by Jason Cordova
There are some aspects of The Between that will feel strange when you play. This is because I have discarded a number of assumptions about how tabletop roleplaying games should work. One of those assumptions is that players should come to the table prepared to share their character’s backstory, or at least be ready to discuss it at the table. I actually think it’s much more interesting and cinematic to discover a character’s backstory in the middle of play. This preference has lead to what will almost certainly be one the most controversial aspects of The Between: the strictly-enforced limitations on how you talk about your character’s past.
In The Between, players are strongly encouraged to avoid talking about their character’s past, both in-character and out-of-character. Players are expressly forbidden from discussing certain aspects of their past, principally the elements of their Janus Mask (discussed more below). Players can expect characters to question their character about their past, but their character must always avoid the conversation, either by tensing up, acting awkwardly, or simply excusing themselves from the scene.
In addition to conforming to my personal preferences regarding character backstory, the restrictions on talking about your character’s past also happen to fit the game’s setting. The player characters are privileged individuals who each have a dark, troubled past that is trying to catch up to them. Members of their social class in Victorian London simply would not discuss such matters openly.
Having run a few dozen playtests, I can tell you this particular aspect of the game always requires a short period of adjustment for the players. As role players, we are accustomed to jumping straight into our character’s backstory, chatting back and forth about what it all means, how the player characters fit together, how they got involved in the adventure, and so forth. But in The Between, you don’t do any of that. After a very short round of character introductions, during which we learn next to nothing about the characters, the D.I. (what the GM is called in The Between) presents the first Threat and the characters begin the investigation in medias res.
But here’s the thing: once you get past the initial awkwardness of not being able to talk about your character’s past, you start to become aware of something this game does constantly, which is it deftly manages your cognitive load. I’m going to talk about this effect more in future Design Diary posts, because I think it is the ultimate triumph of this game, but in the context of this particular aspect of the rules, what it means is that you can focus on the investigation–the here and now–without worrying about whether you are conforming to some concept you have expressed aloud about your character.
The Janus Mask
Of course, the above doesn’t mean players shouldn’t think about their character’s past. Quite the contrary: they should think about it a lot, because they’re going to be revealing that past, piece by piece, in a grand, entertaining fashion.
Every playbook has a section called The Mask of the Past and a section called The Mask of the Future. Together, these sections are referred to as the Janus Mask. At specific points during the game (discussed more in a future post), players may invoke their character’s Janus Mask to alter events that are happening in the fiction. When they do so, they make a mark in either the Mask of the Past or the Mask of the Future. If they mark the Mask of the Past, they are called upon to narrate a particular kind of flashback at some point during the session. These flashbacks are how we, as audience members, begin to learn about these characters’ origins.
In order for you to have some context, below are the elements that comprise the Mask of the Past for the Vessel playbook. The Vessel is a character who has been surrounded by dark, shadowy entities their whole life.
- Narrate a flashback to the time when you were in your mother’s womb that shows, even then, dark entities were interested in you.
- Narrate a flashback to your childhood that shows the first time you encountered a dark entity.
- Narrate a flashback to your young adulthood that shows your first sexual encounter with a dark entity.
- Narrate a flashback to your young adulthood that shows a time when you used your supernatural affinities for selfish purposes.
- Narrate a flashback to your young adulthood that shows when you first met the leader of the coven. Name them.
- Narrate a flashback to your young adulthood that shows part of your initiation into the coven. Name the coven.
- Narrate a flashback to an event that influenced you to leave the coven for good.
Once these elements have been revealed by the Janus Mask, the player is free to discuss them both in and out-of-character, so long as they continue to keep the unrevealed elements behind a veil. Note, however, that there is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the character even after all these elements are revealed. Also note the cognitive load effect I alluded to earlier: yes, you should be thinking about your character’s past, but in order to narrate an entertaining series of flashbacks, you only need to think about these highly specific aspects of the character’s past. The Between, above all, wants to constantly reinforce its themes and does everything it can to keep players on task in this regard.