Saturday, December 5, 2015

Playtesting Bluebeard's Bride with Sarah Richardson!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of playing a session of Bluebeard's Bride with Emily Care Boss, Hannah Shaffer, and J Li, with the fantastic Sarah Richardson as our GM. (Note: this was an amazing group to play with. WOW.) Sarah Richardson, Marissa Kelly, and Whitney Beltrán are the creators of  Bluebeard's Bride and I was very excited to get into my second playtest of this gorgeous game.

Up front for people interested in this game: First off, this game is still in development and has not been released. Everything in this has the possibility of changing. It is not a game for kids. It often contains very twisted material, including seriously NSFW and graphic descriptions. This review will cover some sexual content (I'll try to keep it relatively vague), generally creepy stuff, and violence against women.

Bluebeard's Bride has a really awesome initial setup. It's currently based on Apocalypse Word mechanics, but it's quite far removed from that material. The game is about the story of Bluebeard, a fairy tale that has seen many different interpretations. The core of the story is that a woman marries a man with a blue beard, and instructs her that she can explore his whole castle except one room, then leaves for business. Eventually she opens that room, and finds that it is full of the corpses of Bluebeard's previous wives. Bluebeard finds out that she's opened the door, and kills her (in some versions she is rescued, but the regular story results in her death). How this plays out in the game and how it ends is something you'll just have to find out through play! My two experiences with this game have been quite different, so it is one of the few games that is kind of encapsulated in one specific story that has a ridiculous amount of replayability.

The general idea in this game is that there is one bride, and the players play different parts of her psyche. The playbooks we used were the Animus (physicality, masculine bravado, and independence), the Fatale (sex, sensuality, and intrigue), the Virgin (innocence, exploration, and critique), and the Witch (transgression, magic, and power). There is also a playbook called the Mother, but we didn't try that out.

The playbooks are one of my favorite things. They include six sections: Wedding Preparations, Sisterly Bonds, Token Tracks, Stats, Burdens, and the Trauma Track. I don't want to overcomplicate this review so I'll just talk about my favorite things: the Wedding Preparations and the Burdens. Wedding preparations are basically character generation. There are questions about whether you trust your husband or not (I didn't), what gift did you give him (a stag's head and the knife I used to cut it off with, to demonstrate my power), and then a question about the physical appearance of the bride, with a second question about the way other people influence her appearance. This was a fascinating exercise.

The Burdens are basically playbook specific moves. I am a huge fan of these. The Animus has one presently (though this could change) that involves investigating objects by breaking them. This was so my thing. I was super excited to play it.

Okay, I do have to mention the other playbook sections: Sisterly Bonds are relationships between you and the other Sisters (pieces of the bride's psyche). To my knowledge there is not a specific mechanic. The Token Tracks are Faithfulness and Disloyalty tracks that are marked when you exit rooms to help determine some of the details of the end game mechanics. Stats are self-explanatory. The Trauma Track is effectively harm. I can't remember exactly what happens when your Trauma Track reaches max, but it's called "shattering" so that's pretty cool. :)

The play involves passing around a ring from player to player in no specific order (the player with the ring chooses who it passes to for the most part). There are moves for investigation, supporting or interfering with other Sisters, and some other really good ones - my favorites are shivering from fear, which is typically called on when the GM sees you get really creeped out (this is an awesome body language thing to me), and dirty yourself with violence, because yesssss.

There is a cool thing where you leave a room and you have choose a token kind of representing what you discovered, which I think is cool because it makes you reevaluate everything having to do with that room. There are also a few instances where the game asks you what the scariest thing or most horrible thing that could happen is. I love how it gives players the agency to terrify themselves.

Agency is actually something really important to me in games. Bluebeard's Bride actually, imo, does a pretty good job with it. First of all, I don't know if the other creators do this, but Sarah did get in touch with players in advance and allow us to flag any major triggers. This is hugely appreciated for me, because the game is filled with a lot of really upsetting things. She also allowed use of an X-card in game. On top of that, Sarah is an incredibly perceptive GM, which I think helps a lot. If you plan to run horror games, I think that it is way valuable to have a good read on body language.

Another part of the agency is that how the players approach the materials - like in other AW games - tends to influence the type of horror and danger, as well as the severity. This allowed us to take things in worse directions for some subjects, and better directions for others. When the game asks "what is the worst thing that could happen here?" the GM can see by our responses what is really working, and where buttons could further be pushed.

Also! I liked that this game has a very elegant way of violating perception. Like, when we play games, they are fiction, and we can have our characters experience stuff like hallucinations - particularly popular in horror. This, however, is a story where we are expecting bad stuff to happen and when the horrific stuff happens it's very easy to assume that it's actually happening! Because the game is contextually horrific, seeing horrific things is very easy to accept as reality. This is able to be turned over its head by the GM revealing the mundanity. It's very cool because it has this element of "this could be real, but it could also not be real, but what is real?!" while still keeping a great flow to the story.

Beyond the mechanics!

The session was SO fun. I am just going to cherry pick some stuff, because while the story changes with every session in a lot of ways, I want to leave a lot more mystery regarding the structure.

In one scene, while the bride was investigating the bathroom, a mosaic on the ceiling depicting a standing man and woman changed by looking into the water in the bath below into the man strangling the woman. While the bride was examining this, a shade of some sort came from behind her, and began to strangle her and shoved her into the water. Upon waking, the bride discovered no markings or other indications that it had happened, except that she was now lying in the bathtub. While examining herself in the mirror, the shade came behind her, and when she tried to attack it, it grabbed her shoulder, and seemed to physically break something. The pain continued throughout the session.

In another scene, the bride was examining some locks of hair and the Witch tried to divine whether they were from violence. The response was for the walls and ceiling to start bleeding, and blood to pour over the bride. When she tried to wipe it off, her skin peeled off as she touched it, coming off in ribbons. When she screamed for help, the maid arrived, and there was nothing happening at all. Instead of the locks of hair on the dresser in front of her, there was a large, wooden dildo. The scene that followed with the generally creepy maid involved a disturbing kinda BDSM scene where the bride was somewhat involved, as well as a second maid.

Later, the bride went into the dining room to discover a huge banquet of food, all of which smelled just like what her mother cooked at home. A third maid offered her a small pie, all the while talking about how the bride shouldn't each very much. The bride eventually dug in and ate a little bit of everything, and by then the other two maids had arrived and they started shaming her, talking about how Bluebeard didn't like chubby girls. Since the Animus (me) was in charge of the character at that point, that resulted in a little violence - the bride hauled off and punched one of the maids, and then two of them held her while that maid punched her in the stomach. When they left, the bride was so full of rage at everything - the maids, Bluebeard, and especially her mother for forcing her to do this - that she shattered a ton of the now-bare plates. That led to another discovery...

The ending scene was incredibly dramatic, and super fucked up, but it was great! The whole exploration of both the house, Bluebeard's character, and the bride herself was fascinating. I fully recommend checking Bluebeard's Bride out soon - playtests are currently rare, but I think it will soon be coming to us all on Kickstarter. I, for one, am hella excited!

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