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SKALD: Against the Black Priory

SKALD: Against the Black Priory is an upcoming classic turn-based RPG. It’s set in a dark and gritty fantasy universe, full of tragic heroes, violent deaths and eldritch horror. 

After a great run on Kickstarter, I’m now super happy to announce:

SKALD is now on Indiegogo “InDemand”!

For press kit, click here!

We’re on Indiegogo!

The game is currently in beta-development and it’s coming to Early Access fall 2020. It will release for Windows and Mac first and then handheld devices down the line.

To support the game, subscribe to this devlog, check out our Youtube channel and follow the project on Twitter!

You can also join our Discord server. This is really where the SKALD community lives and we’re always happy to get more members. Also: Discord members occasionally get to test development builds.

Check out that lovely CRT filter!

Finally, wishlisting SKALD on GOG.com might earn us a spot in their web-store and that would rock! In other words: Wishlist SKALD on GOG.com now!

Do you want to follow the SKALD project? Subscribe to our newsletter today!

Project Update: Beta 1.2.0 (Combat Revision)

The beta build (1.2.0) is up on itch.io for testers right now! SKALD has gotten a huge update to its combat system (as well as some new features) and I can’t wait for you to have a look at it!

The New Combat System

Combat is now resolved directly on the map itself. In other words, it no longer swaps to a separate combat map.

As I’ve been developing the game, one of the biggest shifts in my approach to designing SKALD, has been in level design: I originally saw exploration of the physical spaces of the game to be a distinct pillar of game-play alongside combat, character development and interaction.

However, as I’ve begun designing levels, it has occurred to me that interacting with the physicality of the world, could not be seen as a separate aspect of game-play: The physical layout of the game world is the canvas that encompasses all other aspects of the game and combat, dialogue and exploration is made more interesting by the fact that it takes place in a “physical” world with components that interact with, and affect each other.

Placing combat on the map itself was a natural consequence of this. This will make it possible to interact with terrain during combat, NPCs will join fights and destruction will linger after combat ends. You can approach enemies from different directions, become surrounded or attempt to use the terrain to your advantage.

Combat isn’t the only subsystem that is being adapted to this shift in design mentality. More on that down the line.

The combat system as it is in the coming update is still pretty bare-bones. It doesn’t really take advantage of it’s new form yet, but I need to get some play-testing done none the less: Both to weed out bugs and to get a basis for improving the system.

The main design principles for combat moving forward are:

  1. Combat should feel fast and smooth
  2. Combat should stay tactically interesting from early to late game
  3. Combat should be narratively expressive (e.i. it should serve as a tool for storytelling)

There’s also a number of issues I need to explore:

  1. How much information does the player need and how do I present it in the best way?
  2. What are the best controls for combat and what is the optimal relationship between keyboard and mouse input?
  3. How do I visualize all the different options players might have during combat in a good way?
  4. What types of terrain layout make for the most fun combat whilst avoiding overly dominant strategies (such as defending doorways)?
  5. What are some interesting combat-role archetypes for both enemies and PCs?
  6. How can feats and spells take optimal advantage of the combat system?

Other New Features and Updates

There is months of work in this update so changes are too numerous to mention in a lot of cases.

One of the more notable updates, however, is the ability to customize the character model (hair, colors, clothing etc). This adds a bit of flair for players but more importantly, it reduces the need for me to create custom models for NPCs! This is going to be a huge time-saver down the line as I can now swap around outfits to make an infinite amount of variations. Needless to say, there will be A LOT more customization options down the line. It also opens the door for stuff like faction-based outfits.

I’ve polished the input system a bit and vastly improved the path-finding AI so movement and controls should also feel quite a bit more snappy. Try to keep an eye on this and be sure to report any bugs related to movement, path-finding and input.

The Next Steps

For the next weeks I’m going to keep polishing the combat system whilst working towards the press-, and content-creator demo (which will of course be available for backers as well). It will contain new, unseen narrative content as well so it’ll be fun to see you guys dig into it.

There will probably be a couple more beta updates before the press demo is ready to drop so stay posted for that as well. I REALLY appreciate it if you take even 5 minutes to test the game and reporting any bugs or impressions afterwards: It really helps to make this the game we all want it to be!

In regards to the game being ready for early access in late 2020 – we’ll see. I’m truly working as fast as I can but it’s hard to predict the flow of the project. Rest assured however, that all the time is being spent make SKALD awesome and I can guarantee you it’s paying off!

Farewell!

I’ll keep you posted on updates as I go so be sure to check in wherever you follow me from time to time (Twitter or the SKALD Discord). You guys have been beyond supportive so far and I love being on this journey with you. All I can do is offer up a big heart-felt “thank you”.

Cheers,

AL

Project Update: Beta 1.1.0

Hello everyone! Hope you all are enjoying your summer. July has been pretty sweet up here in Northern Norway for once, making it the perfect “stay at home” summer. But fear not: I’ve still gotten a ton done with SKALD, and it’s now time for a new (minor) demo update!

Beta 1.1.0 is up for Backers!

The demo is still pretty short and adds about 20 minutes of game-play to the first iteration. It’s still an important demo for me, since I’ve done a lot of work under the hood (as always) and now those features need play-testing.

I’ve also added some in-game features: Most notable is grid-based combat. That system is still pretty bare bones as I’m yet to add enemies, feats and spells that really take advantage of it, but you should non the less be able to get an idea and provide some feedback.

What do I need from play-testers?

Bugs first and foremost. This is by far the most important feedback you can provide for me at this point!

Typos are always welcome too. As are logical inconsistencies in dialogue and scene flows.

I also want to hear about game-play feature requests or feedback on existing features.

I’m not really super interested in stuff like “this was too easy” or “There needs to be more loot in the second area”. It goes without saying that a lot of this is unpolished at the time and pacing etc will get a second pass as the whole first chapter begins to come together 🙂

As always, my preferred way of receiving feedback is via the SKALD Discord chat. Once there, look for the feedback sub-channels.

A Word of Caution

The demos, at this point, will usually break saves and force a restart with each demo iteration. This might seem like a chore BUT for play-testing this is essential. The scripting of the game can only be truly tested if the game is played from the start each time and this is super important to the final quality of the game.

So please be patient with me (I know you will)! Also, is play-testing feels like a hassle, it’s 100% fine for you to just hang back and wait for the finished product!

What Else is Going on?

Currently we (me and the writers) are doing a lot of work writing and implementing narrative content. This is the main priority besides polishing the engine at the moment. As we finish writing for chapter 1, the artists will then get to illustrate the content and we’ll start work on chapter 2.

I’ve been working on fog-effects a bit. They are great for setting a somber tone and I can’t wait to use them. They were however not ready at the time of 1.1.0 so they’ll hopefully feature in the next update.

At some point in the near future I’ll probably start working of feats and spells as well so stay tuned for that.

Have a great Summer!

That’s it for now! Have a great weekend and keep enjoying the summer (try to get out in sun a bit)!

As always, feel free to follow me on Twitter or join the SKALD discord!

Cheers,

AL

Project Update: Early Access

Hello there SKALD fans and friends!

After careful consideration, I’ve made the decision to pivot from a September full launch to an “Early Access” launch late fall of 2020.

What does that mean?

“Early Access” (EA) is a type of distribution where customers buy access to a pre-release version of a game. For SKALD, this means that Steam-users (for starters) will be able to buy access to the SKALD Beta sometime in the fall of 2020.

Backers will of course receive these keys as part of their rewards as soon as we go live. Until then, closed Beta will continue for backers.

The plan is to finish the game’s narrative critical path before the EA release. This means that the game should be about 75% content complete in terms of content but still quite rough around the edges.

The plan is for the complete game to launch fully in the first half of 2021.

For those of you who backed the game on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, this means that reward fulfillment will be postponed until we get closer to the full release.

But why?

The plan initially was to accept a product that was a little rough around the edges upon release and then do post-release patches and content additions.

After talking to marketing-professionals and fellow game-designers I’ve realized that it is much healthier for the project to instead brand the “release” as Early Access. This clearly communicates my intentions and the state of the project.

The decision has also been expedited by the fact that the project is behind the initial schedule in terms of play-testing. The delay is partially due to current world events (enough said), partially because the demo->feedback->update cycle has been slower than expected and partially because an influx of money has allowed us to aim for a higher narrative ambition and great writing takes time.

No cause for alarm

Though the schedule now looks slightly different, the project is very healthy:

  • It is very well funded and I don’t have any reason to rush a launch for financial gain
  • Early Access will bring more play-testers which, in turn, will lead to a much more polished end-product
  • A less rushed launch will give us more time to create side-content and result in more fleshed-out world

All in all, this is the best for the project and I’m counting on the continued support and understanding of the community to help make SKALD an AWESOME game.

Believe me: Development is proceeding as fast as it is humanly possible and I’m super excited for the finished product!

Next Steps

I’m releasing an updated Beta-demo for backers in the next month or so. The demo is a bit delayed, but there is a good reason for this: Each Beta-demo at this stage will potentially corrupt save data. This means that currently, each demo-launch may force a restart and this will cause tester fatigue pretty fast. Since I rely on your feedback, I’d rather you have a bit more content to explore once you sit down with the demo.

Speaking of demo, I’ve made a pretty big change to the basic design of the game:

Combat is now grid-based.

Combat is as snappy as ever and even auto-resolves works great!

I’ve been going back and forth on this for a long time now and I don’t make changes like this lightly. However, the old system lacked a bit of the expressiveness and transparency I wanted for SKALD and working with it was too limiting. Being someone who plays the game EVERY day I can say the new combat system is a lot of fun. I can’t wait to really start fleshing out more feats and spells that interact with the physicality of the battlefield.

In Closing…

It’s back to work for me! I really hope you’ll stay pumped for SKALD and I can’t wait to bring you more sweet content throughout the summer and fall.

If you haven’t already, I wrote two game-design articles a while back and you might want to check them out if you’re interested in the subject:

Beyond that I’d like to wish you all a great summer! As always, feel free to follow me on Twitter or join the SKALD Discord “game development” sub-channel !

Cheers,

AL

Out for Revenge: Intrinsic Motivation in Open Worlds

The Last of Us Part 2 is out and it’s proving to be highly divisive. One of the main themes of the game is revenge and having seen the first 10 hours or so of the game I felt inspired to write an article exploring the issue of character vs player motivation in open world games.

This article is not a review of the The Last of Us Part 2 but it might contain SLIGHT SPOILERS.

The Last of Us 2 Wiki & Strategy Guide

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently working on narrative design for my own upcoming game: SKALD: Against the Black Priory. One of the questions I’ve been pondering is: How do you align the motivations of the player with the motivations of the player’s in-game character in open-world games?

SKALD’S main quest kicks off with the player being sent to find a missing childhood friend.

Using revenge stories as an example: They are dramatic, visceral and cathartic and often highly appealing. Their use in games, however, comes with some challenges that might not be evident from their use in other media. While the main-character might be out for blood, the player would much rather collect junk.

Melodramatic Motivation

For many types of games (but certainly not all), it is expected that the game’s in-game main character (the avatar) comes with their own motivation. For the narrative experience to be appealing, the player should:

  1. Understand the character’s motivation and goals
  2. Empathize with the character’s motivation and goals
  3. Actively share the character’s motivation and goals

Additionally, the player’s motivation should also not conflict with the
character’s motivation and goals.

From the list above you can see that the points are in increasing order of importance: It’s probably better if we could make a game where the player not only understands and empathizes with character’s motivation, but also feels like their own motivation overlaps with the character’s.

A revenge quest (or revenge story) is a common trope in fiction. From the Iliad to Kill Bill, these stories feature protagonists who are driven by an urge to get revenge (often violently) against the antagonist for some trauma that has been inflicted upon them.

Quentin Tarantino + Uma Thurman Are Considering 'Kill Bill 3'
Kill Bill

For these stories to be effective, the triggering (traumatic) event often comes with enough of an emotional impact that the player/viewer/reader shares in the protagonist’s desire for cathartic revenge.

Looking at our three points from above, it’s not difficult to see why it’s so popular to have characters with motivation born out of some trauma: It is highly universal and offers us (melo-) dramatic narratives where we understand, empathize with and share the motivation and goals of the protagonist.

Does this mean that revenge-quests and similar stories are ideal for games? As always the answers is not yes or no, but rather it comes down to understanding the consequences of our design choices.

A Simple Model of Motivation

A common and simple psychological model for describing motivation it that of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. It is commonly used in fields such as management, education and sports and, though it might seem a bit simplistic, it readily provides some interesting insights.

MICHAEL G. SCOTT - SOMEHOW I MANAGE | Spiral Notebook | Somehow i ...

Extrisinc Motivation

Simply put, when we perform tasks and actions to gain some external reward or avoid punishment we experience external motivation.

Going to work because you want to get payed is a classical example of this.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation on the other hand is what we experience when we perform a task because we find it personally rewarding. In other words: performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward.

Doing your job because you enjoy the work itself (as opposed to doing it just to get payed) is a typical example of intrinsic motivation.

The In-Game Context

Motivation is complex (as is all human behavior) and it’s not really possible to describe it in terms of absolutes. Within the framework of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation it is rare that we are 100% on one end or another of the scale. For example, when we say that we are extrinsically motivated, what we really mean is probably that we are mostly extrinsically motivated.

Tasks such as playing games can be highly complex since they often consist of so many sub-tasks. This means that our motivation for each of those tasks may vary greatly; I’m intrinsically motivated to play most games since I enjoy the act of gaming for its own sake. However, within that context, I would say my motivation to collect 10 wolf-pelts is mostly extrinsic as this will get me rewards (gold and XP).

Video Games - fetch quest - video game memes, Pokémon GO - Cheezburger

The wolf-pelt example is not random: It’s safe to say that games with open worlds (such as roleplaying games and open-world shooters) often contain tasks where we might feel primarily extrinsically motivated. We might do “chores” because they rewards us in the long run. Compare this to a racing game where the reward loop is so compressed that we feel instant gratification throughout the entire play experience.

In occupational psychology, intrinsic motivation is often held up as being preferable. This comes from research that shows that individuals with a high degree of intrinsic motivation perform better than those with a high degree of extrinsic motivation.

For this discussion however, I think we should be careful to automatically place intrinsic motivation above extrinsic motivation. This is especially true for roleplaying- or open-world games where the reward-loops are wide enough that they contain tasks that might feel like chores but where the sum of the experience nonetheless is a fun play-experience.

To put it in another way: It’s certainly not a failure of design if your game contains sub-tasks that causes the player to experience both kinds of motivation within the context of the game. If that makes for a good game, players will feel intrinsically motivated to interact with it.


Player vs Character Motivation

Lets try to apply some of the theory we’ve discussed so far.

Character Motivation

In the kinds of games we are discussing today players are typically either:

a) provided with an establish character (Ellie, Geralt of Rivia, Super Mario etc) that comes fleshed out both in terms of appearance, personality and backstory.

or…

b) provided a blank character that has some backstory attached to it (such as in certain RPGs where we get to create fresh characters but with the baggage of being “the dragon born” or something in that vein).

In both cases, the game almost always provides a motivation for the character: a raison d’etre for the character’s adventuring career. In the kinds of narratives we are interested in today, this motivation is often highly intrinsic and triggered by some dramatic event.

Importantly: The more dramatic the triggering event – the more highly motivated it is implied that the game’s character will be.

Player Motivation

Consider the Last of Us Part 2. We play most of the game as Ellie. Motivated by a burning desire for revenge, she sets out on an epic quest across the gorgeous ruined landscapes of post-apocalyptic Seattle.

It is pretty clear that the character of Ellie is written to be heavily internally motivated. She is not interested in gold or getting new loot; she just has a burning desire for revenge.

And for anyone who plays the game, her motivation and goal easily checks all of our three boxes:

  1. We understand her motivation and goals
  2. We empathize with her motivation and goals
  3. We actively share her motivation and goals – we ALSO want the catharsis of revenge.
The Last of Us Part 2: What We Think After 2 Hours of Play

As the game moves past it’s intro, it’s hard not to partake in Ellie’s thirst for blood. The character’s motivation and the player’s motivation is alligned!

However, something happens a few hours into the game: The game world opens up. It turns out exploring the post-apocalypse is both fun and interesting. Roaming around whilst listening to the small-talk between Ellie and her travelling companion interspersed by bursts of intense action is fun. So fun in fact that it’s easy to forget why you are out there in the first place.

Let’s look at a classic RPG that I always found had a similar issue: Baldur’s Gate 2.

Buy Baldur's Gate II Enhanced Edition key cheaper! | ENEBA

The first part of the game has the following quest: Imoen, a recurring character from the first game and your step sister, is kidnapped and a large part of the first game is dedicated to you gathering enough gold to rescue her.

At face value, the trope of having to rescue a loved-one in danger is certainly dramatic and universal enough that we should ideally have no problem in sharing the character’s intrinsic motivation.

I hated Imoen in BG1, but I absolutely love her in BG2 : baldursgate
I didn’t make this so the typo isn’t mine!

Baldur’s Gate 2 is one of the best RPGs ever made. However, the first part of the game is often consider the best part of the game; with a huge and interesting game world full of cool quests and awesome characters. Many players will forget Imoen by the time they leave the city gates and they’ll put off rescuing her for as long as they can.

The Point

Using melodramatic core narratives might imbue the character with a lot of strong intrinsic motivation and the player should ideally have no problem sharing that motivation. However, the disconnect occurs once we supply the player with a game-world which is so large and appealing that the player will feel much more motivated to explore it rather resolve the games core conflict. In other words, on one hand the game is telling you to care about Ellie getting revenge (or rescuing Imoen or killing Alduin or finding a new waterchip). On the other hand it’s giving the player a world full of distractions.

Water chip | Fallout Wiki | Fandom

To put it in another way: The game design is causing our motivation for the trivial tasks of exploration to eclipse our motivation for resolving the main-character’s grand conflict.

This is an example of a disconnect between the game’s narrative and mechanics. In other words, what we call ludonarrative dissonance.

Potential Solutions

First of all, I’m not saying you should not use highly intrinsically motivated characters as avatars in open-world games. As I said in the beginning, I’m only trying to outline some potential challenges and solutions.

I’m certainly not claiming I cracked this nut with SKALD as the game is still in development. However, I have thought about it a lot, and I’ve chose to adopt a fairly defensive posture to the problem. Here are seven of the main takeaways that I’m currently using to inform SKALD’s narrative design:

1) Good Narrative design is important

This is a no-brainer and I’m not going to belabor it beyond saying: If you’re making a narrative-heavy game of any sort you need to respect the amount of work that goes into narrative design. Don’t let the narrative take a back-seat to mechanics. Ideally: Get a narrative designer!

2) Don’t fight human nature

I’ll repeat what I said in my last article on testing in RPGs: Don’t fight human nature. If you find yourself frustrated that people are playing your game “wrong”, you’ve probably designed your game wrong.

Don’t fall into the pit-trap of trying to sanction or punish unwanted behavior. Instead try figure out why players act the way they do. Players aren’t failing to connect with your narrative because they are simpletons!

3) BE careful with DIALing up the drama

At first glance, one way of dealing with a miss-match between player and character motivations could be to turn up the level of drama and increase the stakes. Surely that will make the player care?

The pit-fall here is that in open-world games there should be room for the player to keep ignoring the core conflict. No matter how high we make the stakes for the character, if we’re not willing to punish the player for ignoring the core conflict (and I don’t think you should), we risk a greater feeling of dissonance as we try to force the player to share the characters intrinsic motivation.

If we ARE willing to railroad the player we aren’t really making an open world anymore (and that might be fine?).

Increasing intrinsic motivation is not a question of telling someone to be more motivated. This is however an article in itself so I recommend you look elsewhere for more literature on this.

4) Don’t presume interest

Personally, this is the point that set me free: Accept that the player’s motivation might not equal the characters motivation.

That is to say: You should design your game and narrative towards this goal but it is dangerous to count on it.

You may very well try to communicate that the game really wants you to care about the character’s core conflict but what if the player simply chooses not to engage? Are they playing the game wrong?

Whenever I write out story-beats in my game I always ask myself “how can we advance the narrative at this point without breaking immersion if the character does not engage ?”

5) Try to identify what is motivating the player at each point in the game

A good way of looping the player in at each point in the game is to ask yourself (through analysis, experience and testing) what’s motivating the player at each point in the game? Is it collecting loot? Resolving sub-quests? Seeing if you can kill all NPCs in the game? Then, ask yourself what should ideally be motivating the character at that point?

You may find ways of aligning those motivations. Is you game-design causing players to become very interested in loot? Place some cool items along your main plot-line and overtly allow the player to express that they’re “in it for the money”.

But be careful: This might not work if your core premise is that the character is out for revenge against the dragon who ate their grandmother! How do you rationalize the player spending hours looting village homes instead of seeking revenge?

6) Don’t have the characters motivation compete with the players motivation

I try to make sure that the player does not need to choose between exploring the world and furthering the plot. Players are often very willing to suspend their disbelief and act “out of character” and then return to acting in-character. The problem arises if the game keeps reminding them that they are acting out of character.

This means that the core narrative should wait for the player and do so gracefully!

A typical failure to do this is when a game presents an urgent crisis and then asks the player to drop whatever they are doing and run off to resolve it. Comically the game will then wait indefinitely for the player who is free to ignore the whole deal.

Popeye wrecks train by svettzwo on DeviantArt

7) “Opt-In” Motivation

As I’ve said, you shouldn’t take your player’s interest in the main character’s core conflict for granted. However what you might find, is that as the game progresses and the players get to stretch their legs, the player and character motivation may begin to converge. Plan for this and try to make it as seamless as possible.

I honestly think Skyrim does a pretty good job of this – especially in the early part of the game. The game does not assume the player will be interested in the main quest-line. It feels just as natural to just wander of for hours to explore. But more importantly: Once you do choose to engage, it doesn’t really feel immersion-breaking that you “opted” back in.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim' Main Quest Walkthrough

In Closing

This post became a bit longer than I planned. I hope it still makes sense at this point.

As a solo game-developer, it helps me a lot to write stuff like this out and have you guys give feedback. So if you have comments, ideas or differing perspectives I would love to hear them!

Feel free to look me up on Twitter or join the SKALD Discord “game development” sub-channel to discuss the subject in more depth!

Game Design: Tests in Roleplaying Games

“Roll for perception!”, “How much is your Reflex save?”, “#IF(Strength>15)#THEN(‘You successfully lift the gate!’)”

Attribute tests are a staple of the roleplaying game (RPG)
genre. As a narrative, text-heavy RPG, “SKALD: Against the Black Priory “is no exception.

An example of nesting an attribute test (Diplomacy) into dialogue. However, the implementation is a bit faulty. Read on to learn why!

Even though such systems might seem trivial, I find that they require quite a bit of consideration to design and implement successfully. The following are some of my musings on the subject and hopefully this might serve as a basis for a broader discussion of the subject.

There is also a little treat for old-school RPG and Ultima fans at the end of the article so stay with me!

What do I mean by “Attribute-Tests”?

Basically, an attribute-test is a test against one of the attributes an RPG character has. This could be a test against the characters “lock-picking” skill to try and open a locked door or a test of the characters “strength” score to try and lift a chest full of gold or even checking a non-numeric character attribute (such as seeing if the character is the right class to join a guild).

For the purpose of this article, I’d also like to divide attribute-tests into two rough categories: “systemic” and “scripted”.

Systemic attribute-tests are hard-coded into the game’s sub-systems. Rolling for initiative at the start of combat, or rolling to hit an opponent are examples of this.

Scripted attribute-tests are added at the content level of the game (as opposed to in the engine itself) – often through some form of scripting language and they are often non-combat related. An example of this might be testing the characters charisma score to try and persuade an NPC during a conversation.

Note that scripted attribute-tests do not have to be dialogue-related! They can just as well be short “gamebook” style segments where the player interacts with the environment. There is however, a lot of precedence for using the dialogue system to present these interactions in modern RPGs and this is also the approach I use in SKALD.

We’ll mostly be talking about scripted attribute-tests in the rest of this article.

How much is that bribe? : DivinityOriginalSin
Divinity: Original Sin 2

Why use Attribute-Tests?

Systemic attribute-tests are as old as RPGs themselves. This is because they are so closely tied to the wargame-esque style of resolving conflicts with dice that was the basis of early RPGs such as “Dungeons and Dragons”.

Scripted attribute tests are a bit less ubiquitous (especially in early CRPGs). Due to technical constraints, early CRPGs placed more emphasis on combat and less on roleplaying and dialogue-based problem solving. It wasn’t really until games like Fallout and the infinity engine games (the Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape: Torment etc) that developers really started exploring a wider use of attribute-tests to enrich the dialogue and storytelling.

In more modern CRPGs, scripted attribute-tests are less wide-spread than you would think. This is probably due to the fact that they often require more complex character development (you need non-combat skills), more storytelling using text (which might turn away certain demographics), and they are often associated with branching narratives (which are more expensive to make).

Planescape: Torment Part #86 - The Whisper-Mad Tome of The ...
Planescape: Torment

So this begs the question: Why do we include scripted attribute-tests in CRPGs at all?

  • They remind us of the genre’s tabletop roots by invoking the verbal interplay between the game-master and players.
  • They can add suspense by using random “dice-rolls” to resolve non-combat challenges.
  • They can add resource sinks by introducing a wider array of challenge-types for the players to overcome.
  • They show progression by having the players eventually finding themselves being able to do things they couldn’t before (beyond combat).
  • They allow for a wider range of player expression by giving the player more ways to interact with the world via their attributes (such as talking your way past enemies instead of fighting them).
  • They can gate content either by holding the players off until they reach a certain level of skill or by giving varying narrative experiences based on character build.

The point is that scripted attribute-tests add a bunch of interesting tools for CRPG designers. That brings us to the next point:

Design Considerations

The following might seem pedantic but there is a surprising number of variables to tune when implementing scripted attribute tests successfully. Here are a few considerations:

Overt vs hidden tests

In any CRPG, a lot of the script logic going on under the hood will be hidden. This is a good thing since it’s not necessary for the player to know that the script discreetly checked to see if the party was carrying such and such item when entering such and such area. Games like the early Fallout games or Baldur’s Gate does this extensively and you’ll have different dialogue choices based on things like your charisma or your intelligence etc.

Larian Denies Rumors That It's Developing Baldur's Gate 3
Baldur’s Gate

The advantage to this is that it hides a bit of the inner workings of the system and it makes it harder to “game” the system. Rather than worrying about how many ranks you have in a given skill, the emphasis might be placed more on having an immersive roleplaying experience.

This, however, is also the disadvantage of this approach: It robs the player of the ability to make informed decisions about how to build their character since they can never be sure about how the mechanics of the game work. Was the outcome of the conversation the result of poor dialogue choices or was it the result of a hidden charisma test?

Random vs Deterministic

When the character performs an attribute test, is it resolved through a random “dice roll” or will it always succeed or fail based on a threshold (such as in Fallout: New Vegas)?

New Vegas | Problem Machine
Fallout: New Vegas

If the test is deterministic, does the game show you (or even allow you to use) options with tests that it knows you cannot succeed?

On one hand, it does show players what they might work towards, whilst on the other hand it can look a lot like an invitation to try and “game” their character build towards certain solutions.

Randomized tests, on the other hand, might cause players to save before every test and reload until they succeed.

Hidden Difficulty?

Does the game explicitly show the difficulty of the test? If so, how is this expressed to the player? By a form of difficulty class (“DC 15” – what does that even mean?) or a percentage chance of success?

Do you need to foreshadow the consequences of failing the test?

PILLARS-OF-ETERNITY fantasy rpg party-based pillars eternity ...
Pillars of Eternity

Going back to the solution chosen in Fallout: New Vegas (showing you both “legal” and “illegal” choices AND their difficulty), this removes a lot of the uncertainty or risk associated with the test.

On the other hand, it also makes it 100% clear what is required of the player and allows them to make well informed choices both on how to deal with the situation at hand and as to how they should develop their character.

Some Advice

The following is a handful of principles I’ve arrived at when working on implementing attribute tests in SKALD. This is my subjective and semi-professional (at best) opinion so take it for what it is.

Game mechanics are a language

Game mechanics are saturated with meaning and when we use them, we are “talking” to the player. Presenting the player with a dialogue option to use their Athletics skill might mean that we are saying “Hey, there is a cool reward behind this option for players who invested in athletics!” or we might be saying “You better have a decent athletics stat or the game will punish you”.

The thing is, even if we don’t explicitly include a message, players will supply their own. So in other words: It’s a good idea to figure out what you’re trying to say with your tests and then keep that message consistent.

Looks like the Outer Worlds will have full dialogue trees and ...
The Outer Worlds

Don’t set traps for your players

Tying in with the point above, you should never create traps for your players with your tests. This doesn’t mean that tests can’t have severe consequences for failure. It does, however mean, that if they DO have severe consequences, this should be clearly communicated throughout the game.

For instance, say your game hasn’t punished the player for attempting tests in which they have low chance of success so far. Then, suddenly you including a test where failure causes automatic player death. This is usually poor design – not because the consequence was harsh, but because the player had no way of anticipating it.

So to reiterate: keep the message consistent!

Don’t fight human nature

We don’t really get to decide how people play the game. If you include difficult tests with severe consequences, players will save-scum. If you gate cool content behind certain skill-tests, players will speculate in “gaming” that skill.

It’s usually a bad idea to try and sanction such behaviors. Instead, try to ask yourself why the players are acting the way they do.

KOTOR 1 v. KOTOR 2 Part 1 Redux - Star Wars: Knights of the Old ...
Knights of the Old Republic

In terms of attribute tests, the answer is often that players don’t like being punished and they HATE having things taken away or kept from them. You might need to…

Make Failure interesting

This is a big one! For narrative design in RPGs, I would say it’s a bit of a holy grail. As any tabletop RPG player will tell you, the most fun sessions are often the result of failed skill checks. How to pull this off is a big topic and I’m can only supply my personal take on it.

As a general rule, I would say that a good starting point is to avoid making failures feel like punishment. The players don’t control the roll of the dice and if a player ends up feeling like they are being punished for failing a 95% test they might (rightfully) feel unfairly treated.

One way of “improving” failures is to offer rewards whether the player succeeds or not but give a bigger reward for a success. Players love rewards and they especially hate missing out on stuff due to the roll of the dice.

Example:A player is using Diplomacy to try and get information on a subject from an informant. A failure might still yield the relevant information whereas a success will additionally have the informant give the player an interesting rumor that leads to a hidden reward.

Another approach is to consider a test as a narrative branching point where both branches (success or failure) are equally valid but play out differently.

Example: The players are trying to get into a castle and they attempt to either sneak or talk their way past the guards. If they succeed: Fine! But if they fail, instead of forcing the players to now kill their way through the whole castle, the guards might give the players an option to surrender and the players might find themselves in a cell they now need to escape from by inciting a prisoner revolt.

What techniques do you use for making failure interesting? I’d sure love to hear them!

Don’t mix tests and choices

Attribute tests are often presented in the same setting as choices (e.g. moral, tactical or thematic choices). Be careful if you overlay a moral choice onto a skill check.

Let’s say the player is interrogating a prisoner and the two choices are to either hurt the prisoner or use diplomacy to get what you need. So far so good.

The issue becomes when the writer phrases the diplomacy option as the player threatening to kill the prisoners family.

The player might have played their character as a charming witty bard up to this point but now you’re forcing the player to chose between using their favorite skill or acting out-of-character.

An example of this is occurring in the first image of this post. There we see a conflict where I’ve made it so that using diplomacy requires you to be kind of an asshole. Not good design at all.

You'll Be Surprised What Percent Of 'Mass Effect' Players Chose ...
Mass Effect

Don’t make dump-stats

Does your game have 8 skills that are all used in attribute tests? Make sure they all get enough screen time throughout the game or it might feel like a trap to invest in one of them. In general, I think it’s better to have a handful of well utilized attributes rather than a lot of underused attributes.

In Closing

I’m writing this article because it helps me to explore the subject for my own part. I certainly don’t have all the answers and if you have comments, ideas or differing perspectives I would love to hear them!

Feel free to look me up on Twitter or join the SKALD Discord “game development” sub-channel to discuss the subject in more depth!

But before you go…

Introducing: “Corven – Path of Redemption”

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re an Ultima fan! Well, I’ve got some great Kickstarter-news for you:

Corven – Path of Redemption is a story-driven, open world RPG inspired by the Ultima series. Richard Garriott contributed to the storyline and his alter ego “Lord British” appears in the game! Check out their Kickstarter page where you can find a trailer and a playable demo, and consider becoming a backer to make this spiritual Ultima successor happen!


That’s all for now! Have a fantastic day everyone!

Cheers!

What a Time to be an RPG Lover!

Hi everyone! I thought I’d write a short post to give you all a short update on SKALD, show off some excellent art and do some signal boosting for one of my awesome RPG-colleagues (more on that below).

Stalking deer or mercenaries: Tall grass confirmed!

A New Partner: Innovation Norway

Fantastic news: SKALD has been accepted to receive a business-development stipend from the Norwegian governmental org Innovation Norway.

This puts the company in good financial shape, and though I’m still not at the “quit your day-job” level, it means I now have a much greater degree of economic freedom for SKALD and beyond.

A big “thank you” goes out to Aksel Brasøy and Innovation Norway!

The SKALD Beta: Lessons Learned

The first part of the Beta has been out for a few weeks now and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback. I’m hugely relieved to say the feedback is very good and very constructive. It goes to show what an amazingly supportive community SKALD has.

This John Henderson piece is just jaw-dropping. Note how the fog interacts with the characters! Believe me when I say you’ll be well acquainted with these guys by the end of the game.

Implementing content is an iterative process: Using the SKALD tools to create content, test the content, evaluate the tools, update the tools. A classic trap for projects like this is painting yourself into a corner with complexity rising to such a degree that it causes the project to become unmanageable. I think we’re doing a very good job in keeping SKALD in the green by spending a LOT of time polishing the content pipeline and our workflows.

The “Far House” perched on a bluff over the raging seas. By Scott Hartill. Note the dream-like sky in the establishing shots. We use the starry skies to to give the images a haunting “cosmic” aperance.

Some of the lessons I’ve taken away from producing the first part of the Beta:

  • Life is too short for bad tools: Spending an hour polishing the implementation tools saves 3 hours down the line.
  • Automate as much as possible: If you find yourself creating similar content over and over, there might be a room for automation. Even if the time saved seems trivial, it often adds up. Removing “friction” allows you to stay in the zone longer!
  • Scripting in the narrative content is the secret sauce: It makes the world feel responsive and alive. It’s important that scripting is easy, safe and reliable.
  • Don’t dwell on a problem if you get stuck or demotivated: There is always another part of the project in need of attention and some of it is bound to be interesting.

The Next Step

The game is being implemented in chronological order and I’m currently working on chapter 1: The Isle of Idra.

The plan is to implement a few of the first areas that players can explore and play around in and then release an updated version of the Beta sometime in June. This will still be available to all backers – we’re not quite at the point where we move to a proper “closed Beta”.

More of the cold, uncaring stars!

Keep in mind that the priority at this point is to get the narrative down before the “crunch”. This means that for the Beta you’ll have the main narrative rolled out first, then side content, and then feats, spells, equipment etc.

SKALD is going to be a game with a great story set in an interesting and interactive setting so that’s our number 1 priority right now. Just stay posted and good things will be arriving in your inbox before you know it!

Speaking of good things…

Knights of the Chalice 2 is live! Huzzah!

Knights of the Chalice 2 is now live on Kickstarter! I just backed it and so should you! NOW!

Knights of the Chalice 2 is a party-based epic computer role-playing game with turn-based combat for Windows and Mac OS. KotC 2 is inspired by Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights 2, Temple of Elemental Evil and Planescape: Torment. Just like the first game, KotC 2 uses the OGL 3.5, the ruleset at the root of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5.

The Kickstarter campaign will support the creation of future KotC 2 adventure modules, improve the game’s graphics and facilitate the addition of new character classes and other features.

The first KotC 2 adventure module, Augury of Chaos, and the KotC 2 module and campaign editor for Windows and Mac OS will be released to Kickstarter backers as soon as the campaign ends.

In KotC 2: Augury of Chaos, your Heroic Party confronts a group of Evil Fanatics allied with various Demons and Fiendish Dragons. Blast your enemies with more than 700 spells, bull-rush them into spike pits, trick them with your superior guile, or crush them with your enchanted greatsword! See them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women, as your valiant party progresses all the way from level 1 to level 21.


If you want to get in touch, the easiest way is via the Discord-channel.

Beyond that you can always reach me at contact(at)skaldrpg.com or on twitter.

Have a great day!

AL

Update: Last Shot at the Physical version!

“SKALD: Against the Black Priory” is now entering it FINAL WEEK on Indiegogo! This means that this is the last chance EVER to back the game and receive the physical rewards.

We’re talking a big-box, manuals, cloth maps and a bunch of merch!

Check out the Indiegogo campaign NOW!

Already a backer? Feel free to help spread the word on any CRPG-friendly
forums or social media so all your friends get a chance to join our community!

The Wildlife of Idra

I’m stoked to get to show off some of these awesome pieces by awesome pixel-master John Henderson!

These latest pieces features some of the disturbing and horrid critters of the game’s first chapter! Don’t worry: These guys will show up in the Beta before you know it!

Matt Chat

Lastly, I just did another interview on “Matt Chat”! Be sure to check it out!

See you soon!

These are exciting days for SKALD and I can’t wait to get you the next Beta build! For now, be sure to follow SKALD on Twitter and join us on Discord!

Ok – bye!

AL

Beta v. 1.0.0 is up

Hello everyone!

The time is finally here: I happy to announce that the first tiny piece of the Beta build is finally up!

It’s short and sweet and consists of the games prologue. It should take about 15-20 minutes to play through and you can consider it an interactive trailer of sorts . It also should give you a pretty good idea of where the game is going.

How do I get it?

If you’re a backer: Just use the itch.io link you got for the Alpha demo. It should take you right to the game’s Itch page and there you should find the Beta build easy as pie. If you’ve lost your link, get in touch with me and I’ll hook you up.

If you’re not a backer: Back the game on indiegogo today to become part of the project!

The Next Step

Beta 1.0.0 is for all backers and a handful of friends of the community. As beta-development proceeds, backers of KNIGHT-tier and higher will get a brand new key so they can follow the closed beta development. 

Feedback and reaching out

By far, my preferred way of getting feedback in the demo is via the Discord-channel. We have sub-channels set up for that express purpose and keeping things in one place makes it a lot easier for me to review. 

Beyond that you can always reach me at contact(at)skaldrpg.com or on twitter.

Hope you all enjoy the demo! 

AL

World-Building: The Storm Rises

Greetings SKALD-fans! I’m currently doing a lot of world building and design on the magic-systems and users of the SKALDiverse (more to follow). In that regard I wrote a very short fiction about what it feels like to cast a high-level spell that I though I’d share with you.

This image by MementoMoree has nothing to do with today’s post but it’s fresh of the press and I think it’s amazing.

For next week I plan to do a world-building article about the different “courts” of mages and probably a project update as well.

As always, feel free to join our discord or follow me on Twitter if you want to engage more closely with the project.

Stay safe and have a great day – AL


“Form up!”

Her voice was hoarse from exertion, but the thin line of soldiers that surrounded her obeyed without hesitation. The guards’ polished, silver-inlaid armor and crested helms marked them as among the finest soldiery of the Constellation. 

Alryna grabbed the officer by his pauldron and bellowed into his ear over the din of battle.

“We must buy more time for the garrison! I need two minutes. Your men must hold!”

The man’s face grew ashen. She held his gaze, unwavering, until he set his jaw and nodded determinedly. The line would hold – it had to.

Two sharp notes sounded from the officer’s flute. The signal pierced the low rumble of heavy, marching feet and snarling beasts that surrounded the beleaguered rearguard. Reacting instinctively, the soldiers adjusted their left flank. 

Alryna unclasped her cloak, and the rich, crimson fabric was whisked away by the canyon’s howling wind. She adjusted the cords of her mage-harness and closed her eyes as another wave of flesh-eaters smashed into the thin, silver battle-line. 

As she drew a breath, the chaos of battle grew muffled: as though perceived from deep beneath calm waters. Becoming a battle-magos took years of training – and it had been hard for Alryna – but she had persevered and now the shadows of her doubt had been almost completely washed away by the raging force of the Reticulum. Almost.

Here it came! The now-familiar feeling: first like brushing a finger over an enraged and icy river; then the sudden shift of perspective as if stepping off an unseen ledge in the darkness or feeling your mind expand in that instance when you fall asleep and begin to dream.

Then the stench of charred hair and flesh flooded the battlefield – wait – not yet! These were pre-memories! The Reticulum felt unpredictable and dangerous: Like a wounded beast. 

A storm brewed – not one of rain or lightning – but a maelstrom of heavy light and thrumming harmonics that refracted into unnamable colors. And Alryna at its eye – willing the maelstrom of Reticular energy to infuse her very being. 

The chains of her harness began to crackle, the energy arcing towards the silver plated armor of the men around her. Common men would flee in horror at the touch of that terrible light – burning them without heat. Even the hardiest of veteran would relent under the maddening howls that rose during great manifestations of the Reticulum.

But these were not ordinary men. They were elite legionaries, handpicked to fight alongside,  or even against, those who wielded the forces of the Reticulum. And so they did not break. Not as rank upon rank of flesh-eaters had their flesh scoured by Reticular light. And they did not break, chanting their hypno-indoctrinated litanies as the howls drove the flesh-eaters insane with fear.

Though Alryna could no longer feel her legs, she was aware of the ground shaking. She stood now at the threshold, her self-hood slowly peeling away like white petals of the orchids that grew in the Imperial Gardens. Suddenly there was a lull in the carnage. The enemy’s charge faltered. A brief moment of respite, perhaps? Alryna knew better than to hope – no, this was the eternal doubt – but her steel heart would not yield. 

“Hold the line!” She forced the order from behind grinding teeth. She could only hope the officer heard her over the din of chants and wails.    

Their foe began to reorganise. The flesh-eaters who had fled from the first charge were trampled to death by the onrush of fresh monstrosities. The thin, silver line could not hold them back. But she hoped they could slow them down.

“HOLD!” She cried again. As much a prayer as a command – she needed more time. Three sharp notes from the officers pipe signaled the assault and the dozen remaining silver ghosts charged against the oncoming horde. A hopeless charge but Alryna would spend the precious seconds their lives bought well. She cried out in pain and rage, and the sky turned inside out.

For a brief glimpse she saw golden spires rise above lush primordial forests.


The ragged column of men had retreated well beyond the canyon. Now, they stopped in their tracks as the ground heaved. The captain’s horse reared in panic and a second later he saw a blinding flash cut through the canyon far behind them, like a rend in the sky. He gasped in awe as the canyon walls shrugged and then crashed down into the valley, causing another violent tremor. His stunned men cowered in terror.

Then the stench of charred hair and flesh flooded the battlefield and the men began retching.

He had been terrified of her from the moment she arrived. Terrified of what she represented. Now they were alone. Even if they managed to hold the city until reinforcements arrived, the High Court would surely scapegoat him for the loss of the priceless Battle-Magos. But that would have to wait. She had bought them time to take that chance, and he swore to reserve his final blessing for that terrible woman in the crimson cloak.

He tore his eyes from the distant carnage: “Make haste for the city-walls!”


Project Update

It’s time for a project update!

I’m a bit late with this one. I apologize for this but believe me when I say this is not because I’ve been lazy! Quite the contrary, the development currently has a lot of momentum and the game is evolving at a pace where it’s hard to even sit down and take a snapshot of it!

So with that being said, it’s time to dig in!

New Features

The game has gained a ton of new features. I’ve implemented basic stealth, jumping from ledges, improved combat auto-resolving, added more features to the auto map (though it’s still an unfinished feature) and added a bunch of quality-of-life improvements and bug-fixes.

I’ve done a lot of work under the hood in terms of how maps are made – allowing for a lot more complex maps to be made. Even more interestingly, I’m currently working hard on getting a dedicated non-Unity based tool for creating game content. Not only will this be invaluable to actually making the game’s content (the actual plot and maps); it will also lay the foundation for a map-, and game editor for you players.

As you can see I’ve also made combats even more fancy with bigger backgrounds as well as added lots of particle effects and movement to make combats more visually appealing.

The project has also arrived at the point where I’ve started to commission assets that will go in the final game! This means stunning pixel art, fantastic music and amazing writing! I can’t wait to show it off!

The Road Ahead

The original road-map called for the game to enter beta development around January of 2020. I’ve been behind schedule on this goal, and I would say the game is in closed beta right now! This means I’m creating and testing the workflows that will take tons of content and actually put it into the game.

The first sliver of the beta (for backers who are getting beta access) will be out in about a month I hope. This will contain only the prologue of the game and content will then be added successively as it gets produced.

This is another reason I’ve held back on the beta release: I really don’t want to fatigue you guys yet. Once beta testing begins for real, I’m 100% counting on the community for extensive play-testing.

As for the final release I’m gunning for September. I’m fairly certain I can finish the game by then but there is some uncertainty in regards to the physical rewards. This is due to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis and how it is affecting the logistics of physical goods production and distribution. But fear not: You will get both the game and the feelies in good time!

All Right!

If you wanna engage with me more closely or just hang out with our excellent community be sure to join the Discord today!

It’s back to making SKALD for me! Stay safe and have a great day!