by Jason Cordova
This is the first in my Design Diary series for The Between, a game I am currently playtesting and writing. This first installment will be an overview of the game. Future installments will discuss individual mechanics, the design goals being met by those mechanics, setting elements, and more.
The Between is about a group of monster hunters in Victorian London. It is directly inspired by the TV show Penny Dreadful, but also takes inspiration from British horror classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and various Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as the comic books The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell.
The game is called The Between because we find the characters in a very liminal moment–caught between a mysterious past that is trying to catch up to them and a future that is cloaked in darkness. It is also called The Between because, unlike many tabletop roleplaying games, the players in this game do not live solely behind their character’s eyes; rather, at specific times they are called upon to help the D.I. (this game’s version of a GM) fill in many of the details related to the world.
What is it like to play?
In The Between, the D.I. presents and tracks an ever-growing list of Threats across the city of London. The players, collectively called Hargrave House (which is the name of their base of operations) conduct investigations related to these Threats and either engage in hunts to destroy them or otherwise enact plans to manage the danger they pose to the city. The D.I. is also responsible for developing an uber-Threat called The Enemy, a Moriarty-style criminal mastermind and the true villain of the story.
Gameplay is divided into two phases: the Day phase and the Night phase. The Day phase has a languid, almost casual pace. The scenes in the Day phase are largely framed by the players, and the goals of those scenes include some combination of: exploring conflicts and tension between the player characters; relieving Conditions, which are negative traits the players can acquire during play; observing the player characters at leisure; and conducting light, daytime-appropriate investigation of Threats.
The Night phase, on the other hand, is more visceral. The scenes in this phase are framed by the D.I. and focus on the intense, bloody business of hunting vampires and serial killers on the lamplit streets of London. The pacing of this phase is governed by a special procedure called the Overscene, which I will discuss a bit below.
What makes this game special?
There are many things that make this game special, but I’ll give a quick preview of a few mechanics I believe help make The Between a very novel experience. I’ll be discussing these and other elements in more detail in future Design Diary posts, but this should be enough to give you a sense of things:
The Janus Mask
In The Between, players are not generally allowed to speak about their character’s past, either in-character or out of character. If someone asks a player character about something from their past, players are encouraged to demure or otherwise avoid the conversation. Specific elements of their past are explicitly forbidden to be discussed at the table unless a certain mechanic, the Janus Mask, is triggered, at which point those elements may be revealed in a cinematic fashion by the player.
The Janus Mask is divided into two: the Mask of the Past and the Mask of the Future. The specifics for each playbook differ, but generally-speaking, the Mask of the Past has you narrate flashbacks that gradually show us how the character got to where they are today, whereas the Mask of the Future gives hints as to what the Fates have in store for them.
During the game, after a die roll has taken place and the outcome narrated, the player can choose to invoke the Janus Mask to turn the roll into a 12+ and completely alter the fictional outcome. They mark an element from either the Mask of the Past or the Mask of the Future; then, at some point during the session, they have to do whatever the Janus Mask element instructs. Note, however, that the more and more they invoke the Janus Mask, the closer and closer the character gets to being retired.
The Overscene is a special scene that governs the pacing of the Night phase. During the Overscene, we see a situation playing out in another part of London on the same night Hargrave House is engaged in the hunt. Importantly, the Overscene is not connected to the Hargrave House story in any way. It exists as a bit of texture, a glimpse into our version of Victorian London at night. But that doesn’t mean it is without mechanical weight (see Echoes in the Dark, below).
Echoes in the Dark
During the Night phase, whenever a player narrates something in the main scene that is thematically or visually similar to something that occurred in the Overscene, or vice-versa, they have done what is called an Echo in the Dark. At the end of the Night phase, so long as they did at least one Echo in the Dark, they get to mark XP.
The Day Move and the Night Move
At its heart, The Between is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). However, most conflicts in the game are resolved by a single move that comes in two different flavors: the Day Move and the Night Move, both of which were inspired by various PbtA games, including Monsterhearts and Bluebeard’s Bride. I have put a tremendous amount of thought into these moves, and the end results not only arbitrate fictional outcomes, but also help negotiate stakes between the player and the D.I., as well as determine who has narrative authority. The difference between the Day Move and the Night Move is that the latter is designed to be significantly more dangerous to the player.