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Interview with indie RPG developers

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Interview with indie RPG developers

Interview - posted by Vault Dweller on Mon 26 March 2007, 01:17:19

Disclaimer: For those of you who are new, or completely clueless, the Vince D Weller in this article is in fact, our very own Vault Dweller. The RPGCodex also hosts the AoD discussion forums so if you think VD's being a little soft on himself, and you'd like to ask him something a little more hard-hitting, head on into the AoD discussion forums and ask him there. This interview now continues in its entirety, as originally intended.

Here is an overview (and a handy reference guide) of the indie "industry": who does what, how, and why, and what do these people have to offer. The answers are posted in the order they were received.

1. Please introduce yourself, your project, and outline 3 features that you like the most in your game - 3 reasons why you decided to make your own game instead of playing someone else's games.

Jason Compton. I am the producer of The Broken Hourglass, a party-based, story-focused RPG. As for "why":

- Because nobody else was going to do it. This type of game simply isn't being produced as often as I know I would like to see. Waiting for the mainstream industry to pick up the pace was going nowhere-on average, a game like TBH is released maybe every 18 months. And waiting for other indies to do it also didn't present much hope - nobody else in this interview is doing a game with emphasis on team-building and party interaction.

- Because we have more to give gameplayers than we can convey through modding. As we've beaten to death by now in other interviews, most of the people attached to TBH are experienced CRPG modders. It was a real "where do we go from here?" moment, and independent production seems the next logical step for such a group.

- Because if we didn't, we never would have known if we could. Quite honestly, that is somewhat cold comfort while the company is still only spending money instead of earning any. But my wife keeps saying it, so there must be *some* grain of truth to it...

My name is Thomas Riegsecker, founder of Basilisk Games and Lead Developer of Eschalon: Book I. A couple features that I particularly like about Eschalon: Book I:

-Decisively old-school gameplay. Rather than create a new style of RPG, we began by playing hours of Ultima, Might & Magic and Wizardry to figure out what made those classic games best sellers in their time. The result is that Eschalon should appeal to older gamers who fondly remember those classic RPGs, while giving younger players a game that they perhaps have never experienced before.

-Eschalon is quick and easy to get into. Your character begins with amnesia and the storyline unfolds as you play, so you don’t need to get caught up on world events before you can enjoy the game. Learning about the world of Eschalon is the gameplay, not a prerequisite to it. An intuitive GUI eases the learning curve as well.

The reason I decided to make a game rather than play what is out there is because developers simply aren’t making the same CRPGs that I grew up enjoying in the 80’s and 90’s. Today’s RPGs are designed to cater to the largest market possible and so they barely resemble the niche market RPGs from 15-20 years ago.

My name is Steven Peeler. I'm the lead designer and programmer of Depths of Peril, as well as the owner of Soldak.

Depths of Peril is an action RPG with strategy elements. The game starts after the Fourth Great War of Aleria where armies, mostly composed of orcs and undead, essentially conquered all of Aleria, destroyed all of the cities, and killed off almost all of the "good" races. The player starts in the small barbarian town of Jorvik. Jorvik has been destroyed like most of the other cities but is rebuilding. It has also lost all of its leaders. Barbarians choose their leaders through fights to the death. The player leads a faction (called a covenant in the game) that is vying for control of the town. The player has two main tasks. The first is to protect the town from the horde of monsters that are rampaging around and to help rebuild the town. The second is to destroy or form alliances with the other covenants in the town to become the new leaders of Jorvik.

I would say the three features that I enjoy the most in Depths of Peril are the strategic covenant gameplay, the consequences of your actions to everything in the world, and the huge back story. The strategic gameplay that goes on between all of the covenants includes diplomacy, trading, wars, and raiding. As for consequences, most of your actions, other covenant actions, and even world events have some kind of consequence in Depths of Peril. Your actions for or against the other covenants are remembered, you can actually fail quests, and ignoring some quests for too long can have dire consequences. And finally, there is the huge back story. Last time we checked we had over 40 stories and over 60,000 words total in these stories.

The reasons why I decided to make my own game are simple. I'm tired of playing clones, I want to play something different and unique, and I've wanted to create my own RPG for a very long time.

Vince D. Weller, the lead designer of The Age of Decadence, a turn-based, dialogue-heavy RPG set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy game with Roman influences.

Basically, what Jason said - "because nobody else was going to". I like certain types of games and it sure looks like if I want to play such games, I better make one myself and, hopefully, motivate people to make more. Zero-Sum showed me the way with Prelude to Darkness, but, unfortunately, the brave pioneers aren't with us anymore. As for the features - complex TB combat, multiple ways to handle quests, choices & consequences.

2. Why the indie way? Isn't working for a reputable gaming company better than working out of your mom's basement?

Jason: Possibly, but from what I know of the traditional studio experience, it wouldn't have been the right thing for me. Never mind the issue that with a traditional studio, I almost certainly wouldn't be able to take part in the kind of game we're creating with TBH (since, as mentioned, very few companies make this kind of game), I have long been self-employed and I like the lifestyle that allows me. I also am not the kind of person to go running off to California or Texas or Alberta in order to chase a dream. Raven Software is located a short walk from my house (practically just down the street, in fact), but I don't think that would provide me the kind of game development opportunity I'm looking for. So running my own show was the only way to go.

(For the record, my mom's house doesn't have a basement. Mine does, but I prefer my second-floor office.)

Thomas: These “reputable gaming companies” are the ones that are producing the RPGs that none of us seem to enjoy. Working for a large developer means that you are forced to make the game that The Suits want you to are not making your game, you are making their game. I decided that I wanted to make my game.

By the way, it would be much cheaper to work in my mom’s basement, but like Jason, I prefer working in my studio. There are far fewer spiders.

Steven: I actually worked at a reputable game company (Ritual Entertainment) for six years. Don't get me wrong those were six good years, but I learned the hard way that most small game developers have very little control. Since the publishers tend to pay all the bills, they tend to have all the control. I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong, but it's not terribly fun. Anyways, as an indie we have all of the control, which means we will not make a clone of some popular game. We don't have to chase after whatever is hot right now, and we don't have to add every feature under the sun because the publisher seems to think it is critical.

Vince: Unfortunately, the mainstream industry is still obsessed with action RPGs of all shapes and sizes, and since I don't think I have much to contribute to this exciting genre, I have no choice but to try things on my own.

3. Now, let's go through the basic feature list and ask why you've chosen this particular feature, how did you implement it, and how does it fit your game. Let's start with setting. How did you come up with it? Why this particular setting? What does it add to your game?

Jason: The Tolmiran Empire setting was designed by a couple of my long-time collaborators. Although we investigated using a couple of other, more well-known settings, Tolmira gave us the platform I felt we needed to tell a good game with good interpersonal interactions, with motivations ranging from greed to patriotism to xenophobia and without a lot of reliance on bug-eyed monsters to advance the action. And as a completely original setting making its public debut, we could develop it to suit our needs, there was no "inviolate history" to have to work around.

Thomas: The setting for Eschalon is very much a classic fantasy world filled with magic and monsters, most resembling an Ultima or Might & Magic game world. This was an obvious choice for replicating the feel of an old-school RPG which were traditionally built around a high fantasy theme rather than a conventional medieval setting.

Steven: The setting of Depths of Peril is in the barbarian city of Jorvik right after losing the Fourth Great War. We choose this particular setting for many reasons.

There are many races in our game world, but we decided to focus on the barbarian race for the first game. The barbarians have a very unique way of choosing their leaders, primarily by fighting to the death. Since you play as a leader of one of the covenants in the city, this gives the game a lot of strategic gameplay, making the game very different from the typical action RPG. As for the war, we wanted something that was world shattering, some huge event to start the game after. You can't get much bigger than getting crushed in a war and your race almost getting completely wiped out. :)

Vince: I dislike traditional "welcome to the magical kingdom of Fantasia, please stop the ancient evil that's threating us again and go all "THIS! IS! SPAAARTAAA!!!" on their asses" fantasy settings, presenting or focusing on external Evil That Must Be Stopped vs internal Good That Must Be Saved conflicts.

I wanted to show you something different, something darker, something brutal and often ugly. I wanted to show a society, comparing to which any external evil is tame and even welcome to finally wipe the slate clean. Going post-apocalyptic to get rid of the artificial layers of civilization and good manners was the best option, in my opinion. It made it easier to set up numerous conflicts that paint the background for quests and side-taking.

4. Story and everything related to it. How did you come up with this load of crap, why, and what does it add to your game? Does it drive it (i.e. story-driven), does it explain the cruelty to poor monsters, does it branch out, is it linear, does it have an "OMG! I am Revan!" twist? Why? Did you cry when Aeris died?

Jason: We're so far along now that the origins of the story are starting to enter the "mists of time" state. I'm sure it was motivated in equal parts by pragmatism ("What's the best way to tell our story in this setting given our budget?") and intrigue ("How can we explore themes of obsession, suspicion, and trust?")

Certainly, the story is the driver of the game. If you're not playing the story, there's only so much you can do. As I've said before, we leave the "sandboxing" to others who can do it better. So while you could bum around town just interacting with your party and looking for shopkeepers to rob, in the long run without the story you run out of things to do.

Our structure requires that you complete some major quest milestones before progressing to the endgame. In theory these major quests may be done in any order, although a couple of them will not be immediately obvious when you set foot out the door of the starting house. Along the way you will find yourself entangled in various other situations you stumble into or are even sought out to resolve.

No, we have no identity bombshells for the player character. You can find out more about yourself through how you choose to interact with your party, who you decide to engage in a romance with (or not), etc. And I've never played the Final Fantasy games. But I cried when Floyd died. Both times.

Thomas: Revan? Aeris? What the hell are you talking about? :)

The story was designed to introduce the player to the world of Eschalon through exploration and discovery, which is why your character starts the game with amnesia as we have mentioned. As with all good stories, there will be moments of suspense and revelation, but mostly we have been very quiet about the plot details (to the frustration of our fans) simply because we want to keep the game fresh for everyone. I think this is a flaw in the way today’s games are marketed in that most are preceded by a hundred screenshots, trailers, gameplay footage, and countless previews. By the time the game is released you feel as if you’ve already played it and then sense of discovery is destroyed.

We’ve worked to keep the gameplay open, allowing the player the option to follow the storyline at their leisure. It actually feels similar to an Elderscrolls game in that the story is there but you can break away and do your own thing in between plot related quests. We want a game that can be enjoyed for quite some time without ever touching the main storyline.

Steven: We have a huge back story but we are not story driven at all. Our game is driven by the actions of the player, the other covenants that are fighting against the player, and the world itself. With how our game works, it just doesn't make much sense to be story driven. The back story does add a lot of depth to the races, monsters, items, and the world though. Our "story" twists are when a supposedly friendly covenant backstabs you and starts a raid against you.

Vince: The main story is flexible enough to support non-linearity, very different decisions, and replayability. You are given a specific goal - find the temple, different reasons to do so (see the NMA interview for more details, if you are interested), different ways to find its location, and different options in the end, based on how you played the game, what you discovered, what faction (if any) you sided with, etc.

We handled side quests differently though(see the side quests question).

5. Mortal combat. TB vs RT vs RTwP. What did you chose for your game and why? What are the most interesting features of your combat system?

Jason: We use a real-time with manual and automatic pause approach. It's the system we are accustomed to designing encounters in from our past work, and therefore the one we felt we could deliver the most consistently interesting encounters in a new game.

I would say the key features of the combat system are the equipment flexibility, including the four itemsets we recently discussed on our website (Quick summary: They're like the Icewind Dale 2 itemsets, but better, because you can reuse one item in multiple itemsets!), as well as the spell construction system. Want to do fire, earth, and physical damage with a single damage bolt? Go ahead. Want to drain Strength and Agility at the same time you do damage, and do that to everybody in a big radius? Be our guest.

Thomas: Eschalon uses a turn-based combat system very similar to any other turn-based RPG. The only difference is that you are only controlling a single character and not an entire party, so a combat turn flows much quicker than other party-based turn-based games. I think I had mentioned in another interview that the overall mechanics of Eschalon feels very similar to a Rogue-like RPG. It’s a great system that can satisfy players who enjoy the feel of real-time combat, yet it’s still a turn-based system that can be enjoyed by players like me who prefer a slower, more tactical approach to battle.

Steven: Ah, the old turn based vs. real time combat debate. Personally, I like both of them but which one you use really should depend on the game itself. In our case, Depths of Peril is all real-time. Enemy covenants can declare war and raid your house at any time. Groups of monsters can band together and attack the town. For that matter, other covenants can raid one another at any time. None of this would work nearly as well if it was all turn based.

One of the interesting features of our combat is that each fight is very different depending on the exact situation of the battle. Each class has very different skills and play styles. Also, each monster type is unique and behaves differently than other types and has unique skills. Some monsters will even fight amongst themselves. We have done it this way so that each class has a different gameplay experience than the others, and combat keeps interesting as long as possible.

And then there are raids. Raids tend to be huge battles where both covenants can resurrect after a short period of time and the objective is no longer to simply kill the enemies. If you are the raider, the objective is to destroy the enemy's lifestone and thus the covenant itself. If you are defending, then you must protect your lifestone at all costs. If your lifestone is destroyed then you lose the game! Trust me, raids don't feel like a normal battle with some monsters.

Vince: I'm a fan of turn-based gameplay, so I don't think I would ever be interested in making anything real-time. I like taking my time to think, to go through the options and consider every possibility. Real time simply doesn't do that for me, even when the pause feature is present.

The most interesting features are the combat styles, which are, in turn, based on the armor system. In most games you start with a shitty armor. Then you find a better one, then a better one, then a better one, etc. In the end, you have armor that makes you impossible to hit which doesn't make sense for me at all. In AoD the main purpose of armor is damage resistance. Light armor offers minor damage resistance, but doesn't limit your mobility, so you can dodge attacks. Heavy armor can absorb quite a lot, but you can't dodge attacks easily wearing a full plate armor, so you will be very easy to hit. This leads to two opposite styles of combat: hard to hit, fast, lightly armored fighter, relying on speed and dodge vs easy to hit, slow, heavily armored fighter, relying on brute force and damage resistance of his armor. You can use throwing nets to slow down light fighter or acids to eat through heavy armor (but then you won't have much to loot). Needless to say, you can also walk the middle ground with the medium armor.

The Action Points system supports this system quite well, offering you different attack speeds. Obviously, swinging a short sword is much faster than swinging a two-handed sword, so you have 4 different speeds right there, ranging from daggers taking 3AP to attack to two-handed weapons taking 6AP to swing. In addition, you have fast (-1AP, less damage) and power (+1AP, higher damage range) attack modes, so that gives you 2-7AP options to work with. Going with 9AP per turn, for example, gives you a good range of tactical options, from unleashing a flurry of fast attacks to delivering "one shot, one kill" slow swings to anything in between.

6. Character system. Describe your system in a few words, tell us why did you go with it, etc. What does it do that other systems don't?

Jason: Skills-based, point-buy, with traits (both positive, which cost you points but do desirable stuff, and negative, which give you points but do undesirable stuff.) The point-buy approach lets us try to mathematically balance the system using different costs for each skill and attribute, reflecting their relative usefulness and power. We also provide level-pathing templates to spend most of your points for you. Surely there are similar systems out there - we didn't completely reinvent the stat sheet - but I think it's a distinctive blend of the usual features.

Thomas: Again, we’ve modeled this very much after old-school RPG mechanics. Characters improve their Skills and Attributes via points earned at each level, while their Class and Axiom selection grant additional abilities and bonus skills. While our system is not necessarily unique, it is more stat heavy than many contemporary RPGs and it rewards players who enjoy micromanaging their character’s skills and attributes.

Steven: We have a class based system where each class has 30 skills available. The biggest difference compared to most character systems is that all of these skills are basically available at the very beginning of the game. You don't have to wait till you get to an arbitrary level or progress through a skill tree. You do have to save up the required skill points however, but if you want you can go after the most expensive skill starting at level 1. Also, each skill level costs one more point than the last skill level did, so the skills cost more and more each time. So the first skill level might cost 5 points but the 2nd skill level will cost 6, and so on.

We made the character system work like this so that you don't have to wait for some arbitrary level to get a skill. You never waste skill points on skills that you don't really want, and you can specialize in a few skills or have a much more diverse character. And finally, the "lower" level skills stay useful throughout the game.

Vince: It's a skill-based system that supports a large variety of gameplay styles that we wanted to have in the game, ranging from typical fighters, focusing exclusively on various combat skills, to con-artists, specializing in taking advantage of people in various ways by impersonating, lying, and even forging documents.

The most interesting element is that every skill has a secondary, passive trait. For example, the Spear skill's passive trait is Interrupt, i.e. when an enemy is attempting to get within your spear's range, you may get a chance to perform an interrupt attack, which, if successful, will keep the enemy at bay. That higher the skill, the higher the chance to perform such an attack. At slvl 25, it's only 10%, at slvl 250, it's 75%, so you can truly become an almost untouchable master of spears, making it impossible to get close to you. The Lore skill's passive trait is document forging. The higher the skill, the more complex documents you can fake and the higher the chance that they won't raise the suspicion.

7. Magic. What did you come up with and why? What's the role of magic in your game? Alternative way to kill monsters or something else?

Jason: We use a five-element (the "classic four", plus "physical" magic), mana-potential system of magic, where most common spells are devoted to healing, damage, buffs, and de-buffs. There are other novel spells and spell effects as well, but those end up being the biggies. Our rules designer wanted to avoid the usual complaints about the D&D-style "hung spell" model (discourages spellcasters from actually ever casting spells; all but mandates rhythm-killing party resting after a big encounter) as well as the usual complaints about straight mana systems (game turns into Potion Collect-'n-Chug), so in our system, most spells and magical effects return mana to the caster after the duration of the spell expires. The "classic four" also happens to suit our character stat model, where we have four different primary attributes, each of which maps to one of the magical elements.

Our system's structure does preserve some of the "classic D&D" notion that the healing arts are somehow separate from the usual flash-bang magic, but in a different way. Physical magic is the only type which can perform healing (or life drain, the process of damaging someone else and gaining healing in return), but physical magic doesn't map to an attribute, so one cannot use it for primary attribute boosting or depleting. Physical magic can inflict conventional damage, although being composed of "real" force it can be mitigated by conventional armor--unlike elemental magic, which bypasses mundane armor's damage-reducing properties.

Thomas: Magic in Eschalon is divided into two realms: Elemental and Divination. Elemental spells deal with the physical world: fire, earth, air and water. Many of these are combative in nature, though some such as "Gravedigger's Flame" (a magical torch) and "Reveal Map" (a sonic ping that temporarily maps your surroundings) are assistive.

Divination spells deal with metaphysical, spiritual and organic realms. While there are a few combative spells such as "Fleshboil" and the infamous "Turn Undead", many are designed to aid the caster such as "Divine Heal", "Bless", and numerous buffing enchantments. Overall we've tried to make the spells in each realm unique so that characters specializing in both realms can have a useful variety and not just 10 different ways to kill a Goblin.

Each spell can be cast at one of six power levels which draw energy from your Mana pool, and Mana recharges with rest or potions. Since Eschalon is a single-character game, we've made sure that magic is powerful enough to support a pure Mage character, yet not required if you want to play a pure Fighter. This balancing act has definitely been a challenge!

Steven: Depths of Peril is an action RPG, so magic really is another way to kill monsters. :) However, magic does tend to have much more variety than just directly killing monsters. Mages have monster control spells like Petrify, debuffs like Weakness, movement spells like Teleport, and defensive spells like Counterspell.

Vince: The AoD magic is - or technically was, since you don't have/can't learn any magic-related skills and abilities - similar to science. It was a way to directly affect and change when necessary the physical world on different levels. The applications ranged from creating and storing energy to power up machinery to forcing atoms to combust. So, unlike a more traditional firebolt-slinging battlemage, our magus is more of a fragile scientist, powerless (and useless) without his machines.

8. Dialogues. What role do dialogues play in your game? Why? Are there great lines like "I saw a mudcrab the other day" or "Elvish, motherfucker! Do you speak it?" in your game?

Jason: Talking is good. Talking helps you learn more about the world around you, about the characters you travel with and encounter. You can also talk your way through a number of situations in-game through clever dialogue choices and the application of Diplomacy and/or Manipulation skill. (Although admittedly, the designers usually wince when they play through those "talky" solutions and say, "Wow, that was a whopping 30 seconds of gameplay!") When you are interacting with people in the gameworld, your lines are given multiple-choice style. (No keywords or free-input or "Strike a pose.")

Also, your party members talk, both among themselves ("banter") and to you (including but not limited to romantic overtures) and during quests ("interjections.")

Great lines? I'll let the players judge that. Although one of the romances does involve the chance to punch your suitor in the face. That might qualify, under the right circumstances...

Thomas: Dialogue in any RPG is critical to establishing the game world and advancing the storyline. Eschalon handles dialogue via a branching system with different responses based on quest flags. It is simple yet effective and allows the player to have multiple responses to most situations based on how they want to play their character. Overall we’ve chosen to keep the dialogue a bit leaner compared to other contemporary RPGs to more closely match the flow of a classic RPG. As for great lines, I guess the player will need to make that judgment for themselves!

Steven: Unlike most RPGs, in Depths of Peril most of the dialog is from the other covenants, not NPCs talking about their life or a quest. The covenants each have their own agenda, primarily killing you and the other covenants. The dialog is based on which covenant it is, since they each have a different personality and how much they like you at the time. For example, when the Black Raiders are angry with you, they aren't exactly pleasant to talk to.

Vince: Since we fully support several non-combat paths through the game, the dialogues are everywhere. We offer multiple choices based on your stats/skills, including skills like Lore, Crafting, Critical Strike, etc, based on your faction, your previous actions, and of course, based on what logically fits the situation you are in.

9. Quests. Tell us everything we need to know about quests in your game and your design preferences in general.

Jason: We use a sortable, searchable journal, so you shouldn't have too much trouble keeping track of what you're supposed to do, although there is no "quest compass." As mentioned, we've structured the game around a small number of plot-critical quests and a larger number of minor quests which can be accomplished in more or less any order before moving on to the endgame. Because the game and the setting don't lend themselves to lots of "marauding orc attacks" (indeed, there are no orcs, and the fact that Mal Nassrin is sealed off from the outside world would protect you from the orc hordes even if there were any!) there's not a tremendous emphasis on random attacks by beasties, but there are combat scenarios and some would qualify as "random" or "wandering", yes.

I prefer a blend, sometimes it's good to have an excuse to arm up for a nice big set-piece fight, other times it's good to know that those points invested in "talky" skills aren't going to waste. And as alluded to above, although it's very satisfying on the one hand to write quests which have dialogue-based resolutions, the reality of the situation is that they don't do much for the gameplay-hours value-for-money computation. So it's a tricky balance that we're trying to strike, and the inescapable truth is that all things being equal, having characters fight eats up time, and the slower they fight, the better. Frustrating, but true.

Thomas: Quests in Eschalon are dished out via dialogue and narrative hooks. We are dividing quests up about 40/60 in terms of “main” and “side” quests, and hopefully players will enjoy the variety that we’ve put in the game. The quest journal keeps a list of current quests with a simple description that tells you what you need to know to get started, but beyond that we don’t direct the player. This definitely encourages exploration more than just giving the player an arrow to follow.

Steven: The quest system in Depths of Peril is very dynamic. Each game has different quests because they are generated based on the actions of the player, the other covenants, and the world itself. Quests actually have consequences. You can fail quests and quests can generate other quests based on the actions that everyone takes. So in other words, every game plays a little differently because different events happen and your choices actually matter. Should you cure the plague or go quell the monster uprising first? The order might matter. If you don't cure the plague, you or you recruits might catch it. If that happens not only will you be weaker but some of the other covenants might decide to come kill you while you are weak. But if you don't quell the uprising they might come and attack the town.

At least for this particular game, we've tried to design the quests so that most of the time solving, failing, or having to postpone solving the quests actually matters and changes the world. We are hoping that the quests will be much more exciting than many other games this way.

Vince: We have the main quests, helping you get to your main goal, and we have side quests, of course. RPG Vault posted an article recently, dealing with side quests, so you can get some info there. To tell you something new, although the main quest is non-linear, factions side quests are linear, presenting well designed stories. You will be given options to switch sides and to stop one storyline and switch to another. You won't be able to finish one and start another though. To give you an example, playing the Imperial Guards storyline, you - among other guards, of course, you are not "teh chosen one", will be tasked to stop a barbarian army recruited by Lord Gaelius to strengthen his position. You can either go through several quests to stop the army, showing your loyality to the Imperial Guards and continuing their storyline or you can recognize a good opportunity to switch sides and help the army to arrive to Maadoran, continuing to play for House Aurelian from that point on.

10. Being a geeky indie RPG developer, it's quite possible that the only parties you've been to are the ones you generated yourself, so share with us your thoughts on parties: role, features, dynamics, design, etc.

Jason: A common problem in RPG design is the tug-of-war between the player and the writers over the identity of the player character. Leave it too wide open and it can seem like the PC is a cipher. Dictate it too tightly, and the character can cease to "belong" to the player ("why, exactly, would I wish to dig through my own intestines? That is not part of *my* character motivation!")

However, when it comes to joinable party members, the lines of delineation are much clearer. Writers can and should take more liberties to closely define their behavior and give them distinctive personalities, opinions, methods of expressing themselves, and so on. Players do not expect that to be their domain. So our party members are inclined to speak up early and often. Arguably just as important as the characterization they express, though, is the fact that by interacting with the party, you can help build up your own conception of who the player character is. Who does he or she choose to associate with, and why? Our choice in friends says a lot about who we are, and so it is for player characters as well.

As for dynamics and design, we use a scoring system which might roughly be called "influence" under the hood. Every reply in the game potentially carries one or more behavioral "qualities", and the different NPCs score the display of these qualities in different ways. One may value displays of altruism, while another may scoff. Scores can also be earned through quest resolutions. The score can affect the NPC's willingness to follow the PC into graver dangers, affect their romantic inclinations (for the four NPCs who have that feature) and also affect how broad-minded the NPCs will be about their career advancement. (PCs with higher approval scores can talk some of the NPCs into expanding the range of level templates they will accept.)

Although under the right circumstances I don't mind strict party incompatibilities (Jane won't travel with Joe, eventually she says "either he goes or I go" and they fight), in a game with only nine joinable NPCs, I wouldn't want to inflict that on people. Perhaps next time, if and when we can have double or more that number of characters available, we can experiment with those water-and-raw-sodium types of combinations.

Mechanically, we "strongly encourage" a maximum party size of five: the PC plus four joinable NPCs, by penalizing you if you exceed the limit. This happens to work out very well with our range of nine joinable NPCs (You could play through the game twice with a completely different party both times, and then have enough room to experiment with different combinations later on if you so desire) and also makes for manageable encounter design.

Thomas: Eschalon is a single-character game, not party based. Although I certainly enjoy party-based gameplay, I feel that there is something more personal about the single character experience. Playing a solo character requires more careful management of skills and stats since you have no other party members to rely on for help, and based on the definition of “role playing”, I personally find it more enjoyable to assume role of a single character rather than a party of six. Still, fans of party-based games will be glad to know that Book II will be party-based.

Steven: Well since Depths of Peril is a fairly fast paced game, parties aren't as much of a focus as many other games, especially those that are turn based. You can find and recruit up to five recruits, but most of the time they guard your covenant house from town attacks and enemy covenant raids. You can only take one recruit along with you to adventure around in the world, but during raids you can make use of all of your recruits. During both though, you only control yourself directly. You do pick which recruits you want and can change their weapon, shield, and chest armor.

You mostly just have to worry about yourself, but you do have a little control over your recruits. We have done it this way so that the player is not overloaded with too much to control at once, but they can still customize their recruits to some extent how they want.

Vince: We don't have a party system in AoD. I think that for this particular game, single-character setup would work better, but I'm very interested to see what Jason would come up with.

11. Class-based vs skill-based?

Jason: Skill-based, although we do provide class "templates" for leveling, which are optional for the player character but mandatory for joinable NPCs.

The final percentage hasn't been established and will vary slightly from level path to level path, but in general paths will spend between 65 to 80 percent of available points. That still provides some room to customize NPCs to suit your whims, but also accomplishes the goal that you can't just turn the scholarly wizard into a barfighter or turn the gladiator into a rogue/archer type.

Thomas: Skill based. In Eschalon you can be a magic-wielding Fighter or an Alchemist Rogue. Your character’s ability to acquire Skills or use weapons and armor are not limited by his Class.

Steven: Ah, one of the other big RPG debates. :) Again, this really depends on the specific game. With Depths of Peril, we have chosen to go the class based route for a number of reasons. The first is that it is much simpler to get a quick grasp about a character with a class system. When you find an npc that you might want to recruit to your covenant, it is much easier to figure out if you want a 10th level mage than to analyze a bunch of skill levels. It also allows the characters to have a distinct appearance allowing you to instantly recognize them as the class they are. For example, when you run into another barbarian out in the world whether it is a potential recruit, from another enemy covenant, a renegade, or someone else, you will immediately know what class that person is from his or her appearance. Our class system also allows us to have a lot of skills without completely overwhelming the player or making balancing a complete nightmare. Each of our classes has 30 skills for a total of 120 skills for the four classes. Choosing from 120 skills would be extremely difficult and balancing this would take forever. I'll stop here but I could probably keep the reasons coming for a while.

Vince: In my opinion, class-based systems work better with party-based games, while skill-based systems tend to shine in a single-character setups. Since AoD is a single-character game, it's skill-based.

12. Monsters. What are monsters, what are they doing in your game, and how did you come up with them?

Jason: Our setting is comparatively "monster-light" for a sword-and-sorcery setting. A couple of "inhuman" inhabitants of Mal Nassrin are a direct consequence of the crazy reshaping of space and time the antagonist is indulging in, and have their own backstory and logic. Beyond that, there are some magical elementals and golems (recognized standbys, surely), a few semi-intelligent hulking threats, one creature that is literally the stuff of nightmares, a smattering of undead, both helpful and out for blood, and a few other surprises... enough to keep you hopping, certainly. But the majority of the individuals you encounter in the world are intelligent humanoids.

Thomas: We have a plethora of monsters in Eschalon all of which are derived from classic fantasy archetypes. As in most old-school RPGs, the woods and dungeons and deserted villages are teeming with fiendish creatures that want to kill you. That’s certainly the joy of creating a classic fantasy RPG: there doesn’t need to be a reason to infest someone’s basement with Crawling Slimes...things like that just happen!

Steven: Monsters in Depths of Peril have just conquered Aleria and are rampaging unmolested around the land killing pretty much everything in their path. They are even killing each other in same cases. So what are they doing in the game? They are killing everything. This is pretty common in games, but at least there is a story related reason why in our game. :)

For this game, we decided to go with a split approach with the monsters. Some of the monsters and races are well known, and makes the game a little easier to understand at first glance. We also have many monsters and races that are new. We did this of course so that there would be a lot of new things for players to experience and it allows us to have a few surprises here and there.

Vince: We've decided against spicing the setting up with your typical "Argh! Argh!" monsters like rats, undead of all kinds, and any other creatures that are there for you to kill and get loot and XPs. We do use a few non-human creatures, but they are very rare, and they are intelligent enough (most likely smarter than you are) to communicate with, to be reasoned with, to manipulate you, and, of course, they have their own agendas. They do fit the setting and the story, and killing them is not mandatory. If you do decide to kill one, you better be one hell of a fighter.

13. A special feature that you are so fond of that you simply must mention it in every interview. What is it?

Jason: So special yet so obligatory that I've already mentioned it in this very interview? The character romances. It was writing a character romance that got me involved in CRPG design five-plus years ago and as such, I couldn't really put my name on a new game if it didn't have some romance of its own. Although in no way an obligatory part of The Broken Hourglass, and definitely not one which will produce phat l00t or unlock mega-powers or mega-bucks, the option is there with a total of four in-game characters, two male and two female. Like the presence of chatty, opinionated party members generally, romantic interaction can help flesh out the image of who the player character is in terms deeper than "That avatar who uses a sword" or "The one who casts lots of fireballs." PC/NPC romantic entanglements provide another compelling reason to fire up the game, and stay invested in it, and like the overall party/story-based game generally, what we're doing is not something the broader gaming market is being saturated with.

Thomas: This isn’t a feature of our game per se, but rather Basilisk Games in general- we genuinely listen to our fans and have strived to put as many useable suggestions into Book I as possible. There seems to be many old-school RPG enthusiasts out there who want to see certain features return to the genre they love, and if we can make it happen we will. RPGers seem to be hungry for a solid role-playing experience and I believe that the games mentioned in this article all fill a specific corner of that niche market. It’s a very exciting time to be an RPGer.

Steven: I don't know if I talk about this every interview, but I'll add a little more about the consequences of your actions in the world, especially when it comes to quests. We try to make as many of our quests both interesting and actually matter to the player. I'll give a couple examples.

Some quests affect the world before they have been solved. A good example of this is when the town food supply has been poisoned. If this happens, the cost of food in town will skyrocket and will keep getting worse until you do something about it. And yes, you will probably care about this because food is normally one of the cheapest ways to heal yourself.

Another example is that you can actually fail quests. When you get a quest to rescue an NPC who is in danger out in the world, amazingly enough you have to actually rescue them. They can die just like anyone else. For that matter, many of the quests can be solved by the other covenants. If you have a quest that you need to go kill a unique monster that is causing problems, and an enemy covenant gets to him first, they will attempt to kill him and collect the bounty.

Anyways, we have tried to make the quests actually have some impact on the player so that they actually care about completing the quests.

Vince: Text-adventures. Love them to death. I think they add a lot of depth and atmosphere, so we use them quite a lot, from adding a touch or two to a quest to disarming traps and even in certain fights.

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