One of my major design goals for The Between was for the game to feel highly cinematic while being played. Early on in the design process, I knew I wanted some kind of cross-cutting between the scene our player characters were experiencing and a scene taking place somewhere else in London. Those back and forth cuts between scenes are a hallmark of my GMing style, and I have also been known to narrate scenes for the players that are entirely outside the purview of their characters (such as villainous monoluges), and so I knew I wanted that style of play baked right into the rules of The Between.
I eventually landed on a concept I call the Overscene. In its original form, the Overscene was a scene that the main scene the players were involved in occasionally cut to in order to show a different side of the story, in a different part of the city, and was strictly out-of-character knowledge. It was narrated entirely by the D.I. (the GM) and had the additional goal of giving the players a better understanding of the greater mystery. However, after giving it a lot of thought, I decided this approach was too heavy-handed and abandoned it (although there are some echoes of this version in the D.I. procedure called The Enemy, which will be discussed in a future post).
But I had a hard time shaking the idea; I was still in love with the beautiful, cinematic nature of the Overscene. And so I began to think about my GM toolbox; I began to consider all the little tricks I use in my games to create a certain type of experience and what lessons could be learned from them. My Paint the Scene technique is probably my favorite (you can read about it here) and was most influential here. In Paint the Scene, the most important outcome is that the players get to work with themes and motifs to describe how their characters experience something in the setting. Additionally, it is entirely irrelevant if the details that come from Paint the Scene have any direct bearing on the story being told—more often than not, they don’t. The narrative goal of Paint the Scene is to add richness and texture to the setting that feels both real and coherent. But the real insight for purposes of the development of the Overscene was this: players frequently re-incorporate elements from Paint the Scene into the main narration, often unconsciously.
The present iteration of the Overscene has three goals: to create a cinematic feel at the table, to encourage the players to use theme and motif in their narration, and to pace out the Night phase of the game. The Overscene begins with a short description of a scene taking place somewhere in the city on the same the night the player characters are engaged in their hunt. That description is followed by 4 prompts, each of which has one player (or all the players, in the case of a Paint the Scene prompt) narrating a bit of the scene. After the first prompt is satisfied, we cut to the main scene involving the player characters. After each of the player characters has had a chance to do something in the main scene (trigger a move, have a short bit of conversation, investigate a small part of the scene, etc.) we jump back to the Overscene and do the second prompt. After the second prompt is satisfied, we dive back into the main scene as before. You continue this, back and forth, with the Night phase ending immediately after the characters have taken their actions in the main scene following the fourth prompt.
During all this, if the players manage to incorporate a thematic or sensory detail from the Overscene into the main scene—or vice versa—they get to mark XP at the end of the Night phase (indeed, this is the only way of getting XP during the Night phase).
Below is a link to the different Overscenes I have been playtesting, which should give you a better sense of how this works. When the game is published, these will be presented as a deck of cards (with about 50 different Overscenes available).
I have so far run around 35 playtest sessions of the alpha rules. The Overscene is rock solid. There is a bit of mastery involved—it’s an unusual concept in ttrpgs—but after doing it a couple times, the players really get into it (and look forward to it). As for specific outcomes, these are the things I am most happy about:
- The Overscene is an excellent way of pacing out the Night phase. I’m going to talk more about the interplay between the languid Day phase and the visceral Night phase in a future post, but for now just know that the Night phase is meant to be tight and intense. Putting a hard line on where it ends leads to very efficient, focused play.
- Even though players only get XP credit for re-incorporating one thematic or sensory detail, they continue to do it throughout the Night phase, with some players hitting it 4 or 5 times.
- Players often make subtle allusions to the Overscene during the main scene without even realizing they are doing it. In this way, the Overscene functions on an unconscious level, in much the same way Paint the Scene does. This is a VERY powerful effect of the Overscene.
- The Overscene continues to satisfy my overarching design goal of managing cognitive load, which I have discussed before, and which I believe is one of this game’s triumphs from a design standpoint.
All in all, I’m quite happy with the Overscene. It’s one of the few parts of the game that is leaving alpha more or less untouched. I expect as more people get familiar with The Between and its very particular style of play, people are going to want to steal the Overscene for their own designs.