I hit the designer’s version of writer’s block for the first time this winter. I wasn’t sure how to deal with it, so I decided to avoid the issue by throwing myself into playing a lot more games. And reading even more.
Turns out, that’s exactly what I needed.
Every time I read or play a game two things happen:
I won’t dive into every game I’ve played or read, but I want to focus on one specifically: Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined by Riley Hopkins a.k.a. The Kingdom Hearts roleplaying game.
I had no idea what to expect when I agree to play this game. I’ve never played more than 30 minutes of Kingdom Hearts. I’ve never played a game where I roleplay an existing character. And I’d never actually heard of the game until someone suggested we play it. The game is made with the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) system, and at this point I’d had lukewarm experiences with PbtA games.
So it’s probably fair to say my reaction going into this game was, “Meh.”
My reaction coming out was, “I love this game. I have so much to learn from this game. When can I play again?”
If you want to hear me talk about the game as a player, you can keep an eye on the Voices at play podcast, where I was part of a roundtable discussion about the game. That episode will be coming out in the next month.
Here I want to focus on the game as a designer.
Interstitial’s brilliance comes from the fact the rules give you exactly what you need for the game experience and nothing more. As a player, you need to read approximately 5 pages of rules, review the 2-page player guide, use the guide for making a character, and read your specific playbook.
As a GM, you have an additional 5 pages of rules and an optional default setting detailed over 7 pages. But if you embrace the Kingdom Hearts inspiration, you can skip the default setting and draw from your favorite existing IP’s. GM prep really comes down to what you personally need as a GM, as the game’s Moves and focus on relationship dynamics do pretty much all of the mechanical heavy lifting for you.
Interstitial captures a space where the game is about a very specific experience and focus within gameplay, but also inspires wildly different types of games based on the genre and IP mixes you choose. So the rules are streamlined, without the play experience feeling extremely limited.
This is further supported by the game’s focus on playbooks: there are fifteen different playbooks, each with uniques moves and mechanics, that inspire different play experiences. So far I’ve only played 2 different playbooks and seen a total of 6 in action, and I can say each playbook felt different. The playbooks are mostly based on different fictional archetypes, so they inspire you to pick different characters from franchises. However, they have enough flexibility you could potentially play 2 or even 3 different playbooks with the same character, depending on how you want to focus your role in the party.
“Simplicity” in design is one of the hardest traits to achieve successfully. Interstitial, in my view, is an example of a game that does it.
One of the major benefits to a “simple but diverse” game is that it makes it a lot easier to introduce new players to it. The rules aren’t overwhelming, and when you’re learning, you only need to search a few pages for the answer to your question about how something should work. As someone who likes to play many different games, I find this pick-up-and-play aspect valuable.
As a result, since playing Interstitial I’ve frequently gone back to read it with an eye towards design.
I appreciate the way the Basic Moves cover pretty much every needed situation, but are written open enough for people to add their own narrative flair to the way they play out.
I appreciate the way the game’s unique stats (Light, Dark, Mastery, Heart) change how I think about characters and how they interact with the world.
I appreciate the way one twist on PbtA games—the Link system—is enough to make play feel fresh and different from other PbtA games.
I appreciate the way the agenda and principles for GMs and players sets the tone, but uses minimal words rather than over explaining itself.
I appreciate how the major labor of design focused on one aspect of the game (diverse playbooks) so the game has a wide range of play, but kept that range focused on one core element.
When I read Interstitial as a designer, the game does just enough and nothing more. And I mean that in the best possible way.
It’s a model I’ve started considering with my own games. As I explore new game systems and play with experimental designs, I find myself asking, “Are the basic pieces in place? And what is the one area I want to really invest in making it new or different?”
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.