Cyclopean Interview

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Iron Tower Studio
Developer:Iron Tower Studio
Release Date:Canceled
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Somewhere in another universe, there are video games that exist alongside movies we have never seen and books we have never read. And while cancellations occur in the world of media all the time, the ambitious projects that do fall under the axe are not always the most deserving of such a fate. Had circumstances been slightly different, they might be sitting on our shelves, installed on our hard drives, and potentially even regarded as a much-loved installment to our favorite genre. Their stories make up a fascinating part of the history of the medium that we usually do not get to see, but they deserve to be told, and we'd like to do our part in preserving these stories so that the world can come to know them.

In addition to working on The Age of Decadence, Iron Tower Studio has regularly reached out to other developers in order to create a destination on the web for similar independent RPG projects. In 2008, this led to Scott Jäeger forming Team Omega under the Iron Tower Studio umbrella to develop a Lovecraftian RPG. With a strong focus on writing, the project (known as "Cyclopean") seemed very promising, but unfortunately it was cancelled after a couple of years of devleopment in September of 2010. To find out more about Scott's ambitions for the title, what we're missing out on having never had a chance to play it, and what he's up to now, we caught up with the man himself for a Q&A:

GB: How did you hook up with Iron Tower and start the project?

Scott: I began lurking around the Iron Tower forums in 2007. I've always been a fan of Lovecraft and also a bit of an English nerd. I started to think about how an old fashioned, turn-based RPG, with a setup like Age of Decadence, would work with Lovecraft's sort of horror. I wrote The First Mate's Account (appended at bottom), which would act as an uncovered bit of flavor text for a quest, and sent it to Vince to ask his opinion. More and longer stories followed some meant to tease a game event or location, others which were standalone stories in their own right and Vince invited me to post them. Initially, I had hoped that I could contribute as a writer, modeler or animator (I also have a background in 3D modeling and character animation) to AoD or Iron Tower's next project.

The stories became popular and I began to hash out how the rules to a full-fledged game would work and how the player's chosen Background would integrate into the story. There were folks on the forums, and the internet at large, who were clearly losing their minds at the idea of a serious Lovecraft RPG and I got a really positive response to everything I shared.

GB: Why did you ultimately decide to cancel the project? Did Vince have plans to roll more people onto your project as AoD inched closer to completion?

Scott: Vince, Oscar and Nick all offered their assistance once AoD was published, but as Lead Developer I would still need to find committed artists, programmers, etc. to form a team. I knew Iron Tower would have other projects, presumably a follow-up to AoD, and of course Dead State. These guys can't clone themselves to work full time on Cyclopean.

Attempts to recruit artists and programmers over the course of a year-and-a-half were basically a complete bust. Getting someone talented to volunteer their time on such shaky grounds is understandably a very hard sell. Folks like the Iron Tower team and all the talented people who signed up for Dead State on nothing but a promise are 1 in 10,000.

Vince asked me that rather than cancel the game, I declare a hiatus and maybe come back to it later. Although I had already made up my mind, I let it sit fallow for six months, but I couldn't in good conscience leave everyone hanging when I had no hope to revive it in the future. At the end of the day what I want is to contribute in the areas I'm talented, not to be lead developer. I wasn't (and still am not) ready to make that kind of commitment. Writing is my thing, not project management.

GB: Would you ever consider restarting the project? Or was the cancellation more than a matter of resources?

Scott: It's not a matter of financial resources, but human resources. Basically the project had a lead writer (me), but no dedicated artists or programmers, and no lead developer.

GB: As you were dedicated to the game's writing, what can you tell us about the critical path of the game?

Scott: Originally, the game was to take place in four key Lovecraft locations: Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth and Kingsport. Later, I consolidated it to a sprawling Arkham and the surrounding area. The player would start with a particular Background, which would determine starting location, items and certain special skills. This Background would also give him a starting quest and perhaps NPC contacts in Arkham.

I also conceived of a Sanity system where constant and reckless exposure to Mythos entities could, if it didn't kill him outright, permanently corrupt the player, which would allow him access to certain areas and abilities otherwise hidden. The downside of this is that while the player sees into that other world juxtaposed with our own, its denizens may see him as well.

Magic was to be an area where characters would start with absolutely nothing, except maybe a predilection for its study. You wouldn't be buying scrolls at the dry goods store in town. In the player were interested, he would have to seek out and research each spell through the discovery of cursed tomes and strange NPC's. Actually casting a spell would incur a Sanity cost, but also move the player inexorably towards the state of corruption already mentioned. Basically, there were no (fireballs). Using magic at all would be a decision to carefully evaluate.

Rather than have a single main quest, the game was intended to have three main quest branches leading to a major Mythos event, any of which could be followed initially, but only one of which could be taken all the way to the end. In each branch, the player could choose to thwart the plans of the cultists or madmen, or he could choose to join them and help to (for instance) open a gate to one of the Great Old Ones and bring about the end of the world.

In one of these quest lines, the player must discover which among the various weird secret societies is actually the dangerous (or more accurately, most dangerous) cult in Arkham, figure out what their goal is, identify the High Priest from a selection of Arkham notables, then defeat them, hopefully while hanging on bitterly to some small shred of his humanity.

These are in addition to many standalone quests investigating hauntings, forgotten tombs, strange experiments and disappearances.

GB: Tell us more about the "Sanity" attribute you were implementing. What did this score dictate in the game, and how did you craft your writing around possible sane or insane outcomes?

Scott: The player's Sanity score is a frequently fluctuating rating of his overall mental stability. Challenges to the player's mind are at least as important as threats to his physical wellbeing.

The player's Sanity could be damaged in three ways: first, stressful (but not supernatural) undertakings such as murdering someone or digging up and moving a corpse. Second, observing Mythos creatures for a minor loss, or a manifestation of one of the Great Old Ones or one of their major servants for a serious loss as well as immediate negative side-effects, like dropping one's weapon or temporary unconsciousness. Last, suffering a psychic or magical attack. Certain cultists or Mythos creatures have access to foul incantations or psychic attacks which can directly impact your Sanity score.

Effects of deteriorating mental health occur in stages as your score approaches zero. When the player's Sanity score falls below 20, a temporary minor neurosis will apply, affecting one of his stats. This neurosis will vanish once Sanity rises above 20 and the PC has a full night of restful sleep.

When the player's Sanity score falls below 10, he is on the brink of collapse. He may briefly wander at random, fumble and drop his weapon, accidentally injure himself, or freeze up during combat.

When the player's Sanity reaches zero he collapses completely and blacks out. This doesn't always mean the player is dead. Sometimes the player's shivering, drooling self may be rescued by allies or some good Samaritan. Other times, the player may be captured by his enemies and partially recover in captivity. A complete collapse is accompanied by permanent damage to maximum Sanity points, and may be accompanied by a persistent minor neurosis, which has to be treated at the Asylum to be cured.

Recovering Sanity is not simply a matter of resting overnight in a house. Beyond a few points to be recovered from normal sleep, use of drugs and/or a stay at the Asylum would be required. Drugs also have negative side effects, which means Sanity is a resource which must be carefully maintained. It can't just be topped up at the end of the day with a blue potion.

The corresponding mechanic to Sanity is Mythos points, which track the player's overall exposure to Mythos creatures and events and reflects a permanent change to his worldview and psychology. A few extreme non-supernatural events, like engaging in cannibalism, can earn Mythos points, but typically these points are generated by exposure to Mythos creatures, using magical artifacts and incantations, or travel to extraterrestrial locations. Mythos points are permanent and cannot be erased. When Mythos points exceed Maximum Sanity points, the PC has been (Corrupted). This change is irreversible and purchasing further Sanity points will not undo it.

A Corrupted PC can see through the tenuous tissue separating the staid and sane world of men from the other dimensions and existences juxtaposed and sometimes overlapping our own. Exposure to these other worlds can be very taxing on one's Sanity. Unfortunately, Corruption means the PC can also be seen by Outside entities perhaps better avoided.

Certain canny NPCs will spot Corruption in a player and may choose not to deal with him, or even to target him for investigation.

A player who dedicates himself to the Great Old Ones, and chooses Corruption as a means to better serve them can alter his entire psychological makeup. While Sanity scores and penalties still apply, having one's Sanity reduced to zero no longer means collapse and the player can keep on going.

GB: Traits were also going to play a key part in character generation and progression, including the ability to drive a motorcar and dabble in taxidermy. What more can you tell us about the traits you had been working on for characters, and what effect some of the more unusual ones would have on the game?

Scott: Here is an example of a Skill and corresponding Traits discussed on the Iron Tower forum:

Skill: Mind
Mind is a measure of a player's mental stability and ability to withstand stress. A separate Skill covers learning- and Intelligence-based Traits.
base: 3xWIL

Traits, cost in [] brackets
I Cold-blooded [5]/ Sanity penalties resulting from performing horrific acts are reduced by 1.
I Sound Sleeper [5]/ Recover an additional point of Sanity for a night's rest.
I Stability I [free]/ +3 Max Sanity.

II Hardened [5]/ Sanity penalties resulting from seeing horrific things are reduced by 1.
II Intimidation [5]/ Bonus to use of intimidating lines in dialogue.
II Mesmerism [8]/ Soothe troubled NPCs, once per NPC, once per day. Additional dialogue options. Component: gold-backed watch.
II Rejuvenation [10]/req WIL 5. Trade up to 10 Sanity for green Health, once per day only.
II Remorseless [5]/req: Cold-blooded. Sanity penalties resulting from performing horrific acts are reduced by 2.
II Sixth Sense [3]/ PER+1 for purposes of spotting unusual details. Reduced penalty for fighting invisible opponents.
II Stability II [8]/req. Stability I. +10 maximum Sanity.
II Still Mind [7]/ req WIL 5. After combat, immediately recover up to 2 Sanity lost during combat.
II Tactics [4]/ Cost of giving instructions to NPCs during combat reduced to zero.

III Force of Will [10]/ Sanity cost of incantation converted to Life, plus additional cost of 1 permanent Sanity, once per day only.
III Mentalist [8]/req: WIL 5. Sanity damage resulting from psychic attacks against player reduced by 50%.
III Stability III [8]/req. Stability II. +10 maximum Sanity.
III Sorcerer [10]/req: INT 5. Mythos points incurred by casting spells, using artifacts, or by exposure to minor Mythos entities, reduced to 1.

Traits could be purchased on level up, providing the player could meet the requirements. There were also Traits specific to the chosen Background which could not be purchased, such as a Witch's Familiar and Drug Addict, and others which one could pick up in-game, like Hopping Boxcars, Deformed, and Corpse Eater.

GB: You were also implementing a means for players to pursue a path of magic with the Arcanum skill. How fleshed out was the magic system, and how much of a role did it play in the game and storyline?

Scott: Other than one Background (Descended from Witches) which allowed the player to summon a familiar, any kind of magic had to be sought out and learned in-game. There weren't any magic schools or friendly wizards who would teach you a whole bunch of spells. The means to learn each spell had to be discovered, usually from a tome, less often from someone who would teach it. Further, researching grimoires was a risky, Sanity-taxing endeavor in itself, unless the player had the corresponding Arcanum Traits. As any Lovecraft reader knows, merely leafing through the Cultes des Goules could prove injurious!

In typical RPGs, spells like Fireball are like a sack of grenades you take into combat. In Cyclopean, spells were powerful but also had a very real cost. Every incantation cost Sanity, but they also incurred Mythos points, meaning that anyone who relied too heavily on magic risked insanity and corruption. Magic was a powerful tool and not one to use lightly.

GB: What were your influences both literary (besides obviously Lovecraft) and in game design?

Scott: I was influenced by the usual greats: Fallout, Arcanum, Baldur's Gate, Jagged Alliance 2 (which I maintain had not only the best turn-based combat, but one of the best interfaces not just for a game, but in any class of software). Phantasie II was also dear to me a long time ago.

There aren't really any horror writers like Lovecraft. I can't find much to recommend even among his contemporaries. Other than horror, my interests are very broad, just about any kind of fiction as long as it's well written. In fantasy I really like Moorcock, Jack Vance, and Gene Wolfe's older stuff. Some other good reads are: House on the Borderlands, the Book of Lost Things, and The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

GB: Anything in particular you want people to know about the project and your personal accomplishments?

Scott: For fans of the project, and Lovecraft, I collected the stories I wrote for Cyclopean (as well as a couple more longer pieces) into an eBook available on Amazon for a whopping $0.99.

I also have a very sparse blog. I don't update much, but folks who are subscribed will be notified when the novel I'm working on comes out. Finally, I am currently working on the animal animations for Dead State, the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse CRPG.

GB: Thanks for your time, Scott!

UPDATE: To complement the article, Scott also provided us with a variety of artwork and this nifty Flash-based character generator to provide a glimpse at how the team was implementing character creation toward the end of development.