The Dance and the Dawn is a fantasy roleplaying game of romantic tragedy by Dev Purkayastha of Sweet Potato Press. It tells the tale of a midnight waltz in the court of the Ice Queen, where the forlorn Ladies of Ash have come to dance with the mysterious Lords of Ice, each Lady in search of the True Love that can yield them happiness. Happily ever afters are possible, but far from guaranteed.
The game is designed for one-shot play for 3-5 players (but 4 players is recommended). One of the players is the GM (or Narrator) and the others play the Ladies of Ash.
The action of the game takes place in the ballroom of the Ice Queen’s court. The dance floor is represented by a chessboard, and all the attendees by chess pieces. As the pieces move around the board, the clock ticks on to morning. At dawn, the Ladies will have to make their fateful choices.
I recently had the opportunity to play the game, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s not for everyone, and I’m ambivalent about its replay value, but there’s a lot of great stuff in it that I think is worth unpacking.
The Dance and the Dawn is available for purchase from Lulu or Indie Press Revolution. There’s even a live-action roleplay (or “theatrical experience”) adaptation of the game, if that’s more your sort of thing.
Putting the pieces in position
The imagery and symbolism of the chess set permeates everything about the game. Most obviously, this includes the chessboard itself as the ballroom on which the action takes place. The chess pieces (queen, bishop, knight, rook, pawn, king) each represent the personality of the characters they represent. And then of course you have the split between the white pieces and the black pieces, representing the origins of the characters from the Islands of Ice and Ash respectively. The imagery of lands covered in ice or ash give the setting an inhospitable, otherworldly feel, and the characters are infused with a sense of loss and isolation, even before we start establishing details.
Roughly half of the rules of the book (but, thankfully, not half of the play length) are devoted to the creation of setting and characters. The colours and shapes of the chess pieces provide some inspiration through symbolism, but most of the creation is done through a framework of questions and half-completed statements.
The framework covers the world of the game (done collectively), the individual Ladies of Ash (done by the Ladies’ players), and then the Lords of Ice (done in secret by the GM). The most interesting thing provided by the framework is the compatibility of exactly one Lord for each Lady. The players create an “I wish” statement for each Lady, and the GM then secretly creates an “I will” statement for each Lord. Each Lord will satisfy one Lady’s wish, and the Lord that satisfies a Lady’s wish is that Lady’s True Love. The goal of the game, ultimately, is for the Ladies to pick their True Loves at the end of the night. (Only one Lord satisfies no wishes: this is the soulless Lord, whose statement is “I will never be yours”. Any Lady that picks him will suffer tragically and become the new Queen of Ice.)
Each Lady also writes a bit of poetry, specifically a rhyming couplet, that they will use to introduce themselves at the ball. It’s an amusing novelty, both in-keeping with the theme and useful as a way to give the GM time to do their prep work. Fortunately, these rhyming couplets don’t have to be good, per se. Even though the Queen of Ice judges the Ladies on their poetry before the first dance, it’s best if the GM uses arbitrary criteria for this and not the actual level of poetic skill on display.
Setup is not mechanically onerous, and the framework guides all players through the elements needed for the game, but because each question and statement is open-ended, it can be time-consuming. There’s a real risk of analysis paralysis if the players try to make things “perfect”, even though the game works as well with quickly sketched characters as it does with fully realised portraits. Fortunately, the game provides a wealth of examples (sparsely in the text, but more in the appendices) to inspire and provide a quick start for the game.
In our game, we made efforts to get through character creation quickly: we picked one of the example settings (A Second Chance, the setting in which the Ladies had all died and found themselves on the Island of Ash thereafter, with the Ice Queen’s midnight waltz their last chance for a happier life), and used existing fictional and historical characters as the basis of the Ladies of Ash:
- Lady Edea (the queen: social, clever, domineering) was based on Edea from Final Fantasy VIII. Her wish was to have her power restored and to once again be adored by her people.
- Lady Joan (the bishop: devout, idealistic, arrogant) was based on Joan of Arc. Her wish was to fight again for God’s justice.
- Lady Julie (the knight: willful, driven, reckless) was based on Julie d’Aubigny. Her wish was for the respect of a true equal.
- Lady Rosalina (the pawn: nurturing, empathetic, naive) was based on the drowned sister from the fairy tale Binnorie. Her wish was for someone that would listen to her.
The GM used the same trick when creating the Lords of Ice, basing them all on Disney princes:
- Prince Veena (the king) was based on Prince Naveen.
- Lord Danst (the bishop) was based on the Beast.
- Lord Genu (the knight) was based on Flynn Rider.
- Lord Shang (the rook) was based on Li Shang.
- Lord Sven (the pawn) was based on Kristoff.
The Ladies’ players weren’t aware of this, and it added another layer to the puzzle as we tried to figure out not only which Lord each Lady was matched with, but who each Lord was based on as well.
Courtly manners: Dancing, duelling, and ritualised etiquette
After character creation, the gameplay is devoted to the night of the waltz. The Ladies are introduced, there are three dances (with two duels in between them), and then at dawn the Ladies pick the Lord that they wish to wed.
Everything that happens is a form of ritualised etiquette, which the Ladies must navigate (sometimes literally) to get the outcome they hope for. It’s inspired by the rules of etiquette of high society balls from the Regency era to the Victorian era (and perhaps beyond), but flipped around to ensure that the Ladies of the setting (and therefore the players) have almost all the agency: the Ladies pick their partners, lead them around the dance floor, and can even swap partners mid-dance, all without input from the relevant Lords. (The Ladies even choose who wins the duels between dances.)
These dances are also the only opportunities that the Ladies get to speak directly to any of the Lords, and it is in these precious moments where they investigate the Lords’ characters and decide which one they will choose at the end of the night. Here only, the Lords get to exercise some of their power by leading the conversations. First the Lord asks his dance partner a question, and only if her answer pleases him or piques his interest will he allow her to ask a question of him. Both the answering and asking of questions can yield clues, and Ladies are supposed to pay attention to every conversation happening in the room. (I almost fell into this trap early in the game, when I zoned out while another Lady asked a question that gave a vital clue as to who my True Love was. Fortunately, my friends are cool and gave me the gist of it. I didn’t make that mistake again.)
Time is measured in according to how fast the dancers move around the ballroom. The chessboard is divided in four quadrants, and the pairs of dancers are placed on a single square each (according to the Lady’s choice initially) that move like a knight in chess (2 squares in one direction, then 1 to the side, in an L shape). When moving between quadrants of the board, the dancers can only move clockwise, and whenever this happens time ticks forwards. This happens a limited number of times in each dance.
One of the things I really like about this game is how, even though every player has a win condition, the gameplay perfectly marries (ba dum tsh) the player/character objectives with the requirement to roleplay as that character. Other roleplaying games with conditions for success and failure can focus so much on the mechanics of winning that roleplaying is effectively optional. Such games I’ve played recently in this mold include Mythender by Ryan Macklin and Royal Blood by Grant Howitt. This doesn’t make them bad games (in many ways they are very good games), and it doesn’t mean you can’t do good roleplaying in them (you can, and I have), but there’s a disconnect between the sections that are evocative and inspire good roleplaying and drama (primarily in setup and character creation) and the sections that are fun and interesting mechanically and encourage players to act strategically. In The Dance and the Dawn, though, there’s a puzzle to solve and the only way it can be solved is through roleplaying, partly because the solution is set by the GM based on the characters you create to start. (It reminds me somewhat of Kagematsu, another game with a fixed win condition that can only be attained through roleplaying, although the two games accomplish this in very different ways.)
There are some things that I am not so keen on. The duels between each dance serve a mechanical function, but they aren’t as interesting as the dancing (and, I feel, could probably be omitted with little loss). Fortunately, they also take up barely any time… unlike the rest of the game, which we found took much longer than the predicted 1-2 hour runtime: closer to 4 hours. As ever with long-running games though, this could be a combination of our inexperience and our running the game with one player more than recommended.
At dawn, I correctly identified my True Love (Prince Veena, with whom Lady Julie continued her larger-than-life adventures across the land), as did most of the other players (Lady Joan was matched with Lord Shang, and Lady Rosalina with Lord Danst). Only one Lady didn’t get her happily ever after: Lady Edea correctly identified Lord Sven as her True Love, but her pride made her refuse to wed a peasant who was raised by ogres, and she picked instead the handsome Lord Genu, the soulless lord, who stole her treasures and left her heartbroken, transforming her into the new Queen of Ice.
Ultimately, I had a ball playing this game (ba dum tsh), and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in the genre or in mechanics that encourage roleplay. I’m not sure that it’s a game I would ever choose to play again, though. As interesting as it could be to play a different Lady in a different setting, I’m not sure I’d gain more from it than I have from my first experience. Still, like a good fairytale protagonist, I’ll always have the memories of that one magical night.