I first wrote about Bluebeard’ Bride over two years ago, when it was still on Kickstarter. I revisited the game last summer, playing it at Gen Con and discussing it on our third post-Gen Con episode. But I do like to have read an entire roleplaying game book before I review it. And I wasn’t in a position to do that with Bluebeard’s Bride until now.
Bluebeard’s Bride is the mostly purely horrific roleplaying game I have ever encountered. I’m an enormous fan of Vampire: the Masquerade. Legions of fans swear by Call of Cthulhu. But those games have a campaign mindset. The character’s will encounter monstrous things. Or are monstrous things. And they may ultimately succumb. But there will be hope along the way. There is no hope in Bluebeard’s Bride. There are no aspirations of saving the world from cosmic horror. There is no struggle for power. There is just one woman’s tale of her own suffering. The exact nature of her end is in the hands of the players, but it will not be a happy one. But there will be an end – Bluebeard’s Bride only exists as a one-shot.
Bluebeard’s Bride is based on an old, dark fairy tale. As the tale goes (or, at least, one truncated version of it), Bluebeard has a sinister reputation – he has been married multiple times, but no one really knows what happened to his wives. He courts and weds the Bride, whose family is in desperate poverty. On the day of their wedding, after the ceremony, Bluebeard receives a message, and informs the Bride that he must leave on business. He provides her with the keys to every one of the many, many rooms in the house. The Bride is given free access to all of them, save one. This key, to a single closet, he forbids her to use. And over the coming weeks she explores the house until, inevitably, her curiosity leads her to open the forbidden door. There she finds the decapitated corpses of Bluebeard’s prior wives. And when he arrives home and discovers her there, her body joins them.
In Bluebeard’s Bride, all of the players play as the same character – the Bride. Each player represents one aspect of her psyche – the Animus, the Fatale, the Mother, the Virgin, and the Witch. Bluebeard’s Bride is Powered by the Apocalypse, and there is the usual combination of interlocking character creation. Character creation is almost entirely non-mechanical, as each aspect gets to choose details of the Bride’s appearance, her life before meeting Bluebeard, their courtship, and their wedding day (players also get to adjust one stat and pick one special move). Ideally, the Groundskeeper is able to choose rooms and adjust horrors to touch on matters raised during character creation.
During a game of Bluebeard’s Bride, the players will take the Bride from room to room. And in each room she will encounter some horror, learning something about one of Bluebeard’s prior wives, and how she died. Rooms are designed around themes – i.e., body, motherhood, religion, and sexuality – and into a subset within that theme (e.g., beauty standards, family, rituals, humiliation). In each room, the Bride will encounter distinctive objects, interact with them, and then experience the room’s horrors, which typically manifest as hints, then visions, then violence. A horror may present as a skeletal spirit armed with scissors that asks the bride whether she needs to be thinner – then attempts to cut off an arm. The Bride may find a journal of gossip, then discover a cracked ceiling beam over a toppled chair, then be invited to remove her tongue or be strung up herself.
To advance the game, the Bride must face the rooms and take a token from each. In so doing, the Bride must decide the meaning of the room. Were the prior wife’s sins real or imagined? Is there a horror because Bluebeard punished her, or did she self-inflict her punishment due to her own failings. Depending on the choice, the Bride will take either a token of Loyalty or Disloyalty. Once enough tokens of one kind or the other have been taken, the Bride will be faced with a final choice of how to spend the rest of her days.
In advancing through the rooms, the players use moves, as per usual for PbtA games (7-9 somewhat succeeds, 10+ fully succeeds; attributes of Blood, Carnality, and Resilience). The moves are split into two categories. Maiden moves can be made by any player. These include caring for someone, investigating a mysterious object (asking two questions about it, and progressing the horror), and taking stock (getting information from the Groundskeeper about the nature of the room). Caring for someone is a bit more nuanced. Per usual with PbtA, the character must do it to do it – so the Bribe must actually care for someone. That someone could be a horror. Or it could be a servant, one of the many human inhabitants of Bluebeard’s manor, who may or may not be friendly to the bride. Successfully caring for someone can get them to help you or provide information.
Another set of moves are Ring moves. Only one player can hold the Bride’s wedding ring. The ‘normal’ Ring moves are caressing a horror, dirtying yourself with violence (physically attacking), or crying out for help (which summons a servant). Caressing a horror (which, again, requires that the character actually caress the horror) can turn the horror away from the Bride – perhaps there is a servant nearby who needs to lose some weight and could afford to give up an arm? The Ring-bearer can trigger the unique move shiver with fear – which triggers whenever the player shudders, squirms, or expresses trepidation (note: Bluebeard’s Bride does encourage use of the X-card; I have yet to have an RPG session where a player invoked the X-card, but Bluebeard’s Bride is the RPG where I could see that mostly readily happening). When a player shivers with fear, they name what they were most afraid was going to happen – and then the Groundskeeper makes it even worse. The final Ring move is to give up the ring – the former Ring-bearer loses control, but is immune to trauma until that aspect passes the ring (when an aspect of the Bride’s psyche takes too much trauma, it shatters, tormenting its former sisters – if all of the aspects shatter, the Bride faces a distinctive ending). The Ring-bearer is also the only aspect who can attempt to leave the room, either by escaping (just giving up on the room) or by proposing a truth.
Physically, Bluebeard’s Bride is a relatively slim book – about 100 pages (8.5″ x 8.5″). A relatively large portion of this is devoted to examples and other guidance on how to evoke the intended sort of horror while running or playing the game. The full-page art that introduces each chapter is similar in style to the cover (see the art above), with gold and blue (and sometimes red) highlights on an otherwise greyscale image. Other interior art is primarily greyscale, with red highlights – because that’s the color of blood and viscera, and while some of the imagery is haunting, some of it is grisly.
In the hands of a good Groundskeeper, and with a group of players who are interested in really delving into horror, playing Bluebeard’s Bride can be a fabulous experience. It isn’t going to be for everyone. It can be replayed, with a different bride and different rooms (I would replay it, although I don’t think I’d want to play it two weekends in a row).