Written by Whitney “Strix” Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson
October 24, 2017
Bluebeard’s Bride is an extremely unusual tabletop roleplaying game in many ways. It recreates the fable of Bluebeard, a wealthy nobleman who marries women and then kills them. All 3-5 of the players work together and against each other to play a single character, the Bride. The game is built around telling variations of one single story only, rather than the free-form campaigns of traditional roleplaying games. It always ends horribly for the Bride; there is no “winning,” only an exploration of her choices and experiences as she investigates the house of her serial killer husband. Plus, it’s printed on square pages. Who does that?
The authors bring a lot of innovation to the table, though they recognize it’s all based on the work of other contemporary game designers. They credit three games, in particular, as influences. One of those is Monsterhearts by Avery Alder, which is a game I really like the looks of, but haven’t gotten a chance to play yet. Like Monsterhearts, Bluebeard’s Bride is about taking an ostensibly innocent, normal character and dumping her into an impossibly horrific situation that reveals things about her and, by extension, the players.
The idea of having multiple players control one character has been around for a while, perhaps most notably executed in Everyone Is John, a game in which each of the players represents a voice or personality struggling against the others to control John, an “insane man from Minneapolis.” Bluebeard’s Bride is the first game where I’ve seen the concept executed in a way that was mechanically rigorous and not based on a really terrible misunderstanding of freshman psychology.
Rather than playing “voices,” the players each control a “Sister,” which is basically an aspect of the Bride’s personality: her protective side, her innocent side, her seductive side, etc. All of the sisters share the goal of investigating Bluebeard’s house in order to determine whether they will be Faithful to their new husband or Disloyal to him (on account of him being a horrific abuser and serial killer). They all have different advantages that push them toward different styles of play. The Fatale can use her sensuality to redirect the attentions of the horrors of the house, while the Witch can commune with those horrors in the hopes of digging deeper into the dark truths surrounding Bluebeard. Whoever holds the Ring has the most direct control over the Bride, but her Sisters can take limited actions of their own even when they don’t have the Ring.
The game is very “dice-light,” in that it only rarely requires rolling dice to determine the outcome of a given action. Most actions are governed by rules with open-ended but defined costs and outcomes. The Animus has the option to protect the other Sisters from Trauma, but she has to convince them that the Trauma is their fault in order to provide that benefit. When the Virgin Investigates A Mysterious Object, she can place the Bride in immediate danger in return for more information. All of these defined Moves involve, to varying degrees, participating in or accepting the abuse and oppression of the Bride or other women in the house.
The players are even involved in the creation of the rooms full of horrors they must explore. At the beginning of each game, and after leaving each room, whichever Sister holds the Ring is asked to describe the key she uses to unlock the door to the next room. The Groundskeeper is given guidelines on how to use this description in conjunction with what the player has established about their Sister’s fears and desires to create a setting and characters that play (or prey) on those fears and desires. It’s a very effective way to get into the players’ heads, and it’s that kind of personalization that gives makes tabletop roleplaying a fruitful medium for horror.
My concern is really that it’s almost too easy, and that not everyone who takes on the role of Groundskeeper has the skill and experience to avoid doing more harm than good once they’ve gotten inside their player’s head. This complicity isn’t accidental. It’s the cornerstone of the horror of the game. The idea, as I understand it, is to experience types of violence and abuse that most women (and many others) are very familiar with, but to do so via the relative safety of fiction. This is the appeal of horror: the excitement of danger with the reassurance of safety. On a conceptual level, it’s brilliant. In reality, well, the psychological realities of trauma don’t exactly work like that.
The one big problem I have with this game is represented in the core game mechanic of Faithfulness versus Disloyalty. At the end of investigating each room, the Bride takes an object from that room to serve as a token of what she learned there. The Sister with the Ring at the time decides whether it is a token of her Faithfulness or of her Disloyalty. Accumulating three tokens of either type leads to the end of the game.
The problem with this is that Bluebeard is literally a serial killer. He marries women, abuses them, and then kills them, using his wealth, power, and influence to deflect any consequences. He is never seen or portrayed by anyone during the game, and he isn’t a sympathetic villain in any way, as the writers state explicitly. The “right” thing to do for the Bride would be to get the hell out of there and maybe try to find a way to stop him, but even if she chooses that option, no one believes her, and Bluebeard ruins her life. So it’s not really a question of Faithfulness and Disloyalty. But the game presents that dichotomy specifically, because it boils down to a question of when to push back against patriarchal oppression and when to keep one’s head down, a question which almost every woman on the planet struggles with in some fashion daily in order to preserve their safety.
Trigger warnings or content warnings exist because, for a large number of trauma survivors, just experiencing reminders of that trauma causes significant distress and additional harm. Flashbacks are worlds away from jump scares, even if both involve adrenaline. For the many people whose trauma relates to violence and abuse to women, this game can easily become traumatic rather than horrifying.
Early and often, the authors reference the X-Card, a wonderful roleplaying practice that helps enable players to signal their discomfort with the subject matter of the game in a minimally disruptive fashion. When the X-Card is invoked, whatever just happened is erased from the game, no questions asked. The story backs up to before it happened, and the group proceeds in a direction that avoids the sensitive content. This is very good and very necessary with Bluebeard’s Bride and other horror games which aim to make their players uncomfortable. But here’s the thing about the X-Card, which its author, John Stavropoulos, and many other writers have been emphatic about: The X-Card is not an excuse.
It’s primarily not an excuse for a GM to intentionally introduce subject matter their players have already asked them to not introduce, and on that topic, the authors are obviously in the clear, since they’re authors and not GMs. But I feel that the way the game is structured, incorporating patriarchal abuse and violence into the core rules, puts players in the position of having to invoke the X-Card against the very rules of the game, which is a very different matter than objecting to an event the GM has just described. “I would like to use this power on my character sheet, but I’m not comfortable with having to emulate abusive behavior to do it” is a much harder conversation, especially for players without much tabletop roleplaying experience. Here is where the game falls into a kind of catch-22. The game is clearly intended for women: it’s marketed to women, uses exclusively female language to refer to its players, and revolves around female issues, but since women have historically been excluded from roleplaying, the very people the game is intended for are the least likely to have the experience and skill to navigate the complex situations the game presents.
To be clear, I’m not saying the authors have written Bluebeard’s Bride in an unethical way. They haven’t. They’ve been very clear about what the score is and where they stand on the issue of abuse and violence toward women. They think it’s horrible. That’s why they wrote a horror game about how horrible it is. For people who aren’t aware of the full scope of the issue, this game is likely a magnificent learning tool.
The problem lies in who the game excludes from playing it. No one game is a good fit for every player, and the authors specifically point out that Bluebeard’s Bride is not something everyone will enjoy. That’s fine and good and normal. But one group of people, people who have been deeply traumatized by the types of events depicted in the game, who are very much in need of cathartic, relationship-building roleplaying experiences, are unlikely to be able to fully enjoy or even play the game. It’s unfortunate, and it makes me very uncomfortable to enjoy a story involving those themes when it excludes that group of players. But I also don’t see a clear way that the authors could have made the game as intense and horrifying without structuring it the way they did. I’m sure it’s possible, and I hope other authors will be inspired by Bluebeard’s Bride to write that game.
There are a lot of elements of the game that I found very enjoyable and creative. The Ring and the various Moves set up a dynamic between the players that is an unusual blend of cooperative (they all want to do what’s necessary to stay alive) and competitive (they all have various ideas about what exactly is necessary). The Ring gives the player who holds it a huge amount of control over the narrative, arguably more than the GM (whom the game calls the Groundskeeper, which I think is cute). But whenever the Sister with the Ring exercises that power, the Ring passes to another Sister, which ensures that each player has a chance to control the direction of the story.
Horror is a difficult genre in tabletop roleplaying. Call of Cthulhu has been a favorite for decades, but few others manage to really convey a sense of dread or horror to their players. Even Call of Cthulhu sort of cheats by using a dwindling Sanity rating as a way of telling the player, “This is how horrified your character is. Act accordingly.” Bluebeard’s Bride takes what I would go so far as to call a “feminine” approach by making the horror collaborative. Men are generally socialized to be independent decision-makers, and you can see this mentality reflected in games like Dungeons & Dragons, in which each player is concerned first, last, and always with their own player character. Women, on the other hand, are socialized to consult others when making decisions, and Bluebeard’s Bride encourages and rewards that type of thinking.
The Groundskeeper is tasked with introducing horrific elements, but the players are involved and consulted all along the way, and the Sisters’ Moves often involve asking their player to come up with a horrific addition to the scene. It takes the idea of “ghost stories,” where the involvement and emotional investment of everyone involved combines to build an atmosphere of dread, and it applies those principles reasonably well to a tabletop game.
The fact that the Bride is utterly doomed removes what I’ve often felt was one of the stumbling blocks of narrative roleplaying, which is the assumption of constant player success as being necessary to continue the story. Dungeons and Dragons popularized this idea with its encounter-based structure. If you don’t defeat the goblins, then what? The game doesn’t really answer that question, instead focusing on providing the players with goblins precisely strong enough to make them feel threatened without losing. The Bride is always losing. The Sisters accumulate Trauma regularly, and even accruing tokens of Faithfulness and Disloyalty only moves the Bride closer to death, abuse, or madness. Thus, the players don’t have that certainty of winning. The Bride could well be defeated by a monster, and it would just be a segue to the next horror.
The dice-light mechanics, cooperative storytelling, and non-success-driven gameplay combine to create a game that I would really enjoy. It embodies a lot of what I love most about roleplaying, and it finds creative ways to avoid a lot of the things I don’t like. The trouble is, I literally don’t know three women I could run it for who wouldn’t be hurt by its themes of abuse and violence.
Annie Blitzen is Sidequest’s Resident LARP Expert, an inveterate player of tabletop roleplaying games, and a fair hand in video and board gaming. Sidequest writer since 2017.