On the First Year (Them Deeper Bones design diary 11)

Them Deeper Bones is my retro adventure fantasy role-playing game that can be found over on https://themdeeperbones.com/ (as of writing this, version beta.1.4.1).

There is a short preview available on the site, and if that piques your interest enough, anyone can get the full playtest documents and supplemental materials by joining the Them Deeper Bones discord. Or if you don’t want to join a social media channel, or just want to help me fund some art to the books, you can get also the books from itch.io.

Them Deeper Bones has been a year in development and it’s time to look back.

A test print of Them Deeper Bones book
It’s just a print quality copy, but still a fun present for myself

I started the project last year around this time with a 5 page Google Doc called “Untitled Dungeon Crawly Game (0.1)”

Like many of my projects, it was word vomit that just needed to come out. Not really that much of a game at that point, just some wild ideas here and there. The things that were in the document were a very rudimentary version of the basic dice roll mechanic (Saving Throws, Fortune Rolls), the damage system (that was the first thing I thought of) and an alternative six stat spread, as well as Expert and Fighter classes. Used these to run a playtest with very rudimentary rules, and according to my notes it was “worth investigating futher” with a big list of things that still needed work.

Not much of that original text is present in the current version, but looking back at it now, it seems that the core of what I wanted to do (even if I wasn’t really getting it across at the time) has remained the same.

After those humble beginnings there’s been a lot of fingers smashing on the keyboard. And a lot of my head banging against the wall. At the moment, I’ve divided the core document into three books, since one document with everything was becoming unwieldy. I have a 138 page Player’s book and a 107 page Guide book, and some 60 pages of additional world material on my hands. I’ve also moved a good while ago to a spot where the question isn’t “should I change the rules to make them better?” but “how to get the core assumptions of this across better?” or “what more should I do?”

Even if the page count has inflated, and now I’m officially past my original time-box of “I don’t want to spend more than a year on this,” I still think this is a “small” or “comfy” project.

Finding that Core

So, why does this game deserve to exist in the sea of million other games out there? What’s at the core of this small thing here that makes it so special?

A longing for the good old times was the original motivator, and it’s one of the big successes of the game as a whole. The design choices actually create the game I always wanted to play in my golden age of fantasy games.

I was disillusioned with the fantasy genre for years. I didn’t feel like it had much to offer me anymore. And how the feeling of that tingling challenge was gone from the modern fantasy games I had been playing lately, replaced by dice rolling and character optimisation. When I started writing Them Deeper Bones I was toying around the system and just fixing some issues I had with the rules of BECMI D&D, but the more I wrote and the more questions I asked while writing, the more the game became a thing about philosophy of fun in those old games I had played. Moving from “what the rules should be?” to “how these rules could bring about this game we played back then?”

There was a moment where I was writing the Guide’s Creeds, where I got the words “no gotchas” getting written on paper for the first time. I leaned back on my chair, and had that lightbulb moment of realising what the game was that I actually was creating. From that point on, Them Deeper Bones had a really tight focus in what it wanted to do.

It is a game to have thrills and enjoy player skill without it being unfair (old D&D tournament modules, I’m looking at your bullsh*t). The rules let all facets of the game, from combat to the actual puzzling, be things to puzzle through. The feeling of earned success is hard-coded in the DNA of the game.

Testing the Game

A lot of last year has been playing the game and finding out what people want to do with it. How it feels like to play, and what are the sharp edges that poke out.

I started the trip with a couple of combat playtests. That was (and is) a system that had most mechanical bits in the game. Not because combat is a focus, but because it gets easily in the territory of “I hit it” “no you don’t” “uh-huh” “nah-hah” if you try to resolve it only through role-playing. It showed flaws and victories, but the combat playtests got boring really quick, since, as said, combat’s not the focus.

After that I’ve run a few one-shot sessions here and there (mostly on the game’s discord server). But the big highlight of the past year in playtesting is that I have a wonderful persistent “west marches” style campaign playtest group. One thing that has become instantly obvious from testing is that this is a game where actual gameplay and game mechanics testing are quite incompatible as concepts. The numerical game mechanics are interacted with very rarely by design. This means that after those few initial games (where we tested the game mechanics more heavily), the major playtesting has actually happened in the long term play (going 17 sessions strong now), with us getting to a relevant mechanic in need of testing once every session or two. I don’t really mind, as the results lately have just underlined that things are working as intended.

This has clarified my views further and further, and allowed me to see what, for example the magic system and its spells in actuality mean when used in the game and how they should be implemented in the future.

One thing this actual play testing has also shown that as important as the guide’s instructions are, also the players need is quite clear. If the guide plays the game with the rule “no gotchas” in mind, then the players need to take this into account when playing and “play along” instead of trying to break the game on their part. The comparison I make these days with Them Deeper Bones is comparing it to escape rooms. To get the best enjoyment of the game, you’re not trying to win by any means necessary, but by enjoying the game through the parameters it presents. While you could brute-force an escape room by crashing through the exit door right from the get go, that’s not the way to have fun with one.

Next?

At this point, a year into development, the game engine is solid.

It really works. I hate to say it (since a Finn hates to sing their own praises), but it’s possibly the single best engine I’ve run this sort of games with, ever.

This means that the next step is to really start pushing the promotion, to get someone outside my immediate sphere of influence to play the game. To help with this, we did a video session of the combat mechanics a while back, and probably this sort of videos are something I should get done for other aspects of the game as well. I should probably talk with people. Like a lot, but that’s once again that’s not easy for a silent Finn like me.

2022 is a big year for me in private life, so it’s likely that it will begin a bit slowly for game development. But TDB is quite ready. You should come try it out.

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