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/