Them Deeper Bones is an OSR-adjacent retro adventure game I’ve been working on since December 2020. The current full text (version a.7.5 at the time of writing this design diary) can be found https://themdeeperbones.com/. I started writing design diaries quite late into the process, so these early ones will focus on things I’ve already done and let me ponder on why I’ve done them.
Today I want to share my love of Powered by the Apocalypse games and what they’ve taught me about verbalising design intent and how those manifest in Them Deeper Bones as the player/GM creeds and design tenets.
One thing that Apocalypse World and some of its descendants do really well is put to words the things that are usually left unsaid. In this case, specifically the Agenda and Principles on how the MC should run the game so that it fits the genre the game is trying to bring to the table. A Powered by the Apocalypse game might have the MC Agenda to “make the world feel alive,” or “study the horrors of war,” letting the person running the game know what they should fall back on if they’re unsure how to proceed. These are then tuned further down into the MC Principles that help the Master of Ceremonies determine how they should do that. Principles can be things like “Treat your NPCs like stolen cars,” or “No mercy.” Simple and straightforward commands to bring to as many situations as possible.
What does this have to do with Them Deeper Bones? While it is not a piece of genre fiction like PbtA games, it is a game meant for a certain type of gameplay. One that isn’t necessarily familiar for all new players. So, Them Deeper Bones comes with a set of creeds for the players and the GM, and a set of tenets for myself, so I have a way to explain what I intend the game to look like.
Creeds as I’ve written them, are instructions to the person taking the book trying to figure out what sort of a game they want to play with it.
As it stands, the player creeds in Them Deeper Bones are as follow:
- Play with victory in mind but be accepting of your failure
- To do something, tell how you do it
- Be smart, think long-term
- The character sheet is there to save you, not limit you
And the GM creeds are:
- No gotchas
- Don’t rely on the dice, but let them fall where they may
- Reward being clever, and err for the players’ benefit
- Apply pressure through procedure
- Be consistent and telegraph change
- Serve each player according to their needs
Not going through each one by one (you can check whatever the creeds currently look like from the document itself with full write-ups), but they tell the what sort of a game this is intended to be. A fact is that a designer can’t force people to play a certain way. But from my earlier experiences with Fate, I know how easy it is to miss the point of a game’s intended play style, and judge it by overlaying previous assumptions on it. So I’m using the power of my words and try my best to explain the play style this is intended for.
And if you have played (and especially read) the BECMI version D&D, my hope is that these creeds feel at least somewhat familiar.
Player skill lies in actually playing the game and making meaningful choices during it, instead of being extremely competent in character optimisation before the game has begun. A clever player with a numerically average character will always fare better in this than the dull player with good stats on their hero.
Role-playing and interpreting that role-playing is at the core of the experience, so a lot of the GM creeds are about making that possible. Mentzer’s BECMI text talks a lot about being fair and maximising a good experience for the player, and I wanted TDB to have that same supportive role for the GM, while also providing a good challenge to the players so they feel like they are the ones who managed to come out as winners because of what they did.
And lastly, I wanted to emphasise how the mechanics and the dice are there as a fallback to when role-play fails to determine what happens. To put this to context, there is no rule for a “Skill Check” in this game, but instead the most common roll is a “Saving Throw” that determines if you got out alright even if really bad things would have happened to your character otherwise.
And yes, these sound really simple things, but if you approach the game from for example a more modern play paradigm where you just roll your dice all the time and what constitutes as role-playing is you interpreting those dice results, then Them Deeper Bones, with it’s default Target Number for success of 20 on a d20 is going to give you a very bad play experience as your average character will be succeeding in anything only about 5% of the time.
Likewise, if you come to the game with a full hardcore OSR line of thinking that the GM needs to be an interpreter of the rules and never hold anyone’s hand, the fair and mentor-like stance of adjusting your playstyle to fit the skill of the players might be something that’s not natural immediately.
Saying these out loud, and trying to convey the “solving escape rooms amongst friends” mentality of the game is probably the hardest part of the design work so-far, because of all the internal assumptions I’ve had about the text that weren’t originally conveyed to the reader. So, I’ve written and re-written them a dozen times over. And will probably keep fine-tuning them until the game is finally done.
After each iteration, asking the question “how would you describe the way the game felt” to myself and my playtesters.
And just like I have some guidelines to those using the game, I have a set of mantras for myself at the beginning of the document that I read every time I start working, to keep myself focused on what I’m doing. Some are more general, some are more specific. There is no explaining text in the manuscript since these are for me, but I’ll open them up a bit here.
- Simplify when possible.
- Dice are not the way to solve things.
- Combat is dangerous and becomes more dangerous the longer it lasts.
- Magic is not a reliable limited resource but unpredictable and fantastic.
- Exploring the world and finding out the secrets of old is the biggest reward.
- Character investment through hardship and survival.
- Imply the setting, don’t tie it too strongly to the mechanics.
- Central conflict should be between the way things are and the way things were, not between civilization and the wild untamed other.
- The game should call back to the shape and design of classic BECMI D&D when there are no rules that make it better or steer it more to the other design tenets.
I think those can be divided into three groups. First is the bookends of that list that really inform me on what are the touchstones for the style in writing and rules — If I don’t have a better idea, I should look at the Red Box, and that if I’m doing something complex, I’m doing something wrong. Usually I am doing something wrong like that, and it takes me an iteration or two to get things to the more simple form.
The second is the trio of system guidelines I have for myself—The dice are not a way to solve things, and the two exceptions to that, combat and magic. I love dice. I love rolling them, collecting them and especially creating systems that use a lot of them. This bit is there to remind me that no, the dice won’t solve things in this game, it’s the players. And that adding more dice won’t solve things for me as a designer. However the two places where I want the dice to shine are combat and magic, and thus they have their own lines on my tenet list.
The third group of tenets are something of a vague reminder of what I want the story and world of the game to be. The rules are there to facilitate play and the histories are created by the people at the table, but what should the rules create if followed to the tee. What’s the philosophies behind it, since I’m abandoning some core assumptions of the Red Box DnD many systems are built on.
And that’s what I have for guidelines so-far. If you want to drop a comment, I’d appreciate it.