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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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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!