My favorite experiences involve contrasts. This is why games that mostly lean into a power fantasy, or games that try too hard to create a gritty experience, only hold my interest for a short time. When I designed Tides of Gold, I wanted to explore a game that tried to weave these two elements together. The fantastical experiences would be inspiring and fun, but the difficult decisions would introduce a sense of meaningful, weighty decisions.
There were two reasons for this.
One, I know in my game groups, our desire to play something light or challenging can be heavily influenced by real life circumstances. I wanted a game that allowed groups to adapt the tone of their campaign session-to-session, depending on their mood and IRL circumstances..
Two, my strongest memories in game campaigns are the bittersweet ones. The sessions that mixed humor with loss, heroic success with sacrifice, or over-the-top antics with a serious underlying theme. I wanted to design a game intended to create these moments more often in play: the contrast of inspiring and gritty.
The rest of this post is going to review how I designed Tides of Gold with this contrast in mind.
Developing a chronic illness in 2018 fundamentally changed how I play games, which also changed which games I can play. This past spring I've started to take what I learned as a player to modify my design approach so I am creating games people like me can actually play.
This is not, to be clear, "how to design games while coping with a chronic illness," but more about how I have changed my own views on "good" game design as a result.
Tides of Gold was the one-weekend experiment that ended up becoming the game that shifted how I thought about Forged in the Dark (FitD) game design.
Rather than do a full post-mortum on the project I want to highlight one aspect that turned out to be really important: the role of playbook concepts.
In Blades and my previous game Karma in the Dark, playbooks were primarily about the type of professional you are, i.e. your skill set. A Whisper is about tapping the occult in Blades; a Broker is about social manipulation in Karma. The playbooks were about what you do (with some flavor of how you do it in the xp triggers).
For Tides, playbooks are more about your role in the crew. If you choose the Compass it isn’t just about doing mystical stuff, it’s about being the moral anchor and voice in the group. Think Cassie in the Animorph books or often Kayley in Firefly. If you are the Old Timer it’s not just about being skillful with surviving, it’s about being the one who has seen tragedy and wants to prevent it from reoccurring by sharing wisdom. The Firebrand, one of the new playbooks, is about being the one who pushes people to take action, to be passionate, to challenge and act fiercer in pursuit of what you care about.
All of this ties back to the central theme of the game. Tides is a game where you play as pirates, but it’s actually about the intersection of family and purpose. You have an anchor that motivates you along with some purpose for striking out into dangerous waters and trying to gain money (and perhaps respect/power). You have a crew that is more like a found family. And your playbook is a way of saying, “this is the role I want to take within this (probably dysfunctional) family.”
I'm known for going on tangents. The only consistent thing in my life is that I spend most of it creating things: novels, games, graphics. I love taking apart how art and games work, then reconstructing my own version from the pieces. I'm also enough of a layout perfectionist to adore eraser shields.