Legerdemain - Reader Interview
This is an interview with Nathan Jerpe, who I'm willing to bet many of you don't know. Nathan has self published one game so far, a rogue-like RPG, though I struggle at calling it a rogue-like since it doesn't follow the usual rules and conventions of the genre. Without further ado, let's get on to the questions.
1Rune - What, to you, is an RPG?
Nathan - I think the player assuming the role of an explorer protagonist is fundamental to what an RPG is. There are plenty of variations on this - the player may control an entire party, for instance – but the key is that the player is personified in the game's environment, and that environment is available for the player to explore. There must also be a focus on developing the character through the player's in-game decisions. These can be matters of grand strategy like choosing an alignment or determining which quest to take, or they can be everyday tactical things, like the number of arrows you choose to keep in your quiver. But for an RPG I think these types of decisions are always present, and making these decisions is a large part of what the gameplay is all about.
I think there are also a lot of conventions that RPGs share, even though they aren't as fundamental to the medium. Character development usually takes the form of a rise to power, and it is most often realized by managing your character's statistics and allocating resources. I think the act of travelling, or roaming about in order to see the world your character inhabits, is an important factor too, and there is usually a story tucked in there somewhere.
1Rune - How would you describe Legerdemain to anyone who is not familiar with it?
Nathan - It is a computer role-playing game that has been produced independently by a single author. This last point is a warning, but it is also a call-to-arms. In Legerdemain, I have made numerous design decisions with a conscious disregard of what makes a game popular or easy to market, and focused instead on something I could tackle on my own terms. This meant throwing out fancy graphics and cut scenes and so forth, but I'm OK with that. In exchange, I've been able to concentrate on the things I find most important, like interesting NPCs, and storyline, and a huge, original world.
1Rune - As I mentioned earlier, it doesn't really follow typical rogue-like rules, but is similar in look; how has that been received on both sides in regards to the fans of each genre?
Nathan - The response has been interesting. When I got to the point with Legerdemain where I had something to show other people I coined the phrase 'Roguelikefiction' to describe it. I wanted to show my roots, because if it hadn't been for roguelikes, Legerdemain would have never existed. But I wanted the word 'fiction' in there too so I could emphasize how I was taking things in a different direction from other games in the field.
There are some detractors out there who dismiss Legerdemain because it lacks certain roguelike features – the world is not randomly generated, for instance, and instead of permadeath the game has a hybrid system that relies on the use of inns. That's fine by me, although if you won't play a game simply because it doesn't conform to certain rigid expectations, I think you are missing out. But if you are a roguelike purist and you already know that you want to sit down and play a roguelike, then Legerdemain is a bit of a gamble.
Most people in the roguelike community have been really supportive, though. They realize that it is a sort of oddball, but they judge it more on its own merits instead of how well it fits into any roguelike pattern.
There's also been some interest coming out of the interactive fiction (IF) community as well. Text adventures have always been a great love of mine, and I think in Legerdemain their influence stands out.
1Rune - How long did it take to make the game and were there many problems getting it to a state you were happy with?
Nathan - I started tinkering with Legerdemain back in '99, and version 1.0 didn't come out until the summer of '08, when I first presented the game at DragonCon. So I guess it took about nine years just to get that far. There were times when I wasn't able to work on it very much – I had carpal tunnel issues and other real life stuff going on, but all told I'd say there's about three and a half man-years of effort in there. Development has slowed down since version 1.0 came out, but adding the tiles was a big step and that didn't get finished until 2010.
There were plenty of problems getting the game into a finished state, sure. To be honest I had anticipated that getting everything programmed and relatively bug free would be the hardest part, but that turned out not to be the case. What was toughest was getting all the content right, all the text and monsters and artifacts and maps and everything else that goes into describing a game world. By the time the program had taken on its final shape I had thought I was almost done, but it turned out I was only about halfway there.
1Rune - The tiles for the game make the game look so much better then ascii, but are pretty basic when compared with other rogue-likes - is this due to the engine you developed for the game?
Nathan - Yes. Legerdemain actually uses Unicode, which has a much larger character set than ASCII, and I based most of my UI design around its features and limitations. To be honest, I could play roguelikes all day without ever looking at a tile. There's just something aesthetically pleasing to me in a game that really is just a collection of text, like some jumbled, monstrous poem with an RNG beating in the center of it. But when Legerdemain started catching on, I realized that it would need a tileset to widen its appeal. That's when I brought pixel artist Ian Mackenna onboard, and I've been really pleased with the result. The tiles are not all that advanced because there were just so many of them, almost a thousand, and my budget could only afford so much. But I think Ian did a great job of capturing the game's mood and setting, and that's what matters most to me.
1Rune - Are you aware of the T.O.M.E engine, and if so have you thought of using something like that for another RPG?
Nathan - I'm aware of it but I'm not too familiar with it; I haven't played T.O.M.E as much as I would like. The sad truth is that once you start writing RPGs, you don't have nearly as much time to play them.
I would definitely consider using something like that for another game, but I'd have to figure out my requirements first. I'd want an engine to suit the game, not the other way around.
1Rune - Can you tell us more about the game world, describe the setting and some of its themes?
Nathan - Legerdemain takes place in a world called Phenomedom that is recognizably fantasy even though it experiments with lots of traditional fantasy tropes. It is a bit more surreal and hallucinatory than most fantasy worlds, and magic is an ever-present theme. In fact, every character that you create is a magician to some degree, and the traditional class-based system of most CRPGs is replaced with a philosophy-based system that determines what kinds of magic your character excels in. Combat is still a very important part of the game, though, and you can develop your character to fulfill the role of a tank, archer, thief, etc. as you see fit.
You begin the game imprisoned in an underground cave, with no purpose except to find a means to escape. Once you have accomplished this you can begin the larger task of exploring the world and discovering your role as a magician in a world that generally shuns magic. There's also a conspiracy you'll need to unravel that involves dream porridge, a library beneath the sea, shapes, indolent kings, chromatic wine, talking squirrels, and hundreds of other things.
1Rune - Can you discuss the linearity of the game? How much freedom does the player have in determining what paths to take?
Nathan - The story in Legerdemain is pretty non-linear. You are often free to choose where you'd like to go next, and many of the game's obstacles can be tackled in different order. There's also a bit of sandbox play depending on how you want your character to develop, so that one player may spend stretches of time hunting or gathering mushrooms while another focuses on studying spells. That being said, the game does have a definite ending, and even though the plot spends plenty of time bifurcating and forking around it all gets drawn up into a single conclusion. There aren't too many side quests, per se, everything in there is designed to fit in such a way that it all makes sense by the time you reach the ending.
1Rune - Does Legerdemain use classes like traditional RPGs? Is character advancement level-based or skill-based?
Nathan - In Legerdemain every character is a magician, so there is an immediate departure from the traditional fighter/mage/thief/cleric classification right from the start. By answering a series of questions at character generation, you are assigned one of five wizardly philosophies that determines your strengths, weaknesses, and starting spells.
Levels are gained through experience points, and experience points are gained in the usual ways – combat, fulfilling certain goals, traveling to new places, etc. But every time you gain a new level you are awarded skill points to spend, and you can invest these not only in the wizardly philosophies but in non-magical pursuits as well, such as melee, missile combat, skullduggery, and outdoorsmanship. In this way your character really develops as you advance, and you get to refine your style of gameplay as you go. If you prefer to bash things in you can spend less points on magic than melee, whereas if you enjoy, say, communing with the dead, you can invest more in the darker philosophies.
1Rune - Now that the game is out and finished, what are you doing now?
Nathan - I've been working on a surreal epic poem about a UFO invasion that may or may not have happened. I started working on the storyline in 2009, and back then I thought it was going to be another CRPG. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a game wasn't going to be the right medium for it. I'm hoping to release chapters of it through my Roguelikefiction imprint later this year.
I do have some design documents for another CRPG that explicitly defies the notion of an explorer protagonist, but I haven't made much headway on it yet.
1Rune - There is a free version of the game, and a paid version that includes a very well written cluebook (think back to how Bard's Tale was done): how much is it and where can we get it?
Nathan - You can download the entire game for free from http://roguelikefiction.com. There's no tiles with that version, so you only get the Unicode. But hey, it's a two-hundred hour RPG for free.
You can also buy the cluebook package there for $20 via PayPal. The cluebook package is also available from our distributor at http://indiepressrevolution.com (their link to Legerdemain is here - http://bit.ly/hUJxdr) The cluebook package comes with the tileset version of the game, the cluebook, and a hand-drawn world map. The cluebook is perfect-bound and over three hundred pages so it will look good on your shelf.
Indie Press Revolution is also selling a digital version of the cluebook package for $10, which gets you the tiles and PDFs of the cluebook and the map.
Thanks Nathan, I hope this interview generates some interest in the game. Speaking from experience, it is well worth the time to discover a very interesting new world.