Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #4: The Fallen God

Before you stands a man warped by time and wrath, crook-backed and bitter, barely able to heft the sword in his hand. Others crowd about, like and yet unlike the first, each twisted in his own way, smeared on stones so smooth and bright that they are like looking glasses. It is a maze made of you, and staring into it, you seem to see into your self.

The titular hero (or anti-hero) of our game may be fallen, but he is still a god. And even when cut off from Orm’s great soul-hoard in Skyhold, a son of the Cloudlands has many gifts that set him apart from mortal men.
The first is that he is very hard to kill for good. Only a few things are strong enough to make his soul abandon his flesh and bones. Most deaths merely mangle his body, and a few days and a bit of soul-strength are enough to heal even the ghastliest wounds. (Of course, every day is precious to a fallen god who must make it home within three months.)
Indeed, Ormfolk are very hard to kill at all, for even the most bumbling of them has a strength and skill with the sword that outstrips most hardened earthly fighters. And a god can grow even greater in might and wits by drawing on his soul-strength—“leveling up” in RPG parlance, though here at the cost of the same hard-won “mana” (i.e., soul) pool that feeds his greatest skills.

For a god, even a fallen god, has skills beyond swordplay. The player’s god has two out of the following five such skills: Soulfire (by which he can kindle souls into a holy blaze that can burn away curses or burn up foes); Healing Hands (by which he can heal wounds and cure sickness in himself and others); Death Lore (by which he can speak to the dead, calling on their wisdom or driving off restless undead draugar); Wild Heart (by which he can bend beasts to his will or cause the woods themselves to hasten him on his way); and Foresight (by which he can see what lies in distant lands or times to come). These too draw on soul-strength.
And a god has his “fetch,” the fylgja of Norse mythology (or “familiar” in folklore and modern fantasy). As the lore holds, a god’s fetch is female (a bitch wolf, a vixen, a hen raven, or a she eagle); a goddess’s would be male. Each fetch has its own advantages. For instance, the wolf fights beside you in battle, while the eagle can strike foes unaware before battle. Fetches also unlock new paths, such as letting your vixen lead starving miners astray to get them out of your way in the “Lost Ones” event.

Finally, the fallen god starts with a mighty item from the Cloudlands, such as the Lur, a horn that can stir the slumbering heart or clear the muddled head of any mortal man. And he will find more as he goes. Our items (as will be discussed in a later update) are like Lone Wolf’s: each is significant, providing not just a noticeable statistical bonus but also new abilities (like crossing streams with the Fording Stone) and new opportunities in events (such as covering an escape by opening the Fog Pot).
All of this power depends on soul-strength. When the god stirs the faith of men and women with mighty deeds (a faith born of fear and a faith born of love are equal sources of this strength), they freely yield some or all of their souls to him. He can also take soul-strength in harsher ways, such as killing lingering beings of old that are still swollen with souls from when they were gods themselves. And there are darker tricks still, like the Soultrap, which snares a soul as it leaves a dying body. One way or the other, perhaps one way and all the others, the fallen god must gather enough soul-strength to win his way home.
I’ve been writing primarily about the mechanical aspects of the god: what the player can do with the god and to the god. There’s a reason for that. The best way to define a character in a game is by the gameplay. Gameplay is like the “showing” of a character in the shopworn “show, don’t tell” writing advice, while narrative is like the “telling.” I’ve mentioned this in connection with Horatio in Primordia: he had to be a scavenger and a tinkerer and a near-pacifist because scavenging and tinkering and eschewing violence are important point-and-click conventions. Horatio needed to be laconic because with so many other characters, if he were a chatterbox the dialogue would become too extensive. Thus, his core traits were dictated (and I would say demonstrated) by the gameplay before any narrative. The same lesson applies to the god in Fallen Gods.
That lesson was first suggested to me in the mid-90s by Scott Dudley, who was making the ill-starred and in-hindsight-troublingly-named Legend of Talibah, a PC Japanese-style RPG. I was a high schooler well into my own ill-starred PC jRPG making career, and I corresponded a bit with Scott about his game, which featured a party member named “Staulker.” I opined that this name seemed a little much, and he replied that Staulker would prove his bad-assery in combat, which, he explained, was really the way that you show a player that a character is cool. A few years later the same lesson was repeated by Suikoden, in which the also ridiculously named Kwanda “Iron Wall” Rosman (an enemy general who could turn coat and join you) was defined primarily by his absurdly high defense statistic, and others of the 108 “Stars of Destiny” were similarly defined by look-and-feel rather than expository dialogue. Yet more years later, Chris Avellone made the same point about western cRPG companions (specifically, that players reacted to them primarily based on how useful they were).

So what character traits arise from the gameplay constraints in Fallen Gods? Well, the game doesn’t really have “quests” in the way a typical contemporary RPG does (i.e., meet NPC; learn about NPC’s problem; visit other NPCs to learn yet more context; discover various solutions; choose a solution; implement it over multiple steps; return to receive a reward). Our encounters usually resolve quickly, with a single paragraph of text describing the dilemma, a single multiple-choice decision resolving the dilemma, and another single paragraph describing that resolution. In order for those thin dilemmas to have meaning, they need to be about the god’s interests, since there is no pathos-laden dialogue tree to make the NPC’s interests compelling.

Thus, they typically take the form of, “Someone is between you and something you want: how can you get it most cheaply?” Whether a foe’s barring your path, a friend’s sharing a gift, or a stranger’s offering a reward, the god’s instinct is to give up as little as he can and get as much as he can. The game’s overall narrative needs to establish and reinforce this self-interest, and so the god—who is, after all, trying to escape the world’s sorrows and not lift them—must be a self-interested figure.
This self-interest is further compelled by constraints on interactions with followers. A mainstay of RPGs since Baldur’s Gate (arguably, since Ultima IV) has been intra-party interactions in which the player character talks to, and usually panders to, his companions. The more the player panders, the more his companion opens up, either as a romantic partner or a troubled friend in need of therapy, or both (as in Bioware games). This entails multi-stage, elaborate dialogue trees (e.g., the Circle of Zerthimon) delving deeply into the rich history and unique psyche of the NPC.

Fallen Gods has no dialogue trees. And the followers in the warband are not unique characters. Each berserk is like other berserks, each churl like other churls, and so forth. Mostly, they are ciphers like “hirelings” in Neverwinter Nights or Diablo II or soldiers in X-COM. Even when they interject thoughts and participate in events, they do so as fairly generic types, rather than as rich individuals, like a thinner version of the Clan Circle in King of Dragon Pass.
Image result for clan circle king of dragon pass
Thus, the god simply cannot be a thoughtful leader of men like Shepard in Mass Effect or The Nameless One in Planescape: Torment, one who takes the time to learn in excruciating detail the lives of his followers. He, like the player, must view his followers as chess pieces: means to an end rather than Kantian “ends in themselves.” He is again motivated by self-interest: what can they do for me and what must I do for them? That is true whether he’s giving them orders or giving them gifts. The latter is an important, thematic part of a saga-inspired setting: to be a leader is to be a ring-giver. But unlike gifts used in Dragon Age: Origins to foster romance and delve deeper into psychoanalysis, these gifts are given only to strengthen the followers and reinforce the bonds of loyalty tying them to the god. If a churl began to share sob stories from his rough childhood, the god would almost certainly stare him into shamed silence.

This overriding self-interest will likely create a gap between what the player wishes his avatar would do and the game lets his avatar do. Generally speaking, people want to do good, and that desire is particularly strong in single-player games, where doing good carries no meaningful cost (maybe a little less fictitious money paid to your avatar as a reward for his quest). People call this a “power fantasy.” Fine. But it is emblematic of the noblest aspect of fantasy: its ability to train us to view doing good as the proper exercise of power.
Fallen Gods has a crueler edge to its fantasy. Although the gods’ foes are mostly wickeder than he is, and although he is certainly capable of doing some good in the world, his motivations are ultimately selfish. He can be bold and open-handed, fearless before fearful odds, clever in outwitting evil minds… but at bottom, he is not on earth to accrue Paragon points, but simply to achieve escape velocity, no matter what gets scorched in his wake or battered down along his runway. Rather than a fantasy in which the player can practice goodness, it is a fantasy that hopefully will leave the player convinced he can do better in this world than the fallen god does in the game’s world, even if the player doesn’t have the same panoply of powers.

NEXT UPDATE: Witches and Dwergs. 

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Many people have asked about our pixel graphics.  They are made, dot by dot, by Daniel Miller, an avant-garde artist currently doing a series of residencies in Asia.  He actually does very little pixel art. While his live performances cannot be captured on a website, you can get a taste for the breadth of his work in his online galleries (as is not uncommon of artists portfolios’, these contain nudity): https://www.instagram.com/bydanielmiller/ and http://bydanielmiller.com/

A little over a year ago, I talked with Dan Felder, a thoughtful commentator about P&P RPGs, about how gameplay considerations should dictate character- and world-building.  You can listen to the two parts of the interview on YouTube: Part 1 and Part 2.

King of Dragon Pass, mentioned in previous updates as a significant influence on Fallen Gods, is a gem of a game.  You can get it for PC (75% off as of 4/17/18) or iPhone. The great folks behind it are in the process of making a sequel entitled Six Ages, which looks marvelous.

I fell out of touch with Scott Dudley decades ago, but was pleased to see that he went on to be not merely a successful game developer but something of a renaissance man.  Heres his website: http://zaskoda.com/

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Primordia: Deutsche Übersetzung | German Translation

Mit großer Freude können wir heute verkünden: Primordia ist auf Deutsch verfügbar! Nach über einem Jahr unermüdlicher – wenn auch nicht ununterbrochener – Arbeit ist diese Übersetzung nun die dritte, die offiziell von Wormwood Studios herausgegeben wird. Jonas, der Übersetzer, konnte so auf die Erfahrung von Flavien Gaillard und Eduardo Moreno Martín zurückgreifen, denen wir schon die französische beziehungsweise die spanische Ausgabe von Primordia verdanken. Das, was Jonas erreicht hat, ist aber nicht nur Ergebnis der harten Arbeit von ihm und den Testern, sondern ist auch dem Enthusiasmus der deutschen Primordia-Fans zu verdanken, die Jonas bei diesem enormen Unterfangen immer wieder ermutigt haben.

Aus geschäftspolitischen Gründen hat Wadjet Eye Games diese Übersetzung weder befürwortet noch getestet und wird sie selbst auch nicht verbreiten. Aus diesem Grund kann die Übersetzung nur über die Primordia-Webseite heruntergeladen werden und ist nicht direkt über Steam, GOG oder die WEG-Seite verfügbar. Aufgrund der relativ überschaubaren Menge an Testern können Probleme oder Fehler in der Übersetzung bestehen. Wir wollen diesen Patch ebenso gewissenhaft und begeistert unterstützen wie das Spiel selbst – deshalb freuen wir uns über sämtliche Rückmeldungen zu Fehlern, so dass wir diese beheben können.

Wir hoffen, die deutsche Übersetzung bereitet Euch genauso viel Vergnügen, wie sie Jonas und dem Rest von uns bei ihrer Erstellung gemacht hat ... und vielleicht das kleine Bisschen Frustration, das zu jedem guten Adventure-Spiel gehört! 

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We are delighted to announce Jonas's German translation of Primordia, the third Wormwood Studios-approved translation of the game. It is the culmination of over a year of tireless—though occasionally interrupted—work by Jonas, who drew on the experience of the translators who brought the game to French (Flavien Gaillard) and Spanish (Eduardo Moreno Martín), and the assistance of friends and testers.  Jonas's achievement reflects not only his and his testers' hard work, and Flavien and Eduardo's hard-won experience, but also the enthusiasm of Primordia's German fans, who encouraged Jonas to undertake and complete this massive project. 

For business reasons, Wadjet Eye Games declined to test, endorse, or distribute the translation. Accordingly, it is currently necessary to download a patch through the Primordia website, rather than through Steam or GOG or the WEG site. Because of the relatively small number of testers, there may be glitches or errors in the translation. We intended to support this patch as diligently and enthusiastically as we've supported Primordia itself, so please report any bugs so that they can be fixed. 

We hope that the translation brings you as much pleasure in playing as it brought Jonas and the rest of us in its creation, and perhaps just a little bit of the frustration — because no adventure game should be too easy!

Grab it here: http://www.primordia-game.com/german.html

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #3: “Winning Was Easy. Governing’s Harder.”

At once the night’s gloom blooms with unearthly hues and the sky becomes a shimmering sheet of fire. You have stood among those lights, basking in the warmth of Orm’s soul-hoard as it glowed upon the guests in Skyhold’s hall. Now, far off and half-frozen, you watch the Trickster’s overflowing wealth spill earthward like froth from a drunkard’s horn. One fading ember falls nearby, singeing the sky as it streaks past.

Fallen Gods takes place in the aftermath of a world-changing struggle called the Overthrow, in which the old, animistic Firstborn gods were driven from power by the united might of men. The leader of those men, Orm the Trickster, took up the mantle of godhood and bestowed the same on his closest followers. These new gods, called the Ormfolk, then ascended to the Cloudlands, where Orm built the golden Skyhold from the plundered flesh of Karringar, one of the defeated Firstborn.

This kind of struggle, in which new gods drive out old ones, is almost universal in mythology—the best known examples probably being the Titanomachy (in which Zeus and his family overthrew the Titans) and Paradise Lost’s struggle in heaven (when Jesus, on behalf of soon-to-be-made mankind, defeats Satan and his overweening angels). In the Norse mythology that helped inspire Fallen Gods, the comparable event is the Æsir-Vanir War (in which Odin and his Æsir clan fought the Vanir). As overthrows go, it’s one of the gentler ones, and indeed the war ended in a peaceful accord. But it still fits within a pattern in which a preexisting pantheon oriented toward nature, fertility, and magic is supplanted or subsumed by one oriented toward war, craft, and cunning.
While I was conceiving and detailing the world of Fallen Gods, I was reading a series of apocalyptic books about our natural world, the best of which (in no particular order) were The Sixth Extinction, The World Without Us, Wild Ones, The Moth Snowstorm, and The Peregrine. These suggested that we are ourselves living in the aftermath of a war in which mankind, with its craft and cunning, has defeated nature, assuming its place as the gods of the earth. (Consider the arc of history that runs from the rat-borne, man-killing Black Death’s arrival in Europe to the human-introduced, rabbit-killing myxamatosis’s arrival in Australia.) For most of humanity’s existence, the world’s wildness was oppressive, terrorizing us with ferocious animals, confining us with impassable boundaries, decimating our numbers with drought and disease, and obliterating us with immense disasters. From a posture of weakness and ignorance, early humans worshiped that wildness. From a posture of strength, later humans broke that wildness—what seemed at first the kind of “breaking” that happens when a rider tames a wild mustang, and what increasingly seems to be the kind of “breaking” that happens when you strike a work of art with a sledgehammer.
A second series of nonfiction books also influenced my take on the Overthrow: books about revolutions and their aftermaths. Among the ones that I found particularly striking were Moscow 1937, The Days of the French Revolution, Marie Arana’s Bolívar, and the memoir When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. These suggested the pessimistic conclusion that whether a revolution’s goals are righteous or ignoble, and no matter how wicked its enemies, there is a high likelihood that the aftermath of a successful revolution will be catastrophe. After all, a process that selects for warriors capable of overthrowing their entrenched, mighty rulers is not selecting for (and, indeed, may even be selecting against) men and women capable of building and administering a just and competent civil government in the revolution’s wake. Meanwhile, the bloody, irregular war so often necessary to change rulers, along with the society-wide upending that follows, inevitably inflicts immense collateral damage on the land’s natural, economic, and cultural capital.
The Overthrow in Fallen Gods is a righteous one waged against wicked foes. The old gods were mostly bad gods—at least for mankind. Amarok, the Great Wolf, ravened among the flock of humanity and fed wolfishness to those that survived. The winged wurm Fraener destroyed any man, and any work of man, that might raise humanity up from drudging in the dirt. He was one of those oppressors (we all know them) who degrades his victims and then declares, “I am rightly above them, for look at how poor, and miserable, and squalid they are.” The ever-hungry creature known as Grath wandered the world as a force of famine, devouring whole fields and herds, destroying any hope of stability for a people perpetually on the knife-edge of starvation. Even the less awful beings worked woe: Berkanan who lured children to his woods and made them into wild things; the threefold goddess Karringar who kindled a gold-lust and an iron-madness in men that has never stopped burning; Trund who licked to life the lumbering trolls that were the terror of the hills and dales.
One can hardly fault Orm for honing his cunning and cruelty until he could cut down such gods. Orm was a trickster with a crooked mind and a warlord with a ruthless heart, and to become greater he became worse, a man who bent whatever men could become his tools and broke whatever men could not. He won his crown; he won his wars; he won his godhead. Perhaps not tired of winning, but certainly tired of struggling, he was content to bask in his hard-earned heaven. But a war-torn world needs a healer and a steward, not an absentee landlord. And even when Orm paid attention it was the attention of a man who had become more than a man by the craft of killing, and killing can only get the world so far.

Eventually, the soul-strength that the men and women of the world had given to Orm—the soul-strength he had stolen from the Firstborn—began to seep away. The people themselves weakened and shrank, and their faith weakened and shrank, and then their new gods weakened and shrank, until the very heavens weakened and shrank. Soon, there wasn’t room enough, or soul-strength enough, to share among fearful Ormfolk, who had, for long, long years, always been given more than enough of whatever they might want. These were gods who had forgotten, or had never learned, how to go hungry.
And so they began throwing out their own brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters—because even a smaller pie can yield bigger slices when fewer need to be cut. Fallen Gods begins in that time of dearth and death, when the player’s eponymous fallen god has just been cast down from the Cloudlands. He is desperate, not to save the world or free the world, but to flee the world and save himself, for he is no better than the others, only weaker. All the same, however, he must boldly face the bleak consequences of years of neglect and decline, the dangers of a world in which the gods won Ragnarök ... and thus robbed the earth of the rebirth that should have followed.

I’ll leave you with another snippet of music from Anders:

NEXT UPDATE: The Fallen God. 

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You can listen to more amazing music from Anders at his Soundcloud page: https://soundcloud.com/isletsound

If you were to read just two books from the list above, I would recommend Bolívar and The Peregrine, both of which are available from Amazon. (We don't get, and would never seek, revenue for clicks-through to Amazon, so no worries there!)

The best pitch for The Peregrine might well be this book talk at Stanford with Werner Herzog, which I have timestamped at a particularly moving passage from the book.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Announcing Strangeland

A man awakes in an otherworldly carnival and watches a gold-haired woman hurl herself down a bottomless well for his sake. He seeks empty answers from mocking ravens, an eyeless scribe, a living furnace, a mismade mermaid, and many more who dwell within the park. All the while, something awful screeches from the top of a towering roller-coaster, and he knows that until he destroys this Dark Thing, the woman will keep jumping, falling, and dying, over and over again ....
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A Greek, an Australian, and an American log into a forum. “Hey,” says the Australian. “I’ve got an idea for a free adventure game we can make in six months!” “Six months! I can write the story in three weeks,” says the American. “If I’m coding this, it’ll be done by Christmas,” the Greek promises. And, whaddya know? It is done by Christmas… three years later.

Some jokes are funnier if you already know the punchline. So five years later, the American says, “Hey! I’ve got an idea for an adventure game we can make in six days!” “Six days!” the Australian answers. “I can do a dozen rooms in three days!” And the Greek promises, “Don’t worry, it’ll be a snap ....”

Anyway, the joke always seems to be on us.
About a year ago, for some now-forgotten game jam, Vic, James, and I decided to get the band together again, to make a quilt-like game from the scraps of other projects, ongoing and abandoned: some Norse mythology from Fallen Gods; some visuals from Trenchmouth; some code from Cloudlands; some themes and imagery from all around. (The working title was The Wretched Refuse.) The thread to stitch these together would be various still-raw personal tragedies. “Surely, there is no risk whatsoever of bloating if we took our favorite castaways from other projects and bound them with our unresolved intimate feelings, right?” thought no sane developer ever.
But there was a method to our madness, namely: (1) the hope that when the never-ending road to Fallen Gods was done, we could make another substantial adventure game in the spirit of Primordia; (2) the belief that making another smaller adventure game would keep our skills sharp and get our long-starved players appetized; and (3) the assumption that, since we managed to make Salt over a three-day span, surely we could make this new game—this Strangeland—in a week or two or, at most, three.

First Room Layout
Anyway, that was in May 2017.

Now, in March 2018, Strangeland is nearly done, and we can unveil Vic’s lurid, feverish visions brought to life again by James’s code. There is still plenty of work left (testing, casting, polishing, more testing, bickering, etc.), but we are well past the clunk-a-clunk-a-clunk uphill part of the roller-coaster and onto the omigod-im-going-to-die downhill part.
As we bring the project to completion, we’ll be exploring publishing and distribution options, but our hope is to find a way to share it with as many people as possible. Strangeland is a smaller game than Primordia, but as with our last offering, we hope that it will hold some of the pain and dreams and fun that went into making it. Most importantly, we hope you enjoy the ride!


There was no convenient place to mention Strangelands audio design, which is a surreal saga unto itself. Suffice it to say, Vic has had the opportunity (and burden) to indulge his gift for music, foley, and circuit-bending. The result is a soundscape as haunting and surprising as his artwork, and a perfect complement to Strangelands visuals.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #2: Days of Yore

Your fire’s gleam seems to dim in this great room, swallowed by shadows that swim and loom like whales in the dark sea. Blacker than light’s lack, the hall must hold some lost, last scrap of the unmade world. Bats flap through this false night on leather wings, their shrill songs ringing softly off the far stone walls. It is an uncanny cleft, one which waits with unwelcome dread.
I’m old enough that when I was very young, we had no computer at all. And the computer we did get, when I was around six or seven, was an Apple IIc that plugged into a black and white television. This gift came from my grandfather, a NASA engineer who rightly anticipated that facility with computers would be essential for my generation, and using this machine he taught me basic (literally, BASIC) programming. Essential or not, it wasn’t much for gaming, and even when my brother and I pooled our allowances, we never managed to get our hands on much more than a two-sided floppy with David’s Midnight Magic and Choplifter. The formative games of my childhood were thus not computer games but board games, video games, “narration games” (rule-free RPGs in which whining and punching replaced rolling dice and tracking stats), and gamebooks.

There are two games from that era that loom large not just in my memory but in the design of Fallen Gods: Arnold Hendrick’s single-player RPG board game entitled Barbarian Prince (Dwarfstar, 1981) and Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf gamebooks (1984 and onward). Arnold Hendrick is a name any RPG fan should know because he was the genius, the seemingly mad and insatiable genius, behind MicroProse’s Darklands. His earlier work shows the same genius. And Joe Dever has rightly ascended into, if not the pantheon of renowned game designers, at least the ranks of “designers with longform Wikipedia entries.” His recent untimely death at 60 robbed the world of a generous spirit and a tireless pen.
Barbarian Prince contains many of things that computer RPGs would take years to include: a vivid setting with open exploration; many towns, castles, ruins, and other locations of interest to visit; multiple victory paths to discover; engaging encounters with different resolutions; gear, mounts, relics, followers, and resources to manage. Its core conceit is not far from that of Fallen Gods. The eponymous Barbarian Prince has been ousted from his throne and must regain it within 70 days or else live forever in exile. During that time, he must gather strength, wealth, and followers and typically something special (a particular relic, the favor of a particular patron, etc.) in order to overcome the usurper back home. While Barbarian Prince is now (was always?) too complex to play easily as a board game, that’s because the “computer’s” job in a cRPG (tracking stats and enforcing rules and so forth) is foisted upon the player alongside his normal job (digesting information and making decisions). In a hypothetical scenario where the player could be freed from such extra obligations, Barbarian Prince’s visionary design reveals that a rich, strategic RPG can emerge from what are, actually, pretty simple rules.

Despite its embarrassment of riches, or maybe because of it, Barbarian Prince lacks the “flavor” that a DM or cRPG designer brings to an RPG. It has almost 200 events, but each is extraordinarily thin, barely more than an encounter chart in an early P&P RPG. For instance, “e164 Giant Lizard” provides, in inelegant sum total: “A huge, giant lizard that shakes the earth as it walks attacks you. It is combat skill 10, endurance 12, but you strike first in combat (r220). Escape is only possible if you have mounts, those without cannot escape.” That’s it.
There is no such shortcoming, if it is a shortcoming, in Lone Wolf. Those gamebooks—by which I mean “choose-your-own-adventure books with RPG statistics”—also reveal a design genius, but a very different kind of genius. The long series tells a sprawling epic in a vividly described world with unique cultures, creeds, and creatures. Scenes are brought to life by Dever’s clear prose and use of familiar fantasy tropes. The story begins thusly: “You must make haste for you sense it is not safe to linger by the smoking remains of the ruined monastery. The black-winged beasts could return at any moment.”
In counterpoint to its more complex storytelling, Lone Wolf offers much simpler rules than those of Barbarian Prince. Because of this simplicity, everything the game asks of you feels significant, down to each ration of food. Every skill you can choose sounds appealing, and the inability to take them all is heartbreaking. That longing grows stronger as you play because the skills you do have—esoteric abilities like “Animal Kinship” and “Mind Over Matter” and more workaday knacks like “Hunting” and “Camouflage”—offer such rewarding possibilities. Likewise, finding magical items or superior gear feels as exciting as discovering a new item in Zelda or a new weapon in Metroid, rather than being the kind of dull, incremental upgrade now ubiquitous in cRPGs.

These two masterworks from master craftsmen returned to my mind around 2006 when I played a modest but excellent “coffee break” procedural space game called Weird Worlds (Digital Eel, 2005). It struck me then that the simple framework of my childhood favorites could be combined with procedural generation because Barbarian Prince’s rules would work just as well in a procedural setting as in a fixed one. Indeed, Barbarian Prince’s events already occurred with a great deal of randomness; only the map was fixed. And Lone Wolf’s prose adventures, in vignette form, could replace the thin events of Barbarian Prince. For a variety of reasons, a space opera seemed the right setting for this, and for many years I worked on Star Captain, a project that would blend the three games into one. A series of setbacks and distractions (including the very fine distraction of Primordia) delayed the project, and by the time I got back to it in early 2013, it had largely been preempted in gameplay by FTL and in setting by Mass Effect.

Fortunately, just a year earlier I had read The Long Ships. The novel had rekindled my love of Norse mythology and Viking adventurers and of Iceland itself, which I had visited in 2003 as part of my dad’s vain 60th-birthday attempt to see the aurora borealis. The Long Ships led me to Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson’s account of the old Norse kings. And Heimskringla led me to Snorri’s Prose Edda which led me to the elder Poetic Edda, and thence to Kevin Crossley-Holland’s The Norse Myths. And from these, I began to browse my way through the enormous, majestic body of Icelandic sagas as well as many collections of Norse myth and Scandinavian folklore.

It became clear that from these pieces I could build the setting to house my game idea—a sort of homecoming, since Barbarian Prince itself is about a great warrior from the North. To round things out, I read through other sagas and sources from farther abroad: the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf (Seamus Heaney’s amazing translation); the Finnish Kalevala; and the Anglo-Saxon poetry in The Exeter Book (introduced to me by the project’s Polish linguist-editor-scripter-factotum, Maciej Bogucki) to try to get closer to how our language was used in telling those sorts of stories. I don’t have a scholar’s memory or a poet’s craft, but from these I started to feel some of what C.S. Lewis called “Northernness,” and to trace the deep folkloric roots of the modern fantasy genre that J.R.R. Tolkien brought into flower.

With all that, I consigned Star Captain to the dark abyss in the sky, and set sail for the lands of Fallen Gods.  I will leave you with this piece by our wonderful composer, Anders Hedenholm, fittingly hailing from Uppsala, Sweden, once home to the greatest Norse temple complex.

NEXT MONTH: “Winning Was Easy. Governing’s Harder.”

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You can download Barbarian Prince for free thanks to the generosity of Dwarfstar Games: https://dwarfstar.brainiac.com/ds_barbarianprince.html

You can play all of the Lone Wolf books in a wonderful online format thanks to the hard work of Project Aon and the generosity of Joe Dever: https://www.projectaon.org/en/Main/Books

You can buy Weird Worlds for five bucks on Steam: http://store.steampowered.com/app/226120/Weird_Worlds_Return_to_Infinite_Space/

Friday, February 16, 2018

Fallen Gods Update #1: Introducing Fallen Gods

Once, the world was better, the gods greater, the wars over, the end farther. You were born in the Cloudlands during those days, one of the Ormfolk, forever young and strong, worshiped by those below for your forefathers’ deeds. But all is not well. Now, wolves and worse haunt the night, the law holds no sway, and men’s hearts grow hard toward your kind. Fearful of their dwindling shares of souls, your brothers turned against each other ... and against you. And so you were cast down from the clouds, a fallen god broken upon the bitter earth. You rise, still free from death, with only the slightest hope of winning your way back to the heavens that are your rightful home.

Fallen Gods is an RPG inspired by the board game Barbarian Prince, the computer game King of Dragon Pass, and the sagas, eddas, and folklore of the far north. With a dark, wry tone, it tells the story of a god trying to survive in a dying world ruled by beings with great might and wits, but without the wisdom to heal the wounds left by their wars. The game has been in production for about four years, and its concepts have been building in my head for decades.

At the core of Fallen Gods are interactive events, choose-your-own-adventure vignettes in the spirit of the Lone Wolf gamebooks. Throughout the game, the player will enter towns and tunnels, meet strangers and friends on the road, face earthly and unearthly foes, and witness wonders of all kinds. Each of these events, accompanied by a hand-painted illustration, consists of a series of nodes, each a paragraph of text followed by several choices that depend upon the skills the god knows, the items he bears, and the followers he leads. 
A forest village quest.
These events, like Fallen Gods itself, are about exploring the game’s world, mechanics, and story. In every session, dozens of the hundreds of possible events are spread across a procedurally generated landscape in a way that creates both surprise and coherence. Events are both destinations for the player to seek out and obstacles to bar his way. They provide the landmarks and characters that bring the world to life and make geographic exploration rewarding and dangerous.
Heading toward a cave dungeon.

A wurm, one of the more dangerous foes in Fallen Gods.
Events also provide a laboratory for mechanical exploration. Just as the world is unique in every session, so too is the god, with different skills, strengths, supplies, followers, and gear. These things, alone and together, are powerful tools that can open up new paths, some obvious, others requiring thought and experience. Thus, for example, the Death Lore skill (allowing the god to speak to the dead) and the Wurmskin Cloak (allowing him to understand the speech of birds) can together unlock a new path through the “Windfall” event, which begins with the god finding a field full of dead starlings. Or, in “The Whale,” the player might use the Wild Heart skill (allowing him to bend beasts to his will) along with Nail (a magical spear) to draw back and harpoon his titular foe. In another example, the screenshot below shows a few of the possible forks at the start of the “All Is Lost” event.

A barrow event.
As the player passes along these different event paths, he uncovers more about the world and what has befallen it. This “narrative exploration” reflects three values (aside from the basic goal of engaging writing). First, what the player learns should be relevant to the game’s mechanics and thus of practical value. As in the wonderful King of Dragon Pass, an understanding of the setting’s laws and lore helps in handling both friends and foes, in making informed choices rather than guesses. Second, while Fallen Gods involves plenty of words, reading should lead to doing: there is never more than a paragraph of text before the player is back in control, either making a choice with strategic consequences, fighting foes in a tactical battle, or exploring the world while managing resources. Third, the setting should be uncanny and unsettling, rooted in the same rich soil from which modern fantasy springs, but growing along different lines.
An example of an illustration before it goes in game.
That setting grew from my fascination with Iceland and its marvelous Commonwealth, a nation of silver-tongued skalds, quick-witted warriors, troll-women, and land-wights, a land haunted at night by the Northern Lights, where some men still worshiped the beautifully flawed Norse gods. Where but in that Iceland would they compose an epic about a man who “was so great a lawyer that his match was not to be found”? This is Njal Thorgeilsson, the 10th century hero of the hauntingly titled Saga of Burnt Njal, a man who warns that “by the law alone will our land be built up” in a saga that vividly shows the other path, as scenes of farms and families give way to an endless blood-feud that brings Njal his fatal epithet. Where but in that Iceland would men dream up nabrok, wealth-bringing pants stitched from a dead man’s skin, or tilberi, milk-sucking worms shaped by witches from wool-wrapped ribs? What other land, so tiny, so remote, so poor, could bring forth not just Snorri Sturluson but Leif Erikson?

But Fallen Gods is not a “Norse” or “Viking” game; neither is it a Tolkien-inspired fantasy setting. Rather, like Tolkien’s own setting, it is drawn from the old lore and poured into a new glass, hopefully yielding something familiar but also strange.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be sharing more about the game’s setting and its systems, its paintings and its pixels, its music and its narration, to give you a sense of what has already been done and what still needs to be finished. The game has no targeted release date because everything about it has taken far longer than I ever imagined. Perhaps it will come in 2018; perhaps in 2019; perhaps later still. One way or the other, it will be done “in the fullness of time.”
A stronghold with no quest available.

NEXT WEEK: Days of Yore

Incidentally, if you have not played our first game, the point-and-click adventure Primordia, you can grab it on Steam (or GOG.com):

While the gameplay couldn’t be more different from that of Fallen Gods, the games share a similar design philosophy of careful worldbuilding through beautiful artwork, rich lore, and memorable characters.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Primordia 2 Concept Art (jk)

My four year old daughter has been designing a "new Horatio and Crispin game."  It appears the energy crystal and conductive putty make an appearance in the sequel...