Designing Eldritch Sigils

Last Sunday I published the beta version of rules for Eldritch Sigils. This is a game I have been working on for about five years. I have actually published earlier drafts over the years but this was the first time it actually has consistency and it is actually playable.

This has been a long process and one that is still in the works. But now that the rules are “out there” I thought it would be a good chance to talk about them. Since game design is quite an interesting topic I hope that sharing my process might produce new ideas or at least be curious.

At this point I would like to thank Aki. He has not contributed in Eldritch Sigils in a while but in a hindsight his influence has been fundamental. And he challenged our Guild to build a set for Magic: The Gathering.  While most of the work for had been done before the said challenge, it was something that helped me to embrace to understand the game design more thoroughly.

Throughout my roleplaying history I have profiled myself to be more GM than a player. And at last fall Aki made this remark about my playing style:

“Lauri, for one, is a clear id. He doesn’t like to think things through too much, and would much rather do things in the moment.”
– Aki

This is true on so many levels that it took the “MtG set”-challenge to make me understand it also works for my game design.

The fundamental of Eldritch Sigils are rooted deep within the first games I designed and ran in my teens. In fact they were so alike to Eldritch Sigils that once I noticed the similarity I was able to use big parts of what I had written almost twenty years ago. Dice pool of d6, tags and one roll for each action have been something I have enjoyed for a long time. But they were all on hiatus for years and years while I was dedicated to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP).

Our trusted rolling tray with glow-in-the-dark dice!

When Fantasy Flight Games launched the 3rd edition of WFRP I was thrilled with the possibilities it had. We played it for about two years and though I enjoyed it I understood the problems it had (too many parts). It was trying to do all the things at once and by doing so was quite hard to grasp. But it did rekindle my love for designing games.

Eldritch Sigils actually started as a WFRP3 hack. Back then I had no idea about what hacks were since indie game renaissance hadn’t made an impact to my circle. At least from my point of view. It didn’t take long for me to understand the restrictions of WFRP-design so the game changed so much I would have not called it a hack anymore.

At that time we played our first season of Eldritch Sigils. It was a success and the players (me included) wanted more. What followed was a memorable but short-lived western. By then Apocalypse World had surfaced and “all the cool kids” (ie. not me) where playing it. And with the players being influenced by it they brought a lot they had learnt to our game.

Enter Aki (yes, once again) and tremulus by Reality Blurs.

Tremulus was the game that ran with the Apocalypse World engine. And I loved it. We played only a single session but it was enough for me to understand why my friends were so excited about the AWengine. At that moment I ditched the Eldritch Sigils that was and began working on Wayward Sons – a reskin of AW+tremulus for the 80s.

Wayward Sons was in many ways a great campaign even though it had low points as well. The story was as memorable as the setting but when we discussed about it we had a feeling that we were missing something. They players liked the simplicity of the game and that it felt like telling a story together.

We actually made a bunch of art for Wayward Sons. As it captures the essence and feeling it is still usable.

We felt that while the AWengine was clearly for us we would have liked it to be at least a bit more like “good old games”. And as we delved deeper we noticed that what we actually missed were elements already present in Eldritch Sigils – dice pools and customizing the character.

Once again I tackled the Eldritch Sigils. The change actually was not that great. Almost everything the players were familiar with stayed the same. What changed was the philosophy of the game and how the GM was supposed to handle it.

During the following year and a half we have played several season of Eldritch Sigils. The rules have been refined each time and but I still was not content with them. There was always something missing or something that just did not work.

Then came the said set design challenge.

Without going deeper in the philosophy of that I can say it follows a “skeleton”. A premade idea about what the set is supposed to be like. While I have created MtG cards in the past they have been for fun. This time I needed to put aside my own “fun” and have fun in a different way. And quite suddenly I understood what had been amiss in Eldritch Sigils.

Though each season of Eldritch Sigils has followed the same themes and ideas I as a GM did not have a clear idea what the game was supposed to be about. I had been coming up with things I liked in that moment and had not even once put into words what the “skeleton of the Eldritch Sigils” was.

For a second season set in the 1940s I created an esoteric document called The Bruno Kowolski Fragments.

Now I can remember at least Sami saying the same thing to me more than once. I have tried to define the game but as it wasn’t something I was too worried about it did not work that well. I really had to understand the need for the concept before I was able to put aside by burning for chaotic creation in favor of design.

Coming up with cards for a MtG set is actually much harder than one could assume. But the key here is that common cards should be able to communicate the fundamental idea of the set. And this was the key for me.

While wondering about how to telling the story of a set in the most simple way I understood that Eldritch Sigils did not have that. It was a good set of rules for any game I could fancy but if I were to ever publish it, it needed a way to show what the game was about in a simple way.

Understanding this and having the concept of the game in my head allowed me to actually put in the game. I finally fleshed out the research tree I was thinking for a XCOM game as well as how to make it more relevant in the terms of rules. Once I had done that I understood how wrong I had built the playbooks and was able to rework them too.

I had been thinking about rewriting the rules in a more readable way for a couple of months. Then last week I just spontaneously tweeted that I would be releasing the beta version of the rules by the end of that week.

As you can see it didn’t hit many radars. But that wasn’t the point. I had made a promise and decided to keep it. It spent the whole week refining the game, reworking the tech tree and thinking about ways to make clear what the game was about. And it worked.

By now I’m still a bit confused about reaching this point. But at the same time I more pleased in myself than I have been in a while. I know that there is still work to be done with the Sigils but in the first time of this game’s history I think it can be done. I can finish writing this game. And that is another epiphany I am excited about.

I hope this long rant shed some light about my design process. I had a totally different view about how this would turn out. But as I still like to go with my feelings I think it turned out more honest.

If you got interested, here are some link:
The Rules
The Playbooks
Eldritch Sigils in Twitter
Facebook

Good gaming everyone!

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