…Lies a game that is pretty much astounding. It has made me rethink a lot about what you can do with a focused campaign. I feel the same way as I did upon first encountering Apocalypse World back in the day – Every campaign game idea I have, I can’t help but go “yeah, this could be a The Between hack”. More on that later.
In many ways The Between
is Powered by the Apocalypse as we know it has many things in common with Apocalypse World. It has playbooks, principles, and a probability curve much the same as the original. It closely aligns itself to a particular genre (in this case that genre is the TV show Penny Dreadful), but here I’d much more like to focus on the things that set it apart.
Between Apocalypse World and Blades in the Dark…
…Lies a play structure that is not quite in the realm of AW and Dungeon World, but also not quite as rigid as, for instance, Blades in the Dark. Instead, the game is fundamentally divided into in Day or Night “mode”, and the game explains it wonderfully as the former belonging to the players, and the latter belonging to the GM. Day is relatively relaxed – while danger can still appear, in general confronting these dangers will have the risks the Hunters assume, and the Hunters set the agenda, visiting crime scenes, talking to witnesses and suspects, and in general preparing themselves how they see fit. But at night, everything is inherently more dangerous – no matter what the Hunters fear will happen, it will always be worse than they fear. I am loathe to start throwing around terms I do not truly understand, but there is something a bit OSR-like in how the game treats actions in general – players are allowed to back down once they know the risks, and try other actions, exploring various scenarios of awful, before deciding what to do, and therethrough which stat to use. Importantly, it is the GM who sets the scene – the Hunters might have a particular thing they want to do during night, but the GM calls the shots if they, for instance, are being stalked by Detective Investigator Pettigrew, and wants them to deal with that instead.
Driving forward the night phase is the Unscene (There is a high magic to low puns) – a story told in four parts by the players, which has nothing to do plotwise to the main-story. This divides the Night-phase into four “rounds”, making it much more hectic, and giving everyone an idea of how to escalate the action. My group had a bit of a difficult time the first night-phase, with how to manage the Unscene and making a satisfying night phase, but the second time around we started to see how it all fit together, and as the Hunters lay a trap for a swedish handyman scaring people in a fish-man costume, the players started angling for the XP you got for having some kind of resonance between the two scenes, and everything just clicked: OF COURSE the Unscene and the main plot was thematically linked: Both of them were elaborately staged plays!
The award for “Most Stealable Game Mechanic” goes to The Unscene.
Between Hunters and Threats…
Is some beautifully designed game-stuiff.
There are only 7 Playbooks in the Between, and one of them isn’t unlocked to begin with. But each of them is incredibly intricate – the moves are pretty extensive for a PbtA game, but they work to concrete mechanical things that the hunter does very differently. And there is no acquiring moves from other playbooks – for good reason.
But what I really want to talk about is The Janus Mask. Which I think is pure fucking awesome.
There are no hit points in The Between. If the risk of doing something is a monstrous fish-man tearing off your head, then you die if you fail that roll. But after that horrible death is described, the Hunter can “put on the Janus mask”, and shift the level of success up one notch – so it can also be used to increase a partial success to a full success, if so wished.
Now putting on the Mask means marking a check-box on your sheet, and doing what that says. If you put on the Mask of the Past, you narrate a flashback at some point during the session. Oh, by the way, talking about your past in the Between is forbidden, unless prompted by the Janus Mask or one of the moves. (LOVE it). You will notice that this is basically free (until it really, really isn’t), and something the players will want to do, because these prompts are pretty messed up, and fun to narrate. The Mask of the Future, on the other hand, changes the Hunter’s future. Some of them give extra moves, some of them kill/retire you, and some of them means Side-characters will treat you differently. And once you go down that path, you can never retire your Hunter to safety.
The Janus Mask prompts really give an indication of the care that has been put into each individual playbook – the player can, just by looking at these flashbacks, get an idea of what overall theme their character embodies, and just go nuts with that. And the dynamics it puts into play, with the rhythm of missed-roll –> horrible consequnce –> awesome flashback, pretty much means that you can go full ham on the horror, without having to worry about such pesky things as the lives of your protagonists. The Hunters are in command of the situations they are in… until we know their history, and only the future remains.
The Threats show the same care, and I would like to spend some time dwelling on our experience with two of them: The Creature of Cremorne Gardens, and The Limehouse Lurker.
Cremorne Gardens, which is the first threat in the document, is interesting. I have a theory about it. I think it is put at the beginning in order to have a less-serious starter Threat before things get real, because to us it developed into a Scooby-doo mystery: A man in a fish costume, scaring Garden-goers in order to drum up excitement and save the owner of the gardens from a huge debt. It was so funny, so absurd, and such a delight, but it didn’t really feel like the tone the game was trying to set.
I think it is meant to get those urges to play through a 30’s monster movie out of the way, because reading The Limehouse Lurker was a gut-punch. What I thought would be a pretty standard vampire Threat, is quickly turning out to be a weird, brutal, fucked-up tale about a young (or old? the mystery system means that I have no idea before the players propose their theories) vampire, accosting locals and apparently targeting those who disrespect the elderly. It is only two pages with locations to be explored, questions to be answered, Side Characters to be questioned, and a list of clues to be dropped – and yet I still found myself shocked at how neat all the individual elements are, coupled with a system that allows free reign in how to engage with them.
Between gushing and concluding
The Beween is what I love in campaign roleplaying games, and it is a long time since I’ve been so excited for a game about investigation. I keep having these thoughts: Dystopian cyberpunk investigation, fantasy monster hunting, even something like (and this has been a long-time idea of mine) ancient Polis citizen-politicians dealing with the various threats to their city-state… I keep thinking “The Between would be perfect as a baseline for this”. And I am so happy that this campaign is well underway.
Speaking concretely though, the project I will probably work on first, using The Between as a baseline, is Space Opera in the vein of Farscape: Horny alien fugitives trying to survive the various threats that they encounter while fleeing from some imperial power. It will require a little bit of restructuring, but I think it can be done. Stay tuned.
2 thoughts on “Between the Cremorne Gardens and the Limehouse Lurker…”
Really great review. I’m presently falling down a deep deep FKR rabbit hole, but nonetheless you almost have me wanting to give this a look. In fact, the detail of how The Limehouse Lurker is presented is actually interesting enough to make me seriously curious. I’m glad you’re having fun with this.
I do have one question…. ‘Horny alien fugitives….?’
Farscape might be the finest trash that has ever graced this earth. If you can get over the pilot episode, it’s a really great watch.
And I cannot stress this enough, its horniness rivals Game of Thrones even though it aired in 1999-2003.