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.”
Because that’s part of how I see found families. We can develop a found family because we don’t have a healthy (or any) biological family, but we can also develop a found family because sometimes what we need (or want) to do takes us away from our family of origin. We need to create a new one for the journey.
The first 5 playbooks were based on the Inverse World supplment for Dungeon World by Jacob Randolph and Brandon Schmelz, used under the CC-BY-SA license. I’ve updated and molded them as I went, but many of the first ideas came from there.
But I knew I wanted the standard 7 playbooks of most FitD games, so I started to think over the missing roles. Immediately I thought of the Scoundrel: the person who says they only care about the money, but develop a sense of loyalty and investment despite their best intentions.
A funny thing happened. I started writing abilities for the Scoundrel and ended up writing the Firebrand instead. When I tried to make abilities that were connected to “but actually I care about people”, I realized those overt moves belonged to someone who was more overt about their caring. Once I noticed this trend, the Firebrand developed quickly.
But then another funny thing happened. As I wrote about the Firebrand, it seemed like this playbook belonged to someone who intrinsically feels like they belong. They voice their opinion because it matters, and they believe they have the right to say as much. There was a sense of confidence that came from feeling justified.
I finished the Firebrand and tried to go back to the Scoundrel, but my mind kept nagging at the question of the person who contrasts with the Firebrand: the outsider who wants to belong. Who wants their voice to be heard. But they are always on the edges, unsure if they should speak up.
I only wanted 7 playbooks, but the idea of the Exile refused to let me go. This playbook was about being cast out, being suspicious of people as a result, and yet wanting to find a way to connect even more because of it.
Once I finished, I realized I’d written the playbook of most of my life. For many reasons I’ve spent my life hiding or compartmentalizing parts of my identity to fit the mythical norm. It means I read people closer. I notice change and negative currents more sensitively. And it makes me care about and want to connect with people even more—especially people who have similar experiences of being on the edges.
I don’t feel like the exile playbook anymore; I have an awesome network of people and family. But I knew I had to keep the playbook in the game. Because it’s part of my own story of found family.
I went back to the Scoundrel last. It was easier now. And really the Scoundrel’s role in the group became “I’m good at illegal stuff.” In some ways it’s the most job-focused of the playbooks. But I think a crew needs that person. This is the person who gets stuff done. The Firebrand can inspire a bunch of people, but someone still needs to hold the mayor up at gun point and demand the key to the vault. Or needs to be ready to fight back in a brawl when their Collector friend has made someone angry for asking intrusive questions. In a lot of ways, this playbook became more Zoe from Firefly than Jayne, the competent person holding down the fort in the midst of everyone else’s drama.
This shift from playbooks-as-family/crew-roles vs. playbooks-as-jobs might seem like an obvious one. There are definitely Powered by the Apocalypse World games that also take this approach. But it was an important design shift for me because it’s easy to get lost in FitD games as games about jobs (scores, missions, episodes). But for a game that is more about your crew and how you come together, the job is just window dressing.
Come for the adventure, stay for the family drama and bonding.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.