The Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor is Benjamin Baugh’s acclaimed and Ennie Award-nominated setting book for his (also acclaimed and Ennie Award-nominated) roleplaying game Monsters and Other Childish Things.
In Candlewick Manor, the player characters aren’t kids who have crazy, scary monsters, they’re kids who have a little crazy, scary monstrousness themselves. They’re orphans, foundlings, abandoned because of their bizarreness and then brought together in an orphanage for the strange and the lost.
One of the key ingredients in Candlewick Manor’s alternate way of handling characters is Echoes, which give advantages in play and then become Illumination, and then Revelation, and then Relationships. Here’s how they work.
Text is by Benjamin Baugh, (c) 2008. Art is by Robert Mansperger Jr., (c) 2008.
Orphans don’t start play with Relationships like better-adjusted and better-loved kids. They have Echoes of past connections, and hints of possible future reconciliation. Echoes are fragments of memory, sensory impressions, objects of fascination, or reoccurring motifs in an orphan’s life. The scent of fresh-baked banana bread. The color mauve. The sound of hungry cats mewing. Orphans are without past, without connection at least as far as their players know, but by exploring their Echoes, finding them manifest in their explorations and adventures in Candlewick, orphans can uncover their hidden stories, and their connections to the strange place in which they have been sent to live.
Each orphan starts with 10 dice in Echoes, with no single Echo being rated with more than three dice.
I consider Lefty’s persona and his image, as well as the answers to his questions, and give him the following Echoes:
The Taste of Cigar Ash 3d.
Barking Dogs 2d.
A Thudding, Fearful Heart 2d.
Wind as Hot as Breath 2d.
Orange Firelight 1d.
ECHOES INSPIRE ACTION
Whenever an orphan encounters one of her Echoes during a conflict situation, she can draw strength and motivation from the hints of insight it provides. It’s up to you, the player, to decide if the Echo comes up. The benefit is that the Echo dice can be added to the dice pool you’re rolling at the time. Just work the manifestation of the Echo into your description of your character’s actions. Each Echo can only be added in this way once per session, so make them count.
LEFTY IN THE LURCH
Lefty has been knocked unconscious by the mayor’s wife and locked inside a huge iron safe. He wakes in the choking darkness, rapidly running out of air. He wants to reach through the door with his tentacle arm, and spring the lock but he’s got to do it FAST, and doing it fast means getting a wide success.
His Hands + Hideous Tentacle Arm pool is six dice, and because of his Creepy Skill he can set one die to any value he likes after rolling. That will at least get him a width 2 set, but is that fast enough to avoid suffocation? I decide to use one of Lefty’s Echoes to increase his chances.
I go with the Taste of Cigar Ash and add, “When I felt the chloroform rag against my face, I thrashed and grabbed, and brushed against my attacker, getting a taste of expensive cigar ash, just a taint, but it fired my will to live and uncover why it was so powerfully familiar.”
I now have nine dice for this roll, and I get a 3×5 to which I add another 5 by changing one of the other dice. That’s a 4×5: really, really fast! Lefty flops out of the safe, gasping, but alive and now haunted by the powerful Echo.
Whenever an orphan encounters an Echo, she gains some insight into her past, future, and place in the universe. In some way, her personal mystery is closer to being solved. Each time you add an Echo to a roll, add an equal number of dice to your Illumination pool. Illumination is a general sense of how close a character is to figuring something out, how near she is to a shocking or joyous revelation.
If the Echo-enhanced roll results in failure—no sets rolled, or sets blocked by opposition, gobble dice or damage—then Illumination does nothing but continue to accumulate.
If the Echo-enhanced roll succeeds, then the orphan might experience a Revelation. Roll the character’s pool of Illumination dice. If this roll succeeds, the character experiences an epiphany, a Revelation, and the height and width determine its nature.
If no matches are rolled, then the epiphany fails to fully manifest and evaporates in a frustrating cloud of loss.
It feels like almost, but not quite, sneezing.
Illumination then continues to accumulate.
Dragging himself out of the abandoned mine office, still panting for breath, mind swimming with the powerful sensations of the Echo and a chloroform headache, Lefty feels closer to figuring things out than he has in a long time. His Illumination was 4 before the safe incident, and with the three dice from the Echo he used to save his bacon, he’s now got seven dice. And since the Echo-enhanced roll was a success, I pick up those seven Illumination dice and get ready to roll them.
A successful roll of Illumination dice is transformative, bringing insight where there was mystery. It brings Revelation. A Revelation exposes an orphan’s hidden past or reveals the nature of an oracular Echo, but whether memory or vision, in some way it connects her to Candlewick. It transmutes an Echo into a Relationship with one of Candlewick’s people, places, or things.
A successful roll causes Illumination to drop to zero, and from the general hints provided by the height, width, and loose dice of the roll, you describe the revealed memories and history, and the Relationship which emerges from it.
Look up the height of the roll on the Relationships and Complications table. If the creative juices aren’t flowing right then and there, you can note down the hints and who the Relationship is with, then sleep on it.
A paragraph or so of memory and detail is about all you need to cook up, guided by the dice and the situation in which the revelation occurred. If you want, a Revelation need not be explanatory and question-answering, but rather it can raise new ones. You might find you get more mileage out of them if you work in some additional questions. Where there was darkness, now there’s light, but making sense of what has been illuminated is in itself an adventure.
When rolling Illumination, all the dice mean something, but the sets are the most important things. If you roll more than one set, use the widest one to define the type of the relationship (according to height). If widths are equal, then pick the one you think is most interesting. All loose dice and extra sets become Complications, which inject conflict and potential strife into the relationship.
Creepier orphans have more Complications. Each Creepy Skill they possess works like a monster’s Awesome extra: It flips one of the lonely unmatched dice equal to another, forming a set or making one wider. An orphan with three Creepy Skills would flip three dice this way, and suffer really, really Complicated relationships as a result.
This can be fun, because it gives the GM more room to mess with your character, giving you the spotlight more often. But it can also be a drag, because you’ll find your character and his friends being horribly and mercilessly abused in furtherance of the plot while the GM steeples his fingers and goes Mwaaaahaaaahaaaa!
But hey, is there any real difference between good attention and bad attention?
All the other dice represent color or minor influences shaping the Relationship’s general character, and the truth which is revealed through it.
It seems a little bit complicated, but the process is fairly organic. The dice are there to provide some general ideas you can use as a framework for your imagination. If you’d like, the GM and the other players can help you by riffing possible meanings for all the Illumination dice you roll. This collaborative aspect can be really rewarding, and it helps everyone care about other players’ characters. With that kind of investment, you can end up with some really great table dynamics, but it’s totally your call.
WHO LOVES LEFTY?
Lefty, having survived the attempt on his life, struggles through the rain, his senses blasted by lighting and thunder, his mind by swirling images and chaos. I roll those seven Illumination dice, and get 1, 1, 1, 3, 7, 7, 9 and 10.
First I look to the sets.
3×1: This is the widest set, so it defines the nature of the Relationship. The table indicates an ENEMY (which, given the whole locked-in-a-safe thing, isn’t a huge surprise), but the surprise is . . .
2×7: Love. Lefty has found a Relationship with an Enemy, and the hostility they feel for each other is powerful enough to give Lefty bonus dice. But love? Lefty’s love for his Enemy or her love for him (or for someone else) makes the Relationship more complex and uncertain. Even weirder, Lefty’s single Creepy Skill makes this set wider by 1, so the fact that he’s a deformed and unlovable orphan makes the complicating Love more powerful.
Now, the lonely dice will provide an idea about other influences on the thing. Lefty’s Creepy Skill flipped the 9 he rolled so it was equal to 7, widening the Complication, but that leaves the 10. Looking at the two charts to see which offers the more interesting possibility, that gives him “Tragic Fate” or “Parent.” I think, and then choose.
“I remember a storm like this one, and the taste of cigar ash, just traces of it on someone’s sleeve, and the hard hands that held me, unloving hands. They rudely pushed me into the grasp of another, and I heard Mrs. Bombrienfeld’s voice say:
“‘Take him, the little horror. My husband would have made him legitimate, but I’ll not have his bastard in my house and have everyone talking about it. Take him far from here and leave him in some godforsaken orphanage. Pay them whatever they want to keep him there. Make him vanish.’
“The mayor is my father, but he doesn’t know it, and his wife hates me for it as much as she loves him. She had me taken from town as a baby, and now I’ve returned.”
THE NEW RELATIONSHIP
The new Relationship replaces the Echo that triggered the whole process. When you first uncover a new Relationship it can be a powerful thing, or it can be weirdly underwhelming.
When it is first revealed, the value of the new Relationship is equal to the width of the set that determined its type. If this is more than the value of the Echo which was converted, then the value drops by one die each time you use the Relationship until it is equal to the Echo it replaced. If it is less, then it gains a die each time it is used until it is equal to the Echo.
DEALING WITH COMPLICATIONS
Complications represent major sources of trouble. So, “Love” seems like a good Complication, does it? All warm and welcoming and wonderful? Well, if Love is a Complication, then it is crazy love. It’s the sort of love that makes people kidnap their kids and flee across the country. Complications color all your interactions with the source of your Relationship. Nothing is ever sweetness and light for the pathetic orphans of THE DREADFUL SECRETS OF CANDLEWICK MANOR.
Complications can be managed, but they are very hard to eliminate. Right off, they give the GM a way to use your Relationships to drive play and make things crazy for your orphan. The Width of the set which produced the Complication is also noted in the Relationships section of your character sheet. More powerful Complications come up more often, and have a greater effect.
Complications can give dice to those who oppose you sometimes, in a similar way to how Relationships can give your orphan dice. This does suck, but if you still beat the odds and win through despite the more powerful opposition, you can permanently reduce the value of the Complication by one die.
Lefty is trying to contact his father after observing him secretly for weeks, but the mayor’s wife is watching for Lefty like a hawk. The Love Complication makes her efforts to block his contact with the mayor especially successful; she’s driven to keep him away and to hurt him any way she can. But if Lefty manages to contact the mayor and talk with him despite Mrs. Bombrienfeld’s efforts, then it’ll reduce the value of the Complication by one die, making further contacts easier.
BREAKING THE RULES
Sometimes, dramatic necessity has to trump the roll of the dice. If everyone around the table is cool with it, and it makes for a good and powerful story, then some of the Illumination dice can be reserved, and set to the desired value after the rest are rolled. Sometimes, an opportunity for uncovering something powerful is so inevitable and obvious that the dice aren’t needed; the truth arises through play, and it is gorgeous and complex and crazy. As always, do the crazy cool thing.