Lore was never a prime focus of mine in our early stages of crafting Proelium; my main concerns were levied on getting the mechanics rock solid and player interactions thematically correct. To put it simply, I wanted the Cleric’s skills to make her feel like a cleric, but I never really cared about who that particular character was.
However, as soon as we got our very first pieces of concept art, I felt a world growing in spite of my original goals. To use the previous example, once the Cleric had a face, a wardrobe, and a palpable presence, a world slowly began to creep into existence. This new world is familiar and yet strange, as any fantasy should be; it is unformed and juvenile, but it is still there, and maybe now is a good time to go exploring.
If we are being wholly honest, it is unfair to say that no story for this world already exists. When I first put keystroke to word document in early attempts to make a manual for Proelium, there was some narrative fluff leading the charge. I have always enjoyed games that give a grounded feeling in some version of reality and I felt compelled to write an introduction for our players as well.
You awaken slowly to screams, cheers, and yells echoing quietly through the heavy walls of your holding room. You do not know how long you’ve been here, or how far you’ve come, but you know this is the day you gain your freedom, or die trying.
The ironwood door in front of you slowly swings open, revealing the scarred face of the Arena Master. You rise from the dusty bench and walk out into the staging room to stand with the other combatants. Looking left and right, you see the same determined expression you are wearing reflected on the faces all around.
The Arena Master says nothing as he wanders through the room, thrusting random weapons into the waiting hands of each man and woman about to do battle. Once armed, each warrior quickly gathers odds and ends from a silent quartermaster before congregating near the massive gate on the far end of the room.
Your turn comes, and you look down at the strange weapon lying in your hands. It is worn but reliable, and your fingers instinctively curl around it, making it an extension of yourself. You acquire a few limited items and take your place with your compatriots.
The gate in front of you moves aside letting bright light flood into the staging room. You squint and look away, turning your gaze onto the sneering, weathered face of the Arena Master. He chuckles callously at your expression.
Something many of you probably noticed is that this narrative framing is almost completely devoid of any actual world-specific content. It was my goal to help the players understand why the mechanics where positioned they way they were, and how setup and character creation was justified in the game world, and nothing more.
The players do not have an emotional connection to the personality of their in-game avatar, because their avatars have no personality. Players have no connection to the weapon they are playing with, because the avatars can use any of the weapons and don’t have a specific connection to one over the other. The time and place is unclear to the players because the time and place is irrelevant to the gameplay. The only things that mattered were, you’re going to have to fight, with some random weapon, and the only way to win is to survive.
I fought at every turn to divorce the game from any lore during the early days of game development. I’ve seen too many projects get sidetracked by people dreaming whimsically about the minutia of some narrative device that has nothing to do with the actual goal at hand. We were making a game, not writing a novel, and all things fell secondary to this goal, lest we never complete anything.
Enter the Character
This approach was hard for me. I’ve always been a fan of engrossing narrative and worlds that seem to pulse with life and vigor. I still stand by my early approach as the best way to create a fully formed mechanical engine, but I was never truly happy with how sterile it felt. All of this slowly started to change when we received our first pieces of character art.
This was one of the original pieces present to us for character art direction. Just looking at the cleric on the left filled my brain with questions and interest. Who was she? Where did she come from? What do the markings on her face mean? These and countless more sprang to mind.
For the longest time, I resisted the urge to indulge these questions; I was still locked solid on the idea of gameplay above all else. Unfortunately, I became so entrenched in the idea of keeping lore out of the way that I eventually stopped asking these questions entirely. The characters, or at least one version of them, were slowly coming to life, but I was once again too focused on the mechanics to pay them any mind.
The only allowance I made during at this stage was a small bit of flavor text for the class randomizer cards. These cards, used to determine and display which characters are controlled by which player, have a small blank at the bottom that needed to be filled. Letting some of the personality of the class shine through, I populated each of these blanks with a short quote.
Once we had an artist on board for all of the monsters, the idea of keeping lore completely removed became impossible to maintain. Our artist wanted to get little glimpses into the creatures we were asking for. His questions were simple, but important, helping him invest himself in the monsters we saw in our imaginations. What did they look like? How did they act? How do they move? Where are they in the environment? To match his request, I quickly threw together a simple paragraph about his first big monster.
The Hydra lives in mountainous area, spending large amounts of time basking on huge boulders warmed by the sun. However, it’s tendency to regrow heads means the more it fights, the more it needs to feed. Thus, the Hydra can be found on the prowl any moment that it isn’t basking or sleeping in the moist cave lairs it prefers. While it will hunt any time, day or night, it is most deadly when the clouds roll in, and heavy winds push the smell of countless prey up from the surrounding lands. This is when the barrage of scents are too much for it’s many brains to handle and it becomes ravenous beyond comprehension.
As simple and short as this blurb was, writing it became the failing crack in the dam I had built to hold back the lore. I suddenly found myself with no more excuses regarding the world as a whole; there are questions that need resolution, if for no one other than myself, and it seems like now is the time to answer them.
… but their Presence Lingers
So this is where we stand today, with a massive, empty world full of half-built ideas and unexplained assumptions. I believe we are at the right point to fill those voids with explanations and stories. It is finally time to breath life into the machine and make it more than the sum of its parts.
So, starting some time in the next few weeks, I’m going to begin providing a series of short stories set in the universe of Proelium that will be an introduction to players about not only the characters of the game, but also the monster they will do battle with and the world as a whole. Structure and style are still up in the air as I settle on a preferred direction, but each story will be focused on a single creature or event, making them very “monster of the week” style.
I have to admit, I’m probably more excited than anyone else when it comes to seeing where this goes. I can’t promise that it will be amazing reading, but hopefully it will help you see Proelium through our eyes, if only slightly, and give you a better understanding of the game world. I hope you will enjoy them.