This week, Dimitris and I sat down with Nick Butler, developer of the Tide Breaker RPG system! Nick is the lead game developer for Smunchy Games, (part of the World Anvil community!) who are releasing very exciting work in the world of board games and tabletop RPGs! In this interview, we learned about Nick’s fascinating background as a game designer, his influences, and the hilarious origin story of the Tide Breaker System.
How did Tide Breaker come about?
I’m the lead developer for Smunchy Games. I met Smunchy on the Reddit RPG design Discord server when I was a very active member. I talked Hella Sh%t on there… That’s pretty much what I do – I talk sh%t and I encourage people!
I told him “DnD sucks, you can do better. Give me two months, and I’ll give you the most bad-ass game you’ve ever played…” And two months later I came out with the demo for Tide Breaker! Basically, it was born because I won a bet!
Tell us more about Tide Breaker, your system for Smunchy Games
Tide Breaker is my own RPG system. On the spectrum of rules-light (e.g. Fate & Wyrd Games) to rules-heavy (e.g. Shadowrun, Dark Heresy), Tide Breaker is definitely rules-light. There’s a lot in the book, but there’s not a lot that you need to understand to get it, and play it. You have some dice, you have a couple of aspects and a couple of stunts, and you can go have fun.
We’re a classless system. Tide Breaker kind of hangs its hat on the fact that we’re not a classy system, we’re classless! It also includes some old-school ideas like meta currencies, zones and collaborative worldbuilding things – I wanted to implement those as much as I could without making it too dense.
What makes Tide Breaker different from, for example, Dungeons and Dragons 5e?
Tide Breaker is a bit more rules-light than DnD5e. We also use dice-pools rather than a d20. If you’re already familiar with dice-pool systems it’s easy to pick up. There’s not as much front-loaded knowledge you need – you don’t need to go through a whole spell list for one class. We have what I like to call an a la carte style system, essentially a system of modifiers to build your character and their abilities. Instead of having, for example, wizard, bard and cleric spell lists (plus ALL the supplementary books), we have ONE BOOK! That’s the game, and you can build all your stuff off that – everything uses that one set of rules. In that regard, [the simplicity, balance and straight-forwardness of it] we’re probably closer to 4th edition DnD than 5th edition.
Games should be fun – go hit people, that’s what you came for! Go do it and go have fun! — Nick Butler
Does Tide Breaker come with its own setting, or can it be used in multiple different settings?
Tide Breaker is setting agnostic, kind of in the same vein as Fate. A lot of games are powered by Fate, like the Dresden Files, or Spirit of the Century. Tide Breakeris along those lines – and if you want to build something based off the Tide Breaker mechanics, you can do that. We’ll actually market your stuff in our store too, if it’s based off Tide Breaker!
Smunchy Games is creating the Shadow Tantrum setting, which will be using the Tide Breakerrules [it looks really cool, by the way – you can follow their world here!]. It’s kind of like SpellJammer, but Hella Anime! Like DnD in space, with martial arts.
I work on the mechanics, the Tide Breakerconversion for Shadow Tantrum, specifically. Instead of doing overhauls on the Tide Breakercore, it’s more guides and explanations of how to use the mechanics to represent the Fluff of the Shadow Tantrum setting. Basically, any small changes that need to be made, I take care of that. I don’t do a lot of writing for the setting, I’m the mechanics guy.
How did you get started with Game Development?
So if you look at fighting games, they’re basically rock-paper-scissors, with an element of distance and time. Sometimes rock DOES beat paper, if you time it right at a certain range.
I’m pretty much self taught… I LOVE setting mechanics. I started by playing a lot of the three-ettes – that is DnD3, DnD3.5 and Pathfinder . There were things I liked, and a lot of things I hated. I was trying to homebrew my own solutions for them, and I was really looking at a lot of different things to help.
I’ve always been very big into mechanics. Part of that comes from my love of fighting games – I played a LOT of fighting games – Street Fighter, Soulcalibur, all of that. You have to have an intimate understanding of how your character works to play competitively. And understanding how the game was designed was really fundamental in my understanding of how game mechanics work.
So if you look at fighting games, they’re basically rock-paper-scissors, with an element of distance and time. Sometimes rock DOES beat paper, if you time it right at a certain range. I like taking very ridiculously hard concepts and boiling them down into something very simple – Smunchy loves me for it!
So I took all the mechanics stuff from DnD, from fighting games, and from reading a bunch of stuff, and then I eventually came round to the idea that there’s no fixing DnD, especially after 4th edition flopped. That’s when I started thinking about making my own systems. And eventually, I made Tide Breaker.
Who are some of your biggest influences?
The Giant in the Playground and Pathfinder forums, and TreantMonk, for sure. He’s amazing, I’m a big fan of him – his guides helped me to understand how games worked on a fundamental level.
The Bakers, I used to read their blogs. Ron Edwards, I used to read his stuff. I was really obsessed with the GNS theory; the idea that all games fall into one of three categories. Either Gamist (more arcadey – like DnD4e), Narrativist, (games which focus more on story, like Fate) or Simulationist (more like DnD5e). Pretty much all of the crunch heavy games are simulationist. Ewen Cluney (@nekoewen on Twitter) was a big influence as well, probably best known as the translator of Maid: The Role-Playing Game.
Korean games like Blade & Soul had amazing fighting mechanics, like grappling mechanics, actual hit boxes like a fighting game, where timing and dodging came into play. Tera was doing stuff like that too. And fighting games like Street Fighter – I mean, I’m feeding so much Street Fighter to people and they don’t even know!
Does system matter, in your opinion?
YES! YES, IT DOES! I make systems and I matter! I am not sitting here for 2 years and then you’re not actually going to play my game – hell, no! House rule my stuff if you want to, but don’t tell me that systems don’t matter! They’re social contracts, based on how you’re writing them. When you choose a certain set of mechanics, you’re choosing a set of rules and social contracts to guide your conversation and your game – that’s super important. It’s not just cops and robbers – the reason we play RPGs is that we want a bit of structure!
When you choose a certain set of mechanics, you’re choosing a set of rules and social contracts to guide your conversation and your game.
— Nick Butler
How can I make a new RPG system?
Do the homework is one of my main rules – I feel like you should read a bunch of stuff, but you don’t have to. Dying Stylishly would read me if I said you HAD to, though – she says just go for it. And I agree with her! Failing forward is a type of mechanic! Make your own RPG system. It’ll probably suck… but it might not suck! You might make the illest sh%t ever! Who knows! Go for it! Your perspective could change the whole goddamn industry – who am I to say not to, when I came here to tell people that fighting games are great and you should play Street Fighter , to a bunch of tabletop nerds that are probably afraid of Street Fighter !
Want to hear more from Nick?
Nick, lead developer for Smunchy Games and the creator of Tide Breaker is available to play in streamed games and be interviewed! He’s an AMAZING speaker and a lively guest, and I can’t recommend him enough! He’ll be guesting on our own Podcast LIVE STREAM on Saturday 20th June, talking about why systems matter and how to build your own RPG system! You can catch that live on our Twitch and Youtube Channels, view later on Youtube, or catch the Podcast when it’s released later this year! You can hit Nick up on Twitter or on his blog to invite him to your own podcasts and blogs too!
If you’re interested in learning about more incredible Black creatives, check out our blog post!