The Independents: Bluebeard’s Bride

A young Bride. A powerful and rich man with a beard that is shockingly blue. A massive house full of rooms, each room full of horrors. A ring of keys to open the doors, but one room is forbidden to the Bride by her new husband. A message that calls the husband away, leaving the Bride alone to explore her new home. An inexorable curiosity that drives her to open the door anyway, only to discover the bodies of previous, slaughtered brides. The husband returns, and discovers what the Bride has done, and the forbidden room gains another occupant. This might summarize the French folktale known as Bluebeard, a story whose most famous surviving version was published all the way back in 1697. But in this case it also summarizes Bluebeard’s Bride, an investigatory horror tabletop roleplaying game from Magpie Games in which you, my friends, are the Bride.

Bluebeard’s Bride was created by Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson, designed using the Powered by the Apocalypse system. Designed as a one-shot game for 3-5 players, the game’s main character is the eponymous Bride of Bluebeard. Bluebeard (who has had many previous wives who have all vanished without a trace) courted her in a whirlwind romance, and the two are newly wed. Bluebeard has been called away from his home on business, however, and has left the Bride with a ring of keys. The house is hers, to explore as she wishes, except for a single room. That one she is forbidden to enter, the only rule Bluebeard has for her. Curiosity inevitably gets the better of the Bride, however, and she begins to explore the home, finding horrors left behind by the lives of other brides. As she learns more about her new husband, a question is posed and must eventually be answered: will she open the final door?

Obviously this isn’t your typical roleplaying game, nor did it get a typical start. Lucky for us, Marissa Kelly was willing to answer my questions about Bluebeard’s Bride! So, how did this game get started?

“In 2014, I helped to lead an event at Gen Con called Hacking as Women, a workshop that was designed to show women how easy it is to create roleplaying games.

During the workshop, I was paired with Sarah and Strix as their system coach. The two of them came up with the core premise of a fairytale horror game that used the Bluebeard story as inspiration. I walked them through a series of tabletop systems and the core elements of game design, but the workshop was the first time all three of us had spent a substantial amount of time together.

Our efforts during the workshop made us feel like we really had the seeds of something. So before we parted ways, I asked if they were interested in taking the project further; we all exchanged information, and started meeting regularly to make it a reality.”

Even if they didn’t tell you right away, given the premise of the game Bluebeard’s Bride is obviously going to be a horror game. Now, horror can be a tricky genre for a tabletop roleplaying game to tackle. You need to have material that’s actually scary, mechanics that work without breaking the tension, and lines that you don’t cross.

The game offers what is thankfully becoming the industry standard for games that edge into potentially disturbing territory: it talks about clearing standards with everyone before play starts, and places the X-Card on the table so people can turn away from subject matter that is too much.

Of course, safety systems in place, the game then needs to be scary. They . . . really pulled that off. The examples of play and the horrors within them are genuinely creepifying, and honestly even the language of the book itself leans heavily into the genre. The various (and very varied within themselves) type of Threats the Bride will face are categorized as (and target her) Body, Motherhood, Religion, and Sexuality, none of which you might call easy to deal with. The horrors can inflict physical, emotional, and social harm upon the Bride, and there are very few options for coming out of a situation without a scratch.

I did wonder though: how can you craft a game of (often visceral) feminine horror (because this is a game that is concretely about the horrors that women can experience) and at the same time, for lack of a better phrase, not have someone slamming their hand on the X-Card in every room? When I asked Marissa about it, turns out my thought was on the right track, but not in a way I expected.

“Fear is a difficult emotion to create at the table. There are many horror games that make players feel tense or worried for their characters through one means or another, but we wanted to really scare the players. Making them worried about the bride’s safety wasn’t enough. We needed them to feel that fear and discomfort deep down in themselves. This was a guiding principle when designing. Every tweak we made had to allow the horror to flow.

So in short, I was trying to design a system in which players would want to slam their hand down on the X-Card over and over. Bluebeard’s Bride is my love letter to ghost stories. The best of those stories haunt us for the rest of our days, compelling us to tell others and spread the feelings evoked when we first heard them. Each telling is different, personalized, and special.”

A big part of what makes the horror of Bluebeard’s Bride is a lack of agency. The Bride lacks a name, she has no real allies she can trust, and she has very limited ways to control the situations she is put into. Even with recognizable PbtA bones, the rules have been worked to help enhance that lack of agency. The highest bonus to an ability a character can get is +1; in most PbtA games a +2 is common to have in at least one ability, and +3 is the max. This lower ceiling means that more hits are going to be of the 7-9 “have to choose something horrible” variety rather than the best-case 10+ result, and misses will be more common.

An interesting design choice, however, is that many moves do not require you to roll dice at all. For example, when you investigate a mysterious object you are simply allowed to ask two of the four available questions. No way to miss, but no way to ask more questions either. Why did the team make this design choice?

“Those moves started out just like all the others; the Bride explored a haunted room looking for evidence of what happened, to whom, and why. Each time she did so, she picked up 2d6 and let the move and the Groundskeeper [the GM for the game] guide her through the uncertainty of what she uncovered. As playtesting continued, however, it became clear that there was no uncertainty in those moments and rolling the dice every time the Bride investigated something was destroying the suspense we had been building.

During one of the later playtests, a friend of mine suggested I go back to what I liked about ghost stories for inspiration and consider not rolling dice for those moves. I tried it and got the team on board. We saw that players were no longer getting distracted or torn away from the dread being built by learning what might have happened to whom and why.”

One of the curious aspects about playing Bluebeard’s Bride is obvious right in the title: it’s about a Bride, not multiple Brides. What this means mechanically is that every player ‘character’, referred to as Sisters, isn’t actually an individual person, but rather a facet of the Bride’s personality: the Animus, the Fatale, the Mother, the Virgin, and the Witch. So why are we splitting the bride’s psyche, and were there facets that didn’t make the cut?

“Collectively playing one character is in keeping with both the horror genre and the original fairy tale our game is emulating. Featuring more than one character—a party—undermines the feeling of helplessness and has the effect of empowering the players. From the initial pitch session, it was important to us that the players not feel like they are in control of the situations that arise.

The playbooks are very simple, so we needed to make sure each archetype was evocative and different from each other as possible. To start, we had a 6th Sister (the Oracle) who could see visions of what was to come behind each door. We cut her from the game a) because she was very much like the Witch and b) she was disrupting the flow of the game by giving players the option to not go into a room they already selected. The ability to glimpse an impression of what was to come from the next room was a mechanic we already built into the keys [each of which is described in play, offering a hint at what lays beyond their door]. So all in all the Oracle was cut because she was, in many ways, an echo of other mechanics we had already designed.”

Each playbook has a few Moves that are unique to it, along with three Stats: Blood (connection to the horrific), Carnality (expression of the horrific), and Resilience (resistance to the horrific). Character creation, as simple as it is, involves assigning a 0 and a -1 to two of the stats (the +1 is already set, depending on the Sister) and choosing one of the Sister’s Moves to use in your game. For example the Witch might choose The Medium, which lets her suffer trauma in order to commune with and learn about the horrors of a given room, while the Virgin might choose The Lily, which lets her care for someone without having to demonstrate her sincerity so long as she is showing them something beautiful. The rest is Wedding Prep and Sisterly Bonds, establishing elements of this particular story before play and the relationship mechanic between Sisters, respectively.

Play is straightforward but rather freeform. The Bride wanders from room to room, exploring her new home and being exposed to the horrors that lay within, as described by the Groundskeeper and elaborated and acted upon by the players. Aside from playbook-specific moves there are three types of Moves: Maiden, Ring, and Exit. Maiden moves can be used by any Sister at any time, such as take stock. Ring moves can only be used by the Sister currently in possession of ‘the Ring’, a mechanic to indicate which Sister is in the spotlight/in control; the Ring will move pretty regularly, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not. Ring moves are a lot more physical, such as caress a horror or dirty yourself with violence. Exit moves are how the Bride can leave a room, and there are only two of them. Escape is simply running for it, and it won’t be pretty. Propose a Truth, however, is much more important. The Sister with the Ring details what they think happened in the room, to whom, and why, before taking a token from the room that supports their interpretation of what went on. It might be a Token of Faithfulness, bringing the Bride closer to trusting her husband, or it might be a Token of Disloyalty, bringing the Bride closer to proving to herself that Bluebeard is evil. Collect three of a kind of Token and the game comes to an end, posing a final question and its consequences to the players.

There’s another way for the game to end: Trauma. Each playbook has a Trauma track of five. If a Sister ever marks five Trauma, she Shatters, essentially being taken out of the game. The player still has a role, thankfully: the Groundskeeper can ask them to describe the horrors the remaining Sisters have to face. If every Sister Shatters, the Bride succumbs to the horrors of the house and become one herself.

Eventually, the Bride has collected enough Tokens (or fully Shattered), and the Sisters have a choice presented to them. If they collected three Tokens of Faithfulness, they believe they can trust Bluebeard, and choose whether to open the door or merely peek through the keyhole. Three Tokens of Disloyalty, and the Bride must choose to try and present their evidence to the town or flee completely and start a new life. Fully Shattered, and the Bride chooses between becoming a horror that tries to perfect herself or a horror that tries to perfect future Brides. The players make their choice, questions are asked of them that will detail the consequences, and the tale is over.

The original tale of Bluebeard is one of those stories that, by virtue of its age and its nature, has a lot of different versions, many with bad endings and some even with comparatively happy ones.  The book makes mention of this, and the one example whose author it names (Perrault) is one of those that has a happy future. Not so for Bluebeard’s Bride. Whether loyal, disloyal, or mentally shattered the Bride will find herself coming to a bad end. I asked Marissa why the team kept the game on the side of the downer ending.

“The kind of horror we are emulating relies on a fatalistic sense of powerlessness. If you can “win” the game it doesn’t feel true to this haunted house where you take on the role of a woman who is defined by her lack of agency.

The feeling you would get from a happy ending would undermine the premise we have set up and the principles we have established. In a happy story, the lessons learned are very different and the Bride, for example, might need a name to honor what she has been through.”

Bluebeard’s Bride is designed as a one shot game, but you have the option for a kind of continuity with a previously-played Bride appearing in the next game as the horror for one of the rooms the new Bride has to explore. I asked Marissa if she had any examples of this, and her answer was more about the nature of the option itself.

“I have found that this option mostly serves as an easter egg for the Groundskeeper. Something that serves as a wicked little treat for them and no one else. A secret game of sorts.

By the nature of our hobby, many Groundskeepers will run the game for different groups and most players won’t know that their Groundskeeper is calling on the horror inspired by a previous bride. But once revealed, I find that players get excited by the idea that their Bride will somehow be immortalized through the weight of the horrors she perished beneath.”

So, what kind of advice does Marissa have for prospective Groundskeepers and Sisters looking to give Bluebeard’s Bride a try?

“Try to scare yourself. If you can do that, you will have no trouble scaring your players. Give into what scares you, feed that fear, let it wash over you, let it drown you, and tell the kind of story that will haunt you for years to come.

The rest will follow.”

Final words for our readers?

“Horror means many things to many people. It allows us to create a beautiful expression of humanity rarely examined, one that allows our heroes to be uncertain, fearful, flawed, or even violent.

My hope is that Bluebeard’s Bride opens a door and supports players in exploring their own dark creativity and that this is not the last haunted house game that asks us to tell those stories.”

Bluebeard’s Bride is not for the faint of heart, but for horror fans or people at least interested in exploring it I haven’t come across another game that works as well within that genre. The content is genuinely scary, the rules all work towards maintaining the right vibe, there is a surprising amount of room for creativity (even for a PbtA game) on both the side of the Groundskeeper and the Sisters, and even the basic ‘How to Play’ text is written to start making the shadows seem deeper. Even the look of the book (which is very nice even in PDF form) helps with this: there’s weird, echoey-looking text all over the place, blood drips from section dividers, the art is extremely well done, and important text is often an eerie blue.

Personally, if I played Bluebeard’s Bride I might not sleep much that night, but no small part of that time would be spent messaging people to talk about the game. Bluebeard’s Bride is available on DTRPG in PDF form, and you can find physical copies and printouts on Magpie Games’ own site.

What will you find in your new husband’s house? What horrors will haunt you? What darkness will you find within yourself?

Will you open the final door?

Thanks to our own Aki for getting the ball rolling on this one, and thanks to Mark D. Truman and Dakota Davis of Magpie Games for getting back to us about reviewing Bluebeard’s Bride, including a review copy. And, of course, thanks to Marissa for answering my questions about the game.

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P.S. Bluebeard’s Bride has two supplements out, the Book of Lore and the Book of Rooms, with the Book of Mirrors on the way. I asked Marissa how a workshop-born game grew to have a multitude of extra books, and . . .

“The idea for supplements came, in part, from when we all agreed we wanted to publish the game through my company, Magpie Games. We wanted to make sure the product had every advantage we could give it, so we offered Kickstarter backers supplements and other great materials for playing the game. We wanted to make sure Groundskeepers had as much support to run the game as we could give them! I have a huge appreciation for GMs and what they do for our hobby, so I was all for anything I can do to make the game more accessible.”

And you can find out more when we review all three, coming soon!

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