Combat and Adventuring

With SKALD: Against the Black Priory entering the final days of a phenomenally successful Kickstarer, it’s time to squeeze in another article discussing game-play features and design.

Last time, we did some exploration into classes and stats. Today, the subject is the application of the classes and stats! In other words: “Combat and Adventuring”!

Design Pillars

Just like in the “Classes and Stats” article, let’s start with some design pillars for combat and adventuring:

Respect the players time: SKALD is developed for a modern audience and this means allowing players to pick up the game, play a short session and still have a fun experience. This includes reducing book-keeping by adding features such as a journal system and auto-mapping, avoiding grindy areas of pointless content padding, making combat fast and having a forgiving save system that allows the player to save anywhere.

Allow the player to make informed choices: The game should be mostly transparent in how the rules work and how the characters class, stats and roleplaying choices interact with the world. If information is kept from the player there should be a good reason to do so.

Provide multiple solutions to quests: Quests should be solvable by non-combat means and players should be able to play non combat-oriented characters.

Choices matter: The world should be interactive and react to players choices.

Adventuring

Adventuring in SKALD takes one of fours forms:

  • Combat (more on that later)
  • Exploring the environment through the tile-based map
  • Dialogue
  • “Choose your own adventure” sequences
Time to go adventuring! From the classic D&D module “Tomb of Horrors”.

You explore the game-world with a party of up to six characters. At the start of the game, you create a single main character and then recruit characters along the way. I’m considering allowing players to create characters at inns as well, to replace the recruitable characters if they wish.

At any given time, a single character leads the party (you can swap any time). It’s the leader’s skills and abilities that are used when interacting with the world so you should take care to have the right leader at any given time.

The SKALD scripting language is quite powerful in allowing me to reference player skills, abilities and previous player choices in the dialogue and the “choose-your-own-adventure” sequences.

Specifically, this gives me a lot of leeway in creating scenes with multiple solutions beyond combat (I’m taking a big leaf from the early Fallout games here). There should be room for all the different classes, and builds, to shine.

In the interest of transparency, I want as few hidden rolls as possible. If, for instance, a dialogue choice gives you the opportunity to use a skill, the game will tell the player so explicitly.

Combat

Combat is a staple of fantasy RPGs and SKALD is no exception. The basic combat draws upon inspiration from classics such as Wasteland 1 and Bard’s Tale, tabletop RPGs and other, more modern games.

As combat begins, the game switches from the tile-map to the tactical map. The tactical map consts of a background with the combatants animated upon it.

Combat is resolved in order of initiative until all the combatants on one side is either dead or somehow incapacitated.

Combatants do not move freely around the battlefield and combat is not tile-based. Instead the combatants occupy either the front, or rear rank of their formation. The player is of course, free to reorder the party formation during combat to move characters between the front and rear rank.

In general a melee weapon (excluding spears and pole-arms) can only attack the adjacent enemy rank, whilst ranged weapons and exceptionally long weapons can attack more distant ranks.

Bard’s Tale inspired combat in SKALD

For each turn, each combatant can perform a single action (in general). This may be either a normal attack, casting a spell or using an ability. I intend for there to be interactions between different spells and abilities that reward clever planning and an attention to detail.

For now I’m hoping to make combat difficult but not unfair. Party-members are very rarely killed outright in combat. Instead they are knocked out and failure only comes if the entire part is somehow incapacitated. Knocked-out party members come around after combat (albeit at reduced total HP). I’m also playing around with having a sanity score in the game and taking a lot of beatings might impact sanity in the long run.

I’ve chosen to go with this decision because I don’t want combat to prompt constant save-scumming. I would rather you survive most combats but have to make decisions of how far into a dungeon you can push your luck and then having to plan how to get back to a safe port with an injured party. I feel it will make for more memorable gameplay in the end.

Finally, combat has an auto-resolve feature that can be used to resolve full rounds of combat allowing players to blow through easier encounters or finishing combats quickly once they have them “locked down”.

That’s it for now!

This is a work in progress and it might look very different a year from now.

As always, I would love to hear from you if you have questions or comments. Feel free to reach out on twitter or get in touch at (contact at skaldrpg dot com)! Most importantly: SKALD is on Kickstarter till July 3rd and we would love to have your support!

Have a great day!

Classes and Stats

In SKALD: Against the Black Priory you create a single character and then recruit the rest of the party as you go. The game uses classes, numerical stats and feats combined with level based advancement to flesh out its characters. Creating a robust and balanced system for character development is challenging (and immensely rewarding) and I’m going to take my time getting it right.

In other words, this blog-post is a rough draft where we exploring how the character system might look for SKALD: Against the Black Priory.

Nothing wrong with some good old fashion D&D-style classes!

Design Goals and Pillars

As with any design task, it’s always a good idea to set down a few basic pillars and goals to guide the work ahead.

The primary goal for the character system might be something like:

“Character creation and development allows players to express themselves creatively whilst making interesting mechanical choices concerning their character.”

In other words: A player should be able to envision a character (within the games setting) and then create and play that character in-game.

Pillars of Eternity made a lot of interesting design-choices for character development. Some less successful in my opinion.

For design-pillars I’ve chosen these for now:

Balance: Each class should be equally playable. There should be no “dump-stats” or skills. The game should accommodate a wide range of builds and each ability should have something to offer each class.

Transparency: The player should have access (preferably in-game) to all the information required to make meaningful decisions when making, and developing, a character.

Narrative Impact: The choices the players make in character creation should matter in-game. There must be plenty of opportunities to use skills and abilities, and your class should matter in the narrative.

Scalability: The level system should have no “hard” upper level cap. That is, no upper level limit beyond which the system breaks. That’s not to say that the system won’t have a “sweet spot” level-range, within which play is particularly enjoyable. It just means that the system is not mechanically upward limited.

I would also like to refer all my readers to Josh Sawyer’s (Obsidian Entertainment) excellent video on attribute tuning in Pillars of Eternity.

Ability Scores

At the moment I’m working with five ability scores:

Strength: Physical strength and brawn. Affects your ability to do melee damage and your skill in athletics (jumping, climbing, swimming etc.).

Agility: Speed, reflexes and finesse is determined by agility. Affects dodging, initiative, hit-chance and fine-motor skills like thievery.

Fortitude: Physical and mental toughness. Affects willpower, hit points and resistances.

Intellect: Mental faculties. Affects several skills as well as spell-casting. Might also affect how many skill-points you get and perhaps an XP-bonus.

Presence: A measure of your attention to your surroundings and your place within them. Affects your ability to interact with people and animals as well as your perception and attention to detail. Also affects leadership.

Bard’s Tale 3

There is a tendency for “physical” abilities to become overly powerful (especially at lower levels) in RPGs due to combat being prevalent, with the mental abilities becoming dump-stats for many character builds.

As a result I chose to go with five abilities as opposed to the more typical six. I find that three physical and two “mental” abilities seem more balanced whilst still allowing for a range of expression. Furthermore it’s a easier to make each ability relevant to every class with fewer abilities.

Post character creation, ability scores advance very slowly.

Classes

I want SKALD: Against the Black Priory to feature basic classes that are recognizable enough to provide a foundation upon which to build the character you want.

Beyond that I want a lot of flexibility as the game progresses with few (if any) class-exclusive skills or feats. Classes should encourage certain builds, but I like the idea of not imposing too many limitations.

Did someone say min-max? Good thing that Charisma is set to 19!

The six classes in “Against the Black Priory” are as follows:

Warrior: Soldiers, sell-swords and mercenaries. They excel at combat, dealing large amounts of damage (often to multiple targets).

Rogue: Thieves, assassins and swashbucklers. Rogues are stealthy and excel at using skills to perform tasks. In combat, rogues are more based on maneuvers than soldiers are: backstabbing, flanking, ham-stringing, disarming and all round fighting dirty.

Cleric: The holy men and women of the Empire draw upon their devotion to channel the divine power of their deity. From ascetic monks to armored battle-priests, clerics play different roles on the battlefield: Healers, support-casters or front line fighters.

Wizard: Chartered Imperial Wizards or rogue hedge-mages. Wizards harness the corrupting arcane energies of magic. A wizards magic is powerful and devastating (sometimes to friend and foe alike).

Skald: Part of an ancient, dying tradition, skalds are the wandering bards and storytellers that preserve the lore of the myriad cultures assimilated by the Empire. A life spent roaming the breath of the Empire and beyond, makes the skalds jacks of all trades. They excel at inspiring their allies in combat and bolster their party with both magic and a strong sword arm.

Captain: In “Against the Black Priory”, captains are the smugglers, pirates, merchants and officers of the Northern Isles. As expert sailors, leaders and skilled fighters, they make an invaluable addition to any group adventuring in the north!

Skills

Skills are learned and improve over time (whereas abilities are more innate).

The trick with skills is including many enough to provide granularity and range of expression whilst still having few enough that each skill gets screen time!

So many skills – some more useful than others!

I’m currently considering the following six skills:

  • Athletics
  • Diplomacy
  • Lore
  • Stealth
  • Survival
  • Thievery

The total score of a skill is calculated by adding up ranks in the skill with the score of one or two ability scores. Ranks are purchased as you gain levels.

Note that the game also contains secondary abilities as well. These include stats like “Base Attack”, “Dodge” and initiative. They may look a bit like skills but they cannot be improved by spending skill points. In stead, they must be improved by using feats.

Feats

Feats are selected at certain intervals as you gain levels and allow you to customize you character by adding special talents. Think perks in Fallout. Whilst skills and abilities add numerical values to you character, feats allow you to break rules (in a sense).

Many feats are combat related but there are also other types like adventuring feats (consume less food, ability to swim, more carry capacity) or narrative feats (guild memberships, special allies, access to more equipment etc).

Races and Backgrounds

Character creation in Ultima 4

At this point in development, the SKALD universe is human-centric. Demi-human do exist, but they are few and far between. As such humans will likely be the only race available in “Against the Black Priory”.

As a way of adding more definition to your character however, I intend to offer a selection of backgrounds. The backgrounds offer a small mechanical bonus and will, hopefully, tie in to the narrative as well.

More on that down the line.

That’s it for now!

It’s worth repeating that this is a work in progress and it might look very different a year from now.

As always, I would love to hear from you if you have questions or comments. Feel free to reach out on twitter or get in touch at (contact at skaldrpg dot com)! Most importantly: SKALD is on Kickstarter till July 3rd and we would love to have your support!

Have a great day!

The Shores of Idra

With the Kickstarter in June fast approaching it’s time for another update! As always I wish I had more time to spend on this devlog. Time however, is currently my most precious asset on this project. What time I have is still being put into actual development and I think that’s a good idea.

The animation-system really makes the world pop!

So far everything is on track for Kickstarter in June. There is still a lot of work to be done to get the campaign ready but work is progressing at a steady pace.

During Easter-crunch I spent a lot of time repaying technical debt as I plugged memory leaks and optimized the draw pipeline. The payoff is that the game now consistently runs at 60 FPS+ and has a much smaller memory footprint with no leakage. Oh, and I also added animation for characters and the environment!

Another big reason I keep making steady progress is that I’ve had the opportunity to work with some more amazing freelance artists for music and some of the graphics. The result is some pretty cool assets I can’t wait to feature in the game:

The theme for the demo by @surt_r

It’s incredibly fun and rewarding to work with people that go the extra mile to help realize your vision.

“Your debt is due” A trio of bandits by @MementoMoree

Finally I really want to shout out the “Nox Archaist” project by 6502 Workshop. This little gem of an indie-game is currently on Kickstarter where it has had amazing success so far! As a modern 8-bit game for the Apple 2, this game is a love-letter to all the games that inspired SKALD!

I can’t wait to sink my teeth into this!

The project looks really solid with a large chunk of the game being complete already. More importantly, Mark and the other members of 6502 Workshop seem like great people who deserves all the support the retro-gaming family has to offer.

I support and endorse “Nox Archaist” 100% and so should you!


That’s it for now! Be sure to follow this blog and look me up at twitter if you want to keep posted!

See you on Kickstarter in June!

Let slip the dogs of war

Beware, beware the horrid sleep,
That bring you dreams of ebb and flow,
The churning seas and dreadful deep,
And waves that lay the mountains low
.

But fear the mother most of all!
Awake before you hear her bell!
A thousand young will hear her call,
And that was how the giants fell.

(Children’s rhyme from Idra)


A splash screen by Marco Pedrana (Aeon of Sands)

Easter is fast approaching. For me this means 10 days of crunching to make “SKALD: Against the Black Priory” ready for Kickstarter! First and foremost this time will be spent preparing a short, playable “proof-of-concept” demo.

In general, I would say spending time making a demo is not a good use of resources. However, at the time there appears to be a slight crisis of confidence towards Kickstarting projects and a demo might go some way towards showing backers that SKALD is legit.

SKALD is a passion project and I love working on it. For me, publishing a less that awesome product is out of the question. At the same time, NOT publishing is also not an option! This means that I need to be highly disciplined in avoiding feature- and scope creep. Both in the game itself and in the Kickstarter campaign.

The latest iteration of the GUI. With a slight “retro” filter applied.

My primary goal is to have the Kickstarter make me break even with expenses and allow me to commission a handful of freelancers for a couple of tasks (music comes to mind).

A big upside with developing an RPG is that it’s pretty easy to scale the project up if I get more funding than expected: More professional art, more music, larger dungeons, more dialog and so forth.

For rewards I’m tending towards caution. I would love to use feelies for rewards: Maps, booklets, dice – you name it! However this would scale the complexity, and thus the risk, exponentially. SKALD is pretty much a one-man project and any task that takes me away from actually writing code delays the release of the game.

Most likely, the rewards will include access to the demo, the finished game and beta access, as well as in-game rewards (a thank you note, your portrait in the game etc). I’m currently setting up a discord server for backers.

SKALD will release for windows on Steam first. Other platforms will follow in short order.


SKALD lives and dies by the love and support of it’s fans! If you want to help out the two most important things you can do are to subscribe to this blog and follow SKALD on twitter! Don’t be afraid to reach out for questions or comments – I love talking about my project 🙂

Have a great day!

Introducing SKALD: Against the Black Priory

You awaken to the sound of seagulls. Their crying reminds you of your childhood. Have you gone to your ancestors?

The last thing you remember is chaos and the sea swallowing your vessel. Freezing water and then darkness. How could you possibly have survived?

Legs shaking, you stand up and survey the shores upon which you have landed. There is no mistaking it: Idra. By some miracle, the Emperor has delivered you to this cold, forsaken island. Now, you must find the strength to do his work!

A sickness has taken hold here: Carroleth. Carroleth the heretic! Master of the Black Priory. That foul order of enlightened men, which has strayed so far from orthodoxy. It is to them that you must deliver the Emperors justice – by steel and by fire!

You shudder in the cold breeze.

It feels as though the very land sets itself against you. You will find few allies on Idra and even less hope. Pray your sanity holds…


Hi everbody! It’s time for another update on the SKALD engine and the upcoming title: “Against the Black Priory” (AtBP)!

AtBP sees you in the role of an imperial agent dispatched to the island of Idra to uproot a mystical religious order, turned apocalyptic cult. The expedition is off to a disastrous start however, and surviving Idra will take all your wits and skill.

For AtBP I have chosen to go with a strong retro look and feel. The game draws heavily on inspiration from classic “Golden Age” RPGs like the early Ultima games, the Gold Box Series and the Magic Candle series. In other words: Games we love!  

The game will (hopefully) feature a good mix of each of the four basic RPG pillars:

  1. Explore the enviroments and plot – overland, underground and on the high seas!
  2. Interact via dialogue and “choose-your-own-adventure” style sequences
  3. Fight using a menu-based, fast-paced, tactical combat system.
  4. Develop your party of up to 6 characters.

Visually, I have chosen to work with 16 colors on AtBP. To get the proper retro-feel, I went with the classic C64 color palette:

The basic tile size is 16 x 16 and, for the desktop version, the game runs at 640 x 480 resolution. Note that the SKALD engine is built in Unity3D and is flexible enough to handle any number of graphical settings. However, working within some self-imposed constraints has really helped focus the design of AtBP.

Thematically, the SKALD universe is dark, grounded and unforgiving and I really want AtBP to dip its toes into the cold and dark waters of eldritch horror. I try to stay clear of binary good/bad characters and enjoy writing difficult choices that have real (often painful) consequences.

The Current State

At the time of writing, the SKALD game-engine (and thus AtBP) is 90% feature-complete. There are a couple of important systems that still need implementing as well as a bunch a smaller “nice-to-have” systems I would like to have down the line (but that can wait for now).

The big task ahead however, is adding content. This means designing, writing and drawing stuff. The flexibility of the SKALD engine and its tools makes adding new content a breeze. However, actually creating stuff will take time nonetheless. Fortunately, this is also a lot of fun and it will allow me to start engaging more and more with the community as the focus shifts more from the technical development to actually crafting a roleplaying experience.

The SKALD engine can publish to any platform that Unity supports. AtBP will release first on Steam. Mobile will follow.

The Road Ahead

It’s no secret that SKALD and AtBP is a one-man project that, whilst immensely enjoyable, is taking up a lot of my spare time. Now there are also expenses on the horizon in the form of software licenses, new hardware and, potentially, freelance content-creators (for some of the art and music). This means that I need to find funding somewhere.

After a lot of consideration, it’s starting to look like Kickstarter might be a good way to getting some funding whilst building a stronger community around the game. If everything goes according to plan, May 2019 might be a good time for a Kickstarter campaing (but more on that down the line).


For now, if you want to support SKALD: “Against the Black Priory” the two most important things you can do are to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on twitter! Don’t be afraid to reach out for questions or comments!

Have a great day!

A Long Overdue Update

It’s been some time since my last update, but have no fear: The SKALD project is doing great!  I’ve just had to prioritized using what spare time I have writing code and doing game-design.

Old School Roots

I grew up knowing and loving games like the Ultima, Bard’s Tale, Gold-Box and Magic Candle series. The more I worked on the SKALD engine, the more I realized that I wanted to use it to make an old school retro RPG.

The SKALD engine now features:

  • Overland exploration
  • Tactical menu-based combat
  • A full party of characters
  • Deep class-based character creation and progression
  • Tons of items to find, buy and sell
  • Magic
  • A solid branching dialog system

SKALD is about telling stories!

In other words, SKALD is now very well suited for making old school RPGs. This leads me to my announcement:

SKALD: Against the Black Priory

“Against the Black Priory” is the first game under development using the SKALD engine. It features 8-bit graphics and the glorious 16 color Commodore 64 palette.

Keep posted for more info on “Against the Black Priory”.

Support SKALD today!

If you love old school RPGs SKALD needs your support now!

All you have to do is subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on twitter!

Done! That’s it (for now)!

Book Review: Procedural Generation in Game Design

From the first line of code I wrote, I have always been fascinated by procedural content generation (PCG) and the near-limitless potential it seems to hold for game development. Like so many other new developers, my first project was (of course) a wildly ambitious rogue-like. Needless to say, it didn’t quite pan out.

However, despite its challenges and limitations, I did keep my fascination for PCG and consider it a wonderful tool when applied correctly. Recently, I have been trying to read up on PCG while working on SKALD and a major gripe for me has been the lack of good literature regarding the subject. No wonder then, that I was very pleased to pick up a copy of Procedural Generation in Game Design.

Cover for the book Procedural Generation in Game Design

Procedural Generation in Game Design is a book consisting of 27 chapters (who read like essays) from different industry professionals. The book is edited by Tanya X. Short (creative director of Kitfox Games ) and Tarn Adams (co-creator of Dwarf Fortress) with a preface by Derek Yu (creator of Spelunky) .

On its back cover, the book lists the following four features:

  • Introduces the differences between static/traditional game design and procedural game design
  • Demonstrates how to solve or avoid common problems with procedural game design in a variety of concrete ways
  • Includes industry leaders’ experiences and lessons from award-winning games
  • World’s finest guide for how to begin thinking about procedural design

The book is divided into four sections: “Procedural Generation”, “Procedural Content”, “Procedural Narrative” and “The Procedural Future”.  Each section contains a collection of chapters that, more or less, share a common thread.

The topics covered in the different chapters is quite varied and include (among others): “When and Why to Use Procedural Generation”,  several procedural level design case studies, “Ethical Procedural Generation”, puzzle design, “Audio and Composition”, “Story and Plot Generation” and “Algorithms and Approaches”.

Though varying in both length and depth, all the individual chapters are quite good  with some even being excellent.

Mentioning a few, Mark R. Johnson’s (creator of Ultima Ratio Regnum) short chapter on meaning in PCG is great. So is Brian Bucklew’s (Freehold Games) chapter on “Algorithms and Approaches” (though I wish it had been longer). The entire section on procedural narrative is excellent as well, with the chapters by Ben Kybartas (Delft University of Technology) and Emily Short (check out her excellent blog) standing out in particular.

My major criticism of this book, however, is that it struggles in creating a coherent presentation and progression of content.

In several cases there seems to be a mismatch between chapter- and section topics. For instance: “Algorithms and Approaches” is oddly placed in the section called “Procedural Futures” even though the subject of the chapter is to give an overview of classical techniques used in PCG. In fact, I find that only the section called “Procedural Narrative” manages to maintain a strong coherency between the topics of its chapters.

As I have mentioned, I also find that the chapters vary somewhat in how deeply they explore their chosen topics. While a few read like abbreviated academic papers, others (the majority) feel more like blog posts. This is not to say that the quality of the content is poor: The chapters are written by highly talented game developers and provide inspiring insights into several well-known PCG-heavy indie game titles.

However, each chapter appears to have been written in isolation with only minimal direction concerning content. I find that the progression of content and relative amount of space given to each subject is also such that the book seems a bit underwhelming despite its 300+ pages. This is perhaps somewhat compounded by each author spending a few paragraphs talking about themselves and their project. Not that this is wrong, but it does dilute the PCG-specific content of the book.

The result is that the book does not live up to its full potential and promise of providing  the “World’s finest guide for how to begin thinking about procedural design”. Furthermore I find that this makes it hard to see who the books intended audience is: New developers may find the coverage of subjects incomplete while experienced developers may find it somewhat superficial.

Though the execution is far from perfect, the book (arguably) does mostly deliver on its promised features. And for all my criticisms, I did enjoy reading the individual chapters (or essays if you will). Therefore, I do recommend picking up this book if you’re looking for an interesting collection of individual essays concerning PCG by leading indie game developers. However, if you are looking for a comprehensive guide and introduction to PCG I doubt that this book alone will suffice.

You can pick up Procedural Generation in Game Design at Amazon for $49.77 (320 pages paperback, with grey-scale illustrations).

I was tipped off about this book by the very talented Filip Hráček.

Did you find this book review helpful? If you have any questions or comments, please get in touch. Also, follow Scape-IT and SKALD on Twitter for all things RPG and geeky!

 

 

 

World Building: Magic

Spanning the entire breadth of the fantasy genre, from literature to movies and games, magic is nearly ubiquitous. Magic adds mystery, convenient plot devices and the fantastic and, is such a staple of the genre that it can be hard to imagine fantasy without it. That being said, magic is also exactly that: Magic! Used carelessly, it becomes an endless “deus ex machina” and unravels any internal consistency in the setting at the speed of a “magic missile”.

So, how can you write magic into your fantasy world in an awesome way?

I have no idea, but I have been pondering this for some time and I would like to share the reflections I have made thus far for my own world building project.

First of all, when I say “magic” I’m not just thinking about magic in the narrow sense of “what a wizard does”. Instead, I’m considering it in a broader sense that contains most (or all) of the supernatural tropes found in fantasy.

So why even start with magic this early in the world building process? Magic (in the extended sense of “all supernatural phenomena”) is where so much of the “fantasy” in a fantasy setting comes from. In other words, magic should influence every part of the game world and is a great way to lay the foundation for your fantasy world building.

In general, I find that there are different challenges for different fantasy mediums. Specifically between literature and movies on one side and games on the other.

The first category is much more vulnerable to having its internal consistency broken by poorly written magic with no suspension of disbelief as a result. How many times have you heard “why didn’t just Gandalf use more magic” or “why couldn’t just the eagles take Frodo all the way”? Don’t get me wrong – I love Lord of the Rings, but they do kind of have a point.

For games, on the other hand, there seems to be a tendency for magic to be much more prevalent and nearly always accessible to the player(s). I assume this stems from the notion that it is very poor game design to have players see cool things without being able to DO cool things. In other words, the need for player agency very quickly outweighs the need to have the game world be internally consistent.

The result is often a world that is so saturated with magic, that the game world simply stops making sense. How does the Forgotten Realms still look like late medieval Europe despite magic being so prevalent?

So, what does it even mean to have the game world be internally consistent in regards to magic? Well for me, this means that the world-builder addresses the socio-economic-political implications of magic’s existence.

Consider something as simple as a “create water” spell. In an early agrarian civilization the consequences of this would be monumental. Consider how much effort has been spent (even to this day) to provide water for crops in the form of irrigation systems. The result would be dramatically more effective agriculture, which in turn, means that more citizens can perform specialized labor, become soldiers, scientists, artists etc. This would accelerate the development of the civilization by centuries. Just from a “create water” spell.

Game Master meme

Currently I am doing world building for a fantasy setting in which I intend to set several gamebooks (using the SKALD game engine). I’m basing the setting partially on an old pen-and-paper RPG campaign I ran years ago and one important characteristic of this setting is that it’s a human-centric world where magic exists, but is rare, poorly understood and powerful but unprecdictable.

As a starting point I’m picking some of the following fundamental design tenets of magic:

  • Magic is rare but powerful and is recognized as such in in the world.
  • Magic is poorly understood, esoteric and shrouded in mystery.
  • Because of its perceived power, magic attracts either political power OR paranoid persecution.
  • Therefore, magic is a fundamental force in shaping history. Think the role of religion in medieval Europe. Now imagine in the Catholic Church had fireballs.
  • Magic comes at a personal cost to the user. It corrupts both the mind and the body.
  • The use of magic in the world is restricted and reserved only for the very rich and powerful.

So far, I can see myself building a setting around this somewhat restrictive view of magic. I especially feel the “magic corrupts” part adds some checks and balances. Also, I find the view of magic being restricted and unsanctioned magic being persecuted to be interesting. I feel I’m beginning to see the outline of a central political entity in my campaign setting: Perhaps somewhat like a magic-infused, late period Roman Empire.

This starting point might be somewhat on the path of magic being so esoteric that it’s effectively inaccessible to the player characters. Thus falling in the trap of letting the player see, but not do, cool things. However: Since I intend to use this setting primarily within the scope of gamebook-style RPGs, I suspect that the tolerance for inconsistent magic is lower than in most games (more akin to books and movies). This means that at this point I would prefer to err on the side of making magic a bit too scarce whilst maintaining an internally consistent game world.

I’ll start scribbling away and try to translate this into a workable setting of sorts. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll be posting the result here shortly! Stay tuned and feel free to get in touch (with Scape-IT and SKALD on Twitter) if you have questions or comments!

 

The SKALD Markup Language

The Basics

SKALD is a game engine specifically written for digital gamebooks and interactive novels. The design vision for SKALD has been to create an engine that allows for a strong narrative to be built upon a foundation of classic RPG features (character development, tactical combat, loot etc.) as well as certain rouge-like features (procedural generation). The game engine is designed with a strong separation between data and logic in mind. The reasoning being that it must be possible for a designer with minimal technical expertise to add content. Also keeping all data separate from the logic will allow multiple gamebooks to be published using SKALD without making changes to the engine itself.

A mage
The mark-up language is where the magic happens

The SKALD markup language has three main components:

  • The XML that encases all the data
  • A simple string markup used to create procedural content and to set the order of resolution for any embedded dynamic code.
  • The formatting for embedding dynamic code.

The XML

SKALD uses ordinary XML to store data about all its game objects (scenes, items, NPCs). I briefly considered using JSON. However, after doing some research I arrived at the conclusion that the advantages of using JSON over XML were nil for this application. JSON would perhaps have been more relevant if I had a stronger emphasis on developing for a web-based service (as JavaScript loves JSON).

XML

 

The String Markup

All the data in the XML files are parsed to strings. Those strings are then run through a processString() function that performs any action prescribed by the string markup, resolves any embedded code and returns a copy of the processed string.

One of the first things I found that I wanted was a short-hand for returning random strings from the XML. My solution was simply to use the ‘/’ character. Adding ‘/’ to any string will cause the processString() function to return the result on either the left or right side of the ‘/’. For example:

processString(“I like hamburgers/I like sushi/I like ramen”)

returns either “I like hamburgers”, “I like ramen” or “I like sushi”.

Right of the bat you can see that this can get verbose. The solution was to add parenthesis. Now the previous string can be shortened like so:

processString(“I like (hamburgers/sushi/ramen)”).

By nesting parenthesis (resolves from inner, to outer) you can make complex string such as:

processString(“I like ((cheese-burgers/bacon-burgers/BBQburgers)/sushi/ramen)”)

The applications for this is to create variety in the text (especially for scenes that the player keeps returning to) or to provide randomized output from certain XML tags.

For instance, each scene has one or more exits that lead to the next scene. That exit contains a tag called <tar> (target) which is basically the id of the next scene to load. Since the value of <tar> is stored as a string and ran through the processString() function, you can write an exit with a target like this:

<tar>2/3/4</tar>

The result is an exit that randomly sends you to scene 2, 3 or 4. Pretty neat for making things like random encounters.

Dynamic Code

So far, the system is completely stateless. Processing the string

processString(“I like (hamburgers/sushi/ramen)”)

will return a random output every time. The next logical step was to add a system for storing and modifying variables at run-time. The solution is for implemented by using “Reflection” in C# to access functions in the code via strings passed from the XML. For instance I have a function addVariable(key, value) that creates a variable (named key) and sets it to value. So

addVariable(“food”,”hamburgers”)

will set the variable “food” to “hamburgers” and

getVariable(“food”)

now returns “hamburgers”. Using my own notation to embed functions in the xml datafiles the functions must be wrapped in curly braces like this:

{addVariable|food;hamburgers}

It is now possible to write:

processString(“I like {addVariable|food;(hamburgers/sushi/ramen)}”)

This line of code will return for instance, “I like sushi”. And then

processString(“My favorite food is still {getVariable|food}”)

Will utilize the value stored above and return “My favorite food is still sushi”. Note that the “processString” function will substitute everything wrapped in curly brackets for the return value of the function wrapped in the curly brackets. 

The SKALD system contains about a dozen functions that can be called dynamically. In large part these are used to manipulate and perform logical operations on variables (allowing for conditional branching etc.). The result is that the number of scenes that need to be written can be reduced drastically. It also allows procedural content to be added by the designer, working only through the XML file.

Overall, I’m pleased with the functionality of the SKALD markup language, as it exists today. It’s expressive enough tell any kind of story and to give a direct binding between the story elements and the underlying RPG mechanics. It also supports the concept of separating data and logic and it greatly reduces duplication of data by cutting down on the number of scenes that need to be written. At the same time, it’s still possible to write an entire module by using only XML and entirely forgoing the use of the string markup and dynamic.

Now, off to write some adventures!

Design Goals for the SKALD Engine

The SKALD Roleplaying System consists of three components:

  • A set of RPG rules usable for pen-and-paper as well computer RPGs.
  • A game engine for making gamebooks, interactive fiction and text-heavy roleplaying games.
  • The games published using the SKALD engine.

The current focus of the project is to finish the game engine. This post will attempt to summarize the design goals for the engine. For more information about the project in general, see the welcome post.

NOTE: I’m writing this post as much for myself as anyone else. As such, this post will be highly prone to edits as i update and change the design goals.

SKALD is a Storytelling Tool

First and foremost, I want to create something that will allow me to tell stories. I was a pen-and-paper RPG game master for years but as I grew older, holding together a gaming group became near impossible. I began to miss the creative outlet that GMing represented. This was been a big driving force in deciding to develop a game engine for text based roleplaying games and gamebooks.

Specifically, I chose text-heavy games because I feel comfortable with using text as a narrative device. Text is easy to add (if you don’t consider the hardships of writing prose) and very flexible. Flexibility was another important point as it gives me the option of choosing between an infinite variety of settings: From sci-fi and fantasy to historical and educational. This was an important rational for beginning this project by creating a setting-agnostic game engine.

SKALD is a roleplaying game

In addition to creating a system for writing choose-your-own-adventure style gamebooks I also want SKALD to be rooted in a proper RPG system. At a minimum the SKALD game engine must allow for the following game mechanics:

  • a character creation and advancement system complete with skills and feats
  • skill checks
  • tactical combat (in one way or another)
  • looting, buying and selling items
  • magic and / or psionics

An important part of implementing the RPG features is that the system must be modular enough that it should be fully possible to choose away any and all parts of the RPG system at the design level and without changing the source code. In other words: Using the same game engine, it must be possible to make a vanilla gamebook with no features beyond one paragraph leading to the next, as well as gamebooks with full RPG game mechanics.

SKALD has rogue-like features

In addition to the rpg game-mechanics it’s also important for me that the SKALD game engine allows for certain rogue-like features. In particular I want to have the ability to add procedurally generated content to the game. This, combined with an underlying RPG system will make it possible to essentially write a text based rogue-like. At the same time, just as with the RPG system, it must be fully possible to write a gamebook without using a single rogue-like feature.

Why add rogue-like features? Well, my reasoning thus far is that this will make it a lot easier to add to the runtime of the game. I have a vision of the narrative of the gamebooks being superimposed on relatively open worlds and thus adding a lot more replay value to the game beyond just going through the main plot over and over.

Again: This is an optional feature I’ll add to give myself the full breadth tools to tell the kinds of stories I would like.

Engineered with Sustainability in Mind

Not only is SKALD a labor of love, but it will also serve as a tool I could potentially be relying on for years to come. In the long term, it might even be adopted by other game developers interested in working within the gamebook genre.

As with all code that sees long-term use, there’s a lot to be gained by “measuring twice and cutting once“. In other words I intend to take my time and keep the source code architecturally sound, compact and well documented.

The notion of strictly separating the logic from the data and making all aspects of the game itself modifiable via the data is the prime tenet I’m currently building the engine around.

SKALD as a Brand

Lastly, it would be pretty neat if the SKALD system and the game engine in particular becomes a recognizable brand. It would be awesome to see “Powered by the SKALD engine” and “SKALD Roleplaying System presents:”  on games!

 

That’s it so far. Thanks for reading and be sure to keep following the SKALD devlog! In the meantime, follow Scape-IT and SKALD on Twitter for all things RPG!