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Guest Blog: Storytelling in Dominions 3

November 1st, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · Design, Guest Blog, Indie Games

With my life falling apart around me, it’s a good thing that people keep sending in guest blogs. Long time reader Peter Sahui (aka Mind Elemental) has travelled through worlds of wonder as diverse as the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the blasted Capital Wasteland, the Roman Senate, and the spaceship Bebop. When not adventuring, he blogs about games, books, anime, movies and TV at Matchsticks for my Eyes. For comment, analysis, reviews, and future posts in Peter’s “Storytelling in Games” series, check out his blog.


There are many strains of fantasy novel. Some are set in worlds with little or no magic, such as Guy Gavriel Kay’s analogues to Earth. Some, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, are set in worlds that are filled with magic, but of a restrained and subtle sort. And in some, such as Glen Cook’s Black Company, or Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, mortals tiptoe between demigods capable of destroying entire armies. But how does a strategy game tell a story in the genre?

Enter Dominions 3, the 2006 turn-based strategy game from Illwinter that cast players as “pretenders”: mages or supernatural beings aspiring to divinity. I have argued that games can tell a story in one of two ways: through good writing and scripted experiences, or through the actual in-game mechanics. And Dominions is one of my favourite games because of how well it uses those two methods to tell a story about a dark, high-magic fantasy world.

Start with writing. In Dominions, a game with neither cutscenes nor dialogue, this means backstory, flavour text, and world/faction design. Instead of elves and orcs, Dominions features dozens of nations based on Earth history and mythology. There are Western Europeans: Germanic, Anglo-Celtic, Iberian, Roman, Greek. There are nations based on Norse gods and Norse giants. There are nations based on the Aztecs, on China, on Japan. And then there are nations of bird-winged people, of bipedal lizards, of merfolk. There are even nations based on Lovecraft. And because you can choose to play the game in one of three eras of the world (Early, Middle or Late), you can see how the fate of each nation has unfolded across the centuries.

For example, when we first meet the Roman-inspired nation of Ermor in the Early Age, it is confident and proud. Confident in its new faith, brought by a prophet in white; confident in its pre-Marian legions of triarii and principes and equites; confident in its powerful mages. By the Middle Age, things have gone horribly wrong. The new faith has been replaced by a Death Cult, introduced to stop a necromantic ritual gone awry, and now skeletons march side by side with the legionaries. The nation of Pythium secedes from Ermor, and the Pythian generals place their trust in Hydras (themselves inherited from the vanquished nation of Sauromatia) rather than the undead. And by the Late Age, echoing the later Roman Empire, Pythium now has to cope with mystery cults (one of which, serpent-worship, has made the Hydras sacred) and the Pythian legions have birfurcated into Limitanei and Comitatenses. Still, it’s clear the Pythians were the lucky ones – for Ermor has turned into an Ashen Empire of the undead.

Take another example: the nations based off fantastic versions of the British Isles. In the Early Age, the land of Tir na n’Og is ruled by the Tuatha, beings with lifespans of hundreds of years, powerful air and nature magic, and the ability to disguise themselves with magic glamours. Come the Middle Age, and a handful of Tuatha remain in the nation of Eriu, ruling over mostly human subjects. Eclipsing the Tuatha is the Celtic/Arthurian nation of Man, led by witches of Avalon and whose armies comprise the familiar longbowmen, sword- and spear- wielding infantry, and unicorn-riding knights of Avalon. And by the Late Age, the Tuatha have disappeared entirely, as have the witches of Avalon. Now Man is ruled by the magisters, scholars trained as judges or researchers or sorcerers, and the Old Ways are nearly gone.

But Dominions would not be so effective if it only relied on fluff text. The power of magic and the supernatural in the game is, I think, the single most important mechanic in creating its distinctive storytelling experience. For example, sacred troops, once blessed by a priest, get a bonus determined by the attributes of their pretender god. So at launch, the game favoured rushing with hard-to-hit Vanir demigods, coupled with a sacred bless that gave them the ability to move/attack twice per turn (and made them even harder to hit in melee!) and that gave them enchanted, flaming weapons. This was toned down in patches, but sacred troops can still be formidable early in the game.

Later in the game, magic becomes king of the battlefield. A late-game enchantment, “Fog Warriors”, makes all your troops on a battlefield almost invulnerable to anything except magic – swords, axes, arrows, all will do a single measly point of damage. A “Rain of Stones” will strike the entire battlefield and kill or severely injure lightly armoured units – including, potentially, all the precious mages. (The secret to using it without massive fratricide? Cast Fog Warriors before you drop the Rain of Stones.) And summoned units, properly outfitted with magic gear, will carve a swathe through even the finest human soldiers. By the middle of the game you can summon a Bane Lord, a general of the underworld; and give him a sword that deals splash damage to everyone near his victim; a shield that forces a morale check on anyone seeking to strike him; a helmet that will frighten nearby foes, thus making it harder for them to pass the shield’s morale check; and a suit of armour that lets him move/attack twice per turn. By the end of the game, those poor human soldiers will be up against Tartarian titans (huge, undead gods) and Queens of Elemental Air (capable of teleporting across the world with their air magic and unleashing lightning storms that can devastate entire armies… oh, and not too bad in hand-to-hand combat, either). This is the stuff of which epic fantasy is made. And it makes it clear that this is a world which marginalises the ordinary person.

And then there are examples that blend world design and gameplay mechanics. Magic becomes not only rarer, but more sinister, as the Ages progress. So, as with Tir na n’Og turning into Eriu and Man, supernatural beings disappear from the world, leaving it to be dominated by humans. But what magic remains is increasingly tainted by blood and death, and if you look at the gameplay mechanics, you can see why: many of the most useful summons, such as the bane lords and the Tartarians, require the use of death magic. Summoning demons is a viler business still – you’ll need to capture and then sacrifice virgins to bring the infernal powers to your side. But the rewards of doing so are reportedly great (though I’ve never played a blood nation myself). In other words, the game mechanics seem to tell us, power and ambition corrupt.

For another example, take Late Age Ermor, the land of the undead. The faith of the Ermorian pretender is lethal to a populace and, the manual informs us, to crops and forests. So in game terms, these areas turn into unpopulated wastelands useless to the tax-man, and devoid of supplies for armies. Instead of recruiting living troops, Ermorian players must rely on the hordes of skeletons who spring up from the lands they control. As a result, Late Ermor plays differently to every other nation in the game, which distinguishes it far more effectively than would a blurb in the manual.

Dominions 3 is well worth studying. The developers of Dominions created an intricate and original world, brought to life by its factions and the way in which their fortunes changed over the game’s three ages. The developers made magic and the supernatural vital tools in the player’s arsenal, as seen in the power of enchantments, direct-damage spells, summoned units and more. And the writing/world-design elements worked together with the gameplay mechanics rather than clashing, as seen in the shifting nature of magic through the game’s ages and the different gameplay mechanics applied to the undead empire of Ermor. The overall effect: Dominions 3, better than any other game I’ve played, captured the feel of an epic, ultra-high-magic fantasy novel. In doing so, Dominions 3 illustrates how game designers can use gameplay and backstory and flavour text to fulfil the role of scenes and dialogue, the traditional tools of storytellers. And it proves strategy games can tell an effective story.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Wolfox

    Excellent article. Well-written, insightful, and it’s about Dominions 3 – it can’t get much better than that. ;)

  • Rez

    Great article. The write-ups and backgrounds for each faction were what initially drew me to Dom3. I just wish the UI was better!

  • Nikolaj

    Very interesting article. I’ve been meaning to get back into Dominions 3, and to my shame, I still haven’t played it against other people. As soon as time allows, I’m going to find a game.

    To be honest, I never paid all that much attention to the faction backgrounds, apart from being interested in what each faction was based on. After reading this, though, it’s clear that I’ve missed out on a part of the game. When I get around to reinstalling it, I’ll definitely pay more attention.

    What’s this about Westeros, that Troy mentioned in the introduction?

  • JonathanStrange

    I’m still not buying it. I’ll read Troy’s articles but I ain’t buying it. I still have the feeling Dominions is more talked about than played.

  • Nikolaj

    It’s on sale in the Shrapnel store, though. ;)

  • Scott R. Krol

    Westeros = Song of Ice and Fire series from George R. R. Martin. Would be the greatest fantasy series ever if he would actually someday finish the next damn book (which was supposedly just in need of editing when the last book was released in 1897).

    Trust me Jonathan, Dom is played far more than talked about.

    Great guest blog!

  • frags

    While I never got into Dominions 3 much, I appreciate the variety of faction types. The thing I like about Dominions 3 is that it has faction inspired by non western religions/nations, which is cool.

    You missed India. I’m surer there is a faction that is based on the Hindu religion(loosely).

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Thanks, guys! Really glad you liked the guest post! I love Dominions 3, I love epic fantasy novels, and I really enjoyed the chance to talk about how the one captures the feel of the other.

    I write a fair bit about strategy games and speculative fiction on my blog, and over time, I’ll be writing more “Storytelling in ___” pieces about other games that I really enjoyed, so keep checking back at my blog. :)

    Wolfox – Thanks!

    Rez – You’re not the only one wishing for a better UI! Oh well, it’s a bearable price to pay.

    Nikolaj – Yeah, the faction backgrounds are pretty key to the feel of the Dominions world. It’s definitely worth looking at how the same nation can change over time. Multiplayer is hugely time-consuming but at the same time, very rewarding – my most epic Dominions gameplay stories are all from MP. Re: Westeros, Scott’s description sums it up pretty well. I’m a huge fan of the Song of Ice and Fire novels, hence my listing Westeros amongst the settings I’ve experienced. :)

    JonathanStrange – The many hours I have spent playing Dominions, both single- and multiplayer, beg to differ. ;)

    Scott R Krol – Oh, it’s ALREADY the greatest fantasy series ever, which is why I can’t wait ’til the next book is out… But thanks! And it’s great to see someone from Shrapnel here.

    frags – Yeah, the multicultural flavour of the Dominions world is just one of the things I love about the game. Nope, I didn’t forget about Kailasa/Bandar Log/Patala. It’s just that I couldn’t list every single nation due to space constraints (and besides, those three are populated by monkeys — similarly, I didn’t call the C’tissians ‘Egyptians’). :D

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  • Gandalf Parker

    I have often said that I wish someone who does the wonderful AAR (after action reports on Shrapnel forums) or LPs (LetsPlay on various other forums) about Dominions 3 would consider a book. Go to a PoD site (print on demand). Create a PDF file where the left pages are the game mechanic actions, and the right pages are the story telling writeup built around the results. Have them create a book and mark it up a dollar. It doesnt cost anything to do it.

    I think it could create a new boost to a great game. I could even show you have to make a few bucks on it (not a lot but enough to justify the effort)

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