After a bunch of late night and a few broken builds, the game is finally running again and better than ever. We’ve spent a lot of time working on controls and how the content of our adventures will be displayed - I would say most of our time - because when the content layout changes we have to redo encounters and writing to fit the new template. Lately, I feel like we have been honing in on the best layout that we’ve ever had.
We’ve been at this project off and on for 3 years now. With a few long pauses to have some kids and with different job situations, it’s great to find a project that can hold your interest for this long. I’m still as excited about it as when we first had the idea in 2015. Here’s a little history of how the layout of the screen has changed and what we learned along the way.
Originally, we put the cards at the bottom with the text in a book at the top. Enemies were on the same screen because we were going to have combat happen on this screen as well. Unity is great for layout, just make some boxes and text and you can get your idea across really easily. There are all kinds of interesting ideas in here that didn’t make it past the first prototype - like the red box behind the characters that represented who was in the “front line”. That red box would change with the size of the room.
With Characters Cards
Next, we got Mike DeCarlo, an awesome comic artist who had worked on some of my favorite comics, to do some art for our characters. We didn’t have a game yet, but we wanted something to serve as an anchor for the aesthetic style of the game: 70’s/80’s comic book fantasy art.
I started to lay down the rules of what would be a character. Being an old-school revival fantasy game meant I wanted to have dice, skills, and levels. It was soon becoming apparent that we were in a bit of a middle ground with our character art. We loved the idea of seeing the details but if we zoomed in, we lost the cool silhouette that Mike created with this characters.. We tried half zoomed first and characters as standees next.
Character Standees and Conga Line of Death
J. Everett Jackson started making monster art to use as a foil to Mike’s character art, and we were still planning on having the action take place in front of the book on a line. Darkest Dungeon came out during this time as well, so I knew it was something that others had enjoyed. We wanted to add a little bit more movement, so we let the enemies and the characters intermingle in these 10 positions. We called it the “Conga Line of Death”
We playtested this combat system in both paper prototype and Unity. After spending months on it, it just wasn’t fun. We don’t really like Final Fantasy style combat where one side attacks and then the other, so there was no use trying to force it into the game or force ourselves to enjoy it. Combat would not take place below the book and this was the final step towards getting the book to work on its own.
Character Cards and Book v2
If we were going to use the full-size characters for combat later, now the book versions could show the close-up details, which was the first big win. I still had a lot of stats for the characters, so the cards themselves would flip and reveal more information. This was okay, but most of the time you wanted to know your stats, so it wasn’t the optimal solution to be flipping the cards around.
We also were experimenting with a map that built itself as you wander through the world and a left page / right page system for showing off the story. The map may return but skipping back and forth between pages just didn’t feel very good. It was a lot of work for the eyes and brain to go back and forth between the options on the left and the book on the right. Also, making sure all of the possible text fit on the right side made each encounter difficult to write. Even though it worked, and we could play it, we also knew we could do better.
Characters on the Left and Scroll
By moving the characters to the left we were able to show their stats and their portrait at the same time. The stats were also simplified and our streamlined “your dice are your character” mechanic took its final form. We went back a replayed a bunch of CRPGs that did the character choice and story delivery well - Balder’s Gate, Divinity 2, Fallout, etc. - and found that they all followed a similar formula. The text was on top, and the options were on the bottom.
Using this playbook we morphed our off-center book into an infinite scroll. This way we can make our encounters however long we want without spending all of our time on editing for space. There are still a ton of possible options (up to 5 or 6) per decision point, and a good amount of space for text. As you can see below the scroll, that’s where we plan on doing the combat - so in a strange way, solving our story layout also solved our combat problems too.
Once we got this setup and working, it instantly felt “right”. And I guess these are my learnings to pass on from this whole experience: 1. If you want something to feel right, sometimes you’re going to have to kill something that’s been around for a long time. 2. You’re never going to know if something works until you play it. 3. Learn as much as you can from other games that have tackled the same problems. That’s how we went from a good layout to a great layout that solved all of our gameplay issues for this particular screen.
Illustrated tabletop rules - a chapter on character personalities and morals
How does the dice system work in Master of the Rogue Spire?
More info on encounters
Particle effects and better 3D assets