Brian Holland

by Brian Holland

Game designer Damon Stone, formerly of Fantasy Flight Games, was talking to me about the importance of flavour and setting in tabletop games. Theme, according to Stone, is not just for attracting people to a game, but good implementation supports the rules and makes playing easier.

‘I don’t play Agricola for a reason.’ He said. And that reason isn’t just because his wife, Kelsy, beats him every time. ‘I was never a farmer post-bubonic plague in medieval France- I don’t understand why I can’t have two sheep in my house. Why can’t I keep sheep and cows in the same paddock?’

‘Obviously there are rules to it,’ he continued, ‘but I don’t know anything about farming so it doesn’t make sense to me. Agricola is a brilliant, game, it’s just not my game.’

Like many people, Damon Stone is drawn to games with a rich setting he can immerse himself in. With the release of Magic in the 90’s, he began a love affair with Collectable Card Games.

Among those games were Jyhad (which later became Vampire: The Eternal Struggle), and Netrunner, both of which from Richard Garfield, designer of Magic.

‘I actually preferred those games to Magic.’ Stone said. ‘Magic was fun, but the world was too hodge-podge. This was before they published novels and talked about Planeswalkers. All we had was a little flavour text, and it was hard to sink my teeth into.’

Like many other fans, Stone found that Vampire and Netrunner were easy to immerse yourself in. ‘That lead me to spending a lot of money to play all of those games.’ Stone said. ‘But in College, I had a car, an apartment, a girlfriend- it was hard to keep up with my hobbies. So I just quit CCGs.’

‘That lasted until a friend said to me “hey, this new game is out! It’s A Game of Thrones!” So I said, okay, I’ll play, but I’m only using your cards.’

‘That lasted until House Martell was released. That’s how Fantasy Flight Games got my money.’

damon dance for me

Stone wrote articles, pack breakdowns, created alternate formats- and shared them all on forums online. Eventually, the content he was making for A Game of Thrones caught the attention of Nate French, the then-Lead Designer of the game.

Reaching out, French brought Stone on as a playtester, and eventually began to suggest positions at Fantasy Flight Games that Stone might apply for. ‘They were all wrong place, wrong time. ‘ Damon told me. ‘But later, Nate [French] said he was moving on to a new game he had to put time into.’

It was then that Damon Stone interviewed and got a designer position at Fantasy Flight Games.

‘Your dreams do come true.’ He told me. ‘As long as you don’t dream about dancing on rainbows.’

During his tenure at Fantasy Flight Games, Stone worked across a number of popular lines including the Call of Cthulhu, A Game of Thrones, Android: Netrunner and Legend of the Five Rings Living Card Games.

It was working within these worlds that expanded Stone’s view on the importance of the marriage between theme and mechanics. However, this wasn’t always a simple matter of making sure that a Knight of the Seven Kingdoms didn’t wield a laser gun.

‘It was less about “mechanically, this doesn’t make sense”, and more about “this guy does X but that doesn’t make sense for how the character was envisioned.”’ Stone said. ‘It wasn’t a comment on the mechanics themselves, so much as it was on the feel and concept of the mechanic and the character it’s associated with.’ 

While working on A Game of Thrones, every card had to be approved by author George R. R. Martin before it went to print.

‘My understanding is that [Martin] had the game taught to him.’ Stone said. ‘Part of the [licensing] agreement, which is relatively standard, is “I’m going to get a copy of everything that is produced”, so he has a complete collection of cards. And then some.’ 

While George R. R. Martin wasn’t a playtester, he is well known for fierce protection of his lore. Seeing as Martin has condemned fan fiction for breaching his intellectual property, one can understand the delicate process Stone and other designers at Fantasy Flight Games had to go through to get approval for designs.

‘Catelyn Stark- Nope, nope, nope!’ Stone said of the process. ‘This is clearly a depiction of her at a certain point in the series- she shouldn’t have a Military Icon [on her card]. But for a depiction of Catelyn at a later point in the series, a Military Icon makes a tonne of sense.’ 

Designing for A Game of Thrones wasn’t only about making thematically appropriate versions of Martin’s characters. Stone cited one of the most fun and rewarding parts of designing this game was crafting abilities directly from passages in the book.

‘Characters we made had to be non-unique.’ He said. ‘A card called “Little Bird” is just some barefoot child. The “Young Wolf Stalwart” is a Stark loyalist and nameless soldier. We had a lot of freedom with those kinds of characters.’

There are no clear-cut rules on how best to go about working in a shared world, and it’s apparent that no single processes will work for multiple properties.

‘With Call of Cthulhu, we had free reign.’ Stone said. ‘Lovecraft is in the public domain. We could create our own characters. There was freedom, but things needed to match back to the overall mythos so it made sense.’ 

Making sure the fans continue to engage in the setting and lore of the games was paramount, especially when fan loyalty is such an integral part to the success of some games.

damon scorpion

In September of 2015, Fantasy Flight Games acquired ownership of the popular Legend of the Five Rings IP, a fantasy game inspired by feudal Japan with a rich and long history of setting and lore.

‘On Legend of the Five Rings, we could do what we want, but it was important to all of us because we were all such fans of the lore.’ Stone said. ‘It made sense that things were done right.’

‘The Scorpion Clan had to feel like the Scorpion clan. There was a constant sense of menace, and this idea that they were on your side- but that doesn’t mean they’re loyal to you specifically.’

After some 20 years, fans of Legend of the Five Rings were as loyal to their favourite clans as the characters in the setting itself. Betraying what they had come to expect from chief aspects of the setting would be a mistake- despite the fact that Fantasy Flight Games now owned the property and could technically do whatever they liked, the designers had a duty to the setting.

‘There was a distinct feel for each clan and their role in the Empire.’ Stone said. ‘Those roles were set, and nobody wanted to change it in any real way. It was more about “how can we explore these roles within the new version of the game?”’ 

Understanding theme and mood of a setting is one thing, but what makes a great game designer is the ability to work with and interpret those themes into actual game mechanics.

It’s easy for a fan to point out that the Unicorn Clan in Legend of the Five Rings need to use horses, but working out exactly how the feel of using horses translates into game play is the true skill.

Stone worked with now former Fantasy Flight Games fiction editor Katrina Ostrander on the design for the Scorpion Clan cards in the core set of the new Legend of the Five Rings.

‘The reason Katrina and I were on that clan over the others was because it was our favourite.’ Stone said, proving that fandom never fails to sneak into the process. ‘The Scorpion had to be sneaky. They’re going to use dishonour, and they don’t fight fair- but what does that mean in this game?’

‘There are the characters in my Provinces, and I have to pay for them to put them into play the same way you do.’ Stone said. ‘So, not fighting fair in this game means that my dudes jump into battle and mess up the odds.’ 

‘That’s the dishonourable way of playing.’ He said. ‘Being unfair and not playing by the rules.’

Up until its cancellation earlier this year, Android: Netrunner was arguably the most popular of Fantasy Flight‘s Living Card Game lines. Using the rules from Garfield’s game from the 90’s, and set in the FFG-owned IP, The Worlds of Android, Netrunner was an evocative and unique gaming experience.

‘Everything was fair game,’ Stone said of working on Netrunner within the Android setting. ‘We knew what the world was like. We helped define the corporations, and we could do whatever we wanted so long as it made sense in the setting.’

Like Legend of the Five Rings, the designers had an obligation to translate the themes of the setting into the game play experience. However, with Android, they were free to actually expand upon the setting and introduce new elements directly into the game.

‘I had ideas about the world, and the people who inhabited it, and I wanted to express that in the game.’ Stone said. ‘I would think about different areas of the Worlds, and a character would come to mind and I’d think of what mechanics would represent who that person was.

‘I would do that over and over and over- for characters, ICE, Programs, Assets, Resources- the ones that made sense for the game space we wanted to explore are the ones that went to external testing. From there, the ones that tested well went to release.’ 

Creating and contributing to the setting was still a collaborative process. Stone was part of the story team at Fantasy Flight Games for the majority of his tenure with the company. That team would overlook that various characters, places and settings that the designers wanted to create.

Primarily, this was to ensure that additions to the setting did not conflict with things other people had created, and to make sure that any changes still suited the overall theme and mood of Android.

damon netrunner

‘When I made something original, the only thing they were concerned about was how it was going to fit.’ Stone said. ‘I decided there was a division of Weyland that is all about space exploration, and the hope for humanity to reach beyond- suddenly, Jemison Astronautics was born.’

With such a detailed process -including full documentation on each character and new setting created-, fans of Android will not help but wonder just how deep the lore goes.

‘There are scores of characters and corporations that haven’t seen the light of day.’ Stone said. ‘The Worlds of Android are so rich, and so deep. There are so many words that never got revealed to anyone in the public. There are entire back stories written so that when we would use a character, we knew exactly who that person was.’

And like Legend of the Five Rings, a rich lore breeds passionate fans.

During his time as Lead Designer of Android: Netrunner, Damon Stone would often engage posts in fan-run groups on Facebook. Interacting, in his words, less as a designer and more of a fan of the lore. He was, after all, not the creator of the game or the world. He was a fan of the setting without having to discuss his own creations within it.

His online presence saw fans excited to engage with the designer of their favourite game. However, there came times when the discussion would go beyond mutual fandom, and strayed directly into criticism of Stone’s work as designer.

‘Fans can get a large sense of entitlement.’ Stone said of some of his Social Media interactions. ‘They can feel they have a right to your time. They think you owe them explanations to things they don’t agree with.

‘It’s good to know what [fans] want, and where you can give them those things.’ Stone continued. ‘But you can push them to consider things from a different perspective- Most gamers are not game designers. They’re more likely to make the game more of what they want.’ 

Stone believes that anyone wanting to be a good game designer needs to know that they will never please everyone.

‘In writing, there is a thing called the “Ideal Reader”- who are you writing for? Your partner? Your parents? Your best mate from Uni?’ He said. ‘That’s very applicable to game design- who do you want to be having fun with this? Who is the target audience? 

‘Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if they like it- what matters is you’ve got a strong concept of who should be playing it.’

The world is currently rife with settings and themes to be explored. Genre has come a long way in tabletop games in the last ten years, and the industry continues to grow. Young designers should be excited to share their ideas and the worlds they have built for their games. 

‘I don’t think the market is flooded. I don’t think there is a bubble that’s about to burst.’ Stone said. ‘This is the golden age. This is the time when tabletop has finally come into it’s own.’

‘The renaissance,’ he says, ‘is ahead of us.’




A Game of ThronesLegend of the Five Rings, Android: Netrunner and other excellent games that Damon Stone has worked on are available at your local Good Games store!

Are you a budding game designer? Come and chat to us at PAX Australia at Good Games Publishing- Booth DT120!