A son learning the truth about his father, a father his mother escaped from. A teacher alone on the cold school grounds, caught between a marriage offer and the street. A ‘patient’ confined to the halls of the insane, questioning her own mind. A showgirl trapped among the carnival’s tents as surely as the locked doors of a manor. A guard finding herself locked up with the prisoners instead of them being locked up with her. Bluebeard’s Bride is a game of feminine horror from Magpie Games, wherein the eponymous bride finds herself wandering her husband’s home, experiencing the horrors within, and facing a terrible choice. When the Bride looks into a shattered mirror, however, her image splits and warps into something new. Such is what happens in the latest supplement for Bluebeard’s Bride, the Book of Mirrors!
Following after the Book of Lore and the Book of Rooms, the Book of Mirrors fits right into a pattern I’ve noticed with Magpie’s Powered by the Apocalypse Games; like Unbound for Masks: A New Generation, the Book of Mirrors is the third supplement released for its game, and both books have the same primary goal: the presentation of new playsets, which change the narrative framework, the setting, and even the rules to enable a different way to play the core game. The new worlds we can glimpse through the shattered mirrors are Bluebeard’s Legacy, the Boarding School, the Condemned Asylum, the Dark Carnival, and the Correctional Facility. As we’ll see each offers a different premise, unique set-pieces, new threats, and even its own special playbook.
An interesting and important note before we dig in: the Book of Mirrors is technically a standalone book. Granted, it recommends that the Groundskeeper have some experience with the original version of Bluebeard’s Bride, and it doesn’t go into the minutiae that the core book does, but the fact is that every rule and piece of material you’ll need to run any of these playsets is within the book. A Groundskeeper and group of players could show up with only the Book of Mirrors and the accompanying printouts for their chosen playset and be good to go. It might be a small thing, but it’s a good thing.
Now. The mirrors beckon. You enter, and the world closes behind you . . .
The first playset in the Book of Mirrors is at the same time the most familiar and the most different. The default assumption is that it takes place in the same ‘Once upon a time’ setting as a standard game of Bluebeard’s Bride, and it involves a character wandering the halls and room of a mansion/manor/house and staggering through the horrors within. The character in question, however, is not a Bride: it is a Son.
Obviously that immediately changes a whole lot about the basic assumptions of the game. Rather than being married to Bluebeard our victim was born to a Bride who managed to escape, but the Son finds himself drawn back to his father’s home and his legacy despite his mother’s stories. Rather than explore horror through a feminine lens this playset forces a group to look at the same actions through how they affect those who grow up in their shadow.
In place of reading the fairy tale to open the game, the Groundskeeper reads the Brothers a letter from Bluebeard to his lost child, imploring him to return and assume the property, position, and wealth of their family. As surely as a Bride is trapped by outwardly generous behavior and social expectations, the Son is captured by the obligations of family, the urge to keep up the eponymous legacy, and the calling into question of rebellious (i.e. his mother’s) viewpoints.
The Groundskeeper is advised in three ways. First, the Son is not Bluebeard, and the horror of his father may not breed true; while he certainly might end up taking his father’s place, the Son should start off with conscience intact. Second, the relationship between the Son and the servants and horrors of the house is somewhat different in Bluebeard’s Legacy. Powerlessness is still the bane of the character, but it comes at the players through a different lens. The mansion’s inhabitants may view the Son as someone to be ‘protected’, mistake him for his father, or try to shape him towards their own ends. Thirdly, the concept of legacy is important in this playset, but as with everything Bluebeard has twisted it; the Son is not the only offspring Bluebeard has tried to build a legacy with, and the forbidden room (ostensibly the chambers holding a dying Bluebeard) may yet be filled with the corpses of those who came before.
The choices presented to the Son are also somewhat different. A Faithful Son assumes ownership of his father’s estate, and chooses between taking a wealthy bride himself and trying to shun the tradition of taking wives. A Disloyal Son tries to avoid the horror of his father’s past, either burning the estate to the ground or fleeing the crimes of his family (but not fleeing far enough). A Shattered Son gives in to the horror, and either becomes the next Bluebeard or joins the other Wives and Sons as a horror of the house.
The Threats the Son faces are different as well, focusing on Fatherhood, Lineage, Religion and Virility. Bluebeard’s Legacy also has a new playbook, although the number of playbooks doesn’t increase, as an original one is replaced (which is the same for the other four playsets here). The playbook in this playset is the Heir, replacing the Witch. With a +1 to Blood, the Heir’s moves focus on assuming the power of the master of the house: claiming ownership of parts of the house and learning their secrets, gaining strength as other Brothers Shatter, and mastering the servants.
This playset flips the gender back to the familiar for Bluebeard’s Bride, and also maintains some similarities to the core game by keeping marriage on the table. The character in this playset is the Teacher who receives a letter from her employer the headmaster of Wolfmoor, a British boarding school in the 1800s. The letter is particularly galling, talking about how the Teacher might corrupt the youth at the school with her ‘feminine wiles’, and proposing that marriage to the headmaster may be just what she needs to gain the calm required to keep her job. To give her time to consider the offer, he has demanded she remain at the school over winter break, to reflect on the school’s mission and her future there.
The difference between a core game and the Boarding School are a little more subtle. There are rooms, and keys (and a crest instead of a ring), but the playset wants to emphasize the isolation of the school. The Teacher is the only teacher present, the headmaster is away, and both the staff and the student body are at skeleton crew levels while the grounds are gripped by the cold emptiness of winter. Speaking of the student body, they are technically under the Teacher’s authority, but only technically; they “make demands . . . from a position of inferiority”, asserting themselves and reminding the Teacher that she is no headmaster. Finally, the isolation is once again ramped up; the Teacher loves her work, and to refuse the headmaster’s ‘kind’ offer would mean she would lose her job and never gain another one with the same prospects. Worse, there is no nearby village or town to flee to; Wolfsmoor is as sealed by the howling winds as a prison by chains.
A Faithful Teacher can either choose to enter the Headmaster’s Study, earning the death we’re familiar with from Bluebeard’s Bride (although the use as a teaching tool after the fact is arguably more gruesome), or accept the headmaster’s offer and become bound by his demands. A Disloyal Teacher may try to get the school shut down at her own peril or head for the hills and a future of being blackballed from her profession for her trouble. A Shattered Teacher becomes a Horror either obsessed with protecting the children or one that fuels their deviance.
The Threats that the Teacher has to face include the Body, Puberty, Religion, and Students, emphasizing the Teacher’s youth and the paradoxical lack of authority she possesses. The new playbook for the Boarding School is the Pure, which replaces the Virgin. With a +1 to Resilience the Pure’s moves focus on a ‘cold and contained facade’, telling others how to make it all better, using book knowledge and expertise, and giving stern (yet inviting) instructions.
For this playset we find ourselves in the 1910s, and the Patient finds themselves locked in a soon-to-be-closed asylum. The letter to the Patient is from the head psychiatrist of the Wolfbriar Asylum, assuring her that her stay at the asylum is for the best, that curing her will be the crown jewel of Bluebeard’s career, and that the claims of the other female inmates are not to be trusted. For a woman to have dangerous opinions of any kind is obviously an illness of the mind, and the remaining staff of Wolfbriar have the Patient’s best intentions at heart . . .
Rather than the locked rooms of a mansion or the classrooms and facilities of a school this playset is exploring hospital rooms and the few remaining patients and staff that reside within. The Condemned Asylum emphasizes establishing a dreamlike state; the patients (or at least the psychic impressions they’ve left behind as Horrors) are struggling with both the abuses they’re suffering at the hands of the staff and their own shattered psyches, blurring the lines significantly. To that end the concept of gaslighting, undermining the Patient’s perception of reality by contradicting the truth with relentless lies and deceptions, is highlighted as a staple of asylum horror and thus a useful tool for the Groundskeeper. Last but not least, the playset has a lot to say when it comes to body horror and explicit violence. While both are integral to the more medical breeds of horror, the book cautions against being too up front with them to avoid interfering in the build-up of tension. The results of the horrible experiments should be held in reserve, only hinted at, until the Sisters attempt to leave a room.
A Faithful Patient can choose to enter the Doctor’s Laboratory, wherein he ‘fixes’ her, or simply look through the keyhole and accept her role as Bluebeard’s career-making patient. A Disloyal Patient can attempt to present evidence to the scientific community, which goes about as well as you’d expect it to go, or flee and try to start anew with her family suffering behind her. A Shattered Patient becomes a Horror focused on trying (and failing) to be Bluebeard’s perfect patient or a Horror that feeds on making future Patients perfect for him instead.
The Patient’s Threats are Mania, Religion, Sexuality, and Trust, putting the spotlight on the Patient’s psyche and the unreliability of reality around her. The new playbook for the Condemned Asylum is the Nurse, which replaces the Mother. A +1 Carnality playbook, the Nurse’s moves center around ‘helping’ others: giving one Sister life from another, helping male residents or horrors act upon others and finding peace in the act, or taking away another Sister’s pain for a time.
There’s no business like show business, and in this particular case it’s likely to get a certain Showgirl killed, or worse. It’s the 1950s, and the Showgirl in question has received a letter after a successful audition; Bluebeard, Ringmaster of the traveling Carnival of Dark Wonders, desperately wants her for his troupe, urging her to disregard the rumors about previous showgirls as the slander of those seeking the end of the carnivals. While the ringmaster is going to be in the next county for her first day of work, the Showgirl is encouraged to explore the ‘monstrous beauty’ of her new employer’s tents, and meet her fellow performers.
Many of the same tropes will show up in a Dark Carnival game as a Bluebeard’s Bride game; while there are tents and flaps and tickets instead of room and doors and keys, the situations the Showgirl gets into are no easier to escape from. A particularly key difference, however, is that much of the horror is explicit: the Spider Lady and the knife throwers and the cyclops baby in formaldehyde are announced right on the signage of the tents they reside in. Dark Carnival thus relies strongly on the Groundskeeper feinting, convincing the Showgirl that she knows what she’s dealing with when she spots a dark wonder, letting her believe she understands the illusion being presented to the audience before the horror is proven to be real.
Speaking of audiences, the Showgirl is somewhat less alone among the tents than the Bride in the mansion. Fellow carnies are all over the place, and while it may be off-hours at the carnival crowds of rubes (customers) can still be found here and there, providing quite a different feel to the game.
A Faithful Showgirl may choose to enter Bluebeard’s tent, becoming his monstrous right hand, or resist entering the tent and become bitter and jealous of other showgirls. A Disloyal Showgirl may go to the authorities to shut the carnival down, leading to everyone but Bluebeard suffering the consequences, or forget showbiz forever and end up begging for a mind-numbing job. A Shattered Showgirl might become a Horror haunting the tents, but she might also try and flee from her own deviance, attempting to bury her own ‘strangeness’ with an ordinary life.
While in the spotlight the Showgirl will be threatened by Publicity, Religion, Sexuality, and the Workplace, putting that same spotlight on her desire for wonder, fame, and respect. The new playbook for the Dark Carnival is the Diva, which replaces the Fatale. Unsurprisingly the +1 Blood playbook’s moves are all about putting on a show, performing a carnal song to earn favors, taking control of the signet ring from her fellow Sisters, and telling a crowd what makes their monstrosity beautiful.
The newest Guard of the Granville Correctional Facility has received a generous job offer from the warden, in thanks for her recently deceased father’s service as part of the warden’s inner circle. The warden’s letter to her informs the Guard that she has a lot of responsibility to assume, expresses his hopes that she will be able to take her father’s place, welcomes her standing as the first female guard (it is the 1980s after all), emphasizes obedience, and invites her to familiarize herself with the facility.
So, obviously, we have cells to explore instead of the more traditional rooms, along with the activity areas such as the library and support areas such as the cafeteria. The stories the Guard will uncover will be the tales of the female prisoners that have nominally survived the horrors of the prison, or the ghosts of those who didn’t make it. As a result of this prison setting one of the drives of the playset is that of punishing deviance and disobedience; every prisoner here is ostensibly deserving of punishment for the crimes they have allegedly committed, but in no way does the playset suggest that those punishments will be fair or right.
The playset also adds an additional wrinkle to the troubling nature of the story: race. Wealth, class, and gender remain concerns, but the Correctional Facility points out there is often an element of racial issues behind any story featuring a prison, and suggests making Granville a diverse population. About half of the section about race in women’s prisons is cautionary, however; the X-Card is probably getting tapped enough as is, and the book implores the Groundskeeper to avoid indulging in ‘sloppy stereotypes’ when it comes to the prisoners and the horrors in the cellblocks.
A Faithful Guard that enters the warden’s office is killed for it, although being punished seems good and proper to her by that point; she might also resist the temptation, taking her father’s place among the warden’s inner circle and protecting him whatever the cost. A Disloyal Guard might go to the authorities, although it will cost her career and gain her the warden’s harassment, but if she cuts and runs she’ll be able to vanish into menial work for a time . . . until the tokens she kept gets her sent back to Granville as an inmate. A Shattered Guard will either become obsessed with serving Bluebeard, often going too far and never quite pleasing him, or dedicate her life to bettering the inmates (to their increasing detriment).
The Guard must face the Threats of Body, Brutality, Guilt, and Sexuality, taking on the horror of a system designed to punish instead of rehabilitate and a society far different from a civilian one. The new playbook for the Correctional Facility is the Judge, which replaces the Animus. Gaining a +1 to Blood, the Judge is exactly what it says on the tin, with moves that center on discovering the guilt of others, browbeating NPCs into acting with dire threats, and forgiving the innocent while punishing the guilty (or at least those accused of being guilty).
Appropriately enough the Book of Mirrors falls into the same category as Unbound does for Masks: if none of these playsets are catching your eye, then the immediate usefulness of the Book drops significantly for you. This is slightly more acute than with Unbound, actually, because the new playbooks in the Book of Mirrors are very tightly tied to their respective playsets; you won’t be able to readily use them elsewhere (at least not without tweaking the core game yourself).
While it’s not a universally applicable supplement, however, the Book of Mirrors remains a strong one. In a genre that’s already difficult for tabletop roleplaying games to parse, the Book of Mirrors takes the unique approach of Bluebeard’s Bride and manages to spin it six more unique and fascinatingly horrible ways. For a game like BB that is very focused, a supplement like the Book of Mirrors can only broaden its audience.
Of all the playsets I’d have to say Bluebeard’s Legacy and the Dark Carnival catch my interest the most. Bluebeard’s Legacy has the most drastic change by making its character and the facets of that character’s personality male, really flipping the original tale on its head, . This allows the playset to address an entirely different consequence of the horrors women can experience, that gut-punch of what happens to the children who have to live with the legacy of what’s been done, which strikes me as important given what Bluebeard’s Bride has striven to do. As for the Dark Carnival, the setting tickles my fancy, and I find the obvious yet subtle nature of how the playset has to present its dark wonders a particularly interesting take on the genre and challenge for the Groundskeeper.
Go on. Take a look into the Mirrors. Just try not to get yourself Shattered.
Thanks to our own Aki for getting the ball rolling on this one, and thanks to Mark D. Truman, Dakota Davis, and Marissa Kelly of Magpie Games for getting back to us about reviewing Bluebeard’s Bride, including a review copy of the Book of Mirrors.
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Header image is by Rebecca Yanovskaya, from the cover of the Book of Mirrors, copyright Magpie Games.