Thursday, July 01, 2021
Wildermyth and the nature of roleplaying
Not far into the game Dungeons of Naheulbeuk you come across a quest from a large, bald ranger named Binsc, who is looking for his lost hamster companion Moo. If you played Baldur's Gate, that will probably get a chuckle out of you, because you remember Minsc and his hamster Boo, in spite of that being over 20 years ago. But come to think of it, in the 20 years since, there aren't a lot of other NPC companions from computer roleplaying games I remember well enough to catch a reference like that. I can hardly remember the names of my NPC companions from Pathfinder: Kingmaker, and that's a game I played only this year, and I played 180 hours of it.
Fact is that a lot of NPC characters in these games are less memorable than Minsc and Boo. Many have rather stereotypical personalities. And while they have their own stories, frequently told via quests, these companion quests are just a relatively small part of the game, between the main story quest, and probably a host of side quests. In those 180 hours of Pathfinder: Kingmaker, I spent like 2 hours each per NPC companion on their quests, and many of those quests weren't particularly interesting. The NPCs also very rarely evolved over time, but rather stuck to their stereotypical personalities. So in the end, in many games your companions end up being regarded as a bundle of specific powers rather than real characters.
While I have only mentioned it in passing on this blog, I have been playing Wildermyth occasionally, even before it got fully released recently. And although much of the game and the companions are procedurally generated, I found that these "random" companions were more likely to develop in interesting and memorable ways than some of the pre-generated companions in other games, on which the developers spent hours to write cut scenes and dialogue. In Wildermyth the companions relationships with each other can evolve over time, they could even end up having children together. They can get maimed when a fight goes wrong, or they can end up with weird magical features, like a crystal replacing one of their eyes, or a wolf's head, from story choices. And that is interesting, because there usually is a link between your player choices and the evolution of the characters. You start out early to choose whether two characters are friends, rivals, or romantically evolved, and lots of things can happen from there. And the characters that survive an adventure, or die and get a tomb erected, will become legacy characters that can turn up in future adventures.
This might also have to do with the simple fact that the characters in Wildermyth are much larger on your screen than the characters in isometric games. Combat in Wildermyth has a very unique art style, with characters being 2D cutouts on a 3D grid. And the storytelling happens with your characters appearing in comic book style panels, with the look they have at that point in time, so there is also a visual evolution.
Computer roleplaying games rarely inspire me for my pen & paper games. But Wildermyth does. It taught me that significantly changing a player character in an event isn't a bad thing, as long as the player did have agency in that event. And while I haven't used it yet, I think I might on occasion use the heroic death system of Wildermyth for my D&D game, when appropriate.
Having said that, the combat system in Wildermyth isn't perfect. The calamities and incursion system pushes you to sometimes split your party to work on several things at once, but that can go spectacularly wrong, when you end up with a small group in a fight that would have been tough for your whole group. But you can be lulled into a false sense of security, because sometimes your small group easily wins a fight. Difficulty in this game has its spikes and lows, and lucky (or unlucky) crits can change the outcome dramatically. That adds to the sense of drama, but can also be sometimes rather frustrating. On the positive side, the magic system of Wildermyth is rather unique and interesting, if sometimes overpowered, once you fully master it.
At 25 bucks on Steam, Wildermyth is well worth trying. It's one of these indie games where the developer studio was clever enough to know that they aren't making a triple A game, and concentrated their efforts on making something unique, rather than trying to emulate some game from a big studio. Wildermyth leaves you with a new perspective on what a computer roleplaying game can be, and that is quite an achievement.