Annealing: The Slow Cooldown

During the forging of a blade, you will reach the annealing stage. This is when you’ve got the final shape desired, and then the blade is heated and then cooled very slowly.

A large card game—or any large tabletop game for that matter—is often very different from a book at this stage. It’s my experience that for a book, you usually finish the entire thing first and then turn the complete manuscript over to layout. It’s then laid out and turned back over to design to review for a last proofing stage.

With a game like this, however, once you reach a certain level of the design—with a ton of work still left, mind you—you turn the material in hand over to graphic design. This includes all the notes you’ve generated to date about the graphic interface the cards need to embrace for the rules and the game play experience. For example where the gold should appear; how the damage track should look; presentation of any text rules; and so on. Then graphics opens up their can of awesome-sauce tools to start making all the scribbles from design look stunning on a card. Often this creates a cooldown period, where design is off working on other elements while graphics works its magic. Then you re-wed any final design/playtesting elements onto the tail end of the graphics side.

With a game like this, however, once you reach a certain level of the design—with a ton of work still left, mind you—you turn the material in hand over to graphic design. This includes all the notes you’ve generated to date about the graphic interface the cards need to embrace for the rules and the game play experience. For example where the gold should appear; how the damage track should look; presentation of any text rules; and so on. Then graphics opens up their can of awesome-sauce tools to start making all the scribbles from design look stunning on a card. Often this creates a cooldown period, where design is off working on other elements while graphics works its magic. Then you re-wed any final design/playtesting elements onto the tail end of the graphics side.

Unfortunately with Dragonfire, the scope and schedule of the project didn’t allow for that usual cooldown period. And so Matt Heerdt—lead graphics guru for Dragonfire—had to not only deal with the creating the overall graphic design for close to a dozen different card types, but work around design constantly fiddling with the initial sets of data we provided. This created a moving target that made things much more complex across the board. And I’m sure Matt had moments when he wanted to tear off my arm and beat me with it. (Luckily, he didn’t.) Simply the nature of the beast this time around.

Just as game design can be a really long process, graphic design can be just as brutal. There are a few blessed times, however, when a graphic comes in and it’s 99% there from the start. That happened with the front of the Dragonfire box. But for every card in the game, we went through a half-dozen to a dozen iterations of graphic design. And when it came to the encounters—the stars of Dragonfire, so to speak—it may have reached well past thirty iterations (you can see a selection of those within this post showing a handful of different paths we attempted); there were just so many factors to take into account. And not just our own design versions—both for the aesthetics we wanted and for the needs of the game play experience—but incorporating input from Wizards of the Coast as well. After all, this is a licensed property, with a wonderfully established aesthetic in Dungeon & Dragons Fifth Edition. So we needed to match up with their requirements as well. Like I said earlier, a lot of moving targets.

So many iterations, so many meetings… I remember one where we had pages and pages of twenty-plus iterations spread all over the table, and spent several hours just discussing details. This included pulling out fifteen or so published games and laying out cards from each one on the table. Not to copy anything, of course, but to simply see what worked in other games. And what didn’t. And more importantly, could we pinpoint the whys of both those situations and attempt to address them in our new design. This sometimes led to passionate arguments over X or Y elements on a card, and why it worked in one person’s opinion, and didn’t according to another person. However, as in most things, we finally were able to reach a graphic design that everyone signed off on (the final Kobold Pack card in this post).

Since you saw all of the iterations of the playtesting for the roper, here’s also the final card for that…as well as two more of my personal favorites in the Cloaker and the Moaning Chamber (primarily for D&D flavor brought out so well in the game play).

For those that previously played Shadowrun: Crossfire, you’ll notice several new elements found on these cards. For example, Location cards, Skill Checks, Tripwire Traits (the “Terror” on the Moaning Chamber), and tokens. All wonderful fodder for future posts.

Until next time!


Hammering Into Shape

A thousand fantasy books have filled our minds with the quintessential image of the blacksmith: a dark, cavernous room lit only by a devilishly-glowing forge; the steady, rhythmic cacophony of steel on steel; the giant-of-a-man with arms the size of small trees hammering a bar of red-hot metal until a beautiful blade emerges from the other side…at least, the blacksmith pouring all his skill and strength into the crafting sure hopes it’s a quality blade. After all, even the finest bladesmiths can produce a bad blade, with an unknown defect ruining all their work.

Game design reaches a place that’s shockingly similar to those images. Including often being alone for hours at the devilishly-lit forge of a computer screen until the witching hour. Not to mention the needed stamina to keep pounding at a design over and over as you strip out the impurities.

Playtesting: the hammer and anvil for any game. As I mentioned in my last post, no amount of beautiful math and comprehensive spreadsheets will ever fully take the place of playtesting. It simply has to be done, so you have to find a way to be okay with the endless games.

I know what some of you may be thinking: “You’re complaining about playing a game?!” Not complaining. Not that. I’m very humbled to be able to design games for a living. Yet there is a world of different between playing a game for enjoyment and playtesting.

Think back to high school or college. Most of you, at some point, wrote a lengthy report on a favorite novel. And depending upon your grade level and your teacher, you may have read the novel multiple times, endlessly dissecting it. Tearing the story into sections, figuring out what worked and why—what didn’t work, what was the story the author tried to convey, what story did you the reader actually receive—the list goes on and on. How many of you have since gone back and actually read that book just for fun? I’m willing to bet for a large chunk of you, the answer is somewhere between zero and never.

The same can be applied here. Yes, we’re playing a game. So it’s great. However, you bring a different concentration to the fore when playtesting. And it means constantly stopping and talking and dissecting. I remember one playtest session where one of the players kept rolling their eyes and getting frustrated and looked to be on the verge of walking out after the tenth or twelfth time something wasn’t working and we’d stopped to discuss it yet again. And this was an industry professional—albeit from the art side—who’d been around a pile of such playtesting.

So imagine say six straight hours where you play a game for an hour, meticulously tracking all of the details of what cards were played, how much gold was rewarded, how many encounters defeated and so on. Then you reset and you play again, tracking all the new data. Then you reset and do it again. And that happens 4 to 6 times within that six hours. Then even after all of the talk during the game, you might spend another hour or two discussing all of those details and trying to generate some actionable items for how to address as many issues as you can. Then either late that day or early the next, you take all of that, generate an email (or Basecamp post) that fully articulates everything learned and discussed so everyone is on the same page. Then you start the process of carefully folding the proposed changes into place and prepping for the next day’s playtest. And depending upon the game, you could do that for months. As we’ve done for Dragonfire.

Speaking of prepping, as some of you may know if you follow the Catalyst Twitter or Instagram or Tumblr, there are days when it feels like I just craft. In fact, due to the large card count in Dragonfire, for some playtest groups I built entire sets to ship them. Multiple times. Lost track of how many binge Netflix sessions late at night of just peeling and placing cards; sleeving and organizing. And that’s just the physical part. Then you had all the time of my quick-and-dirty builds within InDesign to create the cards for playtesting. And then adjusting. And adjusting. Adjusting again. And adjusting some more. I think you get the picture.

Stacks of playing cards from the Dollar Store; reams of Avery labels; gallons of printer ink; boxes and boxes of sleeves from the local game store (thanks Zulu’s!): they’re all a game designer’s best friend during play testing.

For a look at this process, on just one card, take a look at the series of playtest cards that were generated and used across several months (running down the right side of this post). The first version of the gibbering mouther was built with the original design curve I noted in my previous post. And if you compare the first card to the second, you’ll see a radical shift in the hit points on it damage track (how much damage you much apply to defeat the encounter; the colored squares and numbers down the card’s right side) as it was adjusted for the new curves.

After more playtesting, we realized that we’d actually made the card too easy. As previously mentioned, Shadowrun: Crossfire was far too difficult for where we wanted Dragonfire placed, so we moved heavily in the opposite direction. But as often is the case, we’d moved too far on some aspects, and so we had to adjust back the other way. In a given deck, many cards had Attack Strength increases (how much damage they inflict on a character), while others had their damage tracks punched up. In the case of the gibbering mouther, we added a Dragonfire level that would really start to hurt if the game dragged on too long. (The Dragonfire Deck is one of the best and most unique aspects of Dragonfire…I’ll spend a whole future post discussing this great element.)

Next, you’ll see its transition from the gibbering mouther to the roper as the Creative was fully adjusted (again, as discussed in the previous post).

The final image—what was passed to layout for the graphic design of the card—includes two more elements. Once again, that endless hammering and fine-tuning, pulling each Encounter Deck into the difficulty level we needed, came into play yet again. In this case, the 8+ Dragonfire level became a 6+ and 8+, while we added a Dispel Magic Surprise effect (it is applied the moment the card is revealed), which can remove some of your magic items from play. (These additions were both about increasing the strength of the card, but also taking into account the moving part of other design elements that required effective ways for encounters to deal with said magic items.)

Ultimately, I love playtesting. But it can be exhausting, and is always more difficult and time consuming than expected. If you ever get the chance to playtest a game for a company, I urge you to give it a try. It’ll convey a whole new world of respect for the process, much as it did for me back in the early ’90s, when I had my first chance to playtest a scenario pack for BattleTech. If you know anyone that playtests games for various companies, give them a high five or buy them a cookie the next time you see them. They’re a brilliant, passionate, integral part of making the games we love to play.

Until next time!


Selecting The Proper Metal

I mentioned in my previous post about “deck curves.” And that ultimately I rushed too quickly into the initial design, which meant I had to throw almost everything out and restart. (And that was after building materials and playtesting several times.)

When I say a curve, I’m referring to several things as they apply to an encounter deck:

  • Total hit points
  • Attack Values
  • Gold Pay Out
  • Additional Differentiation (Very Bad, Bad, Neutral, Good, and Very Good)

Each of the Encounter Decks in Dragonfire contains twenty cards. So what do the curves of numbers for each of the data points above look like as they are applied across twenty cards?

Let’s just take one example: the total hit points on a Difficulty 2 Rating Deck. And by this, I mean how much damage must be dealt (regardless of color) to defeat an encounter. My initial build used the following:

This means that two cards have five hit points on them, three cards have six hit points, and so on. Now, there were numerous fundamental problems that arose in this build. In no particular order:

Instead of thoroughly discussing what we wanted the Dragonfire curves to be, I just started out by mirroring the curves in Shadowrun: Crossfire. But those were built with forty card decks in mind, and built with the Shadowrun Creative in mind as well; in other words, constructed so as to evoke the particular elements of that universe that make it cool and unique. After some initial playtests, we realized it wasn’t feeling right, and the biggest reason is that we hadn’t built it to evoke D&D.

The next misstep was more production-oriented. I’d originally imagined that we’d have ten different levels of progressively more difficult decks. And because my game designer hat was more firmly on than my production hat at the time, I didn’t really think through the issues that would arise. Namely, we couldn’t possibly produce enough cards and have enough releases to cover such detailed differentiation. After kicking it around some more, we realized that four progressively more difficult decks would cover ten levels of player experience very well. This would provide a good balance between what players will need and want, and what the game and production can support.

The final misstep came directly out of the previous mistakes (as they always do). While we don’t directly use the Challenge Rating from the tabletop RPG, it informs the selection of monsters that we apply to a given encounter deck. Under the initial idea that we’d have ten levels of encounter decks, I built the Creative—the particular monsters that would appear on each card—so that sixteen of the twenty encounters were Challenge 1, while four of them (the hardest to deal with in that deck) were Challenge 2. Then, per the spreadsheet from the previous post, I filled everything in and fully built playtest materials. Such work ultimately left the gibbering mouther as the hardest card of the Dungeon Difficulty 1 Deck.

However, when you switch to only four decks, it means the breakdown of Challenge Ratings roughly transitions into: Challenge 1-5 = Encounter Difficulty 1; Challenge 6-10 = Encounter Difficulty 2; Challenge 11-15 = Encounter Difficulty 3; Challenge 16-20 = Encounter Difficulty 4. Generally speaking, anything above Challenge 20 will be a special “archenemy” card. Which also means that the hardest cards are now equal to Challenge Rating 5 monsters. So the Creative across all decks had to be completely re-built, and so the gibbering mouther became a roper.

After several weeks of going down wrong tracks—which, in many ways, was still a good thing, as it really let us know where the new focus must be—we addressed all of the issues above. In doing so, we arrived at all new curves of data. For example, now the hit points on an Encounter Difficulty 2 deck look like the following:

Now, to be clear, even though those work 95% of the time, a lot of playtesting fine-tuned several of those elements. So while one tab of the master monster google sheet includes the data for the deck curves, if you compare those curves directly to the final encounter decks tab, you’ll notice small variations here and there. No amount of math and data crunching on a sheet will ever replace the need for just endlessly banging on a game at the table and adjusting appropriately due to such playtesting.

In the next post, I’ll dive into playtesting itself, and how that evolved the encounter design.

Until next time!


Sketching the Dream

As I delve deeper into the design and creation of Dragonfire, you’re going to see this phrase—“I’ll talk about that in future posts.”—a lot, so I’ll apologize in advance. But when designing a game, particularly one as complex as this one, there are so many interwoven elements that you simply can’t discuss them all at once. Well, I could…but then this blog would be a novella…at least. As such, you’ll see several instances of having to refer to a design element, rule, or feature in a future post. It’s simply the nature of giving you such an in-depth behind-the-scenes look at the entire process.

Right from the start, I knew we’d be making a key departure from Shadowrun: Crossfire. In that game, there are two obstacle decks (encounters), one hard and one easy. And they’re filled with every type of strange obstacle you might encounter in Shadowrun. Because in Shadowrun, well, you can run into almost anything, almost anywhere.

But it doesn’t work that way in Dungeons & Dragons. You’re never going to run into a roper in a city. Or a dryad in a dungeon. Well, let me rephrase that. Sure, a dungeonmaster could make that happen. But it’s going to raise player eyebrows unless there’s a great story behind it. Which there might be. But we don’t have that luxury in a card game. So when a particular monster shows up, it had better appear within an appropriate environment.

A second angle that comes from the Dungeons & Dragons universe is the idea of moving through those various iconic locales. In Shadowrun: Crossfire, there’s generally a sense that you’re in a future megasprawl city and that’s it. And that’s perfect for that setting. But for D&D, you need to feel like you can play games in various locations. From Baldur’s Gate to the Trollclaws to the Sea of Swords to The Spine of the World. These are rich, varied environments, and conveying that through the encounters you face fully embraces that aesthetic.

With all of that in mind, we knew the encounters cards would be broken into various sets: Dungeon, Wilderness, City, and so on. To facilitate that building, I took the tables in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and typed them into a spreadsheet for ease of review and manipulation. While a lot of front end work, it would make all the subsequent work much easier as we decided on a locale for an encounter deck—say, Wilderness—and then select an appropriate environment—say, Forest—and start building the encounter deck.

Once that was done, it was time to start building a full spreadsheet and then filling it in. Below you’ll see the first line in a spreadsheet—broken up into bite sizes to make it digestible in this format—that now contains data for over a hundred cards. Skeletons, of course, seemed the most obvious place to start when building our first Dungeon Deck.

Most of the data above should be pretty self-explanatory, with a few caveats. First, while the D&D Challenge Rating has no direct impact within Dragonfire, it’s still very useful when selecting and translating various monsters to ensure they retain a respective degree of difficulty to each other and the party, based upon that rating.

For the card color, remember that all of Dragonfire is color-coded to four colors. So the capital letters applies to the card color and damage track, while the secondary color applies to what will also appear on the damage track. In this case, creatively, Devotion and Arcane felt most appropriate for Swarming Skeletons.

Finally, yes, there are Location Encounter cards in Dragonfire; I’ll touch on them in the future.

The skeleton ended up being one of the easiest Dungeon Deck encounters—there has to be an easiest—and so it only has two points on the Damage Track (G = green, U = blue (because B = black)).

Additional Differentiation applies to the concept that even after creating the various Hit Point curves for a deck, you need more variety. So there is a specific number of Very Bad, Bad, Neutral, Good and Very Good cards. In this instance, a Swarming Skeleton is a neutral.

The Trait icon is a brand new element for Dragonfire, and I’ll also cover that in a future post.

A whole slew of different text rules can be found in this column of the spreadsheet, including no text rules at all on a card. In this instance, tokens are a brand-new mechanic for Dragonfire.

While playtesting the first few builds of the game, we realized that a key flavor of D&D was missing (if you recall, I discussed those lists of key aesthetics last week): the idea of swarming monsters. Dragonfire is a deckbuilding game, so it already has a huge number of cards. And even with that, we were still lacking that feeling of swarming monsters. So we came up with the idea of tokens—punch-out playing pieces you can place next to the card—as a way to bring that all-important element into play. It’s one of my favorite new elements we introduced. It not only plays wonderfully at the table, but it provides a lot of Creative/Design space as well. (The 6+ and 8+ refer to the Dragonfire level; I’ll touch on that in future posts.)

Next is flavor text. Gotta have a quick dash of flavor for some nice immersion. Not surprisingly, there were several good discussions over the tone and direction of each flavor text. I won some, I lost some, just like any work amongst a group of creatives.

Now someone has to dig the specific illustration file name out of the D&D archive. And it’s a BIG archive. Never have I been so appreciative of a Mac’s robust previewing option to simply scroll through hundreds of large files to find what I need without actually opening anything. And that work is crucial in making layout flowing quicker. Finally, at a great suggestion from WotC, we’re including the artist’s name on every card.

Rinse and repeat…over a hundred times, just for the encounters in the base box. And of course, significant playtesting and discussions resulted in the spreadsheet being re-built and re-tweaked dozens of times.

In my entry, I’ll discuss how, despite all of the pre-meetings we had, I still managed to move a little too fast in building the encounter decks data, and ultimately had to rebuild almost the entire sheet—not including those playtesting tweaks noted above—to better address the appropriate design curves (and the subsequent re-figuring of the creative aspect that went along with it).

Until next time!


Stoking The Forge’s Fire

When I was eleven years old—in a very small town in the middle of Nevada—I first played Dungeons & Dragons. The other players were a lot older, and the overall experience was not good. But there was something about it all that opened my imagination in ways I never thought possible. Shortly thereafter, my friend Robbie and I picked up the Red Box and ran solo adventures for each other (I did mention it was a very small town, right?).

Fast-forward a few years, and I’m playing a wide range of games—though by now my life-long love affair with BattleTech has begun, so that swallows a large swath of gaming time. But we still do a lot of roleplaying across a wide range: Star Frontiers, Gamma World, TMNT, Paranoia, Marvel Superiors, Heroes Unlimited, and because that’s what our main GM Scott enjoyed running, a lot of Palladium. However, many an evening was spent with D&D books. And often it would just be Tony and me thumbing through the Advanced D&D Players Handbook, which never ceased to inspire the imagination (that cover still instantly takes me back).

Fast-forward a whole pile of years and my teenage son, Bryn, has built a large gaming group. For his years 17-19, like clockwork, every Friday was game night. We played almost every type of game under the sun, and having only five show up was usually considered a small night. But around their Senior year—the group had grown to almost a dozen by then—they all started to mention they’d not done any tabletop roleplaying. Despite the pile of work I knew was coming, I simply couldn’t be me (much less a professional in our hobby) and look at that many kids wanting to learn roleplaying and not make it happen. Especially as serendipity struck and D&D Fifth Edition had just been published; having read it, I knew I’d enjoy running it.

For over a year, we ran a bi-monthly campaign (which turned into a weekly campaign after graduation before they all started heading off to collage). And yes, a few times, there were twelve gathered around the table! Stupid, inbred Hydra that couldn’t touch them the first time that happened; I quickly realized how much more dangerous I’d need to make a session for that many players. Regardless, just an endless pile of awesome fun all around, with stories we’re still sharing (as all roleplaying inevitably provides). To the point I’d started running a game for my family (well, until Dragonfire came along and sucked up all possible bandwidth in my life). As a fantastic aside, almost all of those kids (not really kids any more) have joined—and often started—their own roleplaying groups. Both job security and proud geeky-gamer dealer.

Okay…why that trip down memory lane? Because for an exceedingly large swath of our hobby, each of us has our own story about how much Dungeons & Dragons has informed that experience. Even if you went long, long years without touching it—as I’ve done—it still formed a crucial crèche of development. A touchstone across so many years. Literally, our hobby would be utterly unrecognizable to us if there’d been no D&D. (Much less how far the impact goes into all our favorite computer game.) And if we were going to create a game set in such a seminal universe, it needed to pay the utmost respect to that heritage.

Which means that back in December, when the design of Dragonfire began in earnest, we spent a solid two weeks meeting every other day with white boards and just talking at a macro level. What makes Dungeons & Dragons, well…Dungeons & Dragons? What’s that ultimate shared experience? There’s hundreds—if not thousands—of roleplaying games and settings. So while there will be core elements drawn across most of those, what elements are most important to the D&D experience? What aesthetic, if missing, would tear out the soul of D&D?

Based upon those discussions, long lists were created and then honed. And while yes, there were exceedingly strong opinions thrown around, I think what surprised me the most is how similar the lists were for each of us. Sure, there were one or two outliers—hence those strong opinions. But by-and-large, the lists aligned, despite a wide range of experiences with the game. This made it all the more crucial that we appropriately fold those elements into Dragonfire, as most players coming to the table will likely have very similar lists in their own heads.

Once we felt confident in the macro Creative experience (capitalized due to how important it is), we started to build spreadsheets that converted that Creative into the four colors of the Crossfire engine. (For those unfamiliar with the engine first published in Shadowrun: Crossfire, everything about the game is locked into four colors: green, blue, red, and black. I’ll provide more details on how that works in future posts.)

For example, for the Encounter cards (the monsters you must defeat during the game), the columns would have headers such as “Most Damage,” “Most Discards,” “Deck Cycling,” and so on. You’d then plug in color types; i.e. Blue does the most damage. After that you start plugging in the Market cards—those you’ll purchase during the game to increase the strength of your deck—with similar, but importantly different headers, such as “Most Assists,” “Most Healing,” and so on; i.e. Green does the most healing. And the spreadsheets build out from there.

To help us in this all-important foundational work, we borrowed a brilliant design idea from Wizards of the Coast that they use when building new Magic: The Gathering sets: a color wheel. A nice, quick and easy visual that ties over-all Creative and Design into a reference that ensures everyone is on the same page as we started to divide up the work and start into the game design in earnest.

While Loren dove head first into the Market design, I took over the Encounters and started crafting a truly epic spreadsheet…and Dragonfire was born. In the coming weeks I’ll be posting regularly, traveling the labyrinthine passages of design; showcasing how the game plays; providing sneak peaks at some incredible new art we’re adding to the Dungeons & Dragons mythos; even looking at the graphic design process and the dozens of iterations we went through—working closely with the great folks at Wizards of the Coast—to reach a final form; and more.

I hope you’ll join me each week, here, and enjoy this new, exiting adventure along the Sword Coast, and beyond!

Until next time!