Metatopia Design Diary: Nighttide

Last weekend, I ran my first playtest of Nighttide (and the Gauge system on which it’s based), a diceless gothic horror game inspired by Bloodborne and Castlevania. It was a lot of fun! Also, it didn’t work. That session did suggest that it ​could​ work, though, and that this game may be worth developing into something more detailed than a page-long scenario with some vague rules. Some key takeaways:

1. There are two different games here, and I have to pick which one this will be. 

I’ve had the ideas for both Gauge​ and Nighttide for a long time​, but didn’t put the idea into words until I saw an opportunity to submit it to a game jam for “Powered by the Apocalypse” games built around only a single move. I wanted to use an Apocalypse World MC move for mine: “tell the consequences and ask.” Players would get three different currencies—blood, breath, and bullets—and occasionally, the facilitator would state that something a player wanted to do would cost them in currency or narrative blowback. I initially envisioned this as a very loose cost, with the currencies acting like the abstract “hold” currency spent in a variety of other Apocalypse World moves. 

Early readers of Gauge expressed concern, however, that the guidelines for converting between concrete currencies and more abstract narrative costs were too vague, so I made a much more explicit conversion rate for Nighttide. In my mind, this would make it feel like an “OSR PbtA” game, combining the tight resource management and unforgiving lethality of “old school renaissance” D&D-ish RPGs with the dramatic give-and-take of “Powered by the Apocalypse” RPGs. To my surprise, however, I didn’t really think of most social scenes in terms of “cost” so much as “dilemmas,” so the rules weren’t much help there; and in combat scenes, the rules actually felt more like Fate Core than anything else. Players spent most of the time in our one action scene trying to identify and haggle over which personal and environmental advantages they could mechanize to count like tokens, and the criteria for what should count felt very vague. 

In the end, one of my playtesters really enjoyed this as an alternative to Fate that let players think tactically as a team and construct narratively appropriate bonuses without the “swinginess” of dice. The other playtesters expressed that it was too mechanized for their tastes—and, to be honest, it was a lot harder for me to run than I had hoped. They advised me, and I agree, that I need to decide whether to lean into the Fate-like play by better defining (and representing with tokens!) what counts as an “edge” for bonuses, or whether I should simplify the spending rules considerably so it’s as quick to adjudicate and open to interpretation as I originally intended. 

I know I prefer the latter, more abstract approach, but I suspect it will be much harder to do in a satisfying way, so I’m still thinking over what that will look like. I want my currencies to have in-game meaning to the characters, like in the diceless PbtA game Undying, ​but I think I’d also like token spending to be as quick and simple as in the more abstract diceless PbtA system in ​Dream Askew. ​I wonder if I should reread these and other token-based systems to think about other ways to approach this—say, through blind bidding rules in some situations, or a more extensive (if not necessarily prescriptive) move list.

2. The vaguely alluded to magic rules actually work decently.

One playtester, Jeremy, probed a bit at one of the rumors noted in the text, which states that sorcery has a cost in blood—yours, or someone else’s. I actually did have an idea in mind for this ​just in case​ somebody asked: Take the “book” item to start, and we’ll call it a grimoire that you don’t quite understand yet, but you can use it to perform rituals for a cost of blood during play. I welcomed the players to come up with their own starting items instead of those on the list, and Jeremy cleverly came up with leeches, which provided a handy source of blood for a warding ritual later. If the use of poorly understood magic had gotten out of control, of course, it was fully within the scope of the rules as written to start demanding higher prices—say, more blood, signs of physical corruption, attention from otherworldly forces, and beyond.

3. Weighty tokens made a difference. 

It’s not something I can exactly require of a downloadable PDF game, but having handfuls replica “silver bullet” tokens made as much of an impact on the experience as I had hoped it would. I was actually quite nervous about bringing tokens resembling ammunition to the table, given my personal views about gun violence and gun control (or lack thereof) in the USA. In fact, a major reason I ran ​Nighttide​ and not ​Gauge for Metatopia was that I felt uncomfortable about having a tangible symbol of human-on-human violence on the table (which is very much what they’d be used for in ​Gauge’​s post-apocalyptic setting). That concern didn’t feel as present when applied to silver bullets specifically for hunting monstrous beasts in a setting suffering from a silver shortage (where you’d have to be nuts to waste something so desperately needed and valuable on another human being). I had a strong suspicion, which I still struggle to explain, that heavy, metallic tokens would provide something tactile for players to appreciate in the absence of dice, and help underscore that every shot counts, and I was reassured when the playtesters explicitly confirmed this.

Thanks to my playtesters, Ryan Dziuba, ​Jeremy A. Jackson, ​Benjamin Little, and TheKraftyKat for their extremely helpful feedback. I’m looking forward to the next playtest and seeing what I can do with this.

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