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Betrayal at Club Low uses dice to pull players into compelling, surreal narrative situations

Betrayal at Club Low is a rescue mission where die rolls will lead to unpredictable, surreal, and often intriguing new situations whether you succeed or fail.

Joel Couture, Contributor

February 22, 2023

11 Min Read
The outlines of two heads facing one another, with an option to reroll dice in between them.
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This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. The IGF (Independent Games Festival) aims to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize independent game developers advancing the medium. Every year, Game Developer sits down with the finalists for the IGF ahead of GDC to explore the themes, design decisions, and tools behind each entry.

Betrayal at Club Low is a rescue mission where dice rolls will lead to unpredictable, surreal, and often intriguing new situations whether you succeed or fail.

Greg Heffernan took some time to talk with Game Developer about the multi-award nominated title (Design, Nuovo, and Seumas McNally Grad Prize) about capturing the chaos and quirks of dice into their narrative game, the thoughts that went into creating dramatic, high-stakes narrative situations without requiring violence, and how Yahtzee helped them crack one of the game's greatest design challenges.

Who are you, and what was your role in developing Betrayal at Club Low?

I'm Greg Heffernan, aka Cosmo D. I am the developer of Betrayal At Club Low. I put it all together with considerable assistance in key areas like QA, marketing, and playtesting. Quite a lot of playtesting.

What's your background in making games?

I started making games in late 2013. To date, I've released four games: Off-Peak, The Norwood Suite, Tales from Off Peak City v. 1, and now Betrayal At Club Low. My past titles existed somewhere in the space of walking sim and first-person adventure games. For Betrayal at Club Low, I wanted to push myself as a designer to implement an engaging, decidedly mechanics-driven experience. I would do this in a genre that has inspired me since I was a kid - the RPG.

How did you come up with the concept for Betrayal at Club Low?

I’ve been an avid board game player for years, but at a certain point in late 2018, I really wanted to play something on the table that wasn’t so restrained by rules or even a state of "winning" or "losing." So, for the next year or so before the pandemic, I got deep into tabletop games. I ran a table at a pick-up RPG session at a local game shop in Brooklyn with strangers, just for fun. Betrayal At Club Low grew out of the feeling I got playing these weekly games. When Disco Elysium landed in the fall of 2019, it felt like something I had to respond to digitally in my own work.

What development tools were used to build your game?

Unity, Blender, Affinity for image editing, Rebelle (which simulates watercolors), Face Gen3D for handling the face, and Bitwig from music.

Betrayal at Club Low does an incredible job of capturing the creative, open, and chaotic feel of a tabletop game. What challenges did you face in getting that sensation just right for the game? In creating mechanics and possible actions that would capture that creative problem-solving that comes from role-playing board games?

By leading with the scenario (infiltration) and the seven skills (Cooking, Deception, Music, Observation, Physique, Wisdom, and Wit), I was laying out a clear goal and seven narrative angles to help solve it. Many of the choices players make in the game are abstract, which gave me a lot of creative leeway to come up with all kinds of activities for the player to do. For example, if one choice was that you could "convince the guard you’re a chef," the actual conversation doesn’t take place in the game—only in the player’s imagination. This format was consistent throughout the game, and any actual dialog that was there was used as an accent.

Physical interactions with inanimate objects were harder because there was no dialog at all; they were represented by the character’s puppet-like animation loops and a bit of flavor text. I had to really show and not tell there. Still, they played up the slapstick element and showed how even the act of opening up a desk could be treacherous.

This then presented the challenge of balancing how much I was offering each skill to be used and when. At the beginning of the game, when you’re trying to infiltrate the club, you can feasibly use any of the seven skills to get in somehow, all in different narrative ways. In the front, around the side alley, or up on the escape ladder. Keeping track of how often I was providing different skills to be used, and which ones were being overused or underused—that took at least two spreadsheets and a lot of player feedback.

And if I got feedback that was more meta-gamey, like "Yeah, I just built up my deception skill and was able to beat the game that way." That was a problem I needed to address. If a player said, "I told the guard I was a chef, then I got the crowd on my side by dancing with them," that meant the mechanics had fallen away and a story was emerging in the player’s imagination. That’s when I knew the game was on the right track.

What drew you to use dice for the interactions and challenges in the game?

Dice are uniquely visceral and chaotic when they’re being used to determine an outcome. Especially when you roll a lot of them and they start bouncing and off each other with that satisfying clack. I wanted to capture the "thrill of the tumble" when you watch dice faces turn over and over and hope that the one you want is going to land upright.

I also appreciate their quirks—the way they don’t always land flat, seem weighted towards certain sides, and fly off in random directions. From a design perspective, I appreciate that the constraints in dice are the limited sides and a need for clear, simple iconography. There’s only so many dice you can roll before you lose track of what’s going on, and I wanted every [die] to carry a certain degree of meaning.

Security room approaching the guard watching tennis

What thoughts went into the creation of the game's creative skill and dice system? Into creating the varied skills and then building a deep dice-improvement system to fuel them.

I wanted the skill system to be a fun way of navigating challenges in an urban environment that were non-violent, but still had stakes and drama. All the skills in the game can be applied to a wide variety of narrative situations, so I led with the situations and decided which skills seemed to work best with each challenge. Some ideas were pretty far-fetched, like avoiding a security beam by knowing its musical frequency. But I went with it anyway, because that’s the kind of idea someone would come up with at my tabletop RPG sessions.

Also, I was attracted to the idea that, even if you failed, you’d earn something positive, usually money, along with something negative you’d have to face later. "Failing forward" in this way keeps the frustration low, because you never lose the money, and the negative consequences can be faced when you’re ready. I wanted tension to simmer without veering into outright frustration. Balancing this was tricky, and playtesting was crucial.

As for my customizable dice system, I saw this as generally unexplored territory, both in the digital and tabletop space. I can count on one, maybe two hands the board games that use this mechanic. The deckbuilder Mystic Vale does something similar, stacking transparent paper to create customizable cards. There’s a strategy and narrative to upgrading dice; it’s not just one number going up, it’s six. And those six numbers tell a little story. Looking at an opponent that has a 6/6/7/8/8/1 in Deception, it’s hard to fool them, but they do have a soft spot.

I was attracted to the strategy of upgrading dice because it made even the act of leveling up feel like an interesting choice rather than an inevitability. With six sides of a dice, now you have some pathways as to which numbers to boost. Raise one of your lower numbers to catch up to your higher ones? Push one of your higher numbers even more? Or do you have enough cash to boost the whole set of six? I like that every decision you make is a choice between two or more equally interesting decisions.

Dice may seem to make your chances of victory in this game feel random, but you've put in some specific elements (improving dice, seeing opponent's possible dice) to counter that. What ideas went into these systems to keep the unpredictable nature of the dice while not making it feel totally random?

Honestly, getting the dice aspect to work was the biggest design challenge. At first, it was just a lot of swingy dice rolling that could end up as a dry numbers game. None of the customizability made much of an impact because the dice rolls were so all over the place anyway.

But I want to give credit to Charles Pratt of NYU Game Center here; he encouraged me to embrace the Yahtzee mechanic of "roll and keep." In this mechanic, you roll, re-roll two more times and get to keep whatever dice you want at any point. The more I checked out other dice games, the more I realized how widely used this mechanic has been over decades. King Of Tokyo is probably the most notable modern tabletop game using roll-and-keep. What’s so great about it is that it gently tilts the odds in your favor by letting you re-roll, while also offering that strategy of choice: what to re-roll and what to keep. Once I embraced this Yahtzee system, the rest of the dice upgrade ideas emerged more intuitively.

Pizza oven and pizza serving menu

You tied pizza-making to the dice system in the game. Can you tell us a bit about your thought process around making pizza with dice? How the idea came together?

At first, it wasn’t pizza dice at all. It was "mind dice"—you were using your mind to help you with all these non-combat skills. But I didn’t want such a "heady" theme for my dice, so that lead me to embracing pizza. This embrace allowed other elements to fall into place, too: pizza worked for the narrative of who you were and how you were getting into the club. It also allowed me to focus on what the dice actually did. Cheese, pepperoni, basil, etc had a certain thematic clarity and I could marry that with mechanics like getting paid, getting healed, and messing with opponents’ dice. Finally, for the purposes of onboarding players to the concept of customizable dice, the pizza theme provided a solid hook.

What ideas went into the visual design of the game? The look of the dice battles? The pizza making? The coffin factory-turned night club?

The visuals were a continuation of the visual aesthetic I’ve had in all my games: surreal, yet grounded. The club itself was inspired by loft-style venues I’d frequent and perform at as a musician around Brooklyn and Queens in a previous chapter of my artistic life.

There is a surreal appeal in exploring every inch of Club Low. How do you use surprise and a sense of the unexpected to keep players wanting to explore?

When I make a space for players to explore, I usually mix in something grounded and believable with something unfamiliar or out of place. Then I let those elements settle for a while so that their intermingling seems natural and organic. Then I reinforce their intermingling within the world’s fiction and characters’ relationship with the space. Eventually, this blend feels lived-in, even for players experiencing it for the first time. They might be feeling uneasy about where they are, yet oddly comfortable, and trusting that their curiosity will lead to a satisfying surprise.

You've previously said that your games take place in a single universe for reasons that are organic and practical at the same time. However, what do you feel draws you to the surreal, endlessly surprising world of Off-Peak? What do you feel brings you here and keeps you here, emotionally? As a place where your heart can speak through your creativity?

I’m drawn to Off-Peak City because, in real life, I’m drawn to New York. I’ve lived here for over twenty years. Creating every game has started as my attempt to emulate and celebrate aspects of New York that inspire me—its architecture, geography, food, communities and local heroes, its struggles, its myths. But then I get whimsical and extend the New York vibe into a fantastical and emotional riff on whatever feels right at that moment. And then NYC industriousness reasserts itself; time to take all this exploration and make it into something tangible that others can enjoy.

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