Stop me if you’ve heard this. I like monster hunting media. I like the idea of following clues and finding lairs. I like finding specific weaknesses and exploiting them to stop a supernatural threat. In addition to all of this, I like seeing this same process with different backdrops. In my never-ending quest to find more and more of this genre that I love, expressed in RPG terms, today I’m going to be looking at The Between.
The Between is a game that borrows mechanics from Apocalypse World, as well as some of the conventions introduced in Brindlewood Bay, to create a game about finding clues, reaching thresholds, and uncovering dark secrets, only some of which may belong to the monsters and masterminds the player characters are opposing. The setting is a supernatural Victorian-era London inspired by Penny Dreadful, Sherlock Holmes, and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I can neither confirm nor deny that I bought this to console myself that The Irregulars isn’t getting a second season on Netflix.
I did not receive a review copy of The Between, and I purchased it on my own for purposes of my review. Although I have a lot of experience with Powered by the Apocalypse games as well as the monster-hunting genre, I have not played this game, and the review is based on reading and analyzing the contents of the game.
The game itself doesn’t contain much in the way of gory details, but it does express what is likely to happen in a game. The playbooks and the mysteries touch on violence, graverobbing, horror tropes, threats to innocents, and potentially some sexual content. Most of these details exist in the Threats presented with the game, or in the potential execution of some of the moves on the playbooks. There is an extensive discussion of safety, lines and veils, and ways to express moves that utilize sexual situations in non-sexual ways.
In the Beginning
The primary rulebook for The Between is a PDF that is 129 pages long. This includes a credits page, a table of contents, a three-page FAQ, and a page of Inspirational Material. The front cover is full color, and the book has original black and white artwork, usually full-page pieces that introduce individual chapters. Most of the layout is organized into single columns.
The supplementary materials included with the game are as follows:
- Playbooks (14 pages, 7 playbooks)
- The Mastermind (2 pages, Theodora Brathwaite)
- The Reference Sheet (1 page)
- Threats (18 pages, 10 threats)
- London at Night (The Unscene)
Between the Covers
The book is divided up into the following sections:
- Gameplay Basics
- Play Structure
- The Keeper Basics
- The Keeper Advanced
- Session One
This means that the first part of the book is more about general play procedure (Introduction, Gameplay Basics, Play Structure), and the last portion of the book is geared towards the game facilitator, in this case referred to as the Keeper (The Keeper Basics, The Keeper Advanced, Mastermind, Session One).
Playing the Game
The Between has fewer moves than many similar games. You roll 2d6 + a trait, and the game has an advantage or disadvantage mechanic. In this case, you would roll 3d6 and either take the highest two or lowest two results. Moves are broad and contextual. If you are familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse and similar game systems, the primary move is going to be similar to a “Defy Danger,” where players explain what they want to accomplish, and what they fear the outcome of the action may be.
As you might expect, there are results for rolls at 6-, 7-9, and 10+, but there is also a 12+ category. This often allows characters to get a glimpse at even wider plans that may be going on, beyond the immediate mystery.
The playbooks are discussed in the core book, but in terms of what they represent and who might enjoy playing them, along with potential modifications to how they work in different circumstances. The core rules don’t provide the actual playbooks, which are included as supplementary material. The playbooks are:
- The American
- The Explorer
- The Factotum
- The Mother
- The Orphan
- The Undeniable
- The Vessel
The Orphan is only unlocked under certain circumstances linked to The Mother playbook. Like many other aspects of the game, there is a tightly woven structure to when and where game elements appear. In this case, the playbook inspired by Victor Frankenstein can progress to opening the monster for play.
Each playbook has a list of Masks, either Masks of the Past, or Masks of the Future. Masks of the Past, when checked, prompt a character to relate some aspect of their past. Masks of the Future progress a character towards a specific fate. Masks of the Past can be marked to remove conditions, while Masks of the Future can be marked to avoid an immediate fate, by bringing a more distant one closer.
Characters who are suffering from a condition roll with disadvantage when the condition applies, and these conditions are only cleared when the character has time to share a part of their past with their companions.
Characters gather clues to solve mysteries and resolve threats, but the Keeper doesn’t fully define what the characters learn from their clues. Mysteries have thresholds, meaning a certain number of clues must be gathered. Once that number is gathered, characters can create their own hypothesis, and roll to see if it is correct.
The Keeper and The Game In-Play
The game is divided up into several separate phases, and certain actions can only take place during the appropriate time of day. The phases that are laid out for play are:
Dawn and Dusk are preparatory phases that are used to resolve some moves and set up others. These are the phases where start of session moves will be resolved, and where the organization that the player characters work for, Hargrave House, will be detailed.
During the day, characters find out about the current threat, but threats can only be resolved at night. Because the night move has higher stakes than the day move, this means that threats only resolve when there are higher stakes involved.
A unique aspect of the game structure is the Unscene. This is an ongoing scene that details what the game’s version of London will look like. At various points in the night, the players will be provided with prompts about how the scene is progressing, in between the action of the players investigating and resolving the mysteries surrounding threats.
The Between is designed to be an ongoing, interconnected story, which means that multiple threats will be active at the same time. Player characters can focus on one threat, but other threats may be advancing, and eventually, a threat may end up working for the Mastermind.
The Mastermind is the campaign or season arc of the story. They have big plans with wide-ranging effects, and investigating a regular mystery gives the player characters the ability to stumble onto clues that lead to the Mastermind’s larger plan. Until they find their first Mastermind clue, they don’t know that anyone is sitting at the center of the web.
During this time, the Keeper will be noting NPCs that have stood out in different scenes for later use and will start to leak information on the Mastermind to the player characters, once they become known. While the Keeper doesn’t create the entire story wholesale, and the player characters are building connections between clues as they attempt to resolve mysteries, the Keeper still needs to make all of that connection on the backend seem like it was always meant to be.
Threats and Masterminds
Because of the precise nature of the day/night cycle, thresholds, and hypothesis, threats and Masterminds aren’t open-ended constructs in the game. While the game has a section on creating new threats (in part assuming that people may want to publish them), there isn’t as much emphasis placed on creating new Masterminds. Even the threats are exacting enough that I doubt people will want to create new threats until they have a chance to get a feel for the existing ones in play.
Threats include Questions and Opportunities that frame what needs to happen to progress towards resolving the mystery. Depending on how the Questions and Opportunities are framed, the characters will know upfront if they need to discover if the threat really is supernatural, or if there is some obfuscation about the nature of the threat. There is a description of the threat, specific moments, dangers, and locations that are keyed to the threat. There are also specific side characters, clues, and rewards that are all unique to that threat.
Some of the threats, like The Coven, The Orphan, or The Pinkerton, are tied to specific aspects of different playbooks, meaning they only trigger once characters with specific playbooks perform certain actions.
The Mastermind included, Theodora Brathwaite, has their own sheet. This sheet has the five phases of the Mastermind’s conspiracy detailed, and what clue threshold triggers each phase of the plan. There are specific details that become obvious to the player characters beyond the clues once they hit a specific threshold. Servants and specific Mastermind clues are included on the sheet.
Exactly what the Mastermind is doing isn’t detailed. That’s determined by the interplay of the player characters resolving mysteries, and the Keeper developing the conspiracy as it advances. The Keeper is given several spots on the sheet where they are prompted to recontextualize the conspiracy to make sure it still feels in tune with what has been revealed to this point.
Eureka! As someone that not only likes monster-hunting stories, but also enjoys media like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Irregulars, and Carnival Row, the widgets, interplay, and story elements of this game do a very good job of building and reinforcing the setting.
As someone that not only likes monster-hunting stories, but also enjoys media like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Irregulars, and Carnival Row, the widgets, interplay, and story elements of this game do a very good job of building and reinforcing the setting. I love the Unscene as a means of setting building, without the concerns of trying to tie the scene directly to the current action. I also appreciate all the places where the rules specifically spell out that the Keeper or the players need to take certain actions or reassess the current situation. This kind of break built into the structure makes it much easier to follow procedures in a game that heavily depends on that procedure.
Wheels Within Wheels
While I don’t think it’s a strike against the game, I do think that the exacting procedure and the emphasis on tying together clues on the backend make this a potentially tricky game to use to introduce mechanics such as those found in Apocalypse World. It’s also easy to feel that you will be using this for a specific campaign if you regularly play with the same group, because of the single Mastermind and relatively small range of threats to pick once you remove the playbook adjacent threats from the mix. This is obviously going to be less of a problem if you run this game with multiple gaming groups.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
If you are a fan of the inspirational media, as I am, I think you will be happy with this purchase. However, I also think that this will be a better game to get to the table for gaming groups that are even better at improv than the standard Apocalypse World-derived game assumes.
Many games like this are released and go unsupported, but this product specifically mentions an open publishing policy and future Mastermind releases. Since Brindlewood Bay–a game by the same team–has received a support product after its initial release, I expect this game to also get that expected support, and I think it will be worth checking back in to see what future threats and Masterminds do for the feel of the game.
What are your favorite eras for historical games? Are there other Victorian-era settings you would like to see explored? We want to hear from you in the comments below!
Good review, thanks