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Odd Gods lead designer Gil Maclean interviewed at Indiegraze
Interview - posted by Infinitron on Mon 27 August 2018, 23:26:44Tags: Gil Maclean; Inn Between Worlds; Odd Gods
Last year we posted about Odd Gods, the unusual time travel RPG inspired by the culture of the 1990s currently in development at Melbourne-based indie studio Inn Between Worlds. Though it's had a much lower media profile, there are some who group Odd Gods together with Copper Dreams and Disco Elysium as a kind of new holy trinity of ambitious indie RPGs with unique settings and mechanics. It's no surprise then that lead designer Gil Maclean, better known on the Codex as Grumpy Grognard, has also been interviewed by Indiegraze, Erik Meyer's highbrow indie-focused interview site. Together they discuss topics such as Odd Gods' unusual phase-based combat system, the game development scene in Australia, and the true meaning of the Nineties. Here's an excerpt:
Gil Maclean: For me, RPGs are about player freedom – freedom to decide your own role and interpret the story as you see fit.
I see the 90s as a kind of ‘lost decade’, where underground subcultures and music were powerful – like a near-future version of the 60s, rebelling against mass commercialisation, brands raised to ‘deity’ status, and the cargo cults that followed. It was a pretty subversive period, like reality took a cue from John Shirley cyberpunk dystopian fiction and mashed it with a lyric sheet from Rage Against the Machine, and global zaibatsus taking control of the earth, like a modern pantheon of demons, or gods… You could get beaten up for a pair of branded shoes, or ostracised for listening to the ‘wrong’ music. Music was the dominant medium, really – people all over the world would hear the same music, watch the same music videos on MTV – the internet’s influence was not that significant yet. Music could start riots, change history, and set factions against each other. Conversely, subcultures bonded over themes, identity and crucially – music. It was like a… crossroads, between the analog and dawn of the the digital era, before we granted control of society to computer daemons made of code and driven by profit-seeking algorithms, and that conflict – and the power of subcultures and music – provoked a kind of cognitive dissonance, demonstrating a power which I think is interesting territory to explore.
You asked ‘is the project a love letter’ – Odd Gods is designed from the ground up as a period piece with a big dollop of anachronism. For that theme to work (or any theme explored in an RPG, I’d argue), yes – there has to be a ‘love letter’ aspect to it, but that’s just one aspect. We need to write that love letter, then burn it at the altar as a tithe. While the fire’s still crackling, sacrifice the nearest sacred goat and throw that on, too. Sift through the ashes and bones for burnt scraps of that letter and leave them for players to discover and maybe piece together in a way that makes sense to them.
Do I see OG as uniting eras of the past with common themes? Using one time period as a frame to explore another with time travel/alternate realities is basically saying: if we do our job well, abso-bloody-lutely. Exploring alternate history, which you do in Odd Gods, allows you to set up ‘what if’ scenarios and try out ideas. There were bright, burning periods of time where music, art, politics, and of course subcultures flourished – what if you shuffled them around a bit? What would the world look like?
As far as challenges go, it’s about executing the anachronism. What happens when worlds collide? On a macro scale, if you have a pantheon of pop culture demons and give them a time machine, what happens? We can re-enact Ash’s boomstick scene from Evil Dead 2, and it makes coherent sense in our world. What happens on an individual level to a Goth press-ganged into service on a privateer in the age of sail, a Ska Punk lost in Elizabethan times, or a Raver stumbling into a Pictish solstice ceremony in the time of Julius Caesar, or when a Grunge head wakes up in a jungle camp in the midst of the CIA’s secret war in Laos, or when you stumble across a lost tribe of Skateboarders deep in the Peruvian jungle. What effect does that have on history, and what does one reality matter?
EM: The combat system has drawn a fair amount of attention, in that characters are given orders but don’t complete those instructions until the gamers end the turn, meaning opponents and players act in a way that combines decision making and turn-based actions somewhat differently from classic isometrics (Arcanum, Fallout, etc). The results can be unexpected and crowd-pleasing, anticipating what an opponent might do, not what they have just done. A number of games currently in development are experimenting with combat (Disco Elysium uses a text/story system, while Copper Dreams has a delay effect), so when it comes to creating this aspect of the game, what do you hold as your criteria, and how do you see combat contributing to the larger project goals?
GM: Ah. Holy shit, I’m fascinated by the stuff that Studio Zaum (Za/Um?) and Whalenought Studios are doing with those games. So bloody cool to see original RPGs with non-Tolkien fantasy settings on the market of that quality. People often refer to Odd Gods in the same sentence as those two games, which is a massive compliment. Hopefully, we can live up to that comparison.
Odd Gods’ combat system is ‘phase-based’, which means that your turn and the enemy’s turn play out simultaneously. This is technically hard to achieve, which is why you don’t see it that often, but when it works.. It’s pretty damn cool.
When designing our combat system, I was a bit tired of RTWP and traditional turn-based combat and wanted to roll my own system. I grew up playing wargames with my Dad, which used a kind of simultaneous turn system to simulate 18th century warfare. The thrill of not knowing what your opponent was going to do – but crucially, having some imperfect knowledge – that’s at the heart of it. Also – the market is saturated with derivative combat systems that a lot of (very excellent) studios have mastered – Obsidian and Larian spring to mind. I don’t want to compete with them, and it’s fun to make something new.
There’s some design pillars I used.
(I) The major game systems must be in symbiosis with the game theme. The game’s theme is interstitial spaces and cognitive dissonance – design a combat system to match.
(II) Tactical determinism, not randomisation. Movement should be just as tactical and effective as swinging a weapon. Melee and Ranged combat should be equally deep! No Auto Attacks – every decision counts.
(III) The system must support ‘tech imbalance’ without resorting to number crunching. A Roman Legionary should have a chance to take out a Space Marine, but an assault rifle should take down a Knight.
(IV) No RNG. If you’re next to an enemy, and you aim a shotgun, or a blunderbuss, or swing a skateboard at their head – you hit them. Every time. If I’ve gone to the trouble of flanking an enemy, and I have the requisite skills and weaponry, that’s a flank or a backstab.
(V) Don’t use ‘RPG cliches’. No bullet sponges. No magic. No potion-chugging. No WOW-derived MMO style combat roles. No 3 bajillion HP.
(VI) Play a role, not a spreadsheet. Your efficacy in combat is determined by your ability to read the battlefield, your character’s equipment, and your character’s strengths and weaknesses. Character development still matters, but it’s not the primary driver of success. A neophyte can outwit a master, if they’re careful, or if the master is arrogant or distracted, or overwhelmed.
According to Gil, Odd Gods was very well received at PAX Australia last year and they've had all sorts of secret publisher talks, although they aren't signed on with one just yet. It sounds like things are warming up though, and there might be more interviews soon.