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.
- Make combat faster / put less mechanical emphasis on combat by giving the entire party a shared health pool.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.