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Mechatrap Artificer Design: Part 1

Welcome to the start of Mechatrap Artificer spoilers! Also, welcome to Varia design articles in general. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time, and I am excited to finally start delving into our process and giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the people and practices bringing Varia to life. Today I’ll introduce the team that worked on the Mechatrap Artificer, talk a little about our design process, and show off some early concept art.

The Mechatrap Artificer is a super unique class with a fascinating origin, so let's dive right in.

Origin Story

Working from a blank canvas is difficult. Whenever possible, we like to approach our classes with an idea in mind. We call this our “hook”. Usually, this hook comes in the form of a narrative. “I want to make the player feel like a spellsword.” or “I want the player to feel like a cleric.” We’ll leverage this hook as we work, and use it to inform our decisions throughout the process.

For example, when working on the Moonlit Cleric our narrative hook was “make choosing the god you worship meaningful.” This hook led to the design of Holy Symbols, the Blessed keyword, and the idea of a Divine Enemy.

Sometimes, the hook stems from a design idea instead of a narrative one. “I want to use health points as an action cost.” was the design hook that spawned the Deathblood Sorcerer class. We started with the health-payment mechanic, and built the narrative and art around it.

In some rare instances, the hook is a piece of art. For the Mechatrap Artificer (MTA), art is exactly where we started.

The Hook

I love tabletop roleplaying games, and more specifically, I love being the rogue. Every chance I get, I not only try to be a rogue, but I try to be a different rogue than I have been before. As you can imagine, I’ve had to get creative over the years in coming up with new ways to approach being a rogue that are fresh and interesting.

One day I got the idea of a rogue who specializes in traps. What if everything I did revolved around traps in some way. Could I make that work? I quickly realized that a “trap master” is a sort of rogue/artificer hybrid, which I thought was cool. Eventually I landed on this concept of an artificer girl who built a sort of mechanized construct that she rode around inside. The construct would be rigged with all sorts of hazards and traps, and the idea would be that I was a walking trapped room.

I enjoyed playing as the character so much that I thought it might make for a neat class in Varia, but I was concerned that it would be a tough sell for the rest of the group. I decided that the best way to illustrate the idea for the team would be to, well, illustrate it! So I commissioned an artist to draw the character I had in mind.

This is the result:

Everyone really enjoyed the image, and felt the concept of a rogue/artificer hybrid who piloted a “trap-room mech” would be a fun narrative to capture. I say narrative because any time we develop a new deck for Varia, the first and most important question we ask anyone testing said class is “Did you feel like a [CLASS]?” If the testing was done playing against the new deck, we instead ask “Did you feel like you were fighting a [CLASS]?” Either way, if the answer to one the above questions is “no” then we tend to head back to the drawing board and search for new mechanics that will better capture our target narrative.

Giving each of our classes a mechanical identity that captures a story we want to tell is something that I believe sets Varia apart from other games in our space. We work extremely hard to ensure that the constructed decks we create take you on a journey and really make you feel like you are the class that you are playing as.

The cleric made you feel like a cleric by making your choice of god influence your blessed actions and punish the opponent for acting in a way that was opposite your faith.

The druid made you feel like a druid by locking your enemy down with roots before blasting them with forces of nature.

The spellsword made you feel like a spellsword by letting you fuse your sword with spells and attack the enemy with your powered blade.

Each class had a mechanical identity that told a story through the gameplay itself. For the Mechatrap Artificer, our story was:

"You are an artificer/rogue who's focus is traps."

With that initial stroke on the canvas made, we started down the path of designing cards to fit that narrative.

The Team

Four designers did the majority of the design work for the Mechatrap Artificer. We initially spilt up into two teams of two, the Blue Team and the Black Team. (We picked colors that would remind us to keep designs in the Intellect and Subtlety attributes.) The teams and their members are as follows:

Blue Team

Peter Bruno (Lead Designer)

Pete worked with us on the design and development of the Season 2 classes, and this was his first lead design for us. Pete's biggest strength is an ability to use existing Varia game design technology in new and interesting ways. As lead designer, Pete was primarily responsible for the overall vision of the class.

Sean Dunn (Designer & Blue Team Captain)

For those who don't know, Sean is a co-designer of Varia and co-founder of Guildhouse Games along with myself. Sean is a proven designer with a ton of experience working on Varia. As team captain, Sean’s main responsibility was to serve as guidance and support for Pete, and ensure that Pete had everything required to succeed.

Black Team

Aidan Hart (Designer)

Aidan is new to Varia design and this was his first project with us. Aidan is a talented designer, whose strength lies in his ability to to come up with new and exciting ideas that Varia has never done before.

Anthony Tessitore (Designer & Black Team Captain)

I (for those who don't know) am the other co-designer of Varia and co-founder of Guildhouse Games. My job was to serve as the other team captain, work with Aidan, and provide support.

The Plan

Over the years, we've worked out a method to class development that follows a six step plan. Each step along the path has a specific goal, with each goal leading us toward the final design. Here's a high level overview of that process:

Step 1: Find the Core - The main goal of this step is to find the core gameplay mechanic that will serve as the foundation of the class. This mechanic must deliver on the core fantasy narrative that we are aiming for. The answer to the "Do you feel like a [CLASS]?" must be "Yes." in order to proceed. Examples:

  • Deathblood Sorcerer - Amplifying spells with health.

  • Moonlit Cleric - Combination of Blessed & Holy Symbol.

  • Stoneroot Druid - Stacks of Rooted.

Step 2: Supplement the Core - The main goal of this step is to find an additional mechanic that will serve to supplement the core mechanic found in Step 1. This can be done as either a synergistic complement to the main mechanic, or as an additional mechanic that furthers the class narrative. When complete, we will have a baseline version of the class we are working on. Examples:

  • Deathblood Sorcerer - Death magic buffed by health loss. (Synergistic Pair)

  • Moonlit Cleric - Combination of Divine Enemy & Holy Symbol. (Additional Narrative)

  • Stoneroot Druid - Rewarded for not moving. (Synergistic Pair)

Step 3: Playtest vs. Other Classes - In this step we pit the new class against some of the existing classes in an effort to see how the new class plays under varying game states. We specifically play games against classes that have a variety of play styles as they can inform us on the areas in which a developing class is strong or weak, and identify where the new class's narrative shines and where it breaks down. In this phase, we start to refine the design, as well as creating a few generic cards that are complementary to the themes or cover some identified gaps. We do all of this with the end goal being to round out the new class and give it a nice cohesive feel. Once complete, we end up with a class that is ready for testing with a group outside of the core designers.

Step 4: Alpha Testing - Next, we present the "Alpha" version of the new class to a limited pool of testers. We watch their matches, read their feedback, and try to understand how a wide range of players interact with the new class (new players, intermediate players, experienced players, etc). We look for areas of improvement, and use the feedback to streamline the design further. We also use this step to reinforce step 1 and ensure that players experiencing the new class answer "yes" to our "did you feel like a...?" question. The goal of Step 4 is to arrive at a version of the class that we would be comfortable printing (in terms of core mechanics and cards, not balance).

Step 5: Beta Testing - Following the limited Alpha test, we hold a second round of testing whereby we present the "Beta version of the class to a wide range of testers. We continue to look for areas of improvement before calling the new class ready for final balancing and fine tuning. The goal of this step is to have a design that is ready to be balanced for printing, where no cards will be changed in terms of core mechanics.

Step 6: Tuning - Last, but certainly not least, we enter the balancing and fine tuning phase. This is where we run the class over and over and over again against every other Varia class we have printed thus far. We do this in an attempt to get the new class into a fully balanced play state with the rest of the field. This step is when we make decisions such as "make this attack a 1|3 for 3 instead of a 2|3 for 3" or "make that block cost 4 instead of 3". All decisions made in this step are done in an effort to keep the Out-of-the-Box format fun and healthy.

In addition to the above standard procedure, we wanted to try something a little different with the Mechatrap Artificer's design process. The idea was to keep Team Black and Team Blue completely separate from one another in Step 1 and Step 2. Both teams would have the same main goals, but with different approached to those goals.

For example, our Step 1 goal was "find a way to mechanically capture the feeling that the Mechatrap Artificer player was laying traps, and the MTA’s opponent was triggering them." Our idea was that Team Blue would focus on achieving this narrative feel using existing Varia mechanics and designs, while Team Black would focus on achieving the same goal using new Varia mechanics and designs that had never been seen before. Once each team had a design ready, we would test them out by pitting the two variants against each other in glorious combat. We wanted to see if this method would lead to more interesting and creative approaches to the class by simultaneously letting the designers work without influence from the entire group, while also letting the designers be inspired by the 1v1 battles.

Once we finished Step 1, we planned to split apart again, with each team separately designing mechanics for Step 2 - this time with the Blue Team focusing on finding a synergistic approach while the Black Team designed mechanics that supplied an additional narrative. Once both teams were ready, we'd smash 'em together again in combat to see what was working and what wasn't. Eventually, we would arrive at the baseline Mechatrap Artificer required for Step 3.

Time To Go?

We had our hook. We had our team. We had our plan. We were ready to dive head first into designing the Mechatrap Artificer. But, as you’ll find out next time, my daughter had something else in mind...

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