Designer’s Diary: Reality Blurs – Iron Dynasty (Savage Worlds)

Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin
Iron Dynasty: Way of the Ronin is a complete plot-point setting for Savage Worlds and published by Reality Blurs.
By Sean Preston

Welcome to the seventh Designer’s Diary, a regular column where designers are given the opportunity to take readers on an in-depth ride through the design and development process of their system, setting, or product.

Designer’s Description
Iron Dynasty first began with the nucleus of the idea of samurai steampunk back in 2004. I present it as heavy metal, oriental action. It is roughly set in the Warring States period of Japan, but it is set in the mythical world of Ni-Ten (Two Heavens). The focus is on Konoyo (the Known World) and the backdrop is the tumultuous infighting between the various provinces as they struggle amidst each other for dominance in the new age of iron. The caste system has been broken with the rise of kikai, war machines gifted by the gods. Darkness has been unleashed upon Konoyo isolating the peoples from one another and literally transforming the lands. Even as magic threatens to leave the world forever with the advent of technology, there is still a need for kesshi—heroes—to rise up and save the world from evil and the people from each other. There is a cinematic feel to the whole setting. There is an immediate call to action. Iron Dynasty is a rich environment to tell many types of stories from large-scale battles to intimate political intrigues.

I have long been a fan of Kurosawa flicks and I know a lot of people enjoy similarly related movies, but I found a large disconnect between the people watching those movies and the people playing said types of games. There is a barrier to entry for a lot of folks with the necessity of learning the languages of another culture as well as the strict societal structure typical of oriental settings. I turned that on its ear.

There were a lot, but I’ll number these among them: Seven Samurai, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Samurai 7, Kill Bill, Ninja Scroll, lots of other anime, and tbooks like Musashi with a touch of Conan and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.

When I’m building up a setting, whether it’s something from virtually whole cloth like RunePunk or something based more on a blurred reality, as with Iron Dynasty, I do a lot of reading. I read countless books on Japanese culture, myth, and history. I really dug into the various weapons and the effects of same and explored the whole bushi lifestyle. Some of this stuff, I’ve been reading for years. I don’t think I’ve ever made much mention of it, but I’ve read countless tomes on world religions, philosophy, etymology, and mythology from a young age. I like to see how the world deals with the unknown, each other, and how they communicate their thoughts, fears, and dreams. This helps inform the works, because then I can deconstruct elements and still have a logical underpinning, a cohesive whole, if you will to the whole world. It’s necessary to have a solid foundation upon which to build stories and I find it quite valuable to know what’s there before I add or take elements away.

Iron Dynasty had an exceptionally long development cycle and I learned a lot of what players liked and disliked. Initially, I was using more of an archetype (dare I say, an almost class system approach), that was discarded after I received a great deal of resistance from a trusted group of playtesters. I took a step back and established the vision not just for Iron Dynasty but for all our products. I want to empower players with the ability to craft a character to their vision and, as such, we create a sandbox approach to our work. This can sometimes create a longer turnaround time, but people are pleased with the end result, which is gratifying and important on many levels.

Returning to the historical elements, it’s worth noting it’s not always necessary to make major changes, as even minor shifts can have ripple effects. I’ll cite one example: I knew one of the end goals I wanted for Iron Dynasty was for players to have action packed, cinematic experiences. I wanted them to focus on being the kesshi—the hero—and doing great things. The biggest distraction to this is the traditional caste system found in oriental games. Those are well and good at modeling a historical experience, but this is Iron Dynasty. This is Savage Worlds. We want you to get dirt under your nails, blood on your sword, and into the action. To that end, the caste system was deconstructed with the introduction of the kikai—great war machines. Such destructive might in the hands of the government made peasants wishing to carry swords a joke as a contingent of kikai could demolish a village with ease. This one fundamental end goal, worked backwards, helped flesh out the shape of things and makes sense within the context of the setting, allowing players to get on with the business of being heroes without a peasant having to rationalize his katana. Now, if you want to carry shuriken about, that’s another story…

Art Direction
We wanted Iron Dynasty to evoke the sense of the Japanese culture, but I didn’t want any trite banalities. This is why I took great care in choosing a proper period font that was not specifically oriental, but feels right. I always take a lot of time in finding suitable fonts. Fonts set the tone and, in this case, give a sense of history. I also wanted the book to have a Zen-like quality. I didn’t want any sort of border embellishments which would distract or cheapen the look of the product. I wanted it nearly austere and practical. I wanted clean line art to reinforce this direction and am really pleased with the artists we had an opportunity to work with. I’m particularly pleased with the lavish details of the weapons—all the weapons are illustrated, of particular importance to people new to oriental games—and the armor is brilliant. The artist captured the essence of my rough notes on the different styles of armor and brought them to life. The overall feel of the illustrations in Iron Dynasty are cinematic events captured in a moment of time. This is a living breathing world and we’re lucky enough to get a glimpse of the tranquil beauty and tumultuous times of these people. These people we get to play!

Gaming Experience
I’ve covered this a bit, but Iron Dynasty, at its core, is a high fantasy setting with all that encompasses. The fundamental difference is its set in an oriental world. You can still play familiar archetypes with a slight twist. Want to play a mage? Try an onmyoji. Want to play a thief? You can, but you might want to be a ninja. And, yes, you can be a wokou—a pirate—and decide for yourself who wins.

I’m not keen on the compare and contrast features between products, but I’m happy to talk about the uniqueness of Iron Dynasty.

First off, there is nothing else approaching Iron Dynasty for Savage Worlds, but I know what you’re getting at, and you’re talking about Asian fantasy stuff. I didn’t design this in a vacuum and I’m familiar with L5R and Oriental Adventures and Bushido and a few others which escape me at the moment and am happy to report Iron Dynasty stands in its own space.

There are steampunk elements. It’s a fresh, unique world with influences specifically Japanese rather than across a broad gamut. It is detailed at a level providing the Sensei (the GM) enough material to work with while encouraging him to flesh out elements on his own. It is versatile. Seven campaign frameworks are provided, each providing unique experiences. The kesshi can be treasure hunters to spies for Karasu Rokku. Shall they help save the Empire or shall they bring it to its knees? And, look, we haven’t even touched on the steampunk elements! Do you want to be a ganso (an inventor) and walk about with a bamboo mortar? Now’s your chance!

Iron Dynasty focuses on action, but provides plenty of space for roleplaying. There are major provincial clans, unique personalities to each, but the players and Sensei are free to bring the political and geographical elements to the fore as much as they want. There are robust adventure generators, scads of monsters and NPCs, plus generators to easily create unique monsters/corrupted villains and tailor them easily for your world.

We also have a robust line of support products in the queue for this setting.

While human-centric at present, we do have some surprises in store down the road for folks who may wish to play oni, kitsune or, dare-I-say, clockwork?

Being designed initially for Savage Worlds, it’s a classless system, allowing a huge degree of flexibility in character creation. We do have an upcoming iteration for Fantasy Craft, and it speaks to the strength of both the system and the world I created that it meshes up exceptionally well.

Development Process
Iron Dynasty was initially conceptualized in 2004 while I was working on RunePunk. The design process has evolved radically over this period, so why don’t I just tell you how it’s done now as opposed to how it was done back in the early days, essentially the same, just refined and polished up a bit.

The project idea is arrived upon. It can come unbidden or it can be in the notebook from years ago—things we’re just now having time for. It could start out as a couple of words like samurai steampunk or James Bond meets Cthulhu and eventually evolves to an Iron Dynasty or an Agents of Oblivion. The core idea has to be something that puts a fire in my belly. I have to be passionate about it, whether it’s cut from whole cloth, as with RunePunk, or is my interpretation of an established property, as with Realms of Cthulhu. I make games I want to play. That was my original mantra and I think about it regularly.

After this idea squirms about my brain for a bit, I jot down notes. I sketch things in very broad strokes for the setting, because I want to get the rules down. I jot down some archetypes. What type of playable characters exists in this world? This is important to know as it’s going to shape development. You need to have rules to define their roles. So, after these ideas are all sketched out, I furiously start drafting up some rules. I’m at a definite advantage at rules design these days. I’ve been developing for Savage Worlds for seven years and I’ve built up quite a library of edges, hindrances, and rules to pull from. Often some of them can be adapted with just a few tweaks, allowing the attention to go to the missing bits. Also care is taken to look at core materials to see if it’s even necessary to add stuff. The answer is a bit fuzzier than most people want to hear, but sometimes yes, sometimes no. Savage Worlds is more of an intuitive process than anything, and I’m a gamer. I design the rules and then bang on them. If something looks or sounds cool, but adds no value to the game or works but is clunky; it’s got to get right or get gone. This is one thing I’d stress to anyone dipping a toe into design is to make certain not to build new stuff for difference’s sake. Another one of my mantras is to let the players build cool characters. If you can do this successfully, they will be forgiving of any other shortcomings you may possess. It’s important to note this is not meant to suggest allow players to build uber-powerful characters. I emphasize mechanically sound design with all the developmental team.

So, I come up with the idea, I design the rules, I playtest them, and I send it to my trusted Blurry ones to beat them about and check the air in the tires. I’ve got a great gang, but I make certain they don’t see too much of things until I have the core mechanics in place. It’s not a matter of secrecy, but it’s more of the “too many cooks can spoil the stew” sort of thing. I value their insight and feedback, however, sometimes, I want to throw some spices in the chili and let them come to it cold, so I can get the most accurate feedback.

I do the same with the other writers. I don’t micromanage. The guys have a lot of latitude, but when I look at their setting-materials, I have a heavier hand. Things have to be balanced. I do strive to preserve the creator’s vision and their voice. I serve to contextualize and translate their concepts into a mechanical framework which preserves game play. Wow? Did I just suck all the fun out of the game? I merely want to stress all the care and attention given to the product results in less confusion and less distractions at the table so everybody can focus on having a good time.

While the rules are being passed through multiple hands and tightened up, my attention goes on developing out the setting material. Typically, I provide the scantest of details to new worlds for playtesters and they do find it frustrating sometime, but the world material is a lot more personal. It doesn’t need to be designed by committee. We do discuss what and how much adventure materials we’ll include in a product and plot points are sometimes hammered out amongst a handful of us, but once it’s locked down, it goes through normal editorial processes. I make it a point to do a read through of long works to make sure they’re up to my standard. After we have a solid document, we move on to art orders, layout, solicitation, and deployment.

If anyone’s interested in asking questions or has comments, they can visit our website at, or follow me on twitter or like us on Facebook. I also write The Razorwise Report, a regular daily column discussing games and design, on our website—it’s also available as an RSS feed.

I thank you for this opportunity to talk about Iron Dynarty and hope to see you on the internetz!

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