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Shattered Dominion: Design Goals

Welcome to the second post in our weekly design series, wherein I talk about the design of one of our upcoming games or review the design of one of our past games. The goal of these posts is to have a frank discussion on game design, both what works and what doesn't.

Today I want to talk a bit about our next roleplaying game, which for now we're calling Shattered Dominion. (I'm not entirely happy with the name and it may change later.) In particular, I want to talk about the game's premise, themes and design goals.

Personally, I find it useful to outline the goals of a game before the starting the design work. While these goals may evolve during development and early playtesting, they nevertheless provide a useful benchmark when determining what rules are working out and which need to be changed.

In future posts I intend delve deeper into the design and specific mechanics. This post lays the groundwork for that.

Elevator Pitch

Let me start by giving my elevator pitch:

Shattered Dominion is a fantasy roleplaying game set in a world that is rapidly leaving the traditional fantasy milieu behind. That is, a generation or two ago it was your typical fantasy world, but time has since moved on and times are changing.

This is in contrast to what's typical of the fantasy genre, which for much of its history has been mired in vast, static worlds that remain more-or-less the same culturally and technologically for hundreds or even thousands of years. It has been a very backwards-facing genre, filled with ancient empires "the likes of which the world will never see again" and lost magical relics "of vast and forgotten arcane might."

This is fine, but I want to pitch a game where players are looking to the future rather than always looking to the past. I want Shattered Dominion to be a game of forward-facing fantasy.

And right now, I think we're at a moment where fantasy, as a literary genre, is beginning to realize that societies change and grow and evolve, even if fantasy gaming has lagged behind.

To give an example, I think Pratchett's Discworld series does this to great effect, particularly in the later books, where whole plots revolve around the rise of the long distance communication, the post office, paper money or even trains. Similarly, there's a sense of societal progression in Abercrombie's First Law series, with the first use of cannons and in how the North is slowly evolving from a collection of tribes into an organized nation-state.

Tone and Themes

In regard to the game's tone, I am aiming for something a bit different than either of the two literary examples I just gave. I do not aspire to the comedic heights of Discworld. (Which is probably for the best, as Pratchett's writing is far more clever than mine will ever be.) Nor do I want to delve down to the grimdark depths of the First Law series.

Rather, I am aiming for a game that feels naturalistic. I want players to look at their characters and be able to relate. I want them to feel like they are part of something, and not just transient murder-hobos with no real place in the world. Ultimately, I want the game that is somewhat gritty, but still tinged with optimism.

With this tone in mind, I have outlined three core themes:

  • Nothing exists in a vacuum. Characters have a history and connections to the rest of the world. They don't just change the world, the world also changes them.
  • Everything changes. Characters should grow and evolve - and not just in becoming more powerful or specialized. They might have a character arc that emerges from gameplay or they might evolve to have different views or represent a different archetype. Similarly, the world should continue to evolve.
  • Everything comes with a price. This isn't a game of larger-than-life cardboard cutouts. I want it to have meaningful choices, and I want those choices to matter, having both good and bad trade-offs that appeal to the characters' motives and flaws.

Mechanical Design Goals

So now that we have an idea of what sort of game I'm trying to design, it's time to turn our attention to the mechanics, and lay out specific goals for the various subsystems in the game. Before we do that, however, there's a few overarching goals I have for the base system:

  • I want to build this game using the Saga Machine system, which we also used in our three previous roleplaying games.
  • However, I want to take a metaphorical wrench to the system and give it a tune-up, cleaning up the base mechanics and making them as clean, concise and easy-to-play as possible.
  • I am designing this game with campaign play in mind, and I want it to allow the GM to craft story-focused adventures that tell their stories efficiently.

Character Creation Design Goals

For most players, the first subsystem they experience will be character creation. So I want to give it special attention. Here are my character creation design goals:

  • The character creation system should produce characters that feel "organic," who are not just cookie-cutter caricatures. The characters it produces should reflect the tone and themes of the game.
  • Character creation should establish not only a character's abilities, but also their connection to the world and to the other characters in the party.
  • Player characters should come ready-made with plot hooks that suggest themselves. These hooks should be bundled with choices made during character creation.

Combat Design Goals

Finally, I want to lay out some goals for the combat system, as it is traditionally one of the most complex systems in a roleplaying game.

  • Combats should be fast, exciting and dangerous.
  • Actions in combat should lean towards pushing the game state forward, rather then preserving the status quo.
  • Combat should scale to handle a large number of combatants without overburdening the GM.
  • Combats should emphasize what makes different fighting styles unique, and different fighting styles should feel different in play.
  • Viable tactics should have a recognizable resemblance to their real-world counterparts.
  • Players should have an active hand in balancing their offense and defense.
  • Combats should have the possibility of resulting in lasting consequences, but these should be designed in a way to avoid infringing on player fun.

Confronting the 800-Pound Gorilla

And last, though I hesitate to mention it, it's hard to design a fantasy game without at least considering the 800-lb. gorilla of the RPG industry that is D&D. And in truth, many fantasy games are designed as a reaction to what D&D does or does not do well.

This is a trap I don't want to fall into. I want to write a game that sets out its own design goals and which is exceptionally fun to play in its own right. I want Shattered Dominion to be the best game that Shattered Dominion can be, rather than the best game that D&D isn't. Does that make sense?

At the same time, I want to be realistic about the market. The truth is that many fantasy games that aren't D&D (or closely derived from it) survive by carving out a niche for themselves, catering to a particular playstyle or fantasy subgenre. So while I don't want to design a game that is a reaction to the 800-lb. gorilla, I still think it would behoove us to at least consider the sort of niche we would want to carve out for ourselves with Shattered Dominion, and to make sure that the game design supports it.

Conclusion

That's it for the Shattered Dominion design goals! I hope its been useful to anyone interested in game design or who might be interested in the games we have in the works. Tune in next week for the next post in the design series!