Confessions of a Dominions manual writer

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Almost exactly ten years ago, I happened to find an amazing demo on the Internet. It was for what looked like a fantasy strategy game. It was crude, even by the standards of 2003. It was completely inscrutable. You clicked on things and seemingly nothing happened. It had a lot of lore in it, but it didn’t explain many of the mechanics. It was almost like the lore was supposed to give you clues as to how the game worked. Except for selecting units and giving orders. You were on your own for those things. It was akin to being immersed in a foreign language by traveling to that country, but without knowing the first thing you needed to do was learn how to find the restroom.

After the jump, finding the restroom in Dominions.

The game I’m talking about, of course, is Dominions. Sure, the specific one was Dominions II, but when you talk about Dominions, you’re talking about a world you visit in game form, which develops and evolves from game to game. The individual games are distinct, but it’s almost like watching history evolve in game form. At the time I started playing the game, I hadn’t yet realized just how much evolution there was.

For some reason, I decided I was going to try to give people a way to approach Dominions without become frustrated and giving up. I could see that the world was amazing, but I could also see that no one could really be blamed for deciding that in its current form it wasn’t worth their time. I mean, right-click to select on the main map and left-click to give move orders, but left-click to select elsewhere? And no message that your orders were illegal? It was like the game was daring you to play, and then laughing at you when you did it wrong. Like the French waiter in Paris who rolls his eyes when you try to pronounce the boeuf bourguignon and suggests you have something else, or maybe just go to another restaurant. The catch was that this particular strategy dish was amazing, and all you needed to do was get by the waiter.

Once I got a handle on the game, I realized it was so much more expansive and imaginative than any strategy game I’d played. Nations built on a nuanced understanding of diverse and obscure historical mythologies. Magic spells designed with intriguingly varied possibilities of combination. A satisfyingly detailed combat system with real opportunities for tactical exploration. But it was all buried under an unintuitive interface and some astoundingly obtuse in-game descriptions.

I wrote a walkthrough for the game, which ended up being fairly popular. The thing was, it drove me crazy that so much stuff in the game was not clearly explained or just undocumented. How was combat resolved? Sure, the lore text is nice, but how much damage does a fireball do? I started to get annoyed at the beautifully vague spell descriptions. The designers had designed a fantastic game. Why were they so coy about telling people how it worked?

So I ended up writing the manual for the next game, Dominions 3, about three years later. My goal was nothing short of explaining how the game worked. Everything was going to be in there, from the details of how likely patrollers were to discover stealthy units, to the particulars of the most arcane battlefield spell. The manual ran to 300 pages, and even then there was no way it documented even close to everything in the game. The community made a wiki addressing all the things you might want to know, as well as a database to document all the magic sites, heroes, and other things you might find. It was like players wanted to catalog everything they learned about this place, what with its fantastic monsters and weird click-selection.

There was so much to learn. Did you know that the penalty you suffer from using two weapons at the same time decreases proportionally to the length of the weapon? This is in a game where you might have a few hundred creatures fighting a battle, only a tiny fraction of which might be wielding two weapons. But the game accounts for this, because, after all, it makes sense, right? That’s how it is when you use two weapons at the same time. Why wouldn’t there be a rule for it?

I remember when a discussion started on the game’s forums about the formula for dominion spread, which in terms of game mechanics is sort of the spiritual power of your nation’s leader. I had documented how it worked in the manual, so as far as I was concerned, that was that. But some people were observing it and seeing results that they couldn’t adequately explain (they felt) with the published mechanics. I was concerned that I had made a mistake. I wrote to Johan Karlsson, the programming half of the Illwinter Game Design team, and asked if I had gotten it wrong. “No, how you wrote it is how it is,” Johan replied. I was relieved, but I was still puzzled. Could these just be outlier results? Was there a bug in the code? Or was the game world evolving along its own lines? It struck me that the forum participants were almost like Dominions physicists, observing phenomena and trying to come up with formulae to explain the world.

In another sense, they were like archaeologists, because they were absolutely obsessed with documenting their findings about this complex and engaging universe. Last week, I wrote a piece about how some games seem to exist to tell the stories their designers invented. But Dominions feels like so much more than that, because the world is so detailed and thoughtfully populated that it’s almost like the invented denizens are creating stories on their own, having just been placed there by the two watchmakers at Illwinter Game Design.

It affected me as a manual writer, because a very weird thing happened on the way to complete documentation. I started to have doubts about trying to publish absolutely every detail of the game. Sure, I still wanted to know what the spells did. But I started feeling more and more like a poster in the forums here almost a decade ago, who said:

The tipping point that led me to purchasing and playing Dominions II was an essay or forum post (I can’t remember which it was) about how the Illwinter guys couldn’t remember a hefty portion of what they had coded into the game. The example was the Wish spell. The essay made it sound like you could wish for literally anything, and the game just might be able to accommodate you. It was almost like the game had a little real magic in that respect. And it wasn’t just the Wish spell, I think it mentioned other spells or abilities that had mysterious properties because the programmers weren’t sure anymore what they did.

I liked that so much, I put it in the Dominions 3 manual. More recently, I heard that sentiment echoed here in a thread about the new game, Dominions 4, to the effect that the lack of spell explanations “lends a sense of mystery to the magic system.” But it was a while back, around the time of the Dominions 3 manual, that I started to think that this wasn’t actually crazy.

I finally understood what the game designers were trying to do when I was documenting the effects of the game’s 800+ spells. There are two particularly powerful ones in the Blood Magic path called Infernal Prison and Claws of Kokytos. They basically do the same thing with slightly different requirements.* Here is the in-game description text for Claws of Kokytos:

A gate is opened and the target is instantly thrown into Kokytos, the icy realm of devils. This effect cannot be resisted by any means and being sent to Kokytos means certain death for most mortals.

Pretty final, eh? You’re instantly sent to the realm of the ice devils and it means certain death. It has a definite game use: it’s basically an insta-kill battlefield spell that counters powerful monsters with high magic resistance. (Hence the “cannot be resisted” text.) It requires a lot of research, so it won’t make an appearance until the later, cataclysmic stages of the game. Despite my years of playing the game, I’ve never had anyone cast it.

So I wrote off the flavor text “certain death for most mortals” as just a bit of flourish. I mean, it’s just descriptive flavor text, right? Bottom line is that the spells kills the target. Except that’s a mistake that you or I might make based on a lifetime of playing strategy games with the irrelevant lore of the lizardmen who don’t use vowels and whose backstory for all gameplay purposes ends at the first tutorial screen. Because in the case of Claws of Kokytos, I’m pretty sure that immortal beings (a class of units in the game) are immune to this spell. And the fact that it says “certain death for most mortals” means that it doesn’t mean this for all of them. Because when I was going through the spell effects with Johan, I learned that if you are banished to Kokytos, there is actually a very small chance that you will return.

Furthermore, if you happen to browse through the game’s many magic items, you’ll find that there is one called Tome of the Lower Planes. It is a unique magical artifact, meaning only one can exist in the game at a time, and as such it is a very high-level magic item requiring (you guessed it) a lot of research. But if you forge it, you learn the following:

This book contains a study about the planes of Hell and the magic that holds them together. Using this tome, it should be possible to navigate these planes. The book can also be of great aid when performing Blood magic.

Not only is that incredibly vague, it’s not even clear what planes they’re talking about. Are there rules for navigating planes of Hell in the game? I don’t see that in the manual. And I wrote that manual.

But nowhere in there does it say that those “planes of Hell” correspond to where you go when you are cast into the Infernal Prison or Kokytos. And in fact, that’s exactly what they are. How do I know? I asked the designer.

It was at this point that I realized how effective the game’ descriptions really were. I felt like I had uncovered some kind of archaeological rarity for myself. There was this thing called the Tome of the Lower Planes, which increased your chances of returning from a place you’re very unlikely to ever go.** But to the game, that doesn’t matter. Because that’s just how it is.

The game is full of examples of this kind of meaningful description disguised as ornamentation. But describing it this way gives it a sense of longinquity that you don’t find in game rules. It’s as though this is how it has always worked, and the designers are just telling you what they learned about it themselves.

Which brings us back to Kokytos. I have no idea what someone’s chances are of escaping from there, or how much better they are if they are carrying a Tome of the Lower Planes in their bookbag. And if you find out and tell me, I’ll hate you and never ever send you a Christmas card, because I don’t want to know. I’ve come around to a different way of thinking about Dominions, which might be the way the developers were thinking about their game all along. That it’s a place where the formulas don’t matter as much as you think they do. Because the world keeps turning, and the creatures keep living, and dying, and ascending, regardless of whether you know the exact formula for the ocean’s currents or not. Because in the end, even the oceans might not always follow the rules.***

Dominions 4 is out now on Desura. The manual is available for free from Illwinter’s web page, even if you have not purchased the game.

*Infernal Prison sends you to the fiery realm of devils: same effect but you need a mage who knows Blood and Fire magic rather than Blood and Water magic.
**Whether or not it is useful as a plane-traveling guide, the Tome has a very real use as a Blood Magic booster.
**That said, I’m still committed to updating the Dominions 4 manual with all the latest formulas. Just don’t mention Kokytos. Some things need to stay secret.
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