I’ve been thinking about the design process for The Between, my upcoming game of monster hunters in Victorian-era London, inspired by Penny Dreadful and British horror classics. It has been a long, twisty process—one that included writing and publishing a whole other game—but it has been extremely gratifying and instructive.
The beginning… and the problem
I was actually playtesting The Between as far back as 2018, and I even finished writing all the player-facing materials in early 2019. I was extremely happy with how the playtests went; after 35 or so sessions, people were loving the atmosphere, loving some of the novel things the game was doing in its rules, and really excited to see the final product.
Narrowing the scope
I realized almost right away that coming up with a good mystery structure for The Between was going to involve constantly rewriting parts of the player-facing material, and that was going to be massively time-consuming. I needed to develop a mystery system that worked great first, so I would only have to rewrite the player-facing materials once, at most. I decided to make a separate game, one that was smaller in scope and that would just be a “sketch” to try out a new mystery engine for The Between.
I didn’t yet have an idea for this smaller game, but I knew a few things needed to be true:
- It should only have one playbook, as opposed to the six or so in The Between
- It should have a fairly narrow setting, as opposed to one of the largest cities in the world, as in The Between.
- It should only involve one type of mystery, as opposed to The Between’s more or less limitless approach.
Apocalypse by Moonlight, Cthulhu Dark, and developing a new mystery system
The Between, as originally conceived, was Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA). The problem is that Powered by the Apocalypse games are not exactly known for being good at mysteries. The few games that had attempted it up to that point had, frankly, done a poor job of it. Games like Monster of the Week were pitched as having “mysteries” but the mystery aspects always flattened out in favor of action.
This was actually a problem we tried to solve a few years ago in Codex - Moonlight. Oli Jeffery wrote an article called “Apocalypse by Moonlight,” which included moves and procedures you could theoretically import into any PbtA game in order to add mystery-solving elements to the story. Below are the three most relevant parts (which should look very familiar to fans of Brindlewood Bay):
I was familiar with “Apocalypse by Moonlight” because I had not only published it, but had also tried it out a few times in Monsterhearts, and so I knew there was something good there. I began thinking about how I could combine “Apocalypse by Moonlight” with the more lightly-structured mystery games I enjoyed, principally Cthulhu Dark. My habit when running Cthulhu Dark was to create lists of clues that could be peppered in wherever needed, so that the characters were always moving forward in the investigation. That approach, while very fun, still didn’t feel like the players were actually solving a mystery—they were moving forward, they were getting all the creepy vibes, but they weren’t puzzling out anything. And straight-up importing “Apocalypse by Moonlight” wouldn’t work, either, because its mystery engine was really only satisfying when the game was otherwise about something else (teenage drama in Monsterhearts, the fight for survival in AW, etc.); its mystery was too emergent, too ungrounded, like it didn’t really exist in the world before the players started talking about it.
But combining these approaches—a flexible clue list with a freeform, emergent mystery engine—felt like a good approach, and so the initial seeds of my new mystery system were planted.
Mavens and Midwives
I was originally going to rework Public Access, a story game about a creepy public access children's show I wrote six years ago, to be my “sketch” for The Between, but a conversation on Twitter in late 2019 changed all that. I had mused aloud about the TV show Murder, She Wrote, and suggested the reason the show’s setting, the picturesque town of Cabot Cove, was so rife with murders was because there was a death cult operating in the town, and all these murders were part of some grand ritual. That conversation quickly spiraled into making a game based on that idea, and people were legitimately excited about it. It was a eureka moment for me; this idea fit every criteria I set out for narrowing the scope of The Between in order to test out a new mystery structure: it was about elderly women (one playbook), living in a small town (a narrow setting), solving murders (one type of mystery).
Long story short (“Too late!”), I added in a Hellenic death cult, imported some player-facing stuff from The Between, developed a mystery system that combined all the elements I was looking for, and Brindlewood Bay was born. And it worked: people have been running Brindlewood Bay for over a year now, and having great success with the mystery engine; what started as a “sketch” to try out some ideas for a bigger game has turned into its own thing, with its own community of players and hackers.
The story about solving my problem with The Between doesn’t end with Brindlewood Bay. In fact, the next big problem I ran into was: “How do I make a mystery system that is about one thing (solving murders) work for doing lots of other things (hunting monsters, stopping serial killers, putting ghosts to rest, and so on)?” I have landed on an answer to that question, but I’ll probably discuss it in a future blog post. The important thing is The Between is back on track, and set for release in—fingers crossed—April. I had a game idea I believed in but ran into a critical problem during its development. By thinking hard about what I actually needed in that moment to solve the problem—as opposed to just writing a bunch of stuff over and over again until something stuck—I was able to get to a good place, and now I’m extremely happy with The Between.
You can purchase Brindlewood Bay and its supplement, Nephews in Peril, on DTRPG here.