RPG Design Interview With Vince D. Weller and Mark Yohalem

Iron Tower Studio's Vince D. Weller and Wormwood Studios' Mark Yohalem talk about the ins and outs of RPG design with Chris Picone, a freelance writer and game designer, in this extensive interview. Apart from covering such topics like inventory management, progression, and encounter design, this interview also offers some insights into the design philosophies behind Iron Tower Studio's colony ship RPG The New World, their yet-to-be-announced Inquisition RPG, and Wormwood's upcoming Fallen Gods. A few snippets:

CSH: In a “traditional” (read: combat-based Western) RPG, pacing and tension seem to be managed by increasing the combat density or difficulty or interrupting combat encounters with dialogue and exposition. Vince, I would argue that you’re leading the way for meaningful non-combat encounters in RPGs at the moment, and I want to look at what this change in approach means for RPG game design. There were many different ways to play AoD through to the end without ever engaging in combat, but there was certainly no lack of pacing or tension. What methods did you use? Will we see more of the same in TNW and the Inquisition game?

Vince: By escalating events and raising stakes. For example, in AoD things are relatively quiet in the beginning of the game, so you deal with relatively simple local problems. By the end of the first chapter the local garrison of the Imperial Guards either has taken over or died trying. Either scenario causes ripples and forces different factions to act. Lord Gaelius has to seek questionable allies, which in turn forces lord Meru to abandon caution and accelerate his plans to bring back the Gods, etc. Each action has a reaction and things escalate very quickly, dragging you along.

I think it worked fairly well and we’re planning to use the same approach in both TNW and the Inquisition game. Plus, it’s fairly logical as it’s much harder to convince a general to side with your faction and either break the siege or take the city than to convince a disgruntled soldier to tell you what you need to know.

In TNW, the Ship’s factions are blissfully unaware of your existence in the beginning of the game, which makes your life uneventful and safe. When you find a certain object and start looking for the highest bidder, you draw attention to yourself and each step you take will cause the ripple effect and a tension headache.

CSH: It hadn’t occurred to me at the time but, thinking back, that’s exactly what happened. Unlike Baldur’s Gate, Pillars, etc., the gameplay in AoD never really changed from one act to the next, so the tension was created purely through escalation of risk and reward in an abstract sense. It’s an interesting notion, but you’ve proved that it works.

Mark, the methods I originally mentioned seem to be replicated somewhat in adventure games, in the sense of puzzle density and difficulty. What will we be seeing in Fallen Gods?

Mark: Actually, I’m not sure if the premise of the question is correct with respect to adventure games (and it may not be true with respect to RPGs, either). Because adventure game puzzles (particularly hard ones) stop the game’s momentum, they tend to reduce the pace and sideline tension. With Primordia, when we needed to increase the excitement, we tended to focus on a single puzzle, often a fairly simple one (e.g., get out of the courthouse with SCRAPER in your way) and clear out a lot of the underbrush of filler puzzles (e.g., after the showdown in Calliope Station). By contrast, high puzzle density and difficulty tended to correlate with more contemplative stretches of the game (like when you’re trying to piece together the Council Code).

With RPGs, as I discuss below in connection with PS:T, filler combat often is a way of reducing player tension because it is so low stakes and immediately gratifying (enemies die right and left). AoD’s combat isn’t filler, but if AoD had filler combat like most RPGs do, then the combat would been less tense than the consequence-laden choices.

With Fallen Gods, I would say that the events are probably high tension relative to exploration and combat – because you’re making consequential choices. The costliest events (i.e., events that tend to degrade rather than enhance your warband’s strength) occur in caves and marshes (our “dungeons”), which are really just a stack of obstacle events followed by a culminating potentially rewarding event (usually involving a “miniboss” like a wurm, witch, wizard, mighty draug, outlaw leader, or what have you). So dungeons, being a continual stack of demanding events one after another leading to a big opportunity, are where I expect there to be the most tension.

But because events are much slower paced than exploration or combat (being text and choice-heavy), we have a slightly weird inverse relationship where the game moves at its fastest clip (both in terms of using up the player’s turns and in terms of just action happening on the screen) when it is at its lowest moments of tension. This actually might be true of turn-based combat, too – the hardest fights are the ones where you think the most, take the most time between turns, etc.


CSH: Vince, what’s your take on the matter [of inconsequential death and the save-load dilemma]?

Vince: While I agree with Mark that death is only the beginning an invite to reload the game, I disagree with some of his conclusions.

From the narrative point of view, death is both necessary and unavoidable. It’s a fitting (even if somewhat frequent) end to Stupid or Reckless Hero. Let’s say your band of adventurers runs into a Balrog. The two basic options are Fight and Run Like Hell. Let’s say the developer wants to spice things up and adds option #3: Step forward, look the Balrog in the eyes and say, “You shall not pass!”

There is a good chance that it’s the last thing your character says and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if it’s accompanied by an entertaining description of what happened next. Is this absolutely necessary? Of course not but it adds to the atmosphere, which brings us to the next point.

Frequent death is the only way to illustrate the dangerous nature of the world (assuming it’s dangerous, of course). You can’t say that the world is harsh and unforgiving and one wrong word can end your life if your character never dies. Thus death, when done right, can be a good tool to create a good atmosphere and reinforce the setting.

For example, there is an area in TNW called the Wasteland:

Yet those who survived the dangers of both the Wasteland and their murderous colleagues returned with accounts of more than just mummified soldiers and half-melted energy rifles. They told tantalising stories of security doors with loaded and operational turrets, of functioning retinal scanners blocking access to forbidden vaults, and of the Holy Grail itself: Admin Center, the very brain of the Ship, sealed from within at the height of the Mutiny and never breached. They also spoke of cadavers seemingly unharmed but drained of blood, of mysterious floating lights more terrifying even than the darkness of the void, and of Beelzebub himself. Called Ol’ Bub for short, this terrifying beast was said to dwell deep within the ruined complex, and to feed on any weary prospector foolish enough to let his guard slip.

You’ll hear a lot of tales about both the Wasteland and Ol’ Bub, so by the time you reach it, you’ll know what to expect (i.e. nothing good). Obviously, we can’t let you explore it unmolested, so you will die a lot and often because that’s the nature of this place. On the plus side, it’s an optional location, so you’re free to turn back at any point.

As for the Inquisition game, dealing with Lucifer’s minions and seeking forbidden knowledge is a dangerous game where on misstep can be your last.

Mark: Eh, I don’t know. I mean, the Sierra adventure game death sequences were fun – modern gamers have totally missed the point of these death sequences, which were largely there to provoke a wry smile or chuckle, or even to provide the player a clue. I guess that “You shall not pass!” can serve the same role. But to me, it’s just kind of dumb. How many players will actually run from the Bridge of Khazad-dûm if they have the option to fight and know that they can reload and try again if they die? Because standing and fighting carries literally no cost (other than the player’s time) and few people play games in order to live out fantasies of practical cowardice, the prevalence of death and availability of reloading actually makes that scenario lose its epic quality.

The experiences I’ve had playing NEO Scavenger or ADOM are just utterly different because of the risk of perma-death or other lingering harms. Perhaps it encourages too much cowardice. But figuring out a way to make “You shall not pass!” mean that you might really lose something you want as a cost of doing the heroic thing is a better approach than just kill, funny death screen, and reload. At least in my opinion.

Vince: Sure, they will be brutally slaughtered and they will reload but the memory of that death will live on, becoming the story of that one party that got butchered by the Balrog. Throw in a poetic description of that cautionary tale and the player will treasure this memory for a long time.

A great (video game) victory can’t exist without countless deaths and failures. Nobody remembers a fight they won on the first try but everyone remembers that super hard fight they won after twenty reloads, each reload teaching you something new and forcing you to try different tactics.

Going by that last part, Vince is just about the last man left in the industry who has not yet fallen victim to the “save-scumming is bad and a problem to be solved” fad and I applaud him for that.