When we decided to go the path of Minimum Viable Product, we started with the feel of the game. When someone plays, what emotions do we want them to experience? Table-top RPG’s can cover quite a few, such as fellowship, challenges, or narratives. Fellowship is the social aspect of playing with other people; challenge is the defeat of complex bosses; and, narrative is the story of the adventures.
We picked growth and discovery. We want explorers to experience the growth of their characters over time. You don’t start out as greater than those around you – your beginning level is about average for the surrounding. It’s up to you to work and struggle to stand out and forge your own path. (Contrast this with games that have level 1 characters as already greater than normal.) The world needs exceptional people and the explorer needs to fill that need through their own development. The morality of the game, measured by ideals, is woven into the design by how it steers that growth. Certain kinds of progress will be favored over others, i.e. becoming a wealthy founder of an industry is going to be easier than trying to live by burning orphanages on sight.
Discovery covers the customization and maker aspect, as well as the broader environment. One reason pre-made adventures have begun to fall out of favor is that they railroad the Invisible Hand and explorers into preset narratives. In the age of Minecraft and “make your own,” it’s better to provide details on the broader world and let people choose how they wish to interact with it. Making, a core mechanic, lets explorers adjust their gear to suit their needs. Environmental based task and conflict sources via expansion material allows the Invisible Hand to pick and choose what they want to bring into their games.
There will be challenges and fellowship as a result of play, but these are not at the core of the decision process. We don’t see the game as a grind fest of battling waves of enemies or as a primarily social experience. Ideally, a single explorer and a single Invisible Hand should still be able to play and have fun with no special rules. We are not going to require owners to have access to large groups of friends (though it does make things more fun).
By knowing our focus – growth and discovery – this has aided significantly in our design choices for faculties and mods. We’ve chosen to minimize combat and stat oriented game elements (they are present, but in a minority) and instead try to increase utility and role-play centric content. We want to have open-ended abilities available so players are rewarded for “out of the box” thinking. They’re growth in familiarity becomes a tool for character advancement as much as boosting the numbers on the page. This encourages new insight into old material, improving replay value over more categorized and definitive word choices.
This is a challenging direction to take and our alpha does not perfectly align with it yet. With an end in mind, though, working towards it becomes simpler. We will simply have to grow to the task as designers!