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Pathfinder has been good to Owlcat Games. The Moscow-based indie studio put out its first game last year, Pathfinder: Kingmaker, winning acclaim and awards (even if it was a bit rough at launch). It helped Owlcat secure $1 million in funding for its next game, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, which it announced Wednesday.
Wrath of the Righteous is an adaptation of the Pathfinder adventure path that launched in 2013, similar to Owlcat’s debut with Kingmaker. The campaign has this corner of Golarion (the world of the Age of Lost Omens setting) under a demonic assault, and you and your adventuring party must deal with it. It also adds mythic progression, which your characters can take on mantle of lichdoom … or the wings of an angel. It’s for PC, with no release date yet.
In some ways, Owlcat feels like a Pathfinder studio, similar to Beamdog and its focus on lovingly preserving old Dungeons & Dragons games.
“[Pathfinder’s] catalog is fantastic. When you browse through their world guide and see a nation, you want to have an adventure there,” Owlcat creative director Alexander Mishulin said in an interview last week. “The stories told in the adventure paths are really great, and you either want to play them or game-master them. And here, what we’re doing, we’re really game-mastering to the whole RPG audience.
“This is what draws us. All the stories about this world are great and inspire us to bring even more to this world and tell more stories about it.”
Owlcat Games head Oleg Shpilchevskiy notes how using Pathfinder for their studio’s base is akin to working from a foundation.
“Pathfinder is based on a very mechanical system, with which you can build everything,” he said. “So combining deep mechanical stuff with the imagination of the Golarion setting, which we’re crazy about, with great characters –”
And Mishulin interjects with “and great, great character building. And the people who are into these kinds of games are into the mechanics and the fighting, and Pathfinder brings both stories and mechanics into the mix.”
Wrath of the Righteous is bringing back the 15 classes and seven prestige classes from Kingmaker, adding the witch and oracle (Owlcat says it’ll reveal more in the future). Paizo published the second edition of Pathfinder in August, and while Owlcat has had some time to look over it, don’t expect Wrath of the Righteous to use the 2E rules. “Right now, we’re sticking to the first edition, probably with some additions and advancements,” Mishulin said.
Mishulin and lead writer Alexander Komzolov return to head the narrative team, and longtime RPG writer Chris Avellone will contribute as well.
“As in Kingmaker, we consider ourselves the game master, so the tone will not change,” Mishulin said. “It will be in the same area as the adventure path, and the main storyline will be close to the adventure path. But as in [Kingmaker], we’ll add some things, remove some things, add some emphasis of our own to introduce you to the key NPCs of the adventure path.”
Pathfinder has more than two dozen adventure paths (which in part explains why I see so many products for the game at my local used book store). Why does Owlcat thinks Wrath of the Righteous lends itself to a video game adaptation?
“It tells a very ominous story, but we can tell it in a way that nobody else has told that story,” Mishulin said. “What does a demonic invasion mean? How do the Crusaders feel after waging a 100-year war against them? How does it feel to be a volatile force in this conflict, and what price will you pay? How relationships with your friends and neighbors change when you acquire this power?”
Wrath gives players a chance to acquire great power with mythic progression. But Mishulin’s right when he notes the narrative payoff of seeing how your relationships and alliances change once you go down the path to lichdom. You allies may not want to hang around an undead wizard who uses rotting corpses as tools.
But Mishulin also notes that Wrath presents some fantastic foes: demons.
“[Wrath] gives us some cool enemies, because a lot of enemies are big, strong, powerful, and usually interesting,” he said. “And this adventure path brings mythics, and mythics add an additional layer of character development for already deep system, so it becomes even more interesting and allows you to build even more interesting characters, tell more interesting stories.”
I also asked Paizo’s Mark Moreland, the franchise manager for Pathfinder, for his perspective views on why Wrath lends itself to a video game adaptation.
“Wrath of the Righteous is truly an epic story of the battle between good and evil, with the literal fate of the world in the player’s hands. In this campaign, players ascend to the pinnacle of mortal power, eventually treating with deities and even battling a few. Who doesn’t want to go toe to tentacle with a demon lord or two, stop a demonic invasion that threatens the very fabric of reality, and become a hero (or villain) worthy of myth in the process?”
In Wrath of the Righteous, players can embark on the mythic progression paths. This gives them some cool powers, but it also changes the storyline and decisions you make. Owlcat is adding the lich (big spells plus undead minions); the trickster (it’s about finding mischief and fun, but you can also turn those critical failures into successes); and the angel (you get celestial allies and can throw around bolts of divine judgment).
I asked Paizo about mythic progression, just to learn a bit more about it. Turns out Wrath is special because it’s the only adventure path published so far to use the mythic rules from the Pathfinder Mythic Adventures supplement. “The mythic paths available to players under that system, archmage, champion, guardian, hierophant, marshal, and trickster, were each tied thematically to one of the six ability scores at the core of a character’s statistics. In the forthcoming adaptation of the campaign, Owlcat will be exploring other sources of mythic power beyond these original mythic paths,” Moreland said.
And it turns out that a lot of this mythic stuff requires a game master to work, at least on the tabletop.
“In play, a PC can’t just become a lich; they need to work with their GM to do so. That’s how mythic levels work as well. A GM presents the players with trials they have to overcome in order to advance in their mythic path,” Moreland said. “So think of ascending to angelhood as just another option for the GM, in this case, the computer game itself, to offer to players to tap into mythic power. It’s a really exciting and innovative way of adding narrative elements to the mythic rules and adapting them to a medium that doesn’t have a human game master.”
It sounds cool. Who doesn’t want to be a lich, ordering undead hordes around, or a trickster who can twist fate? But don’t these mythics present a balance challenge when adapting a tabletop game with a game master to make final calls and adjustments with computer code that can’t tweak things on-the-fly? A respect for the rules lead Owlcat into some situations with Kingmaker that felt like would’ve been resolved with a human game master, not a game AI.
“It’s an additional dimension of character-building, and of course there are some feats and powers that click together, and some that extremely not, from paper to digital, and we’ll find this out before it happens for the players,” Mishulin said. “And also, we want you to feel powerful. So all your abilities, whether you’re a lich or a trickster or an angel, they are really powerful and kinda game-breaking, but we will have counters for that.”
Take the trickster. Mishulin says that at certain times, they can manipulate the world itself. It’s a high-level ability. When they miss (with a roll of a 1 on a 20-side die), they can change it to a 20. “And you see the roll changes before you, as he’s tweaking the dice that underlay the world and the game.”
[As an aside, this reminds me of the most enjoyable magic item I ever created for my old D&D group: The Orb of Boonedoggerish Luck, which turned all natural 1s into natural 20s. I made it for a friend (whom we sometimes called “Boonedogger” and who rolled an inordinate amount of natural 1s. Of course, once he got this, his first roll was a … natural 20.]
You’ll also face some disadvantages. What happens when you start adventuring as a lich?
“We still want you to feel powerful, so the positives will be better than the negatives. But there will still be some negatives. Some of this will come from the story and your relations to your companions, because not all of them will like what you’re doing and what you’re becoming,” he said. “Some of them are really good-natured … and they will not look kindly on you turning into an evil mastermind, a master of necromancy.
Demons are the adversaries in Wrath of the Righteous. In the adventure path, you end up matching wits with powerful nobles and lords such as Baphomet, the succubus queen Nocticula, and Deskari, Lord of the Locust Host (who also is known as the “Usher of the Apocalypse.” I was curious about what Owlcat thought of the demonic foes they’d be throwing at players in their next game.
“The one I do like most I can’t tell you about the most because it would spoil the story,” Mishulin said. “I really like balors. If you play them right, they can be very smart, intimidating opponents and leaders of the demon armies.”
The Pathfinder balor, of course, is similar to the powerful balor from D&D, itself largely influenced by the balrogs of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
Shpilchevskiy picked one a little more … weak. “I personally like dretches. They’re quite funny. It’s interesting that there are some funny moments in the supremely dark atmosphere of the 100-year crusade.”
The second time around
At launch, Kingmaker had issues. It had a lot of bugs: long loading screens, long bootup on slower, older hard drives, trouble with spells and cleric domains, and many more. It also had some balance issues and other opaque mechanics, such as needing area-of-effect damage to kill swarms of creatures like spiders (this was an infamous issue with one early quest). This was Owlcat’s first launch, and managing a game of this size and scope is a challenge for many studios, especially smaller, independent houses.
“That was not a pleasant moment,” Shpilchevskiy said about Kingmaker’s launch. “Those days, we experienced a lot of troubles and technical issues, and some of them, we could’ve predicted them. … We realize that actually, we had to invest our events into polishing the game.”
Part of this came from the nature of the Pathfinder system. Shpilchevskiy said that even they didn’t realize some of the interactions with the complex ruleset, and even parts that they had polished several times still had aspects that players were able to exploit … or whose decisions resulted in bugs. “Some interesting, and some not so interesting bugs,” he said. “This time, we’re focused on maintaining the quality at the best level and invest a lot of efforts in what is functional quality assurance, what we’re doing right now, and some technical instruments we’re using now to ensure that quality is the center of our focus.”
The $1 million in funding should help with this, along with the knowledge gleaned from making Kingmaker and learning how to best balance the complicated Pathfinder system. And larger companies like Larian Studios (Divinity: Original Sin) and Obsidian (Pillars of Eternity) have had their share of issues with bugs and balance with big, complicated RPG systems and interactions.
“With a classical RPGs, the amount of choices are so big that they tend to lead to very, very complex systems. And right now, when we design the game, we are going to, mind you, not reduce the complexity, but to visualize this complexity fully to understand if we have some branches that are not addressed, and we’ll need to do this,” Mishulin said. “And it’s all part of that special effort that Oleg talks about. It’s special tools that allows the writer and model designers to understand what information they bring along from one story to another story and how they can all address it.”
One way they’re addressing this is with a system a bot system that’ll play Wrath for hours upon hours during development.
“[It will] try to explore as many branches of the decisions tree as possible,” Shpilchevskiy said. “Now, this bot has played several hundreds of hours, and we believe it will help us find a lot of issues that just couldn’t be found by a functional test.”
Mishulin related one story of an unexpected interaction from Kingmaker, the sort of thing they hope the bot and testing catches before launch with Wrath.
“We received a save that led to the player losing the game due to Vordakai [a foe who can become your adviser] destroying the kingdom with his magical Oculus,” he said. “You pressed next day, and your kingdom gets destroyed. The problem is that Vordakai gets killed by this player, and somehow, the Oculus still ends up working. It took us a while to understand that what really happened was that this player was rushing to kill Vordakai because he was getting the warning that his kingdom would get destroyed if he’d get into this dungeon. … He actually killed Vordakai 6 minutes before the next day started.”
But, Mishulin said, they designed the kingdom to grow on a daily basis, not a minute basis. “And this late day didn’t actually count for this player,” he said. “And by the goal day, he was already dead. But the system will dock him the next day.”
Mishulin said by the time they’d received this bug report, Owlcat had fixed the problem. But they’d learned was actually “the James Bond of this fight against Vordakai.” He’d managed to accomplish his goal 6 minutes before the cutoff, but because the game didn’t recognize minutes in such a manner, it still killed the player. Even though he should’ve been alive.
Let’s just hope that this time, Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous won’t kill anyone after they pull off a James Bond-esque move.
Correction, 10:17 p.m. Pacific on Thursday: Paizo’s franchise manager for Pathfinder is Mark Moreland, not Mark Morland. We’ve corrected the error.
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