Monday, September 14, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 21: Emerald Spire

Sometimes irony is, well, ironic. The day after I posted my blog about Thornkeep, it was announced that Goblinworks laid off all but three of its people, and the company was looking for a buyer for the Pathfinder Online game. I feel terrible for the guys I know who sank a couple of years of hard work into putting the game together. Unfortunately, that is the digital game biz—companies fall short and collapse all the time, some of them quite a bit bigger and better-funded than Goblinworks. I’ll be pulling for the Goblins to land on their feet, wherever they wind up.

I still think there is a good market for a small, clever, shoestring MMO publisher to create an EVE-like fantasy game—it’s not for everybody, but there is a really interesting niche there. You can do quite a lot with a small number of highly invested fans who make your game their own and introduce their own social structures and player-kingdoms. If there is any postmortem I might offer at this point, I suppose it would be this: That game I just described isn’t what Pathfinder fans necessarily wanted. The initial enthusiasm for Pathfinder Online was driven by an unrealistic expectation on the part of the Pathfinder audience that somehow Goblinworks would create a $100 million dollar WOW clone that let them explore Golarion like it was Azeroth. That was never in the cards. I think Ryan and the Paizo leadership were pretty upfront about what they were trying to deliver, but people really had their hearts set on hundreds and hundreds of hours of PvE content showcasing huge parts of their favorite fantasy world, and that is an extraordinarily expensive proposition.

Pathfinder Online also faced another significant obstacle in the fact that the OGL on which Pathfinder itself is based explicitly does *not* extend to electronic games. So, Pathfinder Online couldn’t use the mechanics familiar to Pathfinder players. This was not necessarily a fatal flaw—there are some very good reasons to go with EVE-style time-based skill advancement instead of grinding for XP, for example—but, taken with the fact that the game couldn’t be built to spotlight the world of Golarion, it was heading toward a place where PO wasn’t the Pathfinder game and it wasn’t the Pathfinder world (at least in the eyes of Pathfinder fans). Great gameplay attracting deep-end MMO players is what Pathfinder Online had to go on, and I guess that just wasn’t enough to pull in the second-stage funding/investment they needed to build out the game.

During my work in and around Pathfinder Online, I did get to create an interesting little town called Thornkeep, which got published as a sourcebook and small collection of dungeon levels. And I also got to build another town called Fort Inevitable, and a much bigger collection of wacky dungeon levels: The Emerald Spire.

#26: Emerald Spire
Pathfinder Online actually ran two Kickstarters. The first was for the “tech demo,” an initial exploration of the game concept and basic engine. Thornkeep came into existence as a physical Kickstarter reward associated with that first Kickstarter. The second Kickstarter (with a cool $1 million ask) was to begin the funding of the game proper. The signature physical reward for that second campaign was the Emerald Spire Superdungeon.

The Emerald Spire itself was a “nearby feature of interest” I came up with when I worked on Thornkeep. The Inner Sea World Guide suggested mysterious Azlanti ruins in that corner of the River Kingdoms, so I made sure to create a handful of likely sites. To my surprise, the Paizo folks seized on the notion and ran with it, choosing to make it the focus of a multi-level superdungeon with each level created by a notable game industry luminary. Celebrity contributors included Keith Baker, Wolf Baur, Ed Greenwood, Frank Mentzer, Chris Pramas, Mike Stackpole, Lisa Stevens, and myself. To that list. Paizo added a number of staff aces including Jason Bulmahn, James Jacobs, Erik Mona, Sean Reynolds, Wes Schneider, and James Sutter, along with freelancers Tim Hitchcock and Nick Logue. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the herculean work of Logan Bonner as the developer who put the final polish on the whole thing.

I took point on wrangling the sixteen authors up front, soliciting dungeon pitches from each of them, suggesting refinements, and then organizing the dungeons so that the high-level dangerous ones were deeper down than the low-level ones. In a couple of cases, I contributed a lot of help on Pathfinder mechanics—a couple of our contributors hadn’t written for a 3e-era product before. But overall I tried very hard to keep each authors’ original vision intact, and allow levels to be whimsical or serious as the author preferred.

The trickiest design constraint was once again the maps. The Paizo folks wanted to make sure that each level could be represented on a flip-map (basically, a tactical-scale map of a level, shown in 5-foot squares). So, the maximum horizontal spread of each level could only be 22 by 30 squares, or only 110 feet by 150 feet. On the bright side, there was no reason we couldn’t stack up a lot of small dungeon levels one on top of each other, so we figured out that the Emerald Spire needed to be a “dungeon shish-kebob” of many levels joined by a common story or theme. I met with James Jacobs, Erik Mona, and Wes Schneider, and we came up with the idea that the Spire itself was a physical object—a needle of green crystal 2 miles deep—that passed through or adjoined each of the levels we were creating, linking the surface to the deepest stratum of the Darklands.

My level was Level 6, the Clockwork Maze. Since the brief writeup on the Emerald Spire in Thornkeep had mentioned a Numerian wizard playing around with weird constructs, I figured at least one of us authors ought to make that guy the star of a Spire level, and I volunteered myself for the job. The fun part of the level is that giant clockwork revolving turntables change the alignment of key passages and intersections—to fight your way through the level and continue your descent, you’ll need to figure out how to align the control levers found throughout the level. I also had fun using the metal-clad template to create a steam-borg wizard who looks a little like Tharok, the Legion of Super-Heroes villain.

My other big contribution to the project was the first 20 pages—the town of Fort Inevitable, and big-picture overview of the Spire, how it works, and why it’s there. I seem to be in the business of making up starting towns, for some reason—besides Thornkeep and Fort Inevitable, I also wrote up Phandalin for the recent Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, Duponde, Harkenwold, Fallcrest, Pommeville, and more.  Fort Inevitable is interesting because it’s a lawful-evil starting spot ruled over by an iron-fisted tyrant; your characters have a Sherriff of Nottingham they can play Robin Hood to.

Next Time: The Search for the Diamond Staff.





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