Shattered Dominion: Examining the Base Mechanic

Shattered Dominion: Examining the Base Mechanic

Welcome to the latest 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 more 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.) A couple weeks ago I made a post about its design goals, but today I want to talk about how I'm re-examining the game's core mechanic and some of the changes that I am considering.

Flips

All of our existing Saga Machine games use a standard deck of poker cards as their randomizer. In play, a player can either play a card from their hand, or flip a card off the top of the deck. Cards in hand are a limited resource, so while they may be less risky, they're also best held for particularly important moments.

In our system aces are low, and they combine with the numbered cards to produce a linear distribution of numbers between 1 and 10. Jokers are critical failures, but they have the added benefit of allowing a player to refill their hand when they come out.

Face Cards

The mechanics I've mentioned so far are unlikely to change in Shattered Dominion. They work well and I am happy with them. What I am considering changing is how face cards work.

In the past, when a face card comes out, it provides a small bonus and then you flip the next card off the top of the deck, adding the values together. I'm going to call this the Adder mechanic. Jacks, queens and kings are worth +1, +2 and +3, respectively. For example, if you played a queen and then flipped a 6 off the top of the deck, the resulting value would be 8.

I find this mechanic interesting, but I've also seen it trip up new players, particularly when combined with trump suits (see Boons and Banes below). It also results in one more modifier to add.

If this were an auxiliary subsystem, I'd be happy enough to leave things as they are. But this is the game's base mechanic, which means that players are going to be performing it over and over again in play. Out of all the mechanics in a game, the base mechanic needs to be quick to resolve and crystal clear. And I feel that there's room for improvement.

I'm considering a few other options for how face cards might work, and have done some (very preliminary) playtesting. Here are a couple alternatives that I am considering:

  1. Face Cards as Stat: One possibility is that face cards might be worth a value equal to the stat the character is using. (Human-level stats in the game range from 1 to 10.) So, for example, if the GM says "flip Strength," and you have Strength 6 and flip a queen, your total value would be 12. This does has the side-effect of making characters better at the things they're good at and worse at the things they're not good at, which I'm not sure if I like or not. It may also require some special considerations for monsters who have stats outside of the range of human ability.
  2. Face Cards as Curve: Another possibility I'm considering is simply making jacks, queens and kings worth 4, 5 and 6, respectively. In this way they act just like value cards of those numbers. This gives the number distribution a (false) curve centered on five. I like this in theory, but at the same time it doesn't feel particularly exciting.

So now let me ask a question of the reader: What do you think? Do you have any opinions on the strengths or weaknesses of these different approaches? Do you have one you prefer? Or do you have another idea for face cards that I might not have considered?

Boons and Banes

The existing Saga Machine games have a mechanic called a Trump Suit. Basically, all stats in the game have an associated card suit. When you are taking an action involving that stat and play a card of the associated suit, you get to flip an additional time and take the better of the two results. If the suits for both results match, you get to add their values together.

This mechanic has stuck around for as long as it has because the overwhelming feedback has been that it's fun. It leads to some interesting resource management, and occasionally results in an exciting exploding success. It's also kind of neat to look at your hand and have some inkling of the sort of actions fate has in store for your character.

For Shattered Dominion, however, I am thinking about generalizing this mechanic. That is, rather than flipping a second time and taking the higher of the two results being a unique property of trump suits, I would call this mechanic a Boon. It would still be granted by trump suits, but might also be granted by various traits or other conditions. Similarly, certain traits or other conditions might penalize a flip with a Bane, which is the converse: flip twice and take the lower result.

In a way, the Boons and Banes mechanic becomes very similar to the Fate Modifiers of Through the Breach or the advantage and disadvantage mechanic of D&D 5e.

Flushes

Just as card values with the same suit can be added together under the old trump suit mechanic, this would be generalized in the new boons mechanic as a Flush.

Under this system, when cards are played from hand, they would be played as a boon. So they would be set down as an additional card next to the one being flipped off the top of the deck. This makes cards in hand a more useful resource (even low valued cards!) as they can be used to make flushes, should the player have a card of the matching suit.

Skills

Finally that brings us to skills. In past iterations of Saga Machine skills have worked a couple different ways, but in recent iterations skills are ranked from 0 (unskilled) to 5 (world class). and added to half the character's relevant stat. So, for example, if a character making a Spd/athletics flip has Speed 4 and Athletics 3, the player would add a total bonus of +5 (half Speed plus Athletics skill). Since stats range from 1 to 10, under this system the total bonus is also always going to range from 1 to 10, regardless of whether a skill is involved or not.

I like how the math in this system works out generally, but it also involves two separate modifiers and makes even numbered stats statistical breakpoints. Again, this system works but I feel that there is room for improvement.

One possibility I'm considering is making skills binary. That is, if you're trained in the particular skill being called for, you make a flip using your full stat value. If you don't possess the skill in question, you make the flip with a bane. (Or alternatively, maybe you make the flip at half stat value.)

This system would mean that instead of adding together two modifiers, you'd only ever need to add one. It would also make even stats less of a breakpoint (there would still be a bit of a breakpoint with unskilled flips if the half stat alternative is used).

I've done some initial playtesting of this binary skill system and I like how it speeds up play. On the other hand, I'm not wild about what it means for character advancement, and so I am as yet undecided.

Now let me once again ask a question of the reader: What do you think? How might binary skills affect your play experience? Or do you have another idea for skills that I might not have considered?

Conclusion

That's it for the examination of the Shattered Dominion base mechanics! 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!

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