Shard is an epic tabletop role-playing game set in a medieval-fantasy world of thrilling magic and high adventure.
My role: Lead Game Designer
Here is a summary as well as some highlights of my work. After this I list stages of the game’s development which can be expanded for further detail. At the end, I discuss several lessons I learned along the way.
As Lead Designer, I established the overall vision for the game, created the world map, its history and overarching story. I also collaborated with two other designers who I met with regularly, and directed twenty-three contract artists from multiple disciplines to create 200+ pieces of art.
In this role, I led the creation of:
[The races, classes and combat styles each have a unique story, set of abilities and 25 levels of experience progression. The creatures, skills and weapons/items each have their own description and stats.]
What started as a simple game between friends grew into an epic narrative rich in detail. The game continued to expand until it became so large we decided to share it with the world!
So that’s what we did.
Shard is possibly my favorite project to have worked on, ever. It started as a simple game between friends, where I played the Game Master (the person who directs the story and controls all of the world elements, characters, monsters, etc.) and my friends played as their custom-made characters. It all took place in a medieval-fantasy world I created, and was a very humble beginning.
From that point the game blossomed into something much larger. Initially, I had created a simple map, established some characters and their motivations, and structured basic rules by which combat and magic could be used. However, over the next several years the game grew by leaps and bounds.
We played as often as possible, and with every gameplay session the world and story grew. Every question my friends asked, every action they took, and every response I gave, expanded the world. I soon developed a much larger and richer map, and over time deepened the world’s mythologies, histories and cultures.
The game was a living and breathing thing, a window through which I saw a vast landscape where I let my imagination play.
We finally decided to craft our game into something which could be enjoyed and explored by others. We had the details. We knew the material inside and out. Now we had to develop it into something publishable, something we could get into the hands of future players.
I created the original material myself, including the overarching story and its characters, but when we came together we wrote even more…a LOT more. I’m not joking, either. Everything we created could be organized into an encyclopedia. And it would be a BIG encyclopedia.
The vision I had for the world was strong, but how could I guide it into a form accessible by others? Game Design.
This direction of questioning inevitably led to GAMEPLAY. Gameplay is the ‘invisible’ vehicle by which players experience the world and story, so it’s vitally important. I needed to keep it in mind when developing anything.
The world of Shard had so many intelligent beings and interesting creatures, which would be playable by others? What class-types would make sense in the world? Which would be fun? How about magic…what kinds? Who can use it?
Together, the two other designers and myself got down to collaborating. Our many questions were talked about, argued about, haggled over, compromised, held firm, let go, slept on and even completely scrubbed. Our labor was a shop, and it was messy. Yet over time things got clarified and what didn’t work was dropped without regret or set aside to later develop for some future expansion book.
Things were coming together. But, as with anything that grows in complication, challenges arose.
Many challenges arise when working on a creative project, but I believe each one is an opportunity for greatness. I call them ‘happy accidents’ because often times they bring about something better than I could have imagined.
I’ll describe a few of the bigger ones here, and how I solved them.
Above all, I think the most difficult and complicated challenge was GAME BALANCE. I could throw all kinds of ideas out, following whimsy wherever it led, but at the end of the day what was created had to find its place within the rest of the design and not ‘break’ the system.
In the beginning, it became evident that the core of the game had to be perfectly balanced because everything else was built upon it. So I looked at races first, for every player started their character-building process with a racial choice. But what races could players choose from?
Since all players are different, want different things, play differently, etc, I felt we needed to design the races to cover a full spectrum of characteristics. On one end, the large, strong characters with less mental ability. On the other the weak but highly intelligent. Every race in-between would be a shade of that scale, leaning to one side or the other. All the races were unique in their own right, but I kept this scale in mind when we designed their strengths and weaknesses. And it wasn’t a rigid thing, either. It was only a guide to a spectrum we needed to fill.
Humans were the middle point, but I insisted they not be just the ‘average’ on the race spectrum. They too needed to be intriguing. My goal was to make each race (and class) intriguing and desirable to play. I pushed everything further, refusing to rest until the races and classes were something we ourselves would be EXCITED to play. Nothing would be left mundane.
So on the strong end we developed a heavy, bear-like race with tusks named the ‘Khelneran,’ followed by Minotaurs, Dwarves, Centaurs and Humans. Next came two different kinds of Elves, a really cool snake race, a race similar to Halflings and finally a weak but magically potent race whose history had been lost known as the ‘Emorin.’
Once the race-spectrum was complete, work began on fleshing them out. I had an idea of what I wanted the races to be, but translating those ideas into playable form required numbers – statistics, to be exact: strength, speed, endurance, intelligence and so on. After a lot of number-crunching, the races finally became balanced.
Next up were race attributes. I started by boiling the races down to their very essence: What made a Khelneran a Khelneran? Their animal-like nature? Perhaps their fierce loyalty, or maybe their desire for power? Was it the backstory of their homeland, or the origin of their warrior-caste?
Doing this crystallized very specific attributes to build from. It gave us design guidelines and influenced everything from the shape of the glyphs of their writing to the style of their clothing. We developed race-specific weaponry off of them too, as well as race-preferred mounts and armor.
This became especially important during the creation of their race-specific class. You see, each race had a unique class which could only be chosen by that race. These special classes embodied the spirit of their race and were the epitome of their race’s strongest attributes.
Another challenge which arose was ORGANIZATION. With such an epic, large-scale work, there are countless details that need to be kept structured in a way which allows for quick access and easy game balancing.
To do this, I created a branching network of file folders. What I saw in my mind’s eye was this: a tree of game design parts planted in a fertile ground of story and world-building. From its trunk spread a variety of large branches (Races, Classes, Weaponry, Skills, etc.) which then separated into smaller branches (for example, Weaponry branching into categories like Melee, Ranged, Innate and Magical Weaponry).
There was also a branch for Combat, consisting of its rules, disciplines (codified systems of combat) and so on. Another branch was for Magic, establishing what it is, how it’s used, its rules, and the countless spells we created for the game.
These branches would sometimes touch as well, sharing certain files between them. For example, a poisonous assassin’s dagger would be connected to the Assassin class, the Weaponry category and the Poison rules system.
Even Art had a branch. In it were folders for our different artists. Each of these folders contained the list of art pieces assigned to that artist, the artist’s contract, any email correspondences, and a folder containing digital scans of their finished work.
If all of this sounds complicated, that’s because it is! Yet, with this network-like file system, I could see the entirety of the game at a glance. It became simplified for me. It was as basic or as complicated as I needed it to be. And most importantly, it worked.
There are many parts of a role-playing game book, and a lot of them are being worked on at the same time. I found delegating areas to different designers based on their talents and interests very effective. I also did this with artists (see Art section).
An example of this is where I delegated the balancing of racial statistics to one of my co-designers who was a wiz with spreadsheets. To another, an idea generator, I assigned developing the spells required for a Necromancer.
For my part, I directed the overall vision, wrote the histories, created the languages and so forth, while also generating ideas for content like Class-specific weaponry, creature designs and combat forms. It’s so large of a project that it’s difficult to pull out a few parts to say ‘I did this’ or ‘I did that,’ because I too balanced racial statistics and came up with Necromancer spells.
My work included creating many, many things in every part of our book. However, I’m not the best at everything. I believe it’s important to know my strengths, but also to recognize the strengths and abilities of others and then capitalize on those strengths. It is in this way that the best projects come to life.
As Lead Designer, I guided the overall design vision of the game, but I also recognized that our best work came through COLLABORATION. Collaboration is where the best ideas come from too. I spent many nights batting ideas around with the other two designers until we came to conclusions we were all satisfied with.
I also brought us together regularly to talk about what we were working on. Critique is important. It’s easy to have an affection for one’s work, but the ability to see things objectively and spot flaws in a game’s design can make or break that game. This is why it was important for us to comment on each other’s work.
Doing this also gave me the opportunity to identify areas which needed help and then reorient our efforts to get them finished.
With any large, detailed game there tends to be a lot of art needed. I was lucky enough to have been in art school at the time I started this book and so had access to a lot of super-talented artists, both traditional and digital. I also posted fliers in other art schools and comic book shops to recruit more, and even developed a relationship with a high school visual FX class to create sculptures of some of our creatures.
All said, I ended up working with and managing twenty-three highly skilled artists. What an adventure!
To start, I made a list of the images that were absolutely crucial to have, such as the main races and character classes. Then I made a list of the images I would really like to have, and so forth. Once I had a working list, I delegated images to different artists based on their style and what I thought they could do with the subject matter. I was always excited to see what they would come up with!
Sometimes I would give them very specific requests, such as ‘I need a picture of an Elven thief climbing a tower at night with climbing claws, and he/she has to have this specific dagger.’ I then supplied my own concept sketches or descriptions of the dagger and climbing claws, and let the artist run with it from there.
The artists I worked with (many of whom are now professional) were always fantastic, and they often surprised me. Since ‘an exciting escape from a dungeon’ is imagined very differently from one person to the next, it was through this creative collaboration that things came out better than I envisioned.
I very much liked working with artists. Being an artist myself, we talked the same language and could use words like mood, color palette or theme to greater emphasize certain aspects of an image. Doing this made so many of the art pieces in the book incredibly narrative.
All work © Ron M. Francesangelo