BLUEBEARD’S BRIDE Review – No Way Out; Only Forward
Suitable for ages 18+
Available in hardcover for $49.99
The French folktale of Bluebeard is as famous as it is haunting. It tells the story of a young bride left alone to explore her wealthy but mysterious husband’s sprawling estate. She is given but one restriction by Bluebeard: there is a door she may not open. Death, taxes, and fairytales being what they are, it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable happens and the young bride’s curiosity overcomes her. She unlocks the forbidden door while her husband is away on business. Inside she discovers the decapitated corpses of Bluebeard’s previous wives. For her disobedience, Bluebeard condemns her to join their ranks.
From here, the stories diverge. In some versions, the young bride’s brothers, sister, or even her mother come to her rescue at the last moment and the murderous Bluebeard is slain. In other versions, the young woman is made to kneel. She is executed without ceremony.
There are almost as many interpretations of the story as there are endings. Some read it as an admonishment for wives to obey their husbands. Others see it as a caution against curiosity of the forbidden. Still others say it is a warning to women to beware the hidden, violent nature of their husbands. A very literal read suggests that young ladies should avoid suitors with chromatically unconventional hair, but this theory doesn’t care much weight in academic circles.
I’d heard rumors of the tabletop RPG Bluebeard’s Bride, but I had very little idea what I was getting myself into when I cracked open the rule book. Rather ominously, every person I talked to about it said something to the effect of, “It’s really good… it’s hard, but it’s good” followed by their best thousand-yard stare. A pretty promising sign for a game billed as “investigatory horror”.
The objective of Bluebeard’s Bride is to collaboratively create your own beautiful, dark, and tragic version of the fairytale. To play, you’ll need at least three friends, two six-sided dice, the rules, some printouts, and a ring. The game also recommends you set up some ambiance by choosing a dim, quiet room to play in, and turning on a creepy soundtrack. They have a list of musical recommendations if nothing comes readily to mind. Personally, I went with the soundtrack for Amnesia: The Dark Descent and was not disappointed.
Mechanically, the core system of Bluebeard’s Bride is the “powered-by-the-Apocalypse” (PbtA) engine with some interesting changes. In a standard PbtA game, players choose “Playbooks” which help define that character’s abilities. If you’re familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, think of a playbook as a character class. Instead of taking a playbook, one player takes on the role of the facilitator (often called the “Master of Ceremonies,” or MC). This correlates roughly to Dungeons & Dragons’ Dungeon Master. In the case of Bluebeard’s Bride, the playbooks are all “Sisters.” The Sisters play the different aspects of the Bride’s psyche (the Virgin, the Fatale, the Mother, the Witch, etc.), conflicted in their desires but ultimately united in the goal of protecting the Bride and unearthing the secrets of the house. The MC takes on the role of the Groundskeeper, who is similarly conflicted between narrating the story and keeping the geraniums watered. This is not a learn-as-you-go system, so players need to show up having read the rules ahead of time.
The story itself has the elegant simplicity of a fairytale. You and your fellow players play the young bride as she explores Bluebeard’s house in his absence. The Groundskeeper is responsible for describing the servants and horrors that inhabit the mansion. The Bride is armed only with a ring of keys which she can use to open any door in the house. Each time she opens a new room, any of the Sisters can explore the room and investigate its many objects or interact with its denizens using “Moves” from their playbooks such as “Investigate a Mysterious Object” or “Care for Someone”. Some moves are available to all of the Sisters, others are specific to Playbooks or only available in certain situations. To find out if the attempt at a move is successful, the Sister making the move will sometimes be required to roll the pair of dice. In some cases, her playbook may give her a plus or minus one to the roll.
Lest this begin to sound like a weekend trip to your packrat-great-aunt’s house, here’s the rub: your new home is possessed. The entire mansion is haunted by the ghosts of the previous brides and run by servants dedicated to molding you into what they think the Bride ought to be. All are single-minded in their efforts and likely to inflict severe trauma on the poor young girl. The Bride’s task is two-fold: survive the horrors of each room she visits, and determine based on the evidence of deaths-past whether or not she still trusts Bluebeard. Each encounter draws her steadily closer and closer to the small door her husband forbid her from opening. The game ends with her choice of whether or not to open the door.
I didn’t have to go very far into the rulebook to figure out why people are enthusiastic, but hesitant to talk about the specifics of their play experience. Bluebeard’s Bride is an explicitly feminine horror piece, and at its heart it’s a game about systemic social and physical violence towards women. Like many works in the feminine horror genre, it explores powerlessness and doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter like body image, assault, abortion, miscarriage and so forth. It specifically targets the fears of the players themselves, rather than those of the Sisters. Like all tabletop RPGs, the group you’re playing with ultimately determines the final tone and content of the game. However, if you’re playing by the rules, Bluebeard’s Bride will push you deep into dark waters from almost the first moment of play.
Bluebeard’s Bride took on a big challenge in choosing to explore this subject matter and where it succeeds, it does so elegantly. The language of the rulebook itself constantly undercuts the Bride, belittling and berating her on the regular. It’s a nice little touch because it sets of the tone of a world that thinks the young woman is too irresponsible, too naive, too wicked, too flawed to see to her own best interests. The servants and horrors are all too happy to do the thinking for her and correct her when they feel she’s erred. The art adds to this effect in all the best possible ways. It’s beautiful, evocative, unsettling. Bluebeard’s Bride is the sort of rulebook you want to showcase on your bookshelf, and then hide when your mom comes to visit.
Most PbtA games focus on empowering the player. The playbooks give players options to bend the fictional world to their will with moves like “Unleash Your Powers” from the superhero game Masks, or the “Seduce or Manipulate Someone” from the Mad Max: Fury Road-style Apocalypse World. Bluebeard’s Bride by contrast explores powerlessness. The Bride is neither equipped to face the horrors that await her, nor can she simply throw up her hands and give in. There is no safety in conforming to the conflicting rules and impossible demands of the rooms in Bluebeard’s house. No matter how lovely the Bride, she is compared to an impossible standard of beauty and found wanting. If she wears the face of the Sister Virgin, she is prey; if she attempts to take control of the situation through her sexuality as the Fatale her power is turned back against her. The Groundskeeper, as narrator, even has the power to narrate the Bride’s actions, or physical reactions, which is a significant break from normal player-facilitator divisions in most PbtA games. The Bride’s own body can play traitor to her. There’s precious little the Bride can do to take control of her situation. Nothing to prevent the horrors from arising and seizing hold of her, but if she remains in one place, the trauma she takes will shatter her.
The “Cry Out for Help” move is my favorite example of the game presenting the player with impossible situations. It’s one of the few moves the Bride can use to actively defend herself. If the move succeeds, a servant comes to address your concerns and “calms your hysteria”, an elegant little knife twist of a descriptor. A partial success will still bring them running, but the servant will demand proof of your loyalty to Bluebeard. On a failure, any number of things can go wrong, not the least of which is that whoever hears your cries intends the Bride more harm than the situation she originally sought to escape. Since a +1 is the best you can hope for in terms of modifiers, even calling for help is a gamble for the Bride. As a mechanic, the move gracefully creates a feeling of powerlessness and dread, both isolating the Bride from potential help and making Bluebeard’s presence felt in every encounter. It’s not uncommon for players to feel frustrated by these mechanics.
“But what can I actually do?” demanded one player in our session, gesturing at his playbook sheet.
That is precisely the point.
What can you do when faced with a system set against you at every turn, with few options and an impossible standard? In the Bride’s case, she keeps going as best she can, searching for answers that may very well lead to her undoing.
Despite the lack of agency, Bluebeard’s Bride isn’t the exercise in frustration and futility that I just made it out to be. The Bride may be doomed to stand before the final door, but the game is geared towards the players, not the characters. I found that for myself as a player, it was a horror-inducing but weirdly reassuring game. Bluebeard’s Bride provides a platform for conversations that require intense levels of empathy. It creates a structured space to have discussion about taboo subjects through play. The game provides an experiential touchstone for people who want to understand the problem, but have hitherto largely been able to access it only through statistics and anecdotes. There is something comforting at being able to look at a person across the table and instead of having to put words the complicated emotions and pressures surrounding a topic, simply say, “Yes, that’s how it feels.”
For all its successes, Bluebeard’s Bride is not a game without flaws. I ran the Groundskeeper side of things for my playthrough. While the Sisters’ side of things was fairly straightforward, my set of responsibilities as facilitator left me with some frustrations, the first of which I encountered on the very first section of the Groundskeeper rules:
“There’s no need for pretense here. The players, those silly girls, think they’re ready for this game, prepared for what you might throw at them. They pore over the early pages, seeking out every little hint of safety, thinking to protect themselves with rules. Such simple, foolhardy creatures….You should read the previous chapters, as there’s important information in there for you as well as the players, from Sister creation to move clarification to how trauma works between the Sisters…This chapter, however, holds secrets just for you.”
A system that relies on hiding certain mechanics or rules from the other players is a red flag. Players have a right to know whether their facilitator is playing fair, and in order to do that, they have a right to know the rules. Obviously, a player could just pick up the rulebook and keep going past their allotted chapter but this is, strictly speaking, a violation of the rules. Additionally, blocking off a section of the game with a need-to-know-basis wall hurt the replayability of the game. Once a player has taken on the mantle of Groundskeeper, they can never return to role of the Sisters.
Room curation was another area of the Groundskeeper’s responsibilities where the gears of the game ground a bit. I like how responsive PbtA games are to player-generated fiction and in some ways, Bluebeard’s Bride does a good job of preserving that. Players describe the key used to open the door of the next room, and the Groundskeeper uses that description to generate the room on the other side. So far so good. Here’s where it gets messy.
First, the Groundskeeper has to choose what kind of room it is, and provides a list of options. Next, pick one of four room threats. Based on that threat, then pick one of five sub threats. The Groundskeeper must then translate that threat into fiction. Once they’ve settled on a threat, the Groundskeeper must populate the room so that it is “brimming with objects” which the Bride uses to determine what took place in the room. Each object is created via a four-step process. For my playthrough, I limited myself to four objects in a room. This hardly qualifies as “brimming,” and even then the room generation was taking a while. Next, NPCs for the room must be created. This is, fortunately, only a two-step process. The NPCs, however, operate off of a seperate subsystem. They are not organically tied to the threat of the room, so it’s important for the Groundskeeper to double check that all the pieces still compliment one another before they can begin describing the situation to the players.
No one part of this room curation process is particularly complicated, but added together, the game stalled out every time one of the Sisters turned the key in the lock. This artificial “load time” could be reduced with practice on the part of the Groundskeeper. A stronger choice from a design perspective might have been to wrap up the objects and NPCs as part of the initial threats list, instead of giving them independent subsystems. It would have also given stronger thematic coherence to each room if the NPCs and the room threat both had the same drive. It is worth noting that there are supplemental materials out there—decks of objects, tarots of servants, and a book of rooms—that might help to streamline this process. In Bluebeard’s Bride itself though, this part of play slowed to a crawl. Since the rooms are created on the fly in play, it’s also unfortunately not something a Groundskeeper can prep beforehand.
There were a few other, lesser points of irritations of gameplay in Bluebeard’s Bride. I wanted the Groundskeeper’s playsheet to make more use of the “Wedding Preparation” questions of character creation; I ended up scrawling all over the margins and the back of my playsheet to compensate. I also would have liked a few more cues from the rule book about the pacing of the game. The examples in the rulebook all start out in media res, and some modeling of how to ramp up from the start of play would have been helpful.
I also wish the system employed a safety mechanic with a graduated scale of “no”, rather than the “X Card” mechanic. At the start of play, an index card with an “X” across it is put at the center of the play area. If narrative crosses a line, any player can tap the card, and the narrative is revised, no questions asked. Given the content of the game, it’s good that Bluebeard’s Bride employs a safety mechanic, but I don’t know that the X Card was the right choice here. The issue with the X Card is that there’s no gradients or nuance to its application: the story just stops and suddenly becomes something else. It’s the nuclear option of safety mechanics, short of just leaving the game completely. Bluebeard’s Bride is a game that walks you right up to the edge of what horrifies you, and then looks down and studies the drop for a while. Gradations of “no” are necessary for the game to accomplish its purpose. Something like a reskinned version of Brie Sheldon’s “Script Change” mechanic might be better suited to this game, since it allows for players to slow down a scene or simply skip ahead without describing the material instead of nixing it entirely.
Despite some moments where the mechanics of the game ground, Bluebeard’s Bride is ultimately a horror game that allows you to engage with feminine horror directly and collaboratively create terrifying tales with your friends. In this it succeeds. The art is rich, the text evocative, and the horrors it prompts players to inhabit are deeply unsettling. Given the opportunity, I would gladly play again.
This Gothic horror retelling of the famous fairytale is both beautiful and disturbing. Play as a young bride at war with herself as she explores the malevolent home of her absent husband. While the world building takes some work on the part of the MC, the results are haunting.