World Building: Freymark and the Outer Isles

NOTE: I prematurely published this article and since that sent a notice to all my subscribers, this means that I can’t unpublish it :-/ This means there will be some changes over the next hours as I update the article. Sorry for the inconvenience. AL

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see more of the SKALD universe, please let me know on twitter or join the SKALD Discord!

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!