What up interwebs, Chaos here.
So I’d thought I’d do another section on concept and then talk about my favorite design element: setting.
MULTIPLE CONCEPT DESIGN
Something I didn’t really talk about in the last post, as I was addressing core ideologies was something that I think is quite pivotal in game design: Multiple concept design.
Multiple concept design is just that, it’s designing with multiple concepts in mind. It doesn’t stray at all from what I was talking about in my last blog, Theme vs. Concept, but it expands upon it. As noted in that blog, the concept of your game is a huge part of the equation that equals direction. If you don’t really have a concept, you’re just coming up with creative ideas. They may apply, they may not.
But when you start getting into complexity, you start having multiple concepts floating around. These concepts are like a roadmap for your design. Let’s talk about my game Runestorm for a minute in regards to this, just because I’ve already mentioned the other two in posts regarding concept.
Runestorm has several important concepts to it. The first and foremost is that it’s a tabletop RPG. That’s a biggun. The Runestorm in and of itself is a concept. Another of its core concepts is that I want it to separate combat class from non-combat class. I personally don’t like linking your skill sets to your combat type as there’s a plethora of examples of highly skilled and trained people who are also combat gods. Being multi-talented shouldn’t be exclusive, it should be the norm. Especially for a game type where the whole premise is that you are better than the average joe. That’s what level one (or starting character for games like White Wolf) is for basically every RPG out there… the distinction that you are no longer a standard dude or dudette in a town. You are something special. Bye bye, average joe; hello, hero of the ages. There has to be a check and balance to this, because no matter what your player may say, being good at EVERYTHING takes away from the experience. But more on that in another blog.
Another really big concept of the game for me is having multiple forms of magic. I never liked magic all coming from one place, so I adored DnD’s approach of divine vs arcane. But I wanted to take it a step further, so I have (yet another blog).
So you can see, there’s four concepts right there. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms game Irish and I are working on has the lowest amount of concepts yet, but that’s because we took three concepts and made it into our end goal concept from the get go. Normally I’d separate and tier multiple concepts just to keep myself in some sense of order but we went a different route with that one.
Which brings me to end goal concepts.
Whenever you are designing a game that has a lot of moving parts you have to have that direction of your end goal clearly defined. There’s a ton and a half of things that can be done in a boardgame, card game, etc that are cross purpose. The mechanics and implementations are interchangeable. Something simple like health is a good example. Arkham Horror uses a health mechanic on both its monsters and the investigators you play in the game. Magic the Gathering uses it as a win condition and for creature health. Dungeons and Dragons uses health for its players and its monsters. And of course every video game in existence where you fight or take part in battles of some kind use health.
And you can keep going with that. Primary components in Arkham and MtG are cards and tokens; randomness is pivotal in all of the aforementioned games… the lists are quite extensive. With so many concepts, ideas, mechanics and themes shared across mediums, its extremely important to have the end goal concept already detailed. Again this goes back to the whole thought process of aiding in cutting. You have to know when and where to cut stuff from your game to streamline and overall increase its fun factor. And having that end goal concept is super important to this. Not to mention to setting your mentality on the right path. If you know you’re making a card game, you will automatically screen stuff from your creative process that would be used in a tabletop game. Like dice rolling for instance.
Now, I’m not saying this is always a good thing. One of my favorite card games EVER used dice rolling: Battletech. Nothing says you CAN’T design outside the box. On the contrary, I feel you have to, to some degree. But being able to look back and go, “Yeah, that’s more a boardgame style mechanic,” can be immensely helpful. Again, it’s all about direction, and making sure you don’t tangent off down some sideroad TOO far.
Queue the segue!
One of the major concepts I think a game can have is its setting. But I never lump setting with concept. Huh? Yeah, I know, I’m being a little contradictory there.
But think about it… concepts are directional core ideas that establish the general flow of and goal of what your design is. Setting definitely does this. Only it’s way larger than a core idea. Or it should be, in my opinion. Yeah you can say, “My game is a high fantasy setting,” and that can be one of its concepts. But why would you? There is so much MORE. So I like to separate the two and have my core concepts, my themes and my setting.
There’s not a lot that can be said on what setting is, but there’s quite a bit that can be said on what it does. Obviously setting is just that; it’s the setting for what ever your creative design is. Everything has a setting in game design, from high fantasy to modern supernatural (the latest craze). Zombie apocalypse and Post apocalyptic are both common settings as is the more generic sci-fi, mystery and historical. All of these are general descriptors that tell you in a nutshell what the setting is.
But why stop there. Setting is your chance to really put pen to paper; to come up with fantastic ideas and flex that creative muscle. Mechanics and rules are hard to create where you’re not borrowing from somewhere else. There are just so many core things that HAVE to be present or it turns people off. Not because it was a bad idea, but because we’ve been groomed by the current monsters of our culture to expect certain things out of our games. And when they aren’t there, we nerdrage. Setting is the one place where you have carte blanche to just go WILD. Want mecha-zombies? Sure! Want chainsaws attached to rifles? Go for it! Want a thoroughly detailed world of magic incorporated into modern times? Yes!
The key here is to run wild but keep enough of a semblance of what you are designing so that you aren’t creating some crazed behemoth of a setting you have to reign in to get anything done with. Good setting design incorporates seamlessly with the game design. And vice versa, what separates good game design from great game design (for me at least) is the integration of setting into concept and theme. It’s a snake eating its own tail, but it’s perfectly possible and not as hard to do as it may sound.
Let’s take two brief examples: Skyrim and Arkham Horror.
There’s not a lot to say about Skyrim that hasn’t been said since its release. But for me, what stands apart from all the praise is that Skyrim’s setting, mechanics and implementations all fit. They created a language for the dragons, they gave it a history, they made it playable… yes, yes, YES. That’s great design. You get pulled into the world. All the abilities, mechanics and presentation of the game tie directly into the setting. Skyrim’s setting is almost more important than anything else. They designed the game around the setting and designed the setting around the game. And it’s a gorgeous example of what happens when that process is at the peak of its ability.
The same is true of Arkham Horror, a board game set in H.P. Lovecraft’s elder gods universe. Arkham Horror again sets all its abilities mechanics and presentation to tie directly into the setting. From going insane (a hallmark of Lovecraft’s works) to almost unbeatable battles (yet another nod to his style) they captured in board game form the feel of that setting. Now in this case the setting was well and thoroughly designed long before the game, but the game incorporates that setting so seamlessly that it feels like they were made for each other. I’ve spent many an hour playing this game, and anyone else who has played can tell you: you need some hours for it!
As I briefly stated above, what is happening with both of those games is very simple: their settings are fully fleshed out. Cthonic mythos, as its usually referred to around here, has been around for, like, ninety years. And Skyrim’s design team used university professors to help with some of their design (if I’m remembering the article I read on it correctly). They had every detail worked out.
Now that’s all well and good, but if you’re an independent, solo designer like I am you don’t have ninety years or a team of professionals helping you along. Regardless, care and attention must be taken to your setting. You don’t have to do what I’ve done with say, Runestorm, where I’ve fleshed out a world with like ten thousand years of history, but you should do a brainstorm or two (or three).
Sit down one day and go ok, what exactly IS in my setting? If you’re fantasy, are you high or low fantasy? What major characters might be around? Unique monsters or locales? Just ask some base questions, flesh out some current events. You don’t have to spend months on it, but if you spend a couple of hours a week for say maybe a month, you might be pleasantly surprised by the design choices and creative ideas that get spawned simply because of some setting concept you thought of.
I’ll end this blog with an example of creating mechanic from setting:
When I was designing the world for Runestorm, I decided I wanted Elementals. But after looking at my bestiary, I realized I didn’t like it just being plain old been around since AD&D Elementals. I wanted some more options. So I decided on creating tiers of Elementals. That’s when the idea of the Primals came around. Primals are the purest embodiment of an elemental force. Whether it’s the typical air and water types or the less typical blood and lightning. I wanted them to be powerful. But I realized that as I was designing these Primals, that I couldn’t use them too frequently. They needed to manifest only when the purity of their element allowed them to gain the power to breach the veil, a mystical barrier between the real world and theirs.
This led me to thinking that their should be almost godlike beings that exist in the most pure form of the elements themselves: air, earth, water and fire. These would eventually become known (tentatively) as Grand Primals. The lesser beings would become Primals and finally there would be the lowest tier, Elementals. But this took away from Elementals entirely because while on paper an Elemental and a Primal were identical, it felt like I’d changed the identity. So I gave Elementals something special over Primals: sentience.
The Grand Primals possess this as well, but the incarnations of the elements, Primals, are just that… primal. They don’t think or feel, they just exist in the form of their element. A Blood Primal will seek destruction, a lightning one will spawn lightning storms, an ice one might bring a cold snap… they are slaves to their primal instincts. So even though they are more powerful, they are uncontrollable. They just are. Like a force of nature.
By doing this I now had three distinct tiers and flavors of my elementals. The culmination of which lead me to the creation of one of my class concepts: Oathbound.
Because I had given sentience to my Elementals, it made me think of what they might want to do. I decided on the thing that really keeps them apart is that unlike Primals they don’t have the power to manifest in the real by themselves. They must be summoned or piggy back on a Primal’s manifestation. So taking a nod from other settings, I decided that they could not only be summoned, but could form pacts with those who summon them in exchange for power. These people are known as Oathbound.
The Elementals’ goal is simple: experience the real. And by granting their power to a “host” they can experience the real through that host. It’s usually benign, other than the characteristics of the elemental tend to blend into that of the hosts. Fire elementals, for example, tend to make their pact bearers more aggressive and hot-tempered for instance. There are also tell-tale signs based on how long the pact has been around: tinting of the skin, changing of eye color, etc. The problem that can arise for the Oathbound is a matter of will: if you make a pact with an elemental whose will is far greater than yours, over time it can subsume your identity. This isn’t an intentional thing, the elemental isn’t trying to eat your soul or anything; its just a side-effect. Regardless, if the elemental succeeds, you cease to be and your body basically becomes a walking vessel for the elemental. Which is why Oathbound aren’t everywhere. You have to have the strength of will to not be consumed by the very thing you are trying to work with.
I really liked the feel of one of the magic types running around was people who had formed pacts with elementals. And so I made two classes to incorporate that feel. One invokes the elemental directly, like a companion, and uses the magical power of the elemental as powerful spells and effects. I called these Summoners. The other invokes the elemental indirectly, instead channeling the power through powerful imbuements to themselves and their equipment. These were dubbed Channellers.
Names not withstanding (they are all tentative at the moment), I adore the feel and implementation of these classes. It ties in wonderfully with my world and makes for great flavor for the class backstories. It also set forth the tone for my class design: a singular power backstory with two classes each. I currently have five power backstories for a total of ten classes.
But more importantly, I stumbled upon the entire concept by working on my setting.
See you next blog, where I address the last of my intro blogs to design and discuss the two A’s: Accessible and Addictive.