an extent this is a story about the unreliability and needfulness of personal accounts of trauma: about how one needs to believe in something in order to move forwards, even knowing that the story you choose likely blames or exculpates where it’s not deserved.