The thinking behind some of our more controversial design decisions.
Why Merk Counts Up: counting down is more conceptually intuitive, definitely. However, during gameplay you’re constantly taking offense, and rarely healing, so merk counting up is mathematically less friction (since addition is easier than subtraction). We actually had a huge internal argument about this, and ultimately went with functional ease (counting up) over an intuitive concept (counting down).
Phrasing: we like “merk” because it’s ambiguous. Are they KO’d, are they dead, did they just surrender? The Key can choose the most narratively interesting option, or just not specify.
Why Main Characters Can’t Die: so the best part of narrative games is a familiar and well-developed cast of main characters. Main character death robs the players of a rich cast before they even start developing since people invest less creative energy into a main character with an expiration date.
You also have to design for the very worst Key Narrators. If you let them kill main characters, some are going to do so arbitrarily.
“Without main character death there aren’t any stakes” is incorrect. Some example consequences of losing without dying: having a favorite item taken, having all your shit taken, losing a limb or some other serious injury, getting captured, suffering a narrative setback. All of these are both more interesting and better plot fuel than a main character dying, since they launch the main characters towards recovering the stolen item, breaking out of prison, replacing the lost limb with a superior cybernetic one, etc.
Even just getting KO’d is a meaningful stake in itself because losing fucking sucks. It fucking sucks when your plans go sideways. The difference is death alienates actors from your game by permanently severing their strongest bond to it, while getting KO’d might piss them off but ultimately increases their involvement as they strategize how to be more KO-proof at that next level.
Main Character Sheet: it’s sideways to maximize usable space for people who don’t want to tear character sheets out of their books.
Central Resolution Mechanic: we almost didn’t have one since our favorite games and sessions are narrative to the point of never spinning / rolling / randomizing anything, but we ultimately gave into popular demand and implemented one anyways.
Gameflow and minimalism were prioritized: a small range (s6) with no correlated stats or added math (so you immediately know the result by whatever number the arm is pointing to). We thought a 75% (easy), 50% (default), 25% (difficult) spread of success rates would make it easy for a Key to infer challenge level by any given task.
Abstracted Defense: so the purpose of this stat is to 1.) create mechanical satisfaction, and 2.) be easy to use. It’s true that armor wouldn’t protect you from a flamethrower, but if you start adding situational calculations to defense, its mechanical satisfaction goes downhill on rollerskates: it becomes clunkier to use, harder to learn (which was a big priority with this game), and slows up gameflow for everybody.
This design debate is known as abstraction vs simulationism. Abstraction prizes streamlined gameplay. Simulationism prizes realistic gameplay. We lean heavily towards the abstractionist school since we want a tiny and easy-to-learn ruleset, and gameplay that focuses on characters and riffs and stories more than a perfect representation of reality.
What we set out to create in designing DomepieceTV
0. Prison-ready: no dice, hardcovers, or juvenile material. Each volume must contain everything needed to play. Content must conform to all contraband code.
1. Front-light: as easy to learn as possible. Stripped-down ruleset.
2. Back-heavy: endless possibilities for technical character builds, while ultra-minimalist builds are still fun to play. This “opt-in complexity” will ideally make gameplay as engaging for first-timers as oldjacks building their 100th main character.
3. Gameflow: narrative and social gameplay should run with no mechanical delays (“hold on while I find this stat”) or rule checks. The rule system should generally stay out of everybody’s way. Combat as streamlined as a tactical turn-taking minigame can be.
4. Universal: can run any setting, any genre.
5. Generative: prompts and rulesets for creating own arcs, settings, and games. Ideally, endless possibilities created with a minimal amount of pages read (this only made it into the DomepieceTV book).
6. Objective-based: to get main characters all pulling in the same direction, and driving the plot forward.
7. Character-based: the best part of narrative games is a familiar and actively developing cast of main characters – their dynamics, riffs, themes, storylines, subvertable expectations, recurring bits etc. Longform games must be standard, and squad-building must be prioritized.