Gothic Heartbreaker: We Hunt By Night Post-Launch Retrospective
My latest game, We Hunt By Night: Expanded Edition, is available now on DriveThruRPG and itch.io.
So, what was I doing here?
It’s the most useful question to ask. Once you release something into the public, you essentially relinquish all control of its public perception over to the audience, who will for good and for ill, interpret and view the work in ways you never expected. The tone is set, and any changes you make from the point that you hit Publish are judged in relation to whatever it is that you initially released and how you chose to market it. Nobody wants to be a George Lucas, endlessly tinkering with something everyone already considers to be a finished work, or a Francis Ford Coppola, so desperate to relive faded glories that you re-release three four hour expanded cuts that do nothing but mire the original work in endless authorial self-indulgences. Equally, nobody wants to release something and realise all too late that it’s unfinished.
It’s a fine tightrope to walk. With any tabletop system, no matter how thorough you think your playtesting process was, cracks emerge almost instantly. Players interpret rulings you thought were clear in vague and esoteric ways, until you realise the way you wrote the rules was never as clear as you thought it was. Players draw connections between mechanics, lore, and values (both moral and design) that you thought were never there, or miss ones that you thought were clear. Errata and bugfixes are expected, because rulebooks are to some degree considered to be living documents. But the scope of any changes narrows. The audience you gather is largely the one you’re stuck with, and it’s a losing battle to tell anyone they’re enjoying your game wrong.
What if assholes enjoy my game? Well, design your game to be as hostile to assholes as possible. Next question.
Urban Fantasy is my favourite genre. I think this is, in part, due to being born in the cultural milieu of Harry Potter and its various much better imitators in the late 90s, experiencing all the grimdark contemporary fantasy like Soul Reaver, Spawn and The Maxx at a too-young age, and partly coming from me getting extremely into William Gibson, Neil Gaiman books, and old Vertigo comics as a teen. As an adult, I unfortunately got back into exploring Classic World of Darkness material, and all its multifarious and equally-embarrassing splats, as well as getting into considerably less-embarrassing things like Control and House of Leaves. So most things that I make draw from those influences.
Back when I made interactive fiction games, they were post-cyberpunk thrillers about hackers skulking through mainframes, shitty nights in rundown nightclubs, or how technology rots existing social fabric and replaces it with alternate hierarchies. After making a few projects outside my usual wheelhouse, like the medieval football-centric Hooligans of Shrovetide, I figured it was time to come home.
We Hunt By Night has its primordial origins in a Forged in the Dark game-that-never-was I was making eighteen months ago called SPLATTERPUNKS, which was my attempt to make a modern vampire game that leaned a little more into gnarly queer body horror and less into Anne Rice sexual politics that has pervaded the genre since the 70’s, mostly because I think that blood as stand-in for DIY Hormones as a potentially-unethically acquired and artificially-limited resource that you need to survive in a socially-acceptable way is an inherently slapstick funny kind of dark metaphor for the trans experience, in the same way that iZombie’s first season very accidentally made the Most Transgender Show On Television (future article topic).
There’s still some DNA from Splatterpunks in We Hunt By Night. The Weishaupt Institute were from the Splatterpunks draft, as generically evil antagonists who you could choose to sell your team-mates to ‘for research’ and whose experiments birthed most of the enemies that you fight. Expanded Edition adds ‘Changes’, which were initially vampiric degenerations you could take in the place of BitD’s Traumas.
A lot was very different. Splatterpunks had a very defined idea of what its monsters were, and how they were made. I drew from medieval folklore of vampires being reanimated corpses puppeted by demons with multiple hearts who needed to be buried ‘properly’ or risk them rising again, making the vampires a result of a conscious choice by a spirit in the nebulously-defined underworld to come back and get revenge. What kind of vampire you were (the Playbooks) were determined by what kind of demon you bartered with. As a result, they were indestructible unless their heart was destroyed, forming a chrysalis to regenerate their body if everything BUT the heart was destroyed, which meant that most combat would devolve into splattering gore and viscera everywhere while you tried to rip the vampire’s heart out with their bare hands.
Hence, the name.
If you got a vampire’s heart? Shove it in your chest and take that vampire’s powers.
But after writing several thousand words on the psychosexual body horror dynamics of vampires ripping hearts out of chests like they’re Kano from Mortal Kombat for what was looking mechanically like a very rote Forged in the Dark clone, I had to sit back and ask what I was really doing here.
The answer was making something that would probably be a fun setting, but I didn’t think it was ever going to make a fun tabletop game. So, I rescoped and refocused. I was getting really into the OSR school of design at the time, and particularly the style of ‘NuSR’ games like Cairn and The Electrum Archive that use nothing from the original d20 systems or various retroclones, opting instead to try and build a game that replicated a specific mood and tone of adventure through streamlined mechanics. For Cairn, that was a kind of Dark Souls 2-esque dark fairytale atmosphere of lethal rural adventuring. TEA leans heavily into that specific kind of Dune and Morrowind desert adventure.
So I focused on the core mood I was trying to express though Splatterpunks/We Hunt By Night: being a gig worker from an ostracized background trying to hold onto the things that make you fundamentally human in a system designed to grind you down.
Also, you’re a cryptid.
There have been three versions of We Hunt By Night: the initial d10 version (v1.0), a major revision of the d10 rules (v1.1), and the d6-based Expanded Edition, which I’ll get to later as it’s the most recent version and incorporated much of the feedback I’d received on the original editions and lessons learned during the design process. All three versions of WHbN will remain up on the itch.io store page indefinitely and will be transferred to more permanent housing whenever possible, alongside minor revisions like the jump from v1.0a to v1.0b.
So going into developing We Hunt By Night, my design tent poles were: Neverwhere and American Gods by Neil Gaiman, Alan Wake and Control by Remedy, the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Hellblazer circa Jamie Delano and Garth Ennis, early (1e/2e) World of Darkness, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey & The Secret World by Funcom, and HareBrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Trilogy.
If a d20-based OSR game can be defined as a system that can play a mean game of Keep at the Borderlands, I wanted to make an OSR system that had equal claim to playing both a mean game of Shadowrun’s Food Fight and a mean game of Masquerade’s Chicago By Night.
Except, y’know, stealthily. The goal was to replicate the game-feel of 90’s dice pool-based proto-storygames but, because neither games are the most open in comparison to D&D’s post-OGL openness (outside of the legendarily weird example of Malcolm Sheppard releasing the ‘Opening The Dark’ Storyteller System SRD through the OGL and then deleting it a few months later), I was worried that openly advertising We Hunt By Night with a “hey, try playing your old Shadowrun or Cyberpunk or Werewolf: The Apocalypse modules on this and see how it goes!” message would either fatally undermine the system (which leans more New Weird than Personal Horror as of Expanded Edition, and I did not want to invite the dark spirits of WoD edition warring into my home by advertising it as a horror game) or get CGL and Paradox to send me surly letters or something.
I think if I was doing this over, I would either openly embrace these influences as much as I can or find a way to market the game to that audience. Trying to split the difference in marketing the game as ‘a cryptid simulator’ just muddled the message on what I think the system is good at, which is Supernatural Heists.
So thinking back, my design goals for the first edition of We Hunt By Night were:
1. Use a successes-based dice pool system.
2. Make the setting classless, lightweight, and flexible.
3. A humanity system that was based around work/life balance, not “you are [x] less human for getting a robot arm”
4. Keep the setting light on lore, but with enough clear setting details to make it easy for GMs to use the included game material as a toolkit.
Lets go through them in order.
1. Use a successes-based dice pool system. The Dice Pool system edict was born from the game’s influences. Splatterpunks’s few non-standard FitD mechanical quirks were born out of my fascination with working with the Blades in the Dark system and Star Wars WEG, and wondering what value the successes-based dice pool systems of Shadowrun and World of Darkness would have worked on top of it.
I was making something that was going to be a little Shadowrun and a little World of Darkness, so dice pools were a must. And… I’m going to be honest, it led to nothing but headaches. Dice pools are tricky to balance, which is why every single major and minor revision of includes at least two attempts to try and reduce the bounds of how swing-y they were and reduce the number of dice that you needed to roll, after a rest run with max Hunger/Psyche active resulted in scenarios where a player was rolling something like 20d10 at a difficulty of 11, making any success on a ridiculously high number of dice fundamentally impossible.
It’s ultimately a losing game, because the fact that there is some swing in dice pools is a lot of the appeal for players and GMs on these systems, particularly when you throw things like 1’s removing successes causing botches and glitches in games like Shadowrun and VtM. The sheer chaos factor of it (and how many extremely crunchy mechanics built into these systems exist solely to patch the holes these mechanics create) is something I personally loathe about these 90’s games, but it’s impossible to avoid within the design conceits I set for myself when I laid out the game in the formative stages.
With Expanded Edition, I chose to stop trying to fix the problem and embraced the chaos. I switched the system over to a d6-based dice pool and added the exploding dice of my beloved Savage Worlds, which switched the swing to be weighted in the players favour. Additionally, each faction gained at least one ‘pity’ mechanic to mitigate the swing of the dice. Institute agents with ‘Rising Star’ get exploding dice on a 5, Conclave agents with ‘Lampert’s Lament’ can re-roll failed skill checks once per encounter, and Null agents with ‘Rule of Three’ or ‘Even The Odds’ have idiosyncratic ways of counting failures as additional successes. Only the Leviathan lack one, which befits their status as the underdogs of the faction conflict. These were, in my opinion, a bandaid on a bullet wound for fixing the overall issues with the roll system, but they gave the factions additional flavour and tied the setting lore into the overall mechanics, so I think I even out to thinking they’re a fun addition to the game.
2. Make the setting classless, lightweight, and flexible.The Classless edict came from the OSR influence. A key feature of most OSR games is the ability to randomly generate your characters. This is probably my favourite thing about the system, in all honesty. I wanted to extend that to a kind of ‘play-any-splat’ mentality with the system. If you want to play Mothman? Fucking go for it. There’s examples and templates to provide guidance but nothing stopping you from playing as grounded or as goofy as you want.
It has issues, though: Banes & Tethers & Mementos are just kind of a mess and I’m still not sure how I would improve them. It’s a little less Jungian than the original History/Passion, but I think that changing it ultimately removed a fairly charming feature of the and replaced it with something that’s ultimately less interesting to explore through play.
3. A humanity system that was based around work/life balance, not “you are [x] less human for getting a robot arm” Psyche was a weird mess and I don’t think I succeeded on any count on what I set out to do with it, because it eventually just became a measure of “how human are you” vs. “how supernatural are you,” when the goal with the design was to try and avoid quantifying how much of a Person the player characters were. I eventually just added more flavour with the Below, Changes, demonic consorts and faction skills affecting your Psyche in Expanded Edition, which I think turned out… okay, if a little under-baked, but by then it had completely slipped from my original intentions with the system. I’m not sure if I’d ever go back to trying to attempt this kind of Humanity system again, as I think even with the best intentions it still falls into fairly uncomfortably “sacred/profane” territory very quickly.
4. Keep the setting light on lore, but with enough clear setting details to make it easy for GMs to use the included game material as a toolkit. The Lore was a pretty standard political compass of factions. There was a core design ideology with the lore, that I never think I made explicit, that there was no space for supernatural conspiracies to control the world because the mundane mortal conspiracies already controlled it. The seat was already taken. Sorry Dracula, you don’t get to be the evil overlord, you just get to work for him.
There was a lot of flavour for all of the factions that I cut from the core book towards the end of development, because I was trying to keep it as light as possible and I couldn’t justify putting in four pages of how the Conclave responded to obscure religious doctrine issues and reckoned with their problematic history of demon worship, or that the Institute calls the Eidolons suffering for their utopian dreams "Omelas Kids" because they're absolute ghouls. I had an idea of writing pamphlet-sized boosters for the game over time to work some of it back in. In my head, the series would be:
I don’t know if that plot outline would’ve survived to publication. The Leviathan is buried beneath London now, anyway. Her girlfriend is raising an army of ghosts to avenge her.
Barring a sudden burst of inspiration, I don’t think any of these will be released in any form. About 99% of the way through working on Expanded Edition, which added things like the Below and Hunts, I had the book in the finished state you can pick up now, but I was wracking my head over how to write the Los Angeles Setting Guide.
This delayed the release for months, but I wrote that the next update would include the LA Setting Guide, so I was delaying it until I wrote the LA setting guide. Ultimately what killed it was the fact that I just couldn’t find a way to authentically write like, any of it. I’ve never been to Los Angeles, and I’ve only experienced it through media and what my friends tell me about it, and it just wasn’t me.
So I focused everything down to a setting I thought I could do more justice to: London. There’s still a lot more I could’ve done with London (I really wanted to get a full folio of setting NPCs in there), but at a certain point I needed to just release the Expanded Edition and be done with it, let the public judge it, instead of letting it sit there on my hard drive like if I never looked at it, it would eventually attain a mythical level of perfection I was striving towards. Another issue was that I made the Leviathan (formerly The Rabble) too obviously good of a choice as a faction. Of all the play-testers and proof-readers? Everyone, to a man, wanted to play as the Rabble. They just looked comforting and familiar as these pseudo-Anarchs, instead of the obviously evil factions. So I made them weird cultists who venerate an ancient goth chick to make them weirder, and everyone still only wanted to play them. Call me DJ Khaled, because I’m suffering from success with those guys. Final Thoughts: Best Part? Like I said, I think the character creation. That’s where the bulk of my effort went into the game and I think it really shows. Worst Part? Combat. Man, I don’t fucking know what I was thinking with the combat system. Combat Systems are my weak point, I think. It’s something I really need to knuckle down and get better at understanding.
As a game? I have a certain ambivalence for it that I expected to go away after a few weeks of thinking about it, but has crystallized into a quote that I saw Josh Sawyer post on Twitter once. I think it was originally about bicycle making: You don’t even know how to make the right kind of mistakes yet.
I feel that sits at the heart of We Hunt By Night. I'm deeply proud of my little Gothic Heartbreaker, but I'm not sure, trying to turn my critical eye on it, whether I would enjoy it solely as a player. It was my first major project in years, and my first major TTRPG project in ever. It’s derivative. It’s sloppy. It’s a dozen overlapping systems that never coalesce into anything remotely coherent. I think it's a mess. I can't wait to make a better game next time around. And I think it really sits at the heart of why I feel now that what I was making was built on a flawed premise: mixing an OSR design ethos with the storygames of the 90's just doesn't work. Or, at least, I wasn't the person to try and do it. The OSR spawned out of the belief that the design values of tabletop games in the 90's and onwards, the Shadowruns and the Worlds of Darkness, had cast off the fundamental fun of the early days of the genre with their metaplots and factions and hyper-defined settings and overbearing NPCs. It's oil and water to try and combine that kind of game with the OSR ethos, because by and large: we have never fully moved beyond that 90's Ethos. I didn't know how to make the right kind of mistakes.
As a learning experience, I think We Hunt By Night was an unmitigated success. I learned a ton about putting together a sourcebook, working with outside help, playtesting and writing revisions, and tabletop design. I think I even know how to make some of the right kinds of mistakes next time.
Ultimately, though, my own interpretation of its strengths and weaknesses are only half the story. I’ve relinquished control of it by releasing it to the public, and it’s what other people make of it that matters.