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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 in development with a release date of 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 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!

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!

A project update

Hi there!

I just posted an update for my backers on Kickstarter and Indiegogo and I thought I’d post it here as well.

Youtube

We’ve set up a Youtube channel to support the promotion of the game! I’ve posted a few videos so far showing off the parts of the SKALD engine and people seem to like them so I plan to keep it up. 

Thing is, if we can get 100 subscribers I get to make a custom URL for the channel! So let the call to arms ring out: Check out the channel and feel free to subscribe!

Alpha Demo v. 2.0.0

I’m really happy to announce version 2.0.0 of the alpha demo. This one goes out to all backers of the project and you can use your Itch.io key to download it!

Huzza! A new demo is up!

Version 2.0.0 does a major overhaul of the user interface and user experience. Mostly this comes down to making the game more “visual” as well as improving mouse controlls. This does, however come at the expense of polish. There’s a few rough edges in the demo now as it eases into it’s new look but I’ll be sure to iron them out with patches over the coming days.

Back the game on any level on IndieGogo to get instant access to the demo!

Use Discord for giving feedback!

The Road Ahead

The next few steps on the ladder are as follows:

Polish the alpha demo based on feedback. The Alpha is available to all backers.

Once the Alpha is solid, I’ll make a “vertical slice”. This means a very short “slice” of the game that resembles the finished product. This is to stress test all the features before going to beta. The “vertical slice” will be available to backers for the Freeman tier and up. 

After this we move to the beta stage. This means I’ll start stuffing all the actual content into the engine as we flesh out the final product. Beta-testing is available to backers of the Knight tier and up.

Thank you all for following the project so far! Be sure to follow on Twitter and join our Discord to stay posted!

AL

Worldbuilding: Regarding the History of the Gallian Empire

The following is an attempt to explore some of the history of the setting for “SKALD: Against the Black Priory” (currently on Indiegogo). There may be slight SPOILERS AHEAD. You might also want to check out the article on Freymark if you’re interested in the SKALD setting.


Baldwin,

The last time we spoke you implored me to assist you in your study of pre-Imperial history. I refused then. Please forgive me: I acted only with regards to your safety and health. In this age, truth itself has become a precious commodity, and even an Imperial scholar such as myself, must be wary. Some things are simply too terrible to bear, yet too dangerous to speak off.

However, things are now afoot that makes me realize I must share what I know lest they be lost forever. The “smiling man” came to me again! Dressed as a beggar. Nay – a fool! And you would think of him as such with that moronic, terrible grin. But he knows things. Things no man should know. And he asks questions no man should know to ask.

Baldwin, I am not well. My mind is not what it was. The dreams are worse than ever and my thoughts don’t feel like my own anymore.

Enclosed are my notes on the subjects you requested. Have tried as best I can to give an accurate outline but I find I do not even trust my own mind anymore. Make of it what you will, and burn the notes afterwards lest they fall into the wrong hands.

Farewell dear friend,

Agan Vorren

Principal Scholar of History, Imperial College at Vaaul

The Dawn of History

Our world is old. Much older that they would have you believe. In fact, it can be said that our Empire is but a flicker in the great fire of history. Empires have risen and fallen before and they will do so again.

The Starstriders

The dreaming oracles of Shaddu-Wa tell of beings that sometimes whisper in their dreams: Ancient beings who the oracles call the altheryn*.

The oracles talk of visions of how the altheryn were already ancient when they found our world. How they constructed their marvelous, white towers. How they bent the very fabric of space and time to their will.

How, in their folly, they drew the attention of nightmares and madness given form: The Hashitan Titans, the Sleeping Old Ones, the Ur-Dragons. Whatever the name, it was chaos incarnate and it had come for the altheryn across gulfs of space and time.

* We would call them “starstriders”.

The War of TITAns

Perhaps the oracles had grown addled by their love of the poppy. But there are other sources as well: Certain tablets of immeasurable age, found on the plains of Vahari, that are covered in images both fascinating and terrifying.

Check out the Cthulhu tablet by The Vaults of McTavish !

I have seen them myself: They show the altheryn, tall, ivory-skinned beings with terrible black eyes, waging war with beasts too grotesque for words. Behemoths of pure chaos that tore down their white cities, ground their bones to dust and feasted on their souls.

Alygon of Yrr* once claimed to have preformed a ritual so powerful, it tore her mind out of time. She claimed to have seen with her own inner-eye how the altheryn retreated through great gateways to lands beyond the stars and how the High King of the starstriders remained behind to seal the gateways from the titans.

She also tells of how, when the writhing mass of chaos fell upon the High King, his death unleashed so much energy that it lay the mountains low and created the reticulum itself: An intricate, magical lacework that enveloped the world and drove the titans back into the voids **.

* Alygon of Yrr was driven quite mad by the experience and we must be careful in placing too much trust in her accounts.

** The reticulum is also the source of all Imperial magic as we know it.

The First Age: THe long dark

Following the altheryan exodus, millennia passed: Ice-ages came and went and continents shifted. How many lesser races and empires rose and fell one can only speculate.

What is know, is that at some point, humankind arose into a warm and damp world covered by jungles and ruled by the cruel lizard-like saurans.

Humans was hunted for food and sport by the saurans and were forced to cower the polar regions where it was too cold for the saurans to follow them. It was through the crucible of the saurans reign of terror that the great human tribes formed in the First Age.

Mastering steel and magic, the first great kings and queens of men led their people in the first great war – driving the saurans from the land and establishing the Second Age.

The Second Age: Rise of an Empire

The Second Age marks a period of expansion for humankind. Spreading from continent to continent, petty kings and warlords fought, conquered and built.

Though it was an age of growth, it was also an age of mysticism, ignorance and war. The strong enslaved the weak and the ground ran red with blood. The cruelty of the men of the Second Age had come to rival that of the saurans they had driven from the land only centuries before.

Into the chaos of the second age, a child was born. Some will have it that he was born to three mothers or that he was descendant from the stars or perhaps that he was the last descendant of a lost line of kings dating back to the first age*. No matter his origin, the boy was named Gallian.

Whether he studied the arcane arts or simply was gifted from birth, the boy grew to become a wizard of immense power. The young man also had an uncanny charisma that drew people to him.

Fanatical followers quickly flocked around Gallian, and it was not long before he drew the ire of the petty wizard-kings and warlords of the region. Whether he ever wanted it or not, destiny was thrust upon the would-be Emperor.

The struggle that followed is well documented in the Imperial canon and though heretical tongues may have differing views, we all know the result: The founding of the Gallian Empire and ushering in of the Third Age.

* Heretics will have it that he was born in a field to simple goat-farmers. They would be flayed for claiming as much.

THe Third Age: The Gallian Empire

With the foundation of the Gallian Empire came a period of unparalleled stability, growth and prosperity. The so called “Gallian Miracles” turned deserts into farmland and glaciers into gardens. Imperial armies conquered all of the known world and the Empire spanned continents. All at the behest of the magnificent Gallian the Great.

For nearly a century he ruled, first among the great wizards. Then, as Imperial orthodoxy will have it, without warning Galling the Great disappeared. The canon will say he transcended his human form and rose to the stars in a flash of light.*

Following the disappearance of Gallian the Great, the Empire has seen seven Emperors. For two millennia they have guided the Empire: some competently, others less so. Though non could rival the power of Gallian himself, they were all spell-casters of formidable power, drawn from the Emperor’s ruling council of High Wizards. They were the “husk lords” of the Empire.

It is posited in the great Edun-Wahit texts on the nature of magic, that all magic in the Empire (or the world for that sake) flows from the altheryan reticulum: The magical lattice that drove the Hasithan titans from the world. There can be no doubt that the Empire’s dependency on the reticulum is like that of a babe to its mothers teat.

Drawing their power from the reticulum, mages can call forth fire and arcane energies, they may bind flesh or bend mind. Mere conjurers tricks! The Edun-Wahits will warn that the reticulum offers even more arcane mysteries: It is not simply a construct that exists in space, but also in multiple dimensions of time. Drawing deeply from the reticulum a magic-user may experience prescience and even the gift of an unnaturally long life.

Have you noticed how the Emperors have longer and longer reigns? Gallian the Great ruled for nearly a century. Arrion the Gray has ruled for nearly five centuries.

* Before he was burned alive, Brendon of Othar, former Imperial Chamberlain, claimed that the Emperor was meditating in the garden of the Imperial palace when “one moment he was there, the other he was not”.

The Final Imperial COnclave

They will burn me alive for writing this, so I beg of you: Read no further! Throw these notes in the fire – It is the ramblings of a mad man! Carry on your life as if you never knew me and enjoy what worldly pleasures your home and family can offer you!

If you must read on, this is what I have shall pay so dearly for: Every seven years the High-Wizards convened with the Emperor himself in a great conclave. Sealing themselves in the Imperial Palace for seven days and seven nights they convende and when they re-emerged, the course for the Empire would be laid out for the following seven years.

But there is more. There say there were rituals. Rituals older than Gallian himself, spoken in the ancient sauren tongue on those conclaves! The saurens understood how the reticulum “blessed” those who drew deeply from it – the long life it offered.

You too must remember the Great Rending 13 years ago? When great tremors toppled castles and giant waves crashed into cities all across the Empire? A common, but powerful earthquake the scholars said. It took my sweet Caryna from us, killed thousands, yet no one will talk about how those sensitive to such things suffered unnaturally gruesome nightmares for months afterwards. For some of us, the nightmares persist to this day!

Thomas Cole: The Fall of Rome
Thomas Cole: The Fall of Rome

And the Miracles are failing too! The Cloudspires of Aldon spew black smoke now and the Canals of Garomma flood with foul ichor instead of water! They say even the great Forges have gone out. Deserts are returning, crops fail and hundreds of thousands flee their homes to avoid famine. Worse yet: It does not flow the way it should anymore. The magic! It has become dangerous and unpredictable and the disturbance only seems to worsening.

I have done the calculations Baldwin: The day of the Great Rending fell on the last day of the last Imperial Conclave. Don’t you see: They must have torn it! The High-Wizards, in their greed, must have drunken too deeply from the reticulum! Gallian bless us, now they stir in the dark. The smell of terror has awoken them!

In fact, I fear they are already here.

Post Script

My Lord High Wizard,

The above letter was intercepted en route to a certain Baldwin of Hawkwind in the Freymark Hinterlands. Due to the “sensitive” nature of the letters content I found it best to inform your excellence of its existence.

The author was found dead by his own hand (self-immolation), and I have dispatched agents to track down, and deal with, the letter’s would-be recipient post haste.

Senseless ramblings of a mad man no doubt, but I feel it is still prudent to strike swift and hard in such cases.

Your humble servant,

Therrian Graas
Master of the Silver Knights

Worldbuilding: Freymark and the Outer Isles

I’m writing this as a backdrop for the upcoming CRPG “SKALD: Against the Black Priory”. The game is currently funding on Indiegogo and you should check it out now!

For me writing posts like these is a nice way of fleshing out the setting for the upcoming game. Thus, everything I write is a work in progress and prone to change down the line. I’ll try to keep it spoiler free and I’ll keep the big plot twists to myself.

I don’t allow the use of the SKALD universe and setting in other commercial products. However, I would love it if anyone used it in their own homebrew tabletop RPG campaigns! If you want to discuss the setting with me directly, join us on the SKALD Discord!

The following is a macro-level overview of the greater region in which “SKALD: Against the Black Priory” is set. I also recommend having a look at this post about the Gallian Empire before reading on.

The Freymark and the Outer Isles

The northernmost province of the Gallian Empire. Independent and rich in natural resources, the region is now being torn apart by conflict as the land-owning Thanes attempt to secede from Imperial dominion. All the while, at the fringes of the region, a terrifying corruption is slowly creeping into the land.

History of the Freymark

Legends say that when the first pre-imperial tribes wandered into the Freymark from the south they found the land free of other humans. Only the ancient and menacing stone ruins found deep in the forests hinted that they might not be the first people to set foot in this land.

As the Gallian Empire arose in the south, the Freymark with it’s grand wilderness and unlimited natural resources quickly became a target for Imperial expansion. Countless unsuccessful attempts to subjugate the people of the north followed over the ensuing centuries, with the result that the Empire adopted a stance of relative self-rule for the region. The Thanes (heads of the local nobility) were formally recognized as kings in their respective territories – answerable only to the Emperor himself in exchange for providing taxes and soldiers for the Imperial armies.

Could just as well be Adler’s Helm!

Perhaps the reason for the regions relative independence is that the Imperials were terrified of the deep darkness of the wilderness at the edge of civilization.

Unlike many other parts of the Empire, the Freymark was never the site of the so called Imperial “miracles”: Large scale magical terraforming efforts that turned deserts into gardens and barren wastes into wineries. This also means that as the miracle throughout the Empire collapse, the Freymark remains largely unaffected.

The result is a significant rise in relative wealth as the Freymark is fast sailing up to become the breadbasket of the Empire and a haven for refugees fleeing from the failing ecological “miracles” of the south.

This new-found strategic importance is not lost on the Thanes and their “Freythen” followers (northern nationalists). The people of Freymark see this as an opportunity to establish themselves as a sovreign nation free of the Imperial yoke.

And as the Thanes and the Imperials squabble, something dark is creeping into the lands of the Freymark. Wild magic users are on the rise despite the Empires fervent attempts at purging them and even the ritualized arts of the chartered Imperial mages has grown terrifyingly unpredictable.

Art by Artem Demura, stargrave24@gmail.com

Worse still, those who rove deep into the wilds whisper stories of unnatural lights in the sky, strange stone structures and grotesque creatures roaming the land. There are even rumors of unborn children being stolen from their sleeping mothers, and farmers or even whole villages, disappearing without a trace.

It is as if a something is clawing at the sanity of the people of the Freymark. Some would say it’s the threat of war that is taking its toll. Others might suggest that it is in fact this latent, low-grade terror that is causing the surge in political violence in the region.

Geography and Climate

The Freymark is a rugged land where deep fjords give way to wooded hills and steep alpine mountains. The winters are long and dark, and the summers are all too brief. It’s forest teem with bandits, wolves and worse dangers still. Many a fortune-seeker or frontiersman has lost their mind, or life, in the vast wilderness of the Freymark.

A veeeeeery rough overview.

The Freymark can be roughly divided into five regions:

Adler’s Helm

A grand bastion of stone and steel, Alder’s Helm is the center of Imperial power in the Freymark. The city is home to roughly 100.000 souls and lies strategically placed between the Mark and the Hinterlands. It’s marvelous, all-year ice-free port, makes it the hub through which all trade in the region flows. It is also the seat of the Imperial ruler of the Freymark: The High Wizard, Othonaric.

Fortified and granite-gray, Adler’s Helm is nontheless a beacon of Imperial might in the north.

The Mark

Stretching from Adler’s Helm in the north, to the frontier of the Imperial heartlands in the south, the Mark is a series of interconnected dales transversed by the Great Northern Road. The rough hills are dotted with farmsteads raising crops of barley and herds of goats and sheep. The Mark answers directly to the High Wizard of Adler’s Helm himself.

The rolling, rugged landscape, and stone architecture of Scotland should be a great fit for the Mark.

Maintaining control of the Mark is critical to Imperial power in the region since the Great Northern Road provides one of only two lines of communication between Adler’s Helm and the Imperial heartland (the other being by sea).

As a result, the Mark is kept relatively safe by Imperial knights patrolling the highway and the Imperial garrison of Adler’s Helm keeps a watchful eye towards the north and the lands of the Thanes.

The Hinterlands

North of Adlers Helm, the land grows wild and grand. This is the land ruled over by the Thanes and it is the true northern frontier of the Empire. Fraught with both peril and great opportunity, this is a land that forges strong men and women.

The hinterlands are far more alpine than the Mark and looks a bit like the Canadian Rockeys perhaps?

The Thanes keep their holds in the deep mountain valleys, fjords and forests of the Hinterlands, from Adler’s Helm and all the way to the icy glaciers of the northern Skywall.

The Outer Isles

Off the northern mainland lies an archipelago of windswept, gray islands. Though they are far from the rest of the Freymark, the port of Horryn on the isle of Idra is strategically situated between Adler’s Helm and outlying Imperial holdings. Serving as a hub for shipping and trade, the port connects the Freymark to a greater network of trade routes.

The islands are therefore considered part of the domain of the High Wizard in Adler’s Helms and is ruled in his stead by an Imperial governor.

The Outer Isles are inspired by the North-Sea Islands

At one point the islands were home to several prosperous fishing villages and ports. As of late, these have been reduced to a scant handful and the islanders grow poor and desperate.

The Skywall and beyond

To the north of the Hinterlands, a near impassable wall of glacial ice marks the far northern end of the Freymark. Known as the Skywall, the icy ramparts conceal a platau upon which, no citizens of the Empire has set foot.

At the mountains of madness

Many are the fabeled tales of what lies beyond the Skywall: From peaks that reach impossible heights to giant ice-covered cities. What is certain however, is that the changing climate is causing the Skywall to melt. Each year new rivers form as ice and water is carried towards the sea from the crumbling glaciers.

Politics and Economy

Though it may seem a harsh and unforgiving place, the Freymark is also a land of plenty: fjords teem with fish, the hills are full of ore and the forests are full of timber and game. It’s said that northern ore and coal fuel the Imperial forges.

In fact, the unlimited natural resources and endless tracts of land were always a prime motivator for Imperial encroachment into the Freymark.

Despite being an early addition to the Empire, the central Imperial court has never held much direct control over the Freymark.

Particularly in the vast Hinterlands, the Thanes have a long tradition of relative autonomy with relatively little interference from the High Wizard of Adler’s Helm. Imperial influence has instead been maintained by political manipulation, strict trade monopolies and frequent penal expeditions rather that an established military presence far beyond the walls of Adler’s Helm.

Now, as the Empire begins to crumble, the rich natural resources of the north are finding their way to new ports and providing an influx of wealth and political power to the holds of the Thanes.

Combining a newfound internal unity with their rich holds and well-equipped armies, the Thanes now stand poised to challenge the Empire itself for control of their ancestral lands and untethering the Freymark from the dying Empire.

Fearing that the secession of Freymark would be disastrous for the Empire, the Emperors fist tightens around the province as armies are mustered to march north and suppress the fledgling uprising. Taxes are collected even more fiercely and any sign of rebellion in loyalist areas are met with swift Imperial justice.

The People

The vast expanse of the Freymark has always been a land of opportunity, fresh starts and potential wealth. Citizens from all corners of the Empire have heard it’s siren song and as a result the people of the Freymark are a diverse lot.

What they have in common however, is a spirit of industriousness, self-reliance and independence forged by the harsh environment of the north. Be they soldiers, farmers, woodsmen, merchants or sailors the people of Freymark are hard-working and no-nonsense.

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As the Thane uprising escalates, the people of the Freymark are increasingly forced to pick sides between the Imperial loyalists and the rebellious “Freythen”.

Factions of the Freymark

The Gallian EMpire

The Imperial ruler of the Freymark is the High Wizard, Othonaric. He rules from the Imperial Citadel in Adler’s Helm and answers only to the Emperor himself.

Though he has lived an unnaturally long life, the high Wizard is secretive in the extreme and little is know about him. His total disappearance from public life lately, has even led to rumors that he is in fact dead and has been so for years.

The Imperial garrison in Alder’s Helm is well trained and equipped but relatively small. If it comes to war it will not be able to hold the city for long against the armies of the Thanes. The city also has a contingent of the “Order of the Silver Knights”: An elite knightly order tasked with exterminating wild and unchartered magic-user.

Though Imperial support is vaning in the Freymark, there are still large groups of loyalists in Adler’s Helm, and to a degree, in the Mark. The loyalists believe that the Freymark must remain part of the Empire and that the Thanes’ uprising is an act of high treason.

THANES and The Freythen

The Thanes of the Freymark have united under the banner of Queen Erryan of Hawkwind. She rose to become first among the Thanes following a short but bloddy internal power struggle and has begun using the title “Queen of the Freymark”

What internal animosity may have existed between the Thanes, has put aside (for now) as their holds in the Hinterland have begun preparing for the coming war of independence.

The Thanes have broad support among the population of the north from the political movement known as the “Freythen”. Freythen are nationalists who see the Empire as an oppressive, occupying force who must be driven out so Freymark can gain sovereignty.

Rovers

“Rovers” is a term used for the increasingly large group of people who shun society to live deep in the wilderness in an attempt to escape the harsh taxation and brewing war.

Whole communities exist, either in small hidden farmsteads or as nomadic groups, subsiding on what nature has to offer whilst waiting for the coming storm to pass. Rovers are considered bandits and outlaws by the Empire and disloyal cowards by the Thanes and perhaps not without good reason: As hunger sets in, some groups of rovers may certainly turn to highway-robbery and theft to survive.

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The Tradewind Mercantile League

The Tradewind Mercantile League is a powerful, private merchant league that has taken root in the Empire. Renown for it’s cadre of magically enhanced navigators, excellent ships and private army, the league is said to be powerful enough to rival entire kingdoms, and perhaps, even the Empire itself.

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In general the league is distrusted and despised, but the factions of the Freymark are both fully dependent on them: The Empire for shipping supplies into Adler’s Helm and the Thanes for giving their goods a rout onto the greater trade market.

Adventuring in the Freymark

Be it exploring the wilderness and the back-streets of Adler’s Helm, smuggling arms in the Outer Isles or siding with either faction of the Thane uprising, there’s plenty of opportunities for adventure in the Freymark.

The feel of the region should be an area in which the status quo stands on a knifes edge as political tension rises. The players should have a feeling of events unfolding around them and yet they should also feel that interacting with events will have an impact on the conflict.

All the while, there should be a distinct feeling of terror as something dark and terrible is slowly enveloping the region. It should remain mostly unseen and intangible for now and yet be a distinct presence.

I’ll include some adventure hooks to get you started:

The king of foxes

After the power struggle that put Erryan of Hawkwind in charge of the Thane uprising, several of her opponents fled the Hinterlands. One of them is currently hiding in the Mark and has taken up the moniker “the King of Foxes”. He currently leads a band of rovers that has turned to preying on Imperial convoys as highway men.

The Imperials will not tolerate any threat to their overland supplyroutes and the Thanes see that the King of Foxes could be a strategic ally with his guerilla army in potential conflict. Either way, the characters are tasked with tracking him down.

They must not only find the band’s secret hideout, but also get close enough to the King of Foxes that they can either assassinate him or convince him to join in the Thane uprising.

Against the Rocks

A smuggler vessel is lost as it runs aground on a barren rock island in the outer Isles. The ship was carrying cargo essential to the Thane uprising and the heroes must mount a rescue operation. The problem is that even navigating this stretch of ocean is a challenge and the Imperial navy is also out to recover the cargo.

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Art by Martin Deschambault

Perhaps the heroes must attempt to bargain with (or burglarize) the Tradewind League to gain access to sea-charts that can help them reach the wreckage before their Imperial counterparts?

No doubt this ends in a showdown at the site of the wreck. As a final twist, the island might not even be completely deserted!

In the ice

Two hundred years ago an Imperial expedition attempted to traverse the Skywall. Two weeks ago a man wanders into a Thane hold and claims to be the last survivor of that expedition. Though he refuses to reveal what they found there, he is convinced he has spent no more than two months in the ice.

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Then heavy snow begins to fall, the hold becomes isolated and people start turning up dead.

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