About this Page

This is the Cataclysm: DDA design document. It is meant for designer-end planning and goal unity for an open ended project. It is not meant to be a user facing document! In other words, spoiler alert. Do not read this document if you have no intention of contributing to the project and do not want your play experience spoiled.

How to Understand the Design Docs

These documents are, as much as possible, split into two broad categories: Lore and Design. Not everything splits perfectly along these lines. Documents flagged with “design” in the title can be assumed to contain fewer spoilers about the story of the game, and are intended to guide and inspire contributors for individual additions as well as to help new and old contributors, and the occasional curious player with no intent to contribute, to understand the overarching plan for the project over the years to come: what game are we trying to make, and how will it play. Most of this stuff is unlikely to change over time, aside from being clarified and expanded as needed.

Pages flagged with “lore” in the title are a different beast. These pages describe a general intent for how the story of the game may come to be shaped. This lore is described in detail so that contributors wishing to expand NPCs, dialogue, lab snippets, and more can be on the same page in general. However, the specifics of how lore is added to the game by contributors can change the nature of the story over time: in specific, if someone has a great idea that fits the game well and improves design space or gameplay, we will often adjust the details of the background lore to make room for it. As such, the lore documents may contain information that conflicts with recent additions to the game, or recent statements by developers, or even with each other. The ultimate arbiter of the lore is the word of Kevin, which trumps anything in game or in these documents. Other developers similarly often overrule what is written in here, and if errors are spotted, feel free to request an update to the design docs. Players choosing to read lore docs should be aware of this. I do not recommend using them to guide your understanding of the game, they tell a different story than the one we want to face survivors.

Design Overview

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead DDA is a turn-based survival RPG set in an expansive post-apocalyptic game world based on our own. Explore, fight and survive against a broad variety of challenges, from zombies and otherworldly menaces to bad weather and wound infection.

The core tenet of Dark Days Ahead game design and balance is that if it works in reality, it should work in the game. Scavenge and craft makeshift weapons, improvise shelter, outmaneuver enemies, find, repair and drive vehicles. Deal with monsters using your brains, melee weapons, firearms, traps, explosives, other monsters, fire, and if all else fails, a truck or two. This grounding results in sometimes unexpected inversions of gaming tropes, where storage capacity of clothing is more important than armor, or weight of highly effective gear outweighs its effectiveness.

Gameplay should focus on an open, unguided sandbox where the challenges presented to the player are believable within the game world and do not feel as if they were built just to be challenges. The player should feel like an observer and influencer in a world that would continue to live and exist without their impact. There are several modes of gameplay, from wandering the wastes and exploring ruins as a lone survivor or part of a small team, to vehicle design and base construction, to maintaining and growing a faction of fellow survivors.

There is no single antagonist nor storyline to DDA: the narrative should feel like “protagonist vs. the world”, primarily. The principle enemies of the game are zombies and other monsters, but can also include hostile human factions. We encourage the addition of storylines within factions and among NPCs in game, but these should not become the story of the game, just of that faction.

Table of Contents

Game Design and Balance

Lore and Setting