Design Diary: The Aberration Hunter’s Handbook


I’ve been spending a lot of time the last month or so developing a suite of rules for what I like to call “The Aberration Hunter’s Handbook” – essentially, an update of a lot of 3e-era prestige classes from Lords of Madness. I think it’s worth sharing some of the things I learned in working on this.

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I Am Setsuna and The Grind

i am setsuna

I Am Setsuna is an RPG in the classic JRPG style. This means that there is a Grind. I Am Setsuna does something a little novel with its grind mechanics that I think is worth exploring both for the ways in which it’s innovative, and in the ways in which it probably doesn’t do enough to fix the Grind problem.

Spritnite & Monster Kills

The roots of I Am Setsuna‘s anti-grind lie in spritnite. Spritnite are significant items in the gameplay: each one you find gives your characters dramatic new abilities. In I Am Setsuna, a spell or special attack that some games might grant you when you level up is instead granted to you through the spritnite you have equipped (much like materia in Final Fantasy VII).

This makes the discovery of new spritnite a significant event for the player. New attacks! New spells! New combos! Spritnite even comes with rather significant bits of world lore for those of us into exploring the story. The idea of getting new spritnite is a significant driver of your action.

The main way you get spritnite in I Am Setsuna is rather mundane, however. Merchants sell it. Even fairly early in the game, these merchants will be loaded down with a dizzying variety of spritnite. The action you take to get new spritnite is “find the merchant in town and talk to them.”

As a wrinkle, these merchants don’t take your typical gold coins. Instead, they are after monster drops – “materials” in the game’s parlance.

Monster drops are, for the most part, not based on rarity. There is one “rare drop” for each monster family, and there’s a few monsters whose appearance is random and who often escape combat before the player can act (this game’s version of Metal Slimes). But most monsters freely drop most of their materials with only one requirement: that you kill them a certain way. Kill them by hitting their HP almost exactly for an Exact Kill. Kill them by massively over-damaging them for an Overkill. Kill them with a particular character, weapon, or elemental spell for a Fire Kill, an Ice Kill, a Time Kill, a Light Kill, etc.

With those elements – spritnite, merchants, and monster drops – we have the basic loop of I Am Setsuna‘s grind: you want new spritnite, so you find the monster drops that the merchant needs to give you the spritnite. This means fighting the same monster groups over and over for specific or challenging drops, which gives you the XP you need to grind up. It also gives you the gold you need, via selling those monster drops (including all those you don’t need for the specific spritnite you seek) to the spritnite merchants.

Complexity & Variability

The ultimate effect of I Am Setsuna‘s grind loop may be the same as ever – fighting the same monsters over  and over again – but the different drops, the different characters you need to achieve the various types of Kill, the spritnite you get at the end, the freedom to choose which materials to pursue and which to leave alone…all this offers a lot of decision points, encourages diversity, and gives a significant reward for all that. These elements make the game’s grind significantly less annoying than it could be if they adhered too closely to old JRPG grind tropes.

In effect, you’re getting something of a voluntary fetch-quest generator. “Give me twenty bear asses” is replaced by “Give me two Glowing Stones, one Fir Branch, one Exotic Flower, and one Penguin’s Treasure,” with part of the fun being discovering what monster drops the necessary items.

The complexity of the system is key to this variability – there are a lot of potential places where a player can say, “I’m bored of doing this for now, let’s do something else,” and have that still lead to a valuable reward. You can change a lot of elements of the grind, and still be grinding. The rote repetition isn’t there at a granular level, but it is still there at the macro level, allowing the design team to still encourage grinding, just in a more nuanced way than many classic JRPG’s.

Monotony & Impossibility

Some of the failures of I Am Setsuna‘s grind loop aren’t exactly the fault of the system’s design, but rather it’s supporting elements. I Am Setsuna has made some significant choices that contribute to the feeling of boredom in the grind that have little to do with the grind loop itself. These include its soundtrack – though the piano melodies are fairly good, and set a nice mood, the difference betweeen one track and another with only one instrument is blurred. This means that there’s little variation in the sound that happens during the grind. Overworld theme – dungeon theme – battle theme 5-10 times, repeat.

There’s also not much in the way of visual distinction. I Am Setsuna does some beautiful things with its wintery setting, but most of its dungeons are a monotony of white and gray. Over the course of a grind it becomes stifling. Another snowy wood. Another snowy mountain.

Again and again, the lesson remains: the art around your game design is a crucial part of the overall game.

The system itself has flaws that exacerbate that monotony, too. For one, not every bit of spritnite will be something you can access when it becomes available. Your first access to certain kind of elements doesn’t come until much later in the game, but spirtnite that uses materials that can only be harvested with those elements is present in the merchant’s inventory early. Some spritnite also requires rare drops from certain bosses that you won’t be able or likely to get the first time through. This removes some of the drive to grind, because you will never be able to grind enough to get that spritnite. Might as well continue on, then, getting what you can when you can.

The framing of the loop system is also quite underwhelming. Giving materials to a merchant is hardly a significant action by your party. Though spritnite itself is a nice reward, the narrative that backs up your acquisition is a little hollow – no different in effect from grinding for gold. It makes the materials something of a burden rather than something interesting to find.

The materials themselves also have no distinguishing features or unique lore associated with them. Though several have very evocative names, the various branches, roots, and flowers all blend together, leading to more grind than intended when a misreading has you chasing down a material that you can’t actually harvest yet. And there are few worse feelings in a world where grind exists than grinding uselessly. This game’s grind loop makes that a real possibility.

The Good Grind

Grind is often a feature of large, sprawling games, rather than a bug. Today saw the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, which takes hours to get going, and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey has also been noted to have a slow start. The many sidequests and goof-off opportunities in open-world games tends to be one of the fun aspects of them – the ability to go off the main game and get lost for hours in the wilderness is, in part, a way to encourage a grind loop. Even without level gatekeeping, the purpose is to encourage you to consume what the game developers have produced, to devote more time to the game, and to see it as a greater value. Grind is abnegation play, just zoning out and pushing buttons for a while. Grind is Candy Crush and stopping random criminals in Spider-Man and ignoring the main quest in Skyrim. It can be compelling enough to be the main draw of the game!

To make the grind compelling, though, you need to hide the monotony and repetition behind it. I Am Setsuna succeeds in obscuring that with some complexity and self-determination, but due to its art direction, it’s sound direction, it’s narrative design, and it’s pacing, it doesn’t quite achieve a good grind.

Grind – or, more politely, abnegation – is something that most games have some of by design. Abnegation in my games might be significantly smaller in scope – more on the order of minutes than days – but even those minutes should contain compelling, repetitive loops. Agency, variety, and juicy rewards are good ways to improve the fun of the grind. The grind gets dull when it gets repetitive, or when it feels pointless, and so I should keep a close eye on dull cycles in my own design.

With luck, I can achieve a few minutes of good grind, and not wear out my welcome.


Design Diary: Monster Conversions


So, this year hasn’t been nearly as productive for DM’s Guild as last year for me. The main reason for this is because I became a dad, de-railing any previous plans I may have had. That said, naps and nannies have let me publish two releases recently that I’m excited about, as they build up my “DM’s Side of the Table” library.

They’re both monster conversions: Foulspawn and Creatures of Air. Both have taught me some interesting lessons about D&D monster design, and about constraints.

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Design Diary: Angels & Aberrations – The Cherubim

My next DM’s Guild product is likely to be a monster compendium of astral creatures (as my previous design diary may have suggested). Initially, I wanted to do every creature that is “from the Astral Plane” in 5e style, but there’s a lot of 1e-era creatures that mention spending a lot of time on the Astral Plane that maybe make more sense in other capacities in 5e. So I’ve cut the Shedu form it, as well as some more “campaign specific” astral creatures.

One category of creatures that this winds up cutting that I’m a big fan of (and might just splinter into a separate compendium) are the Weird Celestials. These creatures are super-interesting – benevolent, chimeric beasts, often based on Near Eastern or Asian creatures, sometimes given psionic powers for…some reason…. This includes monsters like…

  • Shedu
  • Lammasu
  • Baku
  • Foo Dogs / Foo Lions
  • Dragon Horses
  • Hollyphants
  • Moon Dogs
  • Opicinus
  • Phoenix
  • Couatl
  • Ki-rin

In general, these creatures struggle a bit with their particular place in the multiverse. I’ve often thought that you could crib notes from various angel mythologies for this. This suite of benevolent beasts could easily be the “cherubim” to the deva’s “seraphim,” though that would be taking many of the actual mythological creatures out of their native mythologies (not necessarily a bad thing, but you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater when re-starting a narrative).


I was tempted to put many of them in Angels & Aberrations, using the cherubim motif, but found that they were largely described as “travelling” the Astral Plane rather than of or from the Astral Plane. Thinking about their narratives a bit, I think generally they’re more interesting if they’re from isolated areas of the Material Plane, rather than sitting on some other plane. DM’s are more encouraged to use these creatures if they’re part and parcel of the world rather than off somewhere else and needing to be summoned.

Maybe I’ll go back on that at some point.

For now, I think I’ve got plenty of Astral Critters for the doc. These include…

  • Astral Dreadnought (the poster child for planar monstrosities since 1e!)
  • Astral Hulk (an umber hulk taken to eating astral matter)
  • Astral Render (a powerful god-created ooze that tears the planes asunder to teleport enemies around)
  • Astral Searcher (a ghostly shell of raw emotion that seeks to possess material form)
  • Astral Stalker (a tribe of god-created hunters that, in my new narrative, specifically hunt blasphemers and turncoats like the Athar)
  • Astral Vermin (a re-named 3e Astral Kraken – a behemoth squid-spider that cocoons astral travelers)
  • Astral Warwing (god-created constructs that defend the sites of powerful relics)
  • Aoa (a silvery ooze that reflects magic)
  • Berbalang (a fiendish creature that lives most of its life astrally projected)
  • Brain Collector (good ol’ Far Realm weirdness! These horrors are very knowledgeable about the anatomy of creatures over here…
  • Couatl Variants (including the 4e Cloud Court couatls, Couatl Redeemers who associate with Mithral Dragons, and the Discord Incarnate, created in an ancient clash of good and evil that hasn’t exactly stopped…)
  • Devete (humanoid wanderers that mimic the emotional state of those they come across)
  • Dhour (Intelligent psionic oozes from the Far Realm)
  • Mithral Dragons (agents of prophecy and the gods – who, in my writing, often predict apocalypses)
  • Garmorm (Far Realm horrors that are basically worms covered in singing mouths. New mouths appear when they eat your friends – and those new mouths have your friends’ voice!)
  • Astral Giants (outcast from the ordning, these giants serve the gods of civilization)
  • Inevitables (judges and enforces of multiversal order)
  • Maledictions (lightning-thunder-necrotic-psychic elementals that are the result of a dead god)
  • Psurlons (flesh-warping worm-psions of the Far Realm)
  • Quom (fanatical humanoids who travel on comet-ships to retrieve the specks of dust that are the remnants of their god)
  • Astral Deva (like a regular deva, but with a stunning attack, and a blade barrier)
  • Astral Streaker (basically, songbirds that serve as messengers)
  • Astral Whale (great, nigh-immortal beasts of deep intelligence who roam the planes)
  • Cerebral Parasites (essentially a disease that afflicts psionic people)
  • Void Kraken (A Kraken….from the FAR REALM. Woah.)

These are all in a first-draft-finished state, so once I get a chance to do some editing, they’ll likely be out.

Design Diary: Shedu


I’m whipping up a few astral creatures for the DM’s Guild, and I figured I’d document some of my thoughts while doing so. First up is the shedu.

What Does the She…du?

My first step for this critter was to look at its history in D&D as far as I could see it. It’s present in the 1e and 2e Monster Manuals, and the 3e Fiend Folio, but doesn’t make an appearance that I could see in 4e (that edition generally steered away from statblocks for things you weren’t meant to fight, so that makes some sense).

Stat-wise, we’re looking at a mid-to-high tier challenge in all editions, though in each case, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of power to back up that XP value or Challenge Rating. Offensively, each iteration of the shedu is a little underwhelming, with essentially two 1d6 hoof attacks. In 1e, this could have been augmented by powerful psionics, but in 2e it’s psionic load-out was distinctly utility-based, and in 3e this remains true (though it does gain a trample ability to augment its hooves). Defensively, the shedu does a little more respectably, but this is largely thanks to their ability to peace out of a fight entirely by traveling to another plane. In 2e, this ability was the weakest (astral projection does leave your body behind), but in 1e a shedu could travel the planes “at will,” and in 3e, it has an ethereal jaunt it can call upon.

Shedu are one of the more labor-intensive monsters to use as a DM in 1e and 2e, requiring you to pick some psionic abilities for them. This could shore up their defenses or offenses, but would rely on DM expertise with psionics to do this effectively.

So, we’re looking at a creature, encounter-wise, where if the party was to fight it, it would simply run away. More often, this creature was likely to be an ally to the party, perhaps for a few sessions (making sure the DM gets some mileage out of choosing their psionic powers), vanishing to another plane when things got too hot in combat. From a functional mechanical perspective, it’s a friendly NPC with some cool powers.

From a narrative perspective, we’ve got a fairly nebulously-defined agent of Good and Law. They travel the world doing good and helping others. 3e expands on this role a bit by making them advisors to clerics who summon them. This is still pretty bland, but 2e and 3e do like to talk about their head-gear. In 2e, it was emblematic of a heirarchy, and in 3e, it was a mysterious link to a perhaps-lost kingdom. They also are among the “random psionic powers” crowd in earlier editions, without much of a reason for why their spells were psionic and not just…spells…


The New Shedu

I didn’t have a whole lot of meat to work with, as you can see, but that’s OK – it gave me some room to breathe. In looking to spice up the story, I did some research on shedu in history (their original inspiration being the man/bull/eagle/lion creature that can be found with frequency in many cultures of the ancient middle east) and found a bit about them guarding a threshold. Combining that with the intended mechanical perspective gave me a bit of a hook: they’re creatures who serve communities, summoned by others to help them repel invaders. This presents one immediate scenario where they can be used in your game: to rise up in defense of an attacked location. They also worked well as a Celestial creature type, making them well-suited to conjure celestial.

I liked the oddness of the psionic powers. It is good grist for the story-mill (why do these creatures have psionic power? What is psionic power in your world? How do these celestials fit into it?) but by 3e, the shedu had gained a lot of cruft with their multiple powers and fifth leg. So I wanted to simplify.

I took the planar travel ability and made it a limited plane shift as part of the psionic suite, defining it and limiting it. It’s still a nice “adios, muchachos!” ability, but it’s no longer an evasiveness. Their inherent magic circle I also turned into a magic circle psionic ability. I took the telepathy devotions from 2e and reduced them to charm person, which seemed to mimic the function of those abilities well enough. I’ve also given them telepathy, which fulfills the “many tongues of mortals” camp. For ability scores, I cribbed the auroch’s physical stats (because they’re bulls!) and gave them 5e-ified stats based on the 3e numbers. 5e tends to have lower ability scores across the board, so I reduced each modifier by about 50% from their 3e numbers. I collapsed the 3e skill list down to two main skills (which could replicate the effects of all those 3e skills).

I’ve also left them weak. The current CR of the shedu is 2. This serves a few purposes, design-wise.

  1. Keeps them good for conjure celestial, to evoke their narrative better.
  2. I don’t need to arse about with a lot of new ways to power-up their defenses and (especially) offenses that might ring hollow with their history.
  3. They’re good allies, even for mid or low-ish level parties. They can actually see use before level 10.
  4. It makes it easier to use a herd of 8 or so of ’em in practice
  5. It leaves plenty of room for a “greater shedu,” if I were inclined to make it.

That’s a lot to gain! Their weakness isn’t an uncontroversial choice (this powerful being of celestial might is less mighty than…an owlbear?), but it’s one I’m happy with, and I imagine the existence of a Greater Shedu would do a lot to appease those looking for a bit more badass in their man-bulls.

The other semi-controversial choice I’ve made is to make them no longer just bearded middle-eastern dudes in their heads. The symbolic meaning of the king-with-a-big-beard head in the original art is as a representation of wisdom and authority. I kept the crowns, but ditched the gender-specificity, so now we can have wise, authoritative lady shedu, too, why not.

Domains of Play


It’s probably not an exaggeration to claim that Jason VandenBerghe is one of my *favorite* devs. He’s one of those “I want to be like this when I grow up” guys.


His beard alone is #facegoals.

He’s got a series of talks up in the GDC vault that revolve around developing his thesis regarding Domains of Play, a kind of player-typing system that helps developers look at their game through the eyes of many different types of players so that they can consciously choose their audience.

First: The Intro.

Second: Development.

Third: Over Time.

Fourth (this is an article): The Follow-Up.

A few things really resonated with me in terms of the regular practice of design. Let’s dig into them!

Continue reading “Domains of Play”

Mega Man 2 and Resource Management


I played through (most of) Mega Man 2 this week, and in doing so I saw how the designers iterated on the original Mega Man‘s use of the iconic limited-use Special Weapons. In many instances (such as with the Quick Boomerang and the Metal Blade) the energy consumption of the weapon is mild enough that you can use it as a replacement for your Arm Cannon. Others (such as the Time Stopper and Atomic Fire) have variable rates of energy consumption, and can suck up a little or a lot of energy.

However, the point of no-return frustration for me was that the demand for a weapon often outstrips its energy, especially in the late-game. This perhaps reaches a peak when you hit the Boobeam Trap at the end of Wiley Stage 4, which are invulnerable to anything other than Crash Bombs, and are located behind walls that themselves can only be detonated with Crash Bombs. This is a sudden Pop Quiz about your knowledge of this specific weapon – it’s ammo capacity and it’s blast radius, specifically. And if you screw up once, because weapons don’t replenish when you lose a life, you’re forced to Continue, and play Wiley-4 all over again.

And then, if you manage to accomplish this, you are faced with a boss rush with no weapon recharges, where, at the end, you meet Dr. Wiley who, with his most unavoidable weapon, is mostly vulnerable…to…crash bombs.


Clearly, the idea is that you’ll have to use a few Continues to grind through this, but JD ain’t got time for that.

In thinking of alternatives to the energy system, I was wondering what other trade-offs one could make for these “better” items. It’d be an interesting experiment to see these Special Weapons done as horizontal power-ups rather than vertical power-ups, as in a Metroidvania-style explore ’em up – to bake into the weapon’s use a reason not to use it that isn’t “I might run out of it.”

MM2 has a bit of this – the limited range on the Quick Boomerang, the charge time on Atomic Fire, the “time limit” on the Time Stopper, and the “wait for the bomb to explode before you fire another Crash Bomb” are good elements of that. What would the game look like if these were the ONLY limitations? Would the player want to use more weapons more often, in more situations? Try to make “difficult” weapons work? Express their personality with their weapons of choice? I think it’d be an interesting pressure on Mega Man’s jump-and-shoot platforming basics to be able to change so much about the “shoot” verb (and maybe the jump verb, too, with things like Item-1, Item-2, and Item-3) on the fly, without having to deal with the loss aversion of limited ammo.

We Should Let Them Die

Fujibayashi is a stone cold killer.

In this, I’ll be talking about this interview with the Breath of the Wild devs from The Verge. It is good and pretty and you should read it.

That interview has helped crystallize a thought in me about how death mechanics are often treated as burdensome in the play of a game, or even tacked-on. A game like Uncharted features death as a speedbump, because death gets in the way of the story, interrups the character arc. Most deaths in games are a version of “but that didn’t really happen…” that serve mostly a perfunctory role at this point.

When a game chooses to bear some teeth with swift death, they are often characterized as “hard.” Dark Souls comes to mind, as it always does, but anyone familiar with the Zelda franchise is happy to note how easy it is to die in Breath of the Wild in comparison to most of the games.

I think part of what these games are exhibiting – and what a generation of gamers is re-learning after the days of “Nintendo Hard,” – is that these deaths are a way to reinforce the rules of the game you’re playing. “They fall, they learn,” as Takizawa puts it.

Deaths are not learning experiences in a game like Uncharted because it’s systems are simple and there’s not much to really learn. You move, you shoot, you press X at the right time. These aren’t especially complicated interactions. Do what the game tells you to, or die. You just learn to do the thing.

But in a game that takes death seriously as an opportunity to communicate with the player, it can be a fiercely effective method of communication.

As par for the course, tabletop games have been wrestling with this particular dichotomy for a while, and most right now are rather squarely in the same place that a lot of videogames are: death is to be avoided, because it interrupts the story. Resurrection makes death cheap, the argument goes, because if characters don’t really die, then there’s no consequence!

As I launch into my next design project, I’m keeping in mind what fail-states look like and how to make them say something, and not just serve to make the player occasionally press some buttons.