Designing for Fantasy

In my first entry, I described the bottom-up process I used to design the core mechanic of my game, the rune deck. Now it’s time to see what that mechanic can do. Once I had a core mechanic, I could turn my eye to the top down concepts I wanted the game to convey. This is where the runes will become fleshed out and become less abstract. Before I get too far, here are some pictures so you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about.

Slam Fire Arrow

(Top left is focus “cost”, top right is number of runes revealed, and the text box shows effects depending on which runes are revealed.)

Representing Armor

One of the things I knew I wanted to be able to represent was armor. In the very early stages of designing this game, before I had designed any abilities, I had the notion that each character might have varying amounts of armor. You could reveal cards from a deck to see how much damage you absorbed. This was before I decided to lose the hit cards, and base all the abilities’ effects on the abstract cards. Once I hit upon the idea for seven runes, I realized that each of the runes could be primary for a particular class, which would help me to determine what sorts of bonuses each rune would grant. One of the first characters I designed, was the Paladin.

The Paladin’s primary rune would be the sun rune, which would also be used as the Paladin’s armor. The Paladin would be the only armored character, at least in terms of the game mechanics. Any time the Paladin would take damage, the player reveals three rune cards. If any of them are sun runes, the Paladin takes none of the damage. This is a very powerful ability, that greatly reduces how powerful the Paladin’s attacks can be. The effect is also very flavorful and gets across clearly that the Paladin is a heavily armored warrior.

Increased Flavor, Decreased Complexity

Each of the four melee characters was designed around a class feature. Each of these class features was something I knew I wanted to represent, but had originally imagined as various features of a single character. They are armor for the Paladin, rage for the Berserker, stealth for the Assassin, and responses for the Duelist. One of the great things about breaking these features up into different character classes, was that it greatly reduced the complexity of the game. Only one character has to worry about how armor works, and it won’t be hard to remember, because it’s such a major feature of the character. More to the point, that player won’t have to worry about stealth, or any of the other class features.

Designing the ranged characters was more difficult for me. Designing the Fire Archer came to me easily, but the Lightning Mage and Wolf Shaman were much trickier, and both eventually got scrapped. The two characters that replaced them are now two of my favorite characters, but I didn’t design them until I had already been playtesting the game for about a year.

Ranged Attacks, Increased Complexity

Before I could design any abilities, I had to decide whether the game would have a board, and how I would represent ranged attacks. Having a board was the simplest most evocative way to represent movement and ranged attacks from a flavor perspective. From a design perspective though, it increased the complexity. I consider simplicity a virtue in game design, but I’ve learned that complexity has its place. In this case it’s become one of the primary dynamics of the game. I’m still a believer in the virtue of simplicity in game design, but the process of actually designing a game from scratch has taught me that simple design is only better when it does the job just as well as a more complex design.

Another way that ranged attacks are represented in this game is that they can miss. Melee attacks always deal some amount of base damage, and have a chance to deal bonus damage depending on the runes you reveal. In contrast, ranged attacks deal damage only if you reveal a certain rune. In exchange, ranged attacks deal more damage when they hit – from a full rune deck the averages are the same. The potential to miss entirely with ranged attacks but not melee attacks is another evocative way to represent ranged attacks.

Taking into account the board and the runes, melee attacks and ranged attacks can both be unreliable. It’s much easier for an opponent to move out of range of a melee attack than it is for an opponent to move out of range of a ranged attack. They are unreliable in different ways, which means that the characters need to be played differently. Ranged characters need to pay close attention to their rune deck and know when to use which ability, while melee characters need to pay close attention to the board and know when to spend some resources on movement, or when it’s safe to go for a strong melee attack based on positioning. Of course both types of characters need to keep track of both, but these different play styles were totally unexpected outcomes of combining these two game elements. Let’s see those pictures again:

Slam-01 Fire Arrow

The Resource System

Before I ever play tested the game, I had lots of ideas for resource systems, but one of them stood out as the best. It’s no secret that the resource system is based on Planeswalker loyalty from Magic: The Gathering. For those of you not familiar with the resource system, you begin with a certain amount of loyalty. Some actions increase your loyalty, others spend it. This was a natural fit because you already can only play one action per turn, which is necessary to make the system work. The advantage of this system is that it is linked directly to your actions, which means that the cost and generation of the resources can be printed directly on the action cards. I noticed after designing this system that it’s become very common to do something similar in video games like Diablo III. Even though each character in that game technically has a different resource system, they all share in common that some abilities generate the resource while others spend it. It’s a fun feature for a system to have, because you always have options.

Plans for Future Entries

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed this entry. In future entries I plan to write about: the difficult process of resolving timing rules for a game with simultaneous play and movement, and the simple solution it took me months to design; why the board wasn’t fun at first, and what I did to make it fun; major changes I’ve made to the game and the characters; the story concept and the artist who will be illustrating the game; ideas for the game that might be implemented in the future; and maybe some day I’ll talk about my personal life and how it relates to designing games.


6 thoughts on “Designing for Fantasy

  1. This post makes elements of the game a fair deal more clear. The pictures are super helpful too.

    I wanted to make a note on the complexity segment you mentioned… I feel like the decreased complexity of only needing to understand one system is much more on the barrier to entry side of complexity and less relevant for more advanced players. Higher level play often comes from understanding the ins and outs of your teammates/opponents just as well as you understand the mechanics of your character. For example, I play a lot of Melee, and understanding the relevant spacing of key attacks for each character is hugely important. I think this is true with almost any fighting game (especially something like Marvel vs. Capcom where one screw up often leads to a full life combo of death). On the cooperative side, I remember playing Dofus for a bit with my brother and it creating huge frustrations for my brother because he was an archer and no one really understood how his attacks worked at all. We would inevitably block of certain shots for no good reason.

    Also, I wanted to rerecommend checking out Kongai. It’s totally free and easy to pick up on Kongregate. It just seems to have a fair deal of similarities with the concepts you are working with, so I think it would be a strong comparison point.

    I like the loyalty system too 🙂


    1. Awesome, thanks for stopping by. You make a good point about barrier to entry vs. understanding everything that’s going on in the game. I don’t know what Kongregate is but I’ll google it. I’ll have to check out Dofus also. Sneak preview: I’m at the very beginning stages of designing a cooperative mode of play, and seeing how other games do it would be very helpful.

      1. Kongregate is just an online flash site the brings together flash games from all different sites and adds achievements and such. But Kongai is one of the kongregate originals I think. Dofus is a Strategy MMO that we were into for a little. Wakfu is it’s sequel. I haven’t tried that but you may want to look into it under the assumption that sequels do things better (though that is not always the case). They are both pay to play but have a free demo to get a feel for the game… that being said, you may just want to watch videos or something because the teamwork elements don’t really matter as much in the early play because people have fewer skills and choices… and getting to the higher levels is quite a bit of a grind.


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