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Successfully Kickstarted earlier this year, SKALD: Against the Black Priory is described as a dark fantasy RPG featuring modern design combined with a classic 8-bit look and feel. And going by its promotional videos and Kickstarter updates, the game looks like something with a lot of potential. It's also being primarily developed by a single individual who goes by AL online.
Having a strong vision and then tirelessly working on realizing it with little outside help is highly commendable, so we figured we owed it to ourselves to contact AL and ask him a few questions about his intriguing project.
GameBanshee: Hi. From my understanding, Scape-IT is a more or less one-man studio from Norway. When I think “old-school RPGs,” my mind rarely jumps to Norway, and I'm ashamed to admit that I know next to nothing about the genre's history in your neck of the woods. So, could you talk a bit about how one grows up to become a role-playing enthusiast in Norway?
AL of Scape-IT: The history of pen-and-paper roleplaying and CRPGs in Norway in the late 80s / early 90s, is probably pretty similar to most other places in the world. Both were well established, if somewhat obscure, hobbies by the early 90s and as tabletop RPGs dipped a bit in popularity, computer gaming came into mainstream pop culture in Norway just as anywhere else by the mid 90s.
I grew up with computers and early consoles, so CRPGs came natural to my friends and me.
I don’t really know that there were certain games or platforms that were particularly popular in Norway, but I grew up on a steady CRPG diet of games such as the Ultimas, the Might and Magic series, the Gold Box games, Fallout and the Baldur’s Gate series.
I grew up in the Norwegian arctic in a very rural area and my road to the tabletop RPG hobby was a bit more winding. I remember hearing tales from friends who had visited family down south and been introduced to this esoteric, almost incomprehensible, game where you told stories and rolled dice and no one really ever won. Remember: this is pre internet.
Bit by bit I managed to piece together a rudimentary understanding of what a roleplaying game was, and by age 12 I had written my own rules system based on me flipping through a “Rolemaster” book in a bookstore whilst visiting a larger city.
Long story short, from then on, I pretty much ran RPG campaigns until I graduated from university.
GB: When and how did you decide to sit down and actually start working on your game?
AL: In late 2017 I realized that I had a great foundation for making a tile- and turn based RPG and I started doing some exploratory design that would eventually lead to me committing to the pixelated, retro look and feel of “SKALD: Against the Black Priory”.
GB: When did Kickstarter enter the picture?
AL: I spent a lot of time interacting with RPG fans and devs on Twitter whilst writing the SKALD engine and I kept getting good feedback. That made me confident that I had a viable product on hand and I decided to commit to making it the best it could be by getting some funding. That’s where the Kickstarter came in.
GB: SKALD is quite a catchy title, but what does it mean exactly? Is it a play on a Nordic Bard's Tale? If so, your website mentions that the game's setting was inspired by the Roman Empire. How does it all fit together?
AL: “SKALD” is the name of the game-engine and brand. I’m thinking games made with the engine and in the SKALD universe will all have names like “SKALD: [name]”.
The name is short, catchy and recognizably Scandinavian. And with a Skald being a kind of Viking storyteller I feel it’s a pretty good fit for a brand name for a Norwegian RPG.
GB: One of your Kickstarter updates mentions that the game will be split into three acts. What does this mean for SKALD's structure and what can we expect from the core gameplay loop? Will it be a focused story-driven experience, or something more free-form and exploration-based?
AL: “SKALD: Against the Black Priory” will be split up over three acts that take you to different parts of the game world. I intend for the players to have a lot of freedom to explore and adventure freely, but the game world will open up more and more as you progress thorough the acts. This game takes place in an area of the game world that’s a bit analogous to the North Sea and the islands therein.
You’ll start off on an island in the first act and then get access to a ship by the second act. Finally you’ll have gained enough skill and experience to lead an expedition into the high north and the games grim finale.
I want a game world and mechanics that encourage exploration and I love the idea of players needing to plan for expedition-style forays into the darker corners of the world.
GB: One of the stretch goals added the Captain class to the game. Could you expand a bit on what we can expect from this intriguing class?
AL: There is a big maritime component in the game so it feels natural to have a maritime class! The way I’m currently envisioning classes we’ll build it around five basic classes: Warrior, rogue, cleric, mage and the skald. Each class then has three subclasses (one of which is the vanilla class).
For now, the captain is a subclass of the rogue and will play into the “scoundrel” trope-space. Think “Han Solo”.
GB: Can we expect naval battles or will the game's ships mostly be used for exploration?
AL: I would certainly love to include maritime combat as well but it’s not on the “need to have” list for now. This might be a feature we add post release. We’ll see.
GB: When talking about the game's classes in one of your developer blogs you mention that you want each class to be “equally playable” and don't want to go overboard with class-exclusive skills or feats. If that's the case, then why do you even need different classes? Why not go with a classless system instead and let the players specialize their characters whichever way they see fit?
AL: That's a good question! I did consider going classless but the argument for classes outweighed the argument against classes. The way the system works now is that classes give you a starting package that lays the ground-work for what your character should be doing (like giving spells to spell-casters). Beyond that, level development is probably going to be based on using points to buy new feats.
What class you play will determine the price of different feats for you (combat feats will be much less expensive to warriors than to mages and so forth). The great thing about this is that it gives me a bunch of knobs to go back and tweak later in regards to feat prices and requirements based on classes. It hopefully will also make it a bit harder to spot the “optimal build” right out of the gate.
Having classes leaves me the opportunity to go in and make the class more or less restrictive and I can even take it out of the game completely if it turns out to be completely redundant, but it would be a lot harder to go the other way.
There’s also an argument to be made for classes being kind of expected in a fantasy RPG and it does give me hooks to hang things on. I can now do scripting to see if a player is a rogue and then let city guard treat her differently than the cleric.
GB: The game's companions are said to have their “private agendas and motivations.” Can you elaborate on this?
AL: SKALD's main campaign will see you create a single character and then recruit the rest as you go. This means that the game will contain a handful of recruitable characters and these should all have some unique content in terms of quests and storylines. The engine can also handle more procedural features as well such as dynamic rivalries and relationships and I would like to include that as well, but this comes down to prioritizing and we’ll see what we have time for.
GB: Could you also talk a bit about the combat system? If I understand it correctly, SKALD won't feature any combat movement and instead both sides will have two rows of up to three characters simply exchanging blows in a turn-based fashion. How do you plan to keep this seemingly simplistic system feel fresh and engaging in the long run?
AL: For SKALD I have chosen to go with combat that is a bit more puzzle-like and abstract as opposed to more simulationist. There’s a lot of reasons for this. First of all, I was playing a lot of Wasteland 1 and Bard’s Tale at the time and combat in those games is basically like combat in SKALD: Menu based and with positioning limited to checking if you’re in melee range or not. I felt this was a good fit for SKALD since I want an emphasis on having players make interesting choices. By doing menu based combat that becomes a lot easier to implement since you can make each choice in the menu an explicit tactical choice: “Do I move to the rear rank and pull out my bow or do I stay in the front rank and attack even though I’m about to die”. This kind of combat system is also a lot faster than most maneuver based combat systems and it’s very easy to make a simple auto-resolve option (which SKALD has).
In SKALD, characters are expected to use combat maneuvers like special attacks (granted by feats) or spells. There is a lot of room for creating synergies between these for clever players, and the combinatorics of things like initiative order, party composition and what enemies you’re facing should make for a lot of variety.
I’m a huge fan of games like Magic the Gathering. I love how those games create interesting and complex tactical situations by combining a handful of simple elements and then have players continually ask the question “what do I do to win this” or “what’s the optimal play here”.
GB: Additionally, games that go for fast-paced individual battles, oftentimes instead shift their focus towards strategic resource management, be it health, mana, or consumable supplies. Will SKALD have something like this?
AL: SKALD will also place a lot of emphasis on the strategic management element of adventuring. Making decisions on who to bring, how to outfit them and how deep you delve should be a part of a game like this. It comes down to rewarding clever play and encouraging strategic thinking.
Elements like this can certainly make for very grindy gameplay. I try to keep this in mind and try to focus on designing systems that remove boring bookkeeping and grinding whilst offering interesting strategic choices instead.
I’m a fan of roguelike games, and though SKALD certainly isn’t a roguelike, I really admire the grittiness of the choices you have to make in roguelikes (“do I turn back or do I push onwards just a little bit longer and get more treasure”).
GB: Will the game's encounters be hand-placed and static or should we expect random encounters? Will the enemies respawn?
AL: The game will feature both approaches. Certain encounters will be hand crafted but some areas of the game will feature random encounters and monsters that respawn.
GB: What about the game's magic system? Which resources will we be using to cast our spells? How wide will the spell selection be? Should we expect to see powerful exploration-focused spells that will let us circumvent the intended routes?
AL: The game's magic system is still under development. The game will have a classical divide between arcane and divine magic and I want to make two systems that feel different. Divine magic is perhaps a bit less powerful but it’s more reliable and safer whilst arcane energy is a lot more powerful but also much more unreliable and dangerous.
The setting is a bit pessimistic towards magic and it has a sense of magic being powerful but at a great (often corrupting) cost.
Beyond that, I don’t want to say too much about it since it's still very much a work in progress.
GB: How will the game handle itemization? Will we be drowning in magic items and various artifacts or will they perhaps be more rare and hard to find?
AL: The SKALD setting is a bit low in magic and things like true magical items are few and far between. Players certainly won’t be drowning in them. I would much rather have an emphasis on equipping the party with the right non-magical gear and perhaps having to change things up depending on what quests you’re going on.
GB: SKALD is positioned as an old-school game and it certainly looks the part but what about its design sensibilities? In this day and age of ubiquitous tooltips and detailed tutorials, the idea of studying a manual prior to launching a game and then hoping you remember which button does what seems somewhat archaic. Now, I know that you plan to ship SKALD with a manual, but will it be required reading so to speak, or more of a respectful nod to a time long gone? What about saving our progress?
AL: I’m trying to include as many quality-of-life features in SKALD as possible. Gamers these days don’t always have a lot of time and the game should allow you to pick it up, play it for 15 minutes, save and then walk away from it for a couple of weeks.
So far, the game is easily playable without reading the manual since so much of the GUI is contextual and I take care to include descriptions of things like spells and feats. I think this is going to be a game you can easily play without reading the manual but where using the manual as a strategy guide will help a lot.
You can save wherever you like on the map.
GB: How long do you expect an average playthrough of SKALD to take and how difficult do you expect it to be?
AL: It’s very difficult to estimate game length but I really want for “SKALD: Against the Black Priory” to offer tens of hours of gameplay. I’m a big fan of games that can be completed quickly but where there is a lot of side content to dig into. I really don’t want to hide completing the game behind a wall of grinding.
It’s fairly easy to make a large dungeon stuffed with monsters where players can spend hundreds of hours if they feel like it. But I think it’s a good idea to give players the option of bypassing some of the dungeon-crawling and just focusing on the story instead.
GB: What about replayability? Can we expect to see everything the game has to offer in a single playthrough? Will there be any tough to find secrets?
AL: In general, I intend to offer branching narratives and quests with multiple solutions. This, combined with a reactive game world will (hopefully) make it interesting to replay the game. I also think any good RPG needs a lot of secrets.
GB: Are you aiming SKALD predominantly at those who feel nostalgic for the games that inspired it or do you hope for it to have a wider appeal?
AL: First and foremost, I’m making a game for the fans of the genre. That being said, broad appeal is never a bad thing and I try to design for it where I can. I would love for the game to be easy to pick up and get into but still have a lot of depth if you really want to dig into it.
I might consider adding an easier “story mode” for more casual players and like I've said: There should be as little mandatory grinding as possible in the main narrative.
Also, I have the option of porting to mobile (I’m working in Unity) so that might certainly attract a more casual audience as well.
GB: You currently plan to release SKALD in June 2020. Say the game launches on time and it's fairly successful. What's next for Scape-IT? Or is it too early to think about that sort of thing?
AL: First and foremost my plan is to make SKALD: Against the Black Priory the best game it can be for desktop devices. Beyond that, the next phase is to consider a port to handheld devices. SKALD is written in Unity and has been developed with this in mind so I think there’s a lot of potential there.
That being said, I place a big emphasis on making the engine reusable and establishing SKALD as a recognizable brand within the retro RPG scene. Depending on how the first game does, it’s certainly possible I’ll look into doing sequels for “SKALD: Against the Black Priory”.
I really love working in this genre and I suspect I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m having fun.
GB: Is there anything you would like to say to our readers who might be interested in your game?
AL: The SKALD community currently lives on Discord and feel free to join our server if you want to engage with the project. There is also an Alpha demo coming out in early September and it will be available to Kickstarter backers and Discord members.