The Unseen World: Designer Diary

From this…

to this.

A Distant Starting Point

Years ago, I started getting into gamebooks like Fabled Lands and solo RPGs like Ironsworn. I really wanted to make one of my own but wasn’t sure where to start or how it’s done. When I learned of Draw.io (the tool I still use), it was exactly what I was looking for, so I dove right into making a gamebook. But I was way out of my depths and had to learn a lot along the way.

The first idea I had was just far too large in concept. So I set it aside and started again. The next one was a Japanese horror gamebook with different backgrounds for characters that changed how you experienced the game. And it took place over the course of one year, broken into four parts (seasons). This was also quickly becoming too big, so I cut the other backgrounds and focused on the one I started with. It was still too big, so each season was going to need to be its own book. But even as far as I got (nearly a finished first draft for the first book), I could tell that it was a mess and still larger than what I could handle.

I started again (with what become The Dawnless Valley, which is in late-stage editing, but delayed for now). Each restart gave me a chance to learn from the previous attempt. Even designing and developing Winds of the North, a huge game, was significantly easier with all the things I had learned. But I still really wanted that Japanese horror game.

For Halloween 2021, I made a short interactive horror story, The Abigail Woods Spook. No mechanics, just classic CYOA-style decisions. It did pretty well. A lot of people read it, and many played through to the end. It was this and my 24-hour RPG submission that got me to challenge myself to make another, bigger game for Halloween 2022. I started earlier to give myself more time, especially since I had learned how difficult it was to get playtesters for games.

Concept and Development

I like trying new things. Some of my older designs are more “safe” and use older mechanics, and I don’t mind that, but I’ve enjoyed experimenting. For this new project, I wanted to use cards. It was a system I had fiddled with previously, but no game had materialized.

The idea was, you take the low cards from a standard deck of playing cards to form the player’s deck, then some of the high cards to form the challenge deck. You play your cards to try and beat the challenge card. There are all kinds of different ways you can achieve this simple concept, but I also love the idea of tracking the passage of time in games. Something about it just feels more immersive. So I did some early playtesting to see if using the player deck as a timer worked. And it did!

The only changes I ended up making to the core mechanic were which cards started in the challenge deck (it was going to be a King and Joker, being an automatic success and failure respectively, which then became a 5 and 9, and eventually just the 5), and I allowed the player to discard a card from hand to pay for an action (you originally had to discard the top card of your deck).

Early playtests also didn’t include increasing difficulty in the challenge deck. So the game got easier as you played, but by town five or so, the game was already so easy that a campaign would have to be very short. That was when the starting 9 was taken out of the deck and now you exchange challenge cards, ramping up the difficulty.

One of the other changes was the randomized tables. During early playtesting, the game only used a d6, but this resulted in too many repeating results. To keep the variety up, I upgraded most tables to a d10. The way the haunted backgrounds were created, with multiple linked tables, the d6 still felt fine for those. Six town types also felt just right.

The only thing still missing was a fitting climax to the campaign. It was a late addition, but the Castle created a nice challenging final location. But adding it to the game offered a different kind of challenge: research.

The Importance of Research

While I grew up on anime and JRPGs, I didn’t truly start to get into Japanese history and culture for many years. It was a slow, gradual process. But in that time, I learned a lot of things, things that even gave me a better context to some of the tropes and nuanced character behaviors in anime and games. The Unseen World wasn’t even the first game set in Japan that I had started, so I carried over some of the things I had previously learned, such as the details about Yen (¥) mentioned at the beginning of the book. But there was a lot more ground to cover.

For one, there are a variety of things to buy in the game that needed at least somewhat realistic prices. To a certain degree, games always have to adjust costs to fit into the game’s economy because no game can truly replicate a real-world economy. But if possible, they should still be in the ballpark. So I had to research the cost of a used van in Japan. In the game, it was originally a new van, but it was just too expensive for the amount of money you could realistically earn. So, I had to go look for the cost of used vans to see how far I could acceptably drop the price. This site is what I used to find van prices.

I also needed to find the cost of plane and train tickets for traveling between cities. Naturally, these prices vary quite a bit but found that both could be in the ¥14,000 range. For the simplicity of game balance, I went with this number and applied it to all three major modes of transportation. I used this site for figuring out the cost of flying (from Tokyo to Osaka). This site is the one I used for the cost of trains.

Early on, I also needed to research actual locations in Japan that are said to be haunted. What could I include in the game? Well, there’s no shortage of haunted places, but I did have one major limiting factor: photos. I had a budget of $0, so anything I used in the book needed to be public domain or free for commercial use. I had a lot of difficulties finding a good photo for a tunnel to suit my needs and ended up modifying one (the only picture that doesn’t actually come from Japan; I believe it was in Brazil). I also couldn’t get any good photos of a suitable lighthouse, even after finding an interesting haunted lighthouse in Japan. So the haunted lighthouse became the docks (because I had some good docks pictures).

Then there was Shinto. For all the things I knew already, there was a lot more to learn. While many Wikipedia articles are very suspect, and others are just short and lack information, some articles can be helpful. But you should always dig deeper. Citations are there for a reason; use them to see the source. Two sources I used for researching Kakuriyo (the game’s second title) and Yomi were Kojiki and On Understanding Japanese Religion. There were two important details that I learned. One, Yomi is not part of modern Shinto and is only featured in old legends. Two, some websites seem to have confused Kakuriyo with Yomi as an underworld-type location in the Shinto afterlife. But that’s not really accurate. In Shinto, there are two worlds that encompass everything; Utsushiyo, the living, physical world, and Kakuriyo, the world of kami and spirits. In a broad sense, Kakuriyo is the whole Shinto spirit world (Yomi being one location in the spirit world). Beyond this, I mostly just needed terminology for Shinto and the shrines.

Something else I had already learned in a general sense that was also important for the book had to do with Japanese society and behaviors. Basically, how would some of the haunted backstories be treated? This also helped frame some of the NPC personalities and how they interact with the player. In the past, I’ve watched videos discussing how Japanese society is different from the west, but I’ve also learned a lot from The Japanese Mind, a series of essays on Japanese culture and society written by university students in Japan.

Lastly, there was the castle. I knew very little about Japanese castles and had to do quite a bit of research, watching videos, reading articles, etc. The problem was, that nothing really went into much detail about the interior layout and what each room was for. I did learn some interesting details, like how the roofing was used to denote the status of those who dwell there, and that some castle designs included a hidden floor. Here are my main two references (that mostly didn’t prove useful, but were interesting anyway):

In the end, the interior details of the castle in the game were left mostly vague. Don’t include things you’re not sure about. “Write what you know,” as they say, so if you don’t know it, don’t write it! Write around it when you can, and otherwise just do something else if it’s not feasible.

End of the Road?

The Unseen World is now out. And while my attention returns now to Winds of the North (my other, much bigger gamebook project), I have notes for possible modules and supplements for The Unseen World. So, we may see more in the future, but probably not for a while.

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