Design Deep Dive: Dark Chocolate Fantasy

I released the first draft of Dark Chocolate Fantasy yesterday and I feel like writing a post explaining all the decisions I made. Hopefully learning about someone’s design process is interesting to you even if you have no prior interest in the finished product — that’s how it often is for me, anyway.

Background. This game used to be called Meltingmoor. I put way to much polish on it before realizing there were fundamental changes I wanted to make to the core of the game. So, I threw out the layout and decided to focus on finishing a minimum viable product.

So why did I change the name again? Well, part of the old premise was that a frozen landscape was melting and all these old ruins were becoming accessible to adventurers as the land thawed.

I might return to that premise at some point but it started to feel like I was over-explaining something that didn’t need to be explained. “The world is in ruins” is something most fantasy players expect these days. Why call attention to it?

The art. People don’t seem to use old paintings as RPG art very often for whatever reason. I think D&D has under-explored roots in Gothic literature and horror and I wanted to bring that out with the art I chose.

The art on the home page is a mashup of a painting I found on the Wikimedia Commons paintings of ruins page with some other public domain art for the bird in the center.

The bird image comes from a basic lore idea that has stuck with me through the years.

Opening lore text under Who Are You. The first two sentences are a very distilled version of some old paragraphs I once wrote for Goblets & Grues:

The Gyldir Vale is a wide river valley between sharp, rocky peaks to the west and ancient, forested mountains to the east. Its name is derived from the Golden Flame, the mysterious source of power with which humans took this region from the high elves.

When the Vale’s prosperity was at its peak, the king allowed a covetous wizard into his court, who contrived to absorb the Golden Flame into himself. A terrible civil war ensued, and the wizard—transformed into the cunning and malevolent beast, MALOR—was sealed deep in the dungeon beneath Gyldir Castle.

Without the Flame to resist old elven enchantments, the land itself seems to resist cultivation in favor of ever-encroaching wilderness. Only riverside towns and villages remain habitable to humans, while strange and dangerous creatures settle into the ruins of the kingdom that once was.

So, Dark Souls meets Zelda. Again, entirely too much explanation that unnecessarily limits the game’s scope and themes.

In DCF all I wrote was “The wilds close in, and the Golden Lords use what remains of their powers only to benefit themselves.” There’s still an inkling that a power is fading, and maybe the wilderness is encroaching because of it, and maybe a Golden Flame was involved… but why spell all that out? Let imaginations fill in the blanks.

The second paragraph is actually adapted from notes I wrote for a potential Cowboy-Bebop-style RPG. I wrote: “Try as you might, you cannot escape the violence that marks your past. You don’t know how to live any other way.”

I’m not sure how much this somber idea will really stick in the games I end up running with this system. But I like that the hint of sadness is there. It’s a little seed that I could see sprouting into something interesting in-game.

Character Creation. This was hard to get right and I’m still not sure I did. I’m probably proudest of the optional rule at the bottom, which is based on the HEXACO model of personality and seems to generate a nice balance of contrasting characters.

The biggest issue here was figuring out the tone and genre I was trying to capture. I didn’t want characters to feel like losers with failed careers who would ultimately rather not be adventuring. That’s fine for a certain kind of game, it’s just not what I wanted.

Instead, I wanted something closer to Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I wanted PCs to jump off the page with colorful personalities. I wanted them to bounce off each other in interesting ways.

(Escaped Nun and Very Smart Dog are GLoG references. Probably old-hat to the present-day GLoG community, but fun nods to my GLoG roots nonetheless.)

The more I think about it the more I think this whole system is a direct result of the kinds of games I’ve been running with my girlfriend. She likes to roll a new character for every one-shot and then jump right into the game.

So the character creation system is very modular. You could roll 2d6 and jump straight into playing once you have your Origin and Type, if you want, or you could roll additional details and even generate contrasting parties for your group.

You even have the option of substituting entirely different character creation methods just for fun. This whole section could be replaced with some MOSAIC Strict character creation system and it wouldn’t have any mechanical impact on the rest of the system.

The Three Stats. There are two problems I’m trying to solve here.

  1. Make combat faster / put less mechanical emphasis on combat by giving the entire party a shared health pool.
  2. Keep players motivated / keep the game focused on collecting treasure with a strong core upgrade loop.

To accomplish this I had to break a rule that I had been trying to stick to in all previous drafts: no dissociated mechanics.

Supply and Luck are “dissociated” because deciding to spend your Supply or Luck is an out-of-character decision. Characters in the world are not aware these statistics exist.

But ultimately I think I’m okay with that. I really hate tracking items in RPGs — every O/NSR RPG has inventory slots now and, like, I get the theoretical appeal of making decisions about what to carry, but for whatever reason they stress me out and keep me from thinking about the fun stuff.

So, quantum items suit my preferences better, I think. And I’ve found that sometimes dice rolls in this sort of game can feel anticlimactic — you roll the dice so rarely, and when you do, it’s over so quickly. I don’t mind adding a gambling element to increase the tension.

I’m still not sure about the whole Frightened mechanic. I think it’s better to have a buffer of some kind so that hitting 0 Morale doesn’t come as a shock, but it might be that it’s too easy to be Frightened. And “the PC most at risk” might feel arbitrary — it could be that a random PC should be targeted for finishers. We’ll see in playtesting.

I’m really happy with the Rank/Glory table. It solves a few problems really neatly…

  1. Spending treasure on useful stuff feels out-of-genre to me — Conan doesn’t get richer and richer with each successive story, the treasure just disappears. So, in this table, the PCs have to spend their treasure on partying/carousing to get Glory.
  2. It differentiates a dungeon’s “main treasure” from its “side treasures,” which creates opportunities to give the dungeon character. What is this main treasure? What is its history? (I owe some of this thinking to Arnold K.)
  3. It gives you a score! This is a small thing, but I just like that “chase the high score” feeling, even if it does give you some out-of-character information about how much treasure you left behind.

The idea of going back to improve your Rank is a little clunky but I like the idea of potentially encountering rival adventuring parties. It’s a simpler alternative to old methods like dungeon restocking that punished players for leaving the dungeon to heal and such.

I don’t know if anyone will ever use that little battle system but I’m glad it’s there for if someone needs it. Having even the suggestion of an endgame gives players something to aspire to.

Dungeons. The Easy/Medium/Hard mapping options are just a nice way of giving structure to something we all already do.

Damage rolls work via Milton Dice, which I first encountered in Chris McDowall’s Project 10. They’re extremely swingy, so there’s very little way of knowing how bad any given fight will be in DCF. Embrace the chaos!

I’ve barely played Magic: The Gathering but Power/Toughness seemed like a nice and simple format to steal. The monster desires table is roughly adapted from this Arnold K post.

I’m definitely nervous about this combat system. It’s probably roughly where I want it but I could see aspects of it breaking down in playtesting. It will probably need some fine-tuning. I want it to be simple, but I still want it to reward clever solutions and unorthodox tactics.

Monsters have immunities, weaknesses, and Finishers because I noticed Chris McDowall’s Into the Odd monsters tend to be defined by those three things (except he labels Finishers with “On Critical Damage”), and I figure that should be enough differentiation to make individual monsters interesting.

I’ve often found that rolling random encounters in rooms where there’s already stuff going on feels confusing/overwhelming, and rolling no random encounter in an empty room feels boring. Hopefully this random encounter system should even things out. The chance is reduced in backtracking to mimic the way movement rates tend to be used as your backtracking distance in older editions of D&D.

Thank you for reading! Let me know if this was interesting or if you’d like to see more of this kind of thing from me in the future. I’d also be happy to answer any questions about anything I’ve said here.



Came here just for this, haven’t been in a while. Read the draft yesterday and still thinking about it this morning and at work.

There’s a lot I like, I’ll just list it:

Party management. Feels very Darkest Dungeon to me.
Supply. I’m a fan of quantum inventory, I know not everyone is. The costs seem a little high to me… Maybe 0/1/3 instead of 0/3/6? You only get nine small items or three specialty items as a party (if I’m reading that right).
Treasure score. Really like this objective (whatever that means) marker of treasure score without counting coins (which seem very arbitrary to me).
Power/Toughness. Recognized it as MtG immediately, made me want to open a pack and make a dungeon purely from that. Tasty!
Finishers. GREAT idea, would love to see a d66 or some list of examples.
Luck. This resource as an idea is good. For implementation: spent luck can feel very punishing if it doesn’t yield success. Maybe something like Troika! would feel less punishing: “Start with 9 Luck as a party. To test luck, roll 2d6. If equal to or under Luck, you succeed and reduce Luck by 1. Otherwise, you fail.” That way, you’re luck turns on you one way or the other: early successes can be good, but make things difficult later on. Early failures means you’re more likely to succeed deeper in the dungeon. Just a thought.
Character creation. As you said, very modular, would love to plug Darkest Dungeon classes in there.
MILTON DICE. I love this.

Great stuff Tim. :slight_smile:


Thanks so much, Sam!

  • Yeah I set the Supply costs pretty high because I was worried that, since you can summon exactly what you need, it might be too easy if it were lower. It might need some tuning, we’ll see.
  • Haha, I thought of putting in some sample monsters but I was too eager to just finish something for once. If I add pages over the coming days, some sample monsters and Finishers will likely come first. Or maybe a sample dungeon…?
  • I see what you mean about spending Luck feeling punishing on a failure. I’d like your suggestion more if it would still work when Luck is upgraded to 12 or more! Like everything else, I’ll see if I need to tweak it.
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I made some small tweaks that I might as well note here:

  1. The initial character creation table is more of a spark table now. Some results are still more likely than others due to the 2d6 curve, but I’ve made the weirder results more serious in tone. No more GLoG references! Oh well.
  2. There’s now a “knock down” mechanic that provides some warning as to which PC is going to die when Morale hits 0. The PC who gets knocked down is random (not GM Fiat), and there are now two types of Finishers: “On KO” and “On Kill.”
  3. Luck is now only lost on success. On failure, you keep any Luck you wagered.

These changes are based on some of the more pointed feedback I received from folks’ initial read-throughs of the system.

Now to prepare the playtest. To be honest, the most daunting thing is designing a dungeon for the test… Maybe I ought to just convert some pre-existing adventure to DCF so I’m not stressing about that part.

EDIT 7/10/23: I have since added a table of items that can be summoned with Supply and combined monsters’ Power and Toughness into one stat. Morale is now Health and Luck is now Drive.

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Interesting stuff. Curious to hear about the playtest.

I’m organizing a playtest in the looking-for-game channel of the Discord if anyone’s interested.

So, I ran a playtest on Friday for a couple players from the Discord and I think it went pretty well. Some issues that came up…

  1. One of the players rolled “Veteran” and was immediately confused as to what war they fought in, so I added Bittermarch as a core region with lots of wars. I added Gyldrion and Fairbuck as core regions before the playtest and having a few specific setting elements on the PC spark table seemed to work well.
  2. We only had one combat with the “buggers” in northwest. It ended quickly when the players summoned a jar of flammable oil and threatened to burn the buggers’ food supply. I’m pretty happy with how the players were encouraged to rely on clever solutions, but I did forget to describe the monsters’ one and only attack in the fiction. So, I added a note in the combat rules that the GM should describe the monsters’ attacks and how they change the situation.
  3. We didn’t use Drive at all, but I did make a few rolls to decide things on the GM side. After the session, I thought, why not let the players spend their resources to influence rolls like that too? So Drive is back to being Luck and it’s no longer just for player actions, but for any time the GM is uncertain. (Morale/Health is also renamed Stamina now for those classic Fighting Fantasy vibes.)

I ran the same dungeon again for my girlfriend the other day and we didn’t interact with any of the mechanics at all, but I think that was a level design problem more than a system design problem — I made the monsters much too friendly and that made the dungeon much too easy. When I polish this dungeon up for other people to run I will increase the difficulty.

This was a great playtest and I still hear the “baddaboombaddbing” of the white croc echoing in my ears.

What about playtesting with system-agnostic adventure? And just tweaking it to lean into DCF’s strengths? Obviously you can’t test for all edge cases, but maybe stress test them a little.

You know I had wanted to run the first playtest with my own dungeon because I think I want this to be the kind of game that encourages DMs to quickly and easily design their own stuff, but you’re probably right that testing it against something popular like Winter’s Daughter or Tomb of the Serpent Kings would be good just to make sure it all holds together.