Frayed Knights Interview
Tales of the Rampant Coyote has become a popular blog on indie games and related issues that we've linked many times in our news but there's more to Jay Barnson than a popular blog. We catch up with Jay to talk about his indie CRPG in development and why he took just about every risky choice with the design that you could imagine.
RPGWatch: Some readers will know you through your blog at Rampant Coyote and your coverage of indie games but you've been a professional developer for a long time. Introduce us to the Jay Barnson behind the coyote.
Jay Barnson: In 1981 I became hooked on both video games and Dungeons & Dragons. Geek Convergence. I was doomed. When my dad got us one o’ those newfangled “home computers,” I found it was tough deciding which I liked doing more – playing games, or making them myself. And since I was a geek of the D&D persuasion, the big thing I wanted to replicate was that experience – the thrill of exploration and being someone else. I’ve been making my own games ever since.
But around 1992, I found myself victim of a triple-whammy of games from Origin: Wing Commander, Ultima Underworld, and Ultima 7. At that point, I was in the middle of getting my computer science degree and thought, “Wow, you know what would be a total dream job? A job making these kinds of games! That would be so cool!” I didn’t really think it was possible – because the games industry had to be some kind of secret society of uber-geniuses that couldn’t possibly let a joe average like me join their ranks.
Somehow they did, so I worked for SingleTrac making games for this brand new console called the “Sony Playstation” that nobody had hear about. We managed to get several hits right out of the chute – Twisted Metal, Warhawk, Jet Moto, and various sequels. Eventually, I got sick of the games business, and decided I’d like to get out and make my own games for a change. So I got a “boring” day job programming business apps while (eventually) working on indie games at night. I guess I should have known it wouldn’t be nearly as easy as it sounded!
I recently got sucked back into the games biz, but they know about Rampant Games and let me do my own thing at nights, when I can. I also started the blog – Tales of the Rampant Coyote – to focus on and help publicize certain aspects of the indie games scene – especially indie computer RPGs.
RPGWatch: What drives someone to slave over a hot keyboard by day and then come home and burn the midnight oil to create an indie game? At the day job, you've obviously got more resources, professional tools...is it the opportunity to chart your own destiny, despite the limitations?
Jay Barnson: I’m suspicious that it has something to do with a latent masochistic streak my religious upbringing keeps buried in my subconscious.
But the thing is – being an indie is way, way more fun than being a mainstream game developer.
Yeah, it’s hard having no budget but your own pocket-change, and having to fight tooth and nail for even the tiniest bit of attention or awareness, and then having people say, “Oh, man, that game might have looked good fifteen years ago!” The compromises you have to make are much harder. And for the vast majority of indies, there’s no significant money in it. It’s tough sacrificing hours that could be spent playing games to debug a broken save-game routine or collision code.
I have a framed cloth map from Ultima V that I have hanging next to my desk. When I get bogged down in the tedium that is 90% of game development, I turn and look at that map. It’s my inspiration. Not that what I’m doing is gonna be anywhere near as significant as the Ultima series (by delusions of grandeur only go so far!), but it reminds me how much I love making games, and of how awesome games don’t need photorealistic graphics or budgets measured with eight digits.
It’s the freedom to do your own thing, to manage your own game, and do things that no publisher in their right minds would ever green-light in this day and age. It’s also about being able to work on a small team focused around a game where everyone has a sense of ownership, instead of something that feels more like an assembly line on a team of dozens of full-time developers. It’s about putting the passion for games back into making games.
And it’s fun. At least, it’s fun enough often enough to help make you forget all the hair-pulling times.
The other thing that is really cool about doing indie games is discovering and connecting with this community – such as it is – of players and developers who are really excited and passionate about games. Especially the RPG fans and developers. People who aren’t satisfied with the way mainstream RPGs are going, who crave something more, or think there are more stories to tell and things to say and places to go with some older game concepts. And it’s cool to rub elbows with indie RPG makers who not only feel that way, but have the passion, energy, and gumption to do something about it, and do all the things we’re told we can’t do anymore.
RPGWatch: So, your current indie project is Frayed Knights – what is it and what is it all about?
Jay Barnson: Frayed Knights is Rampant Games’ upcoming comedy-based fantasy RPG. It’s a blend of old-school style (first-person, turn-based, party-based adventures like Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale, Dungeon Master, and Might & Magic) with “real” 3D graphics, a healthy dose of character-based humor, and some quirky gameplay innovations. It’s part parody, part homage to both CRPGs and pen-and-paper RPGs.
It’s primarily a story about four misfit adventurers in a world that tries to justify all the weird things that happens in RPGs. The world of Frayed Knights is one with a subset of the population that were “adventurers” and acted like Player Characters tend to act. Which is to say, often amoral, ruthless, and greedy. Most of the time.
However, the adventurers are starting to die off. That in itself is not too surprising – the life of an adventurer is often short but exciting. But something is changing, and the rate of “morts” (deaths) is becoming alarmingly high. Plus, there are rumors of an “Ancient Evil™” rising out in the boonies. Things are going bad for the “adventurer community.”
But the Frayed Knights – themselves pretty much the laughingstock of adventurers everywhere – may be the only ones who can save them.
RPGWatch: A humorous RPG sounds like a risky choice to me, both in terms of audience reception and the difficulty in getting humour right. There are certainly funny games out there – even funny RPGs – but not many work. InXile's Bard's Tale re-envisioning fell flat for me, for example. Why this choice?
Jay Barnson: I do believe humor can be and has been used very successfully in games. Just ask Guybrush Threepwood!
I was inspired by comics like Knights of the Dinner Table, Dork Tower, Order of the Stick, DM of the Rings, and “What’s New With Phil and Dixie,” as well as the anime series “Louie the Rune Soldier,” and even shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. They all contributed to some seriously warped ideas I had about how to make an RPG both touching and funny.
And I was excited by the prospect of doing something different.
I think the key difference between the approach in the Bard’s Tale remake and Frayed Knights is that the humor is focused more around characters and story, not just poking fun at genre conventions (though there is some of that, too). It’s not just about some of the weird situations RPG players find themselves in – it’s about how these particular characters respond to them.
RPGWatch: Following directly from that decision you realised you needed pre-made characters to make the comedy work. Would you introduce those characters? What makes them work? And what will the game offer to those who love to create and develop their own characters?
Jay Barnson: The Frayed Knights do not call themselves that. They got the nickname from a combat against a Hemp Golem that went terribly wrong. They all vowed never to talk about that particular event, so I don’t know how the word got out. But in a world of mighty-thewed warriors, ninja-like thieves, brilliant and ruthless sorcerers, and steadfast clerics, the Frayed Knights have an unfortunate reputation they are trying to live down of being something of the bottom of the barrel.
The Frayed Knights are:
A dainty half-elven female fighter. She's extremely self-conscious of her small stature, particularly in a world of mighty-thewed macho warriors. She makes up for it by her brain and clever combat tactics. Unfortunately, in spite of her role as the party's nominal leader (mainly by virtue of her being the most rational and least easily distracted), she has a more fiery temper then all of them combined.
Ben is a nature-priest who isn't exactly sure how he keeps getting dragged into these adventures. He's sorely lacking in combat-savvy, and unlike everyone else in the group, doesn't have a violent bone in his body, and is slow to suspect treachery in others. He is fiercely loyal to his friends, but sometimes chooses moments of their mortal peril to take the time to smell the roses. Benjamin would probably have been happy as a hippy at Berkeley circa 1970. Instead, he’s stuck in a fantasy-medieval world where monsters and human(ish) folk are constantly trying to kill each other. Fortunately, he’s got some magic to help is friends, and makes up for his lack of real-world sense by being a walking encyclopaedia of academic lore.
An absent-minded sorceress with a destructive streak, Chloe is off in her own world more than half the time. Chloe's world is apparently populated by cute and fluffy animals that love her, lots of sparkly objects, and is a place where gratuitous sex and violence is appreciated by all.
Caution. Discretion. Subtlety. These things mean nothing to the party's rogue, Dirk. He became a thief not for personal gain, but for personal glory, and not even an early death will stand between him and his ultimate goal. Fortunately for the party, he's generally really good at what he does. But if there is such a thing as "Flamboyant Stealth," Dirk would be a master.
The pre-generated character thing is a concept that is as old to pen-and-paper RPGs as … well, the old Gen Con tournaments of the late 70’s, at least. Yeah, the personalities and starting point for the characters is pretty well fixed. However, at each level players are given customization options to “build” the characters in particular directions.
No, you won’t be able to play a Male Half-Orc Barbarian instead of Chloe. You can customize Chloe to the point where she is more potent as a front-line bruiser than a sorceress. But she’ll still talk about blowing things up with a fireball, because that’s just how she rolls.
Curse my limitations as a designer – maybe one day I’ll figure out how to incorporate ANY character concept created by a player into an exciting and truly open-ended storyline, but I don’t know how to do that. Yet.
RPGWatch: Another interesting choice is the Eye of the Beholder style – the so-called “blob with legs” - I don't think we've seen a new game with this presentation since Wizardry 8. Why this choice?
Jay Barnson: Partly for that very reason - nobody else is doing it. Well, okay, I guess the indie RPG Minions of Mirth does this. But aside from other indie weirdos like Josh Engebretson, nobody’s doing it anymore.
Why not? Is there anything inherently un-fun about the approach? Are all possible stories with that mechanic told, and all gameplay opportunities used up? I don’t think so.
I love party-based RPGs, single-player or multi-player. With multiple characters, with different powers, strengths, and weaknesses, you get tactics in combat. With a single character, it’s hard do much more than hack-and-slash. And I love party inter-party dialog, like you got in Bioware’s Infinity Engine games. Combine that with the fact that I was using the Torque Engine, which in its most natural state wants to be more of a first-person shooter, I decided it was natural to go with the first person perspective.
Plus, when I got the idea of the characters from the Wizardry games talking to each other using speech bubbles, and getting all snarky with each other, I was hooked on the idea.
RPGWatch: How do you blend a humorous tone with dramatic tension? Or don't you? I'm just trying to get a grip on the usual “save the world” life-and-death choices we face in most RPGs, which have a certain gravitas - even if they are often clichéd - versus Frayed Knights.
Jay Barnson: Comic relief does a great job of breaking up the tension AND making it more dramatic by comparison. Shakespeare used that technique all the time. Why don’t game developers, I wonder? Too many games feel like they are playing a single dramatic note all the way through.
I also think it’s a mistake to think that the gravity or drama of a story comes from external aspects of the storyline. Saving a billion faceless, theoretical people really doesn’t carry the same weight as saving your own daughter. Defeating one really nasty, personal enemy is far more exciting than defeating three half-baked bad guys. I wish the people making superhero movies would figure that out. Case in point: Final Fantasy VII. Saving the world from a meteor was cool. But the REAL ending, the truly satisfying one, was wiping the floor with that pretty-boy Sephiroth who shish-kababbed your girlfriend halfway through the game!
I think the comic approach works well to break the ice and help you care about the characters. Again, I cite Order of the Stick and Knights of the Dinner Table. Tastes vary, but fans really start caring about these characters, and get sucked into the story more – in my opinion – than your run-of-the-mill overwrought save-the-universe melodrama.
Now, I know that I don’t have the storytelling chops of Rich Burlew or Jolly R. Blackburn, but ya gotta start somewhere, right?
RPGWatch: Speaking of choices, is combat the focus? Or will you be offering other solutions to quests, such as diplomacy through dialogue or other options? Do you have any diplomacy/speech or similar non-combat skills?
Jay Barnson: Aw, doncha like those RPGs that are nothing but endless streams of combat?
I’m trying to follow Richard Garriott’s old philosophy of making sure there is always at least one good solution to any puzzle / quest, but I don’t want to prevent others. There are going to be some non-optional combats. But we’re mixing it up with plenty of non-combat activities - again, some optional, some mandatory. If you pick the right locks, convince the right people to help you, find the right secret passages, explore the right areas, and you can avoid a lot of combat. Or you can just say, “Screw it! Let’s fight!” and brute force your way through.
One thing I’m particularly proud of is the lock-picking / trap-disarming section of the game. In general, I’m opposed to game mechanics that are resolved with a single roll or action. So I made … I guess you’d call it a “tactical mini-game” for disarming traps and opening locks. I tried to base it (somewhat) on principles that make combat more interesting – you have an initial setup, strengths and weaknesses, tools at your disposal to change your odds or “mess with” the components, and the need to respond to changes in the situation in a clever manner.
So just like combat may challenge you on some tactical levels (is it better to go after the healer first, while the two fighters are beating on you, or to try and face the fighters first to reduce your own risk but extend the length of the combat?), the trap / lock system should give you a little bit of a tactical challenge. And should be way more interesting than just rolling to see if you disarm the trap.
Of course, you can often also just find the key and avoid picking a lock altogether if you choose.
Frayed Knights is class-based rather than skill-based, and many tasks can be attempted by anyone. The priest can try and pick a lock, though he won’t be nearly as successful as the party rogue. But, if the rogue is incapacitated, there may be no better choice.
For diplomacy and dialog, due to the nature of the game the speaking tends to go to whomever is most entertaining rather than whomever has the best diplomacy skill. So lots of diplomatic skill-checks aren’t part of the game.
RPGWatch: You wrote in your blog about some interesting ideas for dialogue – a “knowledge / inheritance system” but you also seemed a bit frustrated with the early results. Tell us about it and where you have ended up.
Jay Barnson: I really dislike the now-standard conversation tree in RPGs.They are stupid. You get these conversations rich in personality and information while you are doing one quest, and then after that the NPC becomes oblivious and laconic.
Wouldn’t it be cooler to have an NPC who often had something to say about what YOU were interested in, regardless of how far you were in the game?
So I came up with a half-baked idea to have sort of a factional knowledge system, where the “conversation tree” was built on-the-fly with a combination of options based on your party’s current interests, the options specific to the particular NPC, and a collection of knowledge based upon what factions or groups the NPC belonged to. Say, “Villagers,” “Democrats,” and “People Who Hang Out At The Pub On Friday Nights.”
What’s cooler was the system could be dynamic, with new bits of knowledge crossing (usually from the player) between groups via their common members over time. And it would work really nicely with a faction system.
And why not make a conversation system – like the trap / lock system and combat – a detailed, multi-stage affair where you might have to try a variety of approaches to get an optimum mix of attitudes of the NPC toward you based on their own personality, maybe across two or three different axis. Wow, that’d be cool! And those attitudes could also propagate across faction lines, so if you intimidate one farmer into spilling his beans, the other local farmers would soon inherit a level of dislike / distrust. And for farmers who aren’t particularly cowardly, that could make things more challenging in the long run.
And - bonus! – it would mean additional NPCs would be easier to script up their conversations.
I got about two weeks into the system before I realized that – while it might be a really cool idea for an RPG at some point down the road – Frayed Knights wasn’t that game. Frayed Knights conversations should be about snarky comments, character-driven dialog, amusing insights, and occasionally touching interaction. A big conversation simulator just didn’t belong, and was going to detract from the point of the game.
RPGWatch: Back to combat again. How does it work, what are the options? Any cool abilities or moves you'd like to highlight?
Jay Barnson: Rather than going to a separate tactical mode in combat, positioning is kept somewhat abstract. How far your characters are away from the enemies matter, especially if you are trying to hit an enemy deep “behind the lines.” But certain spells or combat feats may allow you to attack an entire rank of enemies, or even the whole group.
It’s turn-based combat, but it’s not pure I go / you go turns. Instead, it works on phases, and every action takes a certain number of phases. So quick actions may allow you to go twice (or even more!) between a single enemy’s attacks. Or vice-versa. If you decide to change your armor in the middle of a fight, you should expect to take a few hits before being back in action.
Options in combat begin as a fairly traditional list – cast spells, attack, defend, what have you. However, as you gain levels, additional choices may become available via your chosen feats.
So it almost acts like a totally serious RPG under the hood.
But as far as awesomely cool shader effects that will make your Quad-Core machine with dual 9800 cards scream for mercy in combat – ummm… don’t count on it. This game is designed to run adequately on a five-year-old machine.
RPGWatch: How does magic work? Are there different schools or circles and can you give us some examples of interesting spells?
Jay Barnson: Magic is simple and old-school, but uses endurance – just like swinging a weapon – rather than “mana” or “energy” or any other kind of special metaphysical power source. The practical result is that casting spells is a little bit less of a resource-management game – at least between combats, and especially for low-level (cheap) spells.
All sorcerers can cast any sorcerer spell that is available to them (some become available automatically, others don’t). For priests, there are three “schools” of priestly magic – Divine, Profane, and Nature. Some spells are common to multiple schools, others are unique. But all priests are of only one type and can only cast spells from that category.
So let’s see… some “Frayed Knights” flavoured spells:
Power Word: Defenestrate. Knocks enemies through a conjured window.
Angry Flowers: Summons a patch of angry, magical flowers. With sharp, pointy teeth.
Space Out: Temporarily stuns an opponent while they try to remember the name of that girl they had a crush on in the eighth grade.
RPGWatch: You wrote a while back that the quest systems in most RPGs left you feeling like a contract labourer, which is a good observation. How have you tackled that in Knights? Or do you embrace it and use it as a source of humour?
Jay Barnson: I am really not sure where the whole “Messenger Boy” / menial task quest thing came into vogue, but I’m tempted to believe it started with some bored designer who decided to turn half a game into a newbie tutorial. The sooner that sort of thing goes out of vogue, the happier I’ll be. Now, I’m not gonna promise that I won’t borrow a “kill ten rats” mission for the sake of a good joke – but it has to be a really good joke.
In general, I’m mining old pen & paper ideas for quests, rather than some of the really lame time-wasting stuff so popular in MMORPGs these days. Quests are a bit larger in scope, and start out more heroic. I mean, take the adventure from the pilot – the Temple of Pokmor Xang. You are attacking a temple full of evil priests and their minions – a good ol’ standby ever since Robert E. Howard added the term “mighty-thewed” to our vocabulary… much to our chagrin.
Okay, so the enemies are pudgy, semi-competent trailer trash priests who worship a lame god of boils, blisters, and pimples. But still, they’ve got these scary looking Jason Vorhees wannabe masks they get to wear, which makes them creepier. So it’s still a nice, heroic-ish quest. Just a little off-kilter.
And… yeah, I’ll fess up. There are rats in a basement after the Pokmor Xang quest. But I promise they’ll be very, very different from what you have come to expect.
RPGWatch: You've come up with an interesting idea with save games – the Drama Stars. What are they and how do they work?
Jay Barnson: The saved game has turned into some kind of arms race between game designers and players. The saved game option is the ultimate risk management tool, and so designers tend to compensate by making the game nearly impossible if you DON’T save every sixty seconds. That, or they restrict you to only certain saved points, but that sucks even worse – especially for gamers who have lives.
But I think it’s more fun to suffer some setbacks, deal with them, and come back swinging and pull off a victory. Makes for a better story, too. So while I didn’t want to restrict players from saving anywhere they wanted to, I did want to give them some motivation not to re-load the saved game every time a character got a boo-boo on their finger.
As you play the game, in addition to getting your usual loot and experience for taking risks, you get drama points (which fill in stars at the top of the screen). You can spend these stars to change the game. Like getting huge bonuses to accomplishing an action, restoring health to your party, eliminating debilitating effects on characters, and even restoring incapacitated characters. Basically, they emulate things you could do by restoring from a saved game and repeating an encounter lots of times until you get it “right” and get lucky.
The trick is that drama stars don’t get saved. If you reload, you start over.
So you can save and restore all you want, just like any other game. Or you can roll with the punches a little bit, accept a few consequences, and store up some bonuses which you can use at the best possible time.
For example – let’s say there’s a shrine to the god of… I don’t know, capriciousness … that has an equal chance of cursing your party as blessing them. Ordinarily, from a game mechanics perspective, it has ceased to be anything interesting – it’s simply a shrine that blesses you. Players will simply keep restoring until they get the blessing (unless the random chance was pre-determined far earlier in the game).
With the drama star system, let’s say that you get three drama points when you get hit with the curse. You already have a star and a half filled. You can just reload a saved game as usual and try again, but your drama star count will go back to zero. Or you accept the increased challenge of the next few minutes of the game, but build enough drama points to make the boss-battle at the end of the road a bit easier.
Hopefully, this will make for a more exciting and interesting game. But if you want to ignore the drama stars and play it just like any other game, that option is still open, too.
RPGWatch: What is the current status of development?
Jay Barnson: We’ve broken the project into two stages – a pilot and a full release. The pilot episode is sort of like a pilot for a TV show. We figured we’d release the pilot episode for free, and use it to get some feedback from players on what works, what doesn’t, how well the characters and presentation work, and how the game system needs to be improved. The pilot only takes (according to testers) a couple of hours to play, but it’s a (mostly) stand-alone game that hopefully people will enjoy enough to give us some feedback.
The pilot episode will be released in April. The full version – well, I’d like to say it’ll be available six months later, but it might be April 2009 before it sees the light of day. We plan on it being six to ten times larger than the pilot.
The pilot gives us the chance to make all our mistakes early on and get them corrected.
RPGWatch: Is there anything you'd like to add in closing?
Jay Barnson: Support indie RPGs! Even if Frayed Knights isn’t your thing, there are a bunch of indie RPGs out there which have have – in my opinion – a greater level of quality than many of the mainstream releases that came out last year. You have the power to influence what kinds of games get made, not only by voting with your wallet, but by getting involved with the indie games community and making your voice heard. Let these developers know what you like and don’t like. Small, indie developers tend to pay a lot more attention to what an individual customer says.
Believe me – it won’t just affect the indies. As someone with a foot in both camps, I know that the big publishers – annoying as they can be – aren’t stupid. Blind, maybe, but not stupid. They will go where they think opportunity is.
We wish Jay all the best with Frayed Knights and we'll be following the course of the development as it progresses.