The RogueWare Project

"Game Recklessly"

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Games, Aggression, and Civilization

Posted by Chris Crooks on October 28, 2014 at 4:20 PM Comments comments (0)

To clarify the rather general-sounding title, I mean civilization, the word denoting the concept describing the thing we appear to be living in, to various degrees depending on where and how one chooses or is forced to live. In this entry, I am attempting here to blend together games and philosophy, which isn’t too hard to do given how much time and money legions of people now invest in this electronic pastime. Regardless of whether this is the road to hell, or whether there may be some pavingstones to be salvaged enroute, or whether it will yet provide a means to “save” us (in the broadest possible sense) is immaterial from a philosophical standpoint. It clearly means a great deal to a great many people, and hence is worthy of examination.


I recently reread His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem. I grasp so much more of it now when I read it like ten years ago, but I only mention it because the main character claims that philosophy is necessarily representing only the personal viewpoint of the philosopher, and the idea that one can take oneself as the standard measure of the thought processes of all humanity is ludicrous on its face. His argument gives me fantastic cover to blather on about my own personal thought processes and yet be performing philosophy as well as it can be. Lovely.


As a male human, I have been subject and witness to the aggressive impulses characteristic of my gender specifically and male primates generally. Some of these impulses are channeled in a healthy way - despite some major issues with sports cultures worldwide, I think we can all agree that channeling competitive impulses towards entertainment is at least more neutral than towards outright warfare, brutal though that entertainment might be. Nevertheless, given the neverending wars waged between men who, though apparently acting at the behest or on behalf of a supposed populace or nation, are mostly just trying to smash each other with clubs and take the resources from that place and bring it to this place. Aggression is rarely subtle. Anger is rarely subtle.


It’s a truism to say that one who lashes out at others is really lashing out at oneself, but this can sometimes be so obvious as to be absurd. Considering how little good can come of war, it seems strange that these wars just keep coming.


I point, as I always do in this situation, to the Iroquois peoples (I hesitate to use the word nation because it’s terribly loaded and it was our concept) who settled tribal territory differences with games of lacrosse, because, they reasoned, no one ought to get killed over such a thing as which parcel of land could be used by which tribe. The land was really the Earth’s anyway. They were just borrowing it. Did I mention this society was run in large part by women?


Instead, at this point, endless bloodshed is justified in pursuit of the right to say that some chunk of land belongs to them all nice and legal in triplicate on special paper, proving it to God and the Universe that really they do OWN it, regardless of the fact that such a thing is prima facie absurd in the face of cosmic eternity. But apparently, such a thing matters enough that people ought, in great quantity, to be killed over it.


I submit to you that we are already capable of sublimating these reptilian impulses into games. Witness every person who has gotten angrier at a stupid game than at virtually anything else in their life. I sure have. In my case, its because I’ve compressed the control freak aspect of my personality entirely within the area of “gaming.” But it also channels some of my desire for confrontation and competition, but without any bones being broken or good clean exercise. The latter is certainly to its detriment. As soon as virtual reality takes off, I submit to you that gamers will be the most fit people on the planet. At least, some of them. Running around your block and waving to Mr. Johnson and his little Schnauzer is about as fun as poking yourself in the eye with a plastic straw. Running from zombies or alien hordes or screaming ninja pirates? That’s guaranteed to push you to new levels of physical performance with sheer adrenalin.


I guess as long as people believe that violence is justified there will always be Very Serious People sitting around and crossing out and re editing the Rules of War, nodding gravely as if they aren’t really just playing the most grotesque game of all with real people as the playing pieces.


It may be impossible to completely appease our animal natures with semi-frivolous entertainments. On the other hand, I recall from anthropology class in college that the Trobriander island tribes play an incredibly complex ocean-crossing necklace customizing game/ritual called Kuhlau, or something like that. It could take a person’s entire life, and probably provides a level of satisfaction the likes of which few of us can fathom, because we have never engineered culture through gaming or attempted to harness its benefits on a social level, because the Very Serious People believe that all such activities are frivolous, mostly there to keep the Plebes in line. All of us in the gaming community, though, know very differently. Imagination is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal, and if we could actually take games seriously - really seriously - it might be possible to achieve social results the likes of which we’ve never seen.


Have you ever played the game Assassin? I only managed to organize and play it once. All participants except a possible game master have a randomly chosen target. Each person knows who they are after, but does not know who is after them. Assassination can be performed with toy guns, “contact poisons”, and other fake weapons. When you kill a person, their target becomes yours and the game continues until but one assassin is left standing: the winner. The honor system is required for such a game, but in truth this is true of virtually any live in-person game, even sports. With video games, someone has to go to the trouble of hacking in order to break the rules. In-person games definitely enhance people skills and fair-mindedness, because you are not some anonymous twerp online but subject to the admittedly sometimes useful forces of socialization.


While under the influence of the game of Assassin, my normal perceptions of the world had an additional depth of narrative flavor and intrigue. After all, if you were an assassin and your target could not recognize you, you would just walk around acting normally until an opportune moment to strike, and then you scarper. As such, simply going about living my normal life (we were on a school trip at the time) was at the same time in perfect keeping with my Assassin persona! Playing the game throughout the trip did not distract me overly much during the trip (frankly it was the most fun thing we did) and provided a delightful relief from boredom, since one always had to be on the lookout for kill opportunities and potential assassins.


Perhaps a game this intense is too distracting to use a cultural overlay. But let’s go with it and imagine an extraordinary high school, for example, where one of your classes is simply this game. Your whole class will be layering this on top of all of their normal activities; in the game class, they learn all the rules, how to be do things safely, and all the necessaries to play, and then every week between classes you play a new game. For all those easily distractible kids for whom sitting quietly in neat lines and book reading is tiresome and uninteresting, they can focus their energies on the game element that is constantly overlayed, like a meta-level, and it’ll still be for a grade ultimately. The scope for inventiveness, cleverness, athleticism, and the ability to bring virtually any skill to use in such a game guarantees that it could be a catchment for kids that don’t fit the usual stodgy criteria at school, and could even be used as a way to identify them. Furthermore, it should, ideally promote classwide social bonding and fair mediation of conflicts - since everyone who witnesses an assassination attempt is also playing the game, everyone is invested in seeing the rules enforced. In theory, at least.


Those that would argue that such a class would merely distract the children from serious studies have, unsurprisingly, missed the point of my article completely.


I’m not sure if I’m talking about something truly amazing or just really fun propaganda, but I’d like to see game coders take a crack at social coding, and game players take a crack at social play. The Old Guard are such insufferable bores. Don’t you agree?

RogueSpeak #2

Posted by Matt Crooks on September 16, 2014 at 5:00 PM Comments comments (0)

After a year and 5 months, we finally got around to doing another RogueSpeak podcast.  Chris even added a professional polish with some of his piano playing at the start.

In this RogueSpeak we talk about...

-Our plans to launch a dual Greenlight and Kickstart campaign ~January.  Early Access is a strong possibility.

-Our new twitter presence, growing community, need for community driven quality assurance.  (We want you for game testing!)

-Possibility of a multiplayer mode for FreeHolder - we talk about some of the ways it could be approached.

You can download or listen to the mp3 here:

Agricola and Abstraction of Resources

Posted by Chris Crooks on September 1, 2014 at 8:55 PM Comments comments (1)

To those not in the know, Agricola is widely considered to be one of the most challenging and fun board games for hardcore game connoisseurs. It sounds innocent enough: you are a peasant at the end of the dark ages, competing with your neighbors to build the most prosperous farm over the course of the game. However, to build such a farm you will all be competing for a common pool of resources and actions, each of which can only be taken once per round, most of the time. This adds such an incredible bevy of tactical and strategic considerations I won’t even go into them this moment. It takes a game or two merely to become comfortable with the process of playing the game and how the scoring works. The fact that every player is dealt a large hand of randomized Occupations and Improvements from a massive card pool, and that all these cards can and often do interact with each other in helpful and surprising ways, you never, ever play the same game of Agricola twice, something very hard to achieve in physical space with a board game. But Uwe Rosenberg has done this very thing.


Agricola is the inspiration, or less generously, source, for our fundamental gameplay mechanic in FreeHolder. You have a character that can perform a limited number of actions each month, and each action is taken on a specific space with some defined properties. This is known as “worker placement” mechanic, and its a favorite of Eurogamers everywhere. Unlike game boards or printed tiles, though, we have the luxury of virtual magic hexes that dynamically present multiple actions based on the character or situation. A Forest hex, for example can be hunted in, or timber or firewood can be gathered, or herbs can be searched for. Rather than limiting these hexes to one placement per turn, as in conventional worker placement mechanics, you can take as many actions on a hex as you want, but in most cases there are diminishing returns on natural resources. You can overfish, overlog, or overhunt a Forest and it may take several months to recover and produce reliably again. This encourages the player to spread out their collection, and is a bit more organic (although random) than minutely calculated resource takes.


A slightly more obscure but no less relevant lesson that I’ve taken from Agricola is the way that Uwe Rosenberg carefully planned the variety and availability of resources in the game. He succeeded in such a fundamental way that he reveals some core truths about trying to use resources as a gameplay mechanic.


In Agricola, there are four building resources, wood, clay, reed, and stone. Upon some examination I think it can be stated that for most purposes three resources are a minimum, because you are undoubtedly going to want one common building material, one uncommon building material, and one rare material. This makes it easy to influence the difficulty of building something by changing the rarity of the resources needed to build it. The simplest buildings can be made purely out of the common material, while the most difficult would require quantities of rare and uncommon materials.


Uwe spices this up a bit: wood is common and clay uncommon, but for the two rares he makes a tactical distinction. Reed is available from the very beginning of the game, but is in short supply and absolutely critical to staying competitive, as you cannot add more family members and take more actions per turn without building more rooms, and new rooms require (most of the time) reed. Stone is available a bit later and is slightly more common (there are two different stone spaces), and slightly less necessary for winning the game, but of course that is always circumstantial.


Agricola has helped me figure out how to actually create a resource system with the view of implementing building mechanics. There’s little reason to avoid those same materials, seeing as how Uwe simply identified the things people actually build with. I have Timber and Clay as common materials (Clay less so), Stone and Reed being uncommon (reed less so), and Willow and Marble as rare. Marble and Stone are gathered out of finite deposits. Willow forests are ephemeral and may appear and disappear suddenly. With this rubric, it has given me much help in determining what the hell each building should actually cost to build.


One key difference is that in Agricola you are competing against other players for resources, whereas in FreeHolder you’re fighting the clock, and Lady Luck. Therefore I never have to worry about the consequences of some other player being denied building resources, and some of the close tactical considerations needed for a game like Agricola are loosened substantially in FreeHolder. FreeHolder is not a zero-sum game.


At a certain point, I have to understand that playtesting will arbitrate where my feeble reasoning skills cannot. It is certainly easier to play a game out and see that a building is too cheap or expensive than reason endlessly about it. But when one is trying to borrow substantially from such a near-perfect game as Agricola, one has to make sure that one does so with extreme skill and subtlety.


Speaking of extreme subtlety, our feeding mechanic was also lifted directly from Agricola. (cough). Somewhat. I’m fairly proud of what will be our nifty cooking system and you’ll be stuffing your face with a lot more than Grain and Vegetables, I can tell you that. Furthermore, you can customize rations to increase health or save food during lean times, apply medicine, and burn firewood for heat during the winter (I was unaware of the Farmers of the Moor expansion when I came up with that, not that its a stroke of brilliance to acknowledge people need heat to survive).


Still, the immediate need to feed your peeps every turn (or every few turns in Agricola) is such a lovely pressure mechanic we adopted it immediately, with some significant alteration. Your folks can get sick and die, for example. Closest thing to that in Agricola is the Rat Catcher.


I have some deranged fantasy about Uwe Rosenberg giving me a pat on the back about doing some of his mechanics a bit of justice in videogame form, but I don’t know if the man even owns a computer. I mean, I assume he does, but I prefer to think of him as some bearded, philosophical toymaker living in a manor in the Bavarian forest. Maybe I should look at a picture, but why kill the fantasy?


Don’t answer that.

Some Notes on the Concept of "Sur-thrival"

Posted by Chris Crooks on August 19, 2014 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)

The basic concept of a survival game is obviously to survive. If it is of sufficient (appropriate) difficulty, the mere ability to get a bit further, last a bit longer is proof positive that you have improved at the game. However, for it to remain a “survival” game the feeling that death is just around the corner has to remain throughout, no matter how powerful you get. You should rarely feel removed from danger, and treasure the breaths that you get.


On the other end of the spectrum is essentially the empire-building game - your goal is generally total domination, and you have the spare resources to get there. Of course, you can lose your whole empire through mismanagement, but you yourself as the player are not connected to the danger in any way - it is purely abstract management. Your generalissimo’s turn to turn survival is assured - some orderly probably brings their meals into the command center, so you can focus on management of the economy, war, etc.


Since these two genres represent two extremes: poverty of resources vs management of excess resources, it is a fair question to ask how one can go about blending the two. After all, the excitement of turn-to-turn survival is removed if, for example, a relatively stable and permanent food source is found or created. If such excitement is a driving force in the game, boredom and stagnation must soon ensue, unless a significant revision of gameplay occurs at the moment of transition. Then, ideally, one attempts to smooth the transition to so fine a point that it becomes seamless, and the player will control the transition with their own skill and strategy.


Before I delve into the technicalities of such a fusion, I think it could stand a bit of examination from a narrative standpoint. While the genre blend may be a bit awkward in some ways, narratively it fits perfectly with a rags-to-riches story. Furthermore, it contains within it the necessary widening of narrative scope and character power and influence to re-engage the player with not a material (in terms of the game) reward, but a reward of expanded possibilities, and yes, even a sense of security that they have earned by mastering basic gameplay mechanics to the extent that survival becomes more of a difficult math problem than an uncertainty.


Storywise, the player will come out of their semi-enslaved status from the first part of the game with a new sense of their ability to create change in their environment, and a feeling that they have been rewarded with access to an expanded world. Now that you are no longer under the thumb of a corrupt census-taker, the political, military, and intrigue aspects of the game open up to you and exciting new possibilities occur.


Furthermore, it is a delicious idea that a game continually challenge the player by opening up a whole new realm of subtle management and goals right as they believe they’ve mastered the game they’ve seen up to that point. You certainly don’t want to blindside the player utterly with unknown concepts, but some element of surprise is also nice from a narrative point of view. If they didn’t realize they could influence the political and military situation before, and suddenly find themselves managing a struggle between local tribes simply because their taskmaster is gone, you can imagine the extremely organic pleasure such an experience would bring to the player.


Some of the transition from survive to thrive can be eased by repurposing existing mechanics that the player is already comfortable and familiar with. For example, once the player has freed themselves from the control of the census-taker, they generally will find themselves either as a semi-voluntary supplier of goods to the Republic, or as a supplier of goods to one of the local tribes. No one is going to turn you in for not meeting your quotas.


In the old days, of course, failing to meet your wheat quota meant game over. It may therefore seem counterintuitive to abandon such a premise partway through the game, seeing as how it fuels so much of the difficulty, etc. It almost makes everything after breaking free like a bonus mode, which in some ways it is, looked at from what traditionally makes rounds “bonus.” In my mind, frenzied acquisition of points with little or no risk to the player is how I define it.


On the other hand, considering what should be the high difficulty of this achievement, I think some relief from the grinding wheat mechanic is a pretty fitting reward. It is also important to making the transition to the “thrive” part of the game, which as I said has much more similarity to empire-building games than survival games.


But taken at a wider perspective, although the significance of the wheat quota to the physical lives of the players themselves may have been more or less removed, in fact the overall significance of said quota has gone from merely assuring the survival of a ragtag group of escaped slaves to actually supporting the political and military efforts of a warring faction. While your personal fates may not hang in the balance immediately, the fate of empires does.


The “voluntary quotas” you supply at this point in the game are used as part of a calculation to determine the relative military strength and political influence of the local tribes and Romans. Because it involves more combat, risk, and facing the greatest military the ancient world ever knew, siding with the tribes is a de facto hard mode. For those who have a better sense of which way the wind is blowing, Rome is generous to its friends and when Caesar rolls through Upper Gaul you know it won’t be his mighty legions you’ll have to face.


It may take several years for the results of the player’s supply efforts to manifest in the local power balance. If the player performs poorly, it is not just their fate but the fate of the region that is decided. My favored interpretation is that they player has proven themselves so good at meeting quotas that they are offered the opportunity to voluntarily achieve them in order to achieve wider, more epic goals.


One of the greatest new strategic options are given to the player now that they are not necessarily chained to supplying their faction in order to ensure success, at least in the short term. There may be occasions where the player wishes to make the strategic decision to forego meeting the quota in order to focus on achieving some specific military or political objective, like removing a bandit blockade from a friendly town or sabotaging the efforts of other factions. The player is allowed to make these long-term calculations now, having proven to the game (me?) they can keep up with brutal demands if necessary.


In the early game, you cannot decide to forego the bribe or quota in order to speed some other plan along - you may want a host of crafted items this year, or really get that Quarry underway, but you won’t get to enjoy the fruits of that labor if the triarii haul you off next March.


I guess one question that can be pulled from all this is: is the subsequent substitution of the player’s objective of survival with the objective of the survival of their goals a natural one, or horribly forced?


As always, Dungeon Crawl can be looked to for a helpful answer. After all, your objective during most of your initial hours of gameplay in such a brutal dungeon crawler will be merely to not die, maybe get down one level further, and just maybe get to see a fancy new enemy before it kills you in the newest, most horrible way yet.


Because of its exceptional difficulty and randomness, Dungeon Crawl can easily be described as partly a survival game, not least because starvation is a constant factor. For a while, you are just learning, and dying, and learning, and dying. And dying.


At a certain point though, you become familiar enough with the mechanics, pitfalls, and denizens that under conventional circumstances you can generally survive. It is at that point, and only that point, that there is any feasibility of actually obtaining the Orb of Zot and winning the game. The chances are remote, but they seemed utterly nonexistent before.


Dungeon Crawl does show that there is an inherent tiered structure in games of a sufficient difficulty. Early, just learning the ins and outs of the game constitutes an accomplishment. Only when survival becomes commonplace does the larger goal come to focus. We are attempting to accomplish something similar, although more artificial.


After all, in Dungeon Crawl death is always possible, no matter how powerful you think you are and how many bases you have covered. It never stops being a survival game because of its extreme difficulty, so it only partially serves as a model because we are attempting to redefine difficulty in FreeHolder mid-game from keeping your players alive in the short-term to doing something remarkable in the long-term. I’m hoping that the narrative flow of this progression will make up for some of the hitches in trying to figure out how to connect two genres at the midpoint.


The obviously common link between the two genres, and one that makes it mechanically flow together pretty easily is resource management. You simply go from managing a paucity of simple resources to cartloads of sundry high-level goods. Thankfully, this transition is built right into the fundamental mechanics of FreeHolder. The transition is also reinforced significantly by the leveling system.


At the start of the game, your characters are fairly ineffective, but as they level and acquire more equipment, their effectiveness increases exponentially. Where before it took the unceasing labor of your entire group to make ends meet, as your characters specialize and level you can assign more and more spare tasks to other, long-term goals like building projects, goods crafting and processing, and building reputation in the various townships and cities scattered across the frontier.


It’s all terribly exciting to watch this game come more and into existence as billions of 1s and 0s are tacked onto it from some four or five levels of code above. Making games is crazy. :)



FreeHolder Combat System Revised

Posted by Chris Crooks on March 9, 2014 at 5:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Admittedly, probably not many people dove into the combat system available in the prototype, due to its glitchiness. I had become mildly obsessed with creating an elegant combat system that was mostly automated but still very tactical, but it was not particularly intuitive and the coding was a bit clumsy.


The Final-Fantasy-ness of my original conception of battles suggested a more traditional command-menu style but I thought I could innovate even in this dimension. However, it occurs to me now that even with the larger-scale battles achievable with mass hiring of mercenaries you probably won’t have to manage more than 16-20 units at a time, and if micro-management became tiresome one could still assign a tactic to the unit for the battle. Most people immediately get the concept of assigning commands to characters in battle - less so the indirect control of automated tactics. And I have to admit, direct commands ultimately do give the most precise tactical control, and as a strategy freak omitting this is painful on principle. Still, the Bushido Blade-like wound system and scaled D100 rolls keep it exciting, fast, and brutal. I wanted to keep as many of the worthwhile game innovations while scrapping the clumsy automation.


As such I’ve taken another whack at a standalone combat simulator that allows you to create pitched battles between a friendly group of mercenaries that you control and a group of some of the low-level enemies you encounter in FreeHolder. I’m nearly finished implementing all of the mercenary classes - everything else except morale is good to go and it’s much quicker, more elegant, and very nearly glitch-free. This seems a fairly good time to put down on record an overview of what is intended to be, after more trial and error, the actual system that will be implemented into the final version of FreeHolder.



 Of utmost importance to learn first is that the characters in your battle squad can be assigned to the front or back row. This has immense implications. Characters in the front row are your first line of defense. As long as there are any standing characters in the front row, all melee attacks made by enemies must be directed at the front row characters. Obviously, this means that weaker characters like farmers, mages, and those without strong combat skills should be positioned in the back row to protect them from fighters and the like, and tough defenders should be put in the front.


Ranged attacks, on the other hand, can hit either row, so enemy archers and skirmishers are still a threat to your back row. Many fighters have a “Cover” ability, which allows them to absorb ranged attacks intended for characters in the back row. However, they must sacrifice the ability to attack in order to do this.


Characters in the back row cannot ordinarily perform melee attacks, unless they are armed with a reach weapon like a spear or have some sort of special ability. Characters with ranged weapons, mages, and stealthy types are a natural choice for the back row. Incidentally, a reach weapon allows a character in the front row to attack the enemy rear, and since it is not a ranged attack, Cover is ineffective at redirecting it. This is useful for getting at entrenched snipers behind covering defenders.




1. Ranged Phase

2. Melee Phase

3. Delayed Phase

Once your characters have assigned attacks, all combatants execute their orders one-by-one in initiative order, determined semi-randomly. However, certain attacks are given priority over others. All Ranged Attacks occur before any melee attacks occur, and occur simultaneously, meaning that even a character that is downed by a ranged attack will still take their own shot (it was taken before he was killed). After all ranged attacks are executed, the combatants will execute melee attacks in initiative order. If a combatant is killed or incapacitated before they act, they lose their attack. Finally, any delayed actions take place in initiative order in the delayed phase - this usually includes the Snipe ability, spells, and Stealth attacks.


As you can see, ranged attacks give you an uninterruptible attack at the very start of the round, making them crucial for pre-wounding enemies your melee fighters will then finish off, or downing hurt enemies at the start of a round before they can attack you. Conversely, delayed actions take place only after ranged and melee phases are complete, meaning the character has to survive the round to take the action.


After all three phases are complete, character status ailments are rolled for, inflicted or cured, and everything starts from a new round.




Characters do not have hit points. Rather they simply are either fine, wounded, critical, or dead. It is easier to inflict wounded on a character than critical (technically, a major instead of a minor hit is required). When a character is reduced to critical status, they collapse and are of no further use in the battle unless healed. There is a chance they may yet live. Critical characters that bleed out or are finished off become dead. Living is no longer a possibility. Certain enemies like the Berserker or Gladiators with the Juggernaut ability can continue fighting even while Critical, and ignore the usual penalty to attack rolls for being Wounded.

 Combat Rolls


Attacking is done with a D100 roll that determines the severity of the hit, from miss -> glancing blow -> minor hit -> major hit -> critical hit. The glancing blow and critical hit inflict status ailments based on the type of weapon wielded. Minor hit will wound unwounded characters, but will not reduce wounded characters to critical.

 These rolls and your chance of a critical hit are modified by many different things, including the relative combat skills of you and your enemy, the armor worn by the enemy, and whether you are stealthed or not.




Every time a combatant is attacked by more than one enemy each round, each successive enemy receives a “flanking bonus” to hit, and this bonus increases with each enemy. Gang up on tough enemies for better results!



Thieves, Assassins, and others can use Stealth Mode. When Stealthed, their attack is delayed but they cannot be targeted by enemies during the round. They may also target any enemy in any row. When attempting to attack, a stealth check must be rolled to beat a spotting number generated by the number and type of alert enemies in the battle. If they are spotted, they lose their attack. If they are not, the stealthy character strikes with a substantial bonus to hit and critical hit. They will still be spotted after this attack unless they either down the enemy or perform a critical hit, which is an instantaneous “silent kill.” If spotted, the character will be unable to stealth in the next round. After that round, they can use stealth mode again as normal.


Sharpshooters and other ranged units with stealth can make stealth ranged attacks. With ranged weapons, if the attacker is spotted, they still complete the attack, but lose the stealth hit and critical bonus.


There is a lot of other information about equipment, armor types, armor piercing and so forth but it’s not essential to play with and enjoy the combat system. Everything has descriptive text when moused over to help. The fact that your characters might be going down on the very next hit most of the time keeps everything exciting and unpredictable, and when you have a great round it is very satisfying to see the damage you’ve done in a short amount of time. Of course, things can also go awry as enemies get the rolls that were intended for you. :)


As a design note, the mercenaries in this sim are supposed to be more or less the actual variety of mercs you can hire in the full game, and I’ve tried to represent a spectrum of roles so the player can fill in gaps in his own squad with the appropriately helpful mercenary. However, if there seems to be a blatantly obvious type missing, or some other consideration that you think hasn’t occurred to me, please let me know. I do intend, given the time and art budget, to have a couple of very powerful Mercenary Lords who will join you if you build your guild reputation up very high and complete a very difficult quest.


I will post an update with this simulator soon. I think you’ll find it a satisfying blend of old-school conventions and tactical wargame mechanics. It was always my dream to have some kind of battle system that LOOKS like Final Fantasy but PLAYS like Baldur’s Gate. This ain’t that by a long shot, but still is a taste of what some sort of “ideal” combat system would be like, in my opinion.


Thanks all! More updates forthcoming.



FreeHolder: From Prototype to Game

Posted by Chris Crooks on March 3, 2014 at 12:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Hello, my rogues! Ye may well approach with skepticism the news of significant tweakage to the game, and this may cause you to worry unduly that whatever magic ye had detected in FreeHolder may have ye vanished. But I assure you, this is not so. The vast majority of major changes have occurred to the somewhat underdeveloped town map screen, trying to centralize its function to significantly reduce confusion, speed gameplay, and provide clearer objectives. But let's back up a little and talk about changes to the central part of the game - assigning workers to tiles on the main screen.

1. Hexagonal Land Tiles w/ Randomized Characteristics and Bonuses

Partly for aesthetic and partly for mechanical reasons, we are changing the tile plots to be hexagonal rather than square. The square choice was originally one of convenience and we never really examined the tactical implications since surveying land was a gamble and claiming the land was automatic. Now, every tile borders on six more which will give the player many more choices of lands to survey and furthermore lands are no longer automatically claimed when surveyed, allowing you to spend time picking just the right tile to claim. Claiming itself will be an untyped minor action, meaning it can be done with any minor action type, so it can be a good way to use up that last extra Agricultural or Construction action. You must claim a tile that is adjacent to at least one non-Lake tile that you own, so even though you can scout as far as you like, the lands you claim must be contiguous with your own.

This has also brought the perfect opportunity to significantly upgrade this very basic component of the game with random bonuses, characteristics, or possible squatters. I'd been thinking about this for a long time and a while ago our member 12_Foot_Robot had commented on how significantly this would improve the excitement of one of the core aspects of the game. Now most tiles will be generated with one or more random bonuses - sometimes you get the bonus just for surveying the land, like discovering a patch of wild wheat as you move through a new meadow. Other bonuses only take effect when the land is actually claimed by you, and still others provide powerful ongoing benefits, like farmlands that water themselves with natural springs or a great lake with an extra gather point available each turn. This significantly increases the excitement and reward of surveying. Furthermore, there may be opportunities to interact with tiles that are not claimed by you, like the Ranger's Forage ability, and some tiles may be purchasable or have enemies that must be fought off in order to claim them. Plus hexagonal tiles evoke more of the board game aesthetic that I want to include in the feel of the interface, and we have instant appeal to Civilization players, Settlers of Catan players, and others simply because of the familiarity of presentation.

The town map, or overworld view, I still am not sure what to call it, will also be hexagonal and simplified. I'll save that for a separate section. The villa building screen will still be built out of square rooms - it's simply a convention for tracking and using land - there aren't any issues of spacing or adjacency.

2. Reduction/Simplification of Goods/Currency

Having played a number of resource-oriented board games recently, I had some thoughts about this, I feel like it is inherently simpler for people to work with small amounts of resources and less types of them. To that end, we're going to scrap the modius measurement for bulk goods and the difference of scale between "single" goods and bulk goods. Now everything is simply an abstract unit, i.e. 2 Wheat, 3 Lumber, 4 Leather and it is either "heavy," which mean it requires shipping to move it, or it is not. Heavy resource tokens (for now) are square whereas others are circular. The third type of item, equipment, will have a different token shape or no token. This change brought a number of implications and suggestions to work through.

A. Players will be harvesting fewer crops per field (say 8 tokens as opposed to 60 modii or some such) so those crops must be worth more, both in terms of sell price and nutritional value.

B. Perish rates may have to be adjusted since the effect of perishing is worse with higher NP food.

C. Wheat should probably be completely inedible. This is the objective good so you should be able to eat it only by processing it into bread, and the rate of food return should be pretty good as a result. Right now, mass growing of wheat is a viable strategy although the wastefulness of it does hurt the player in the long run. This will encourage diversification of crops grown, which ultimately will help the player make more money with the new market system. More on that presently. But you will have to invest in a Bakery (or possibly add an Oven to your Kitchen) in order to make use of Wheat as food.

D. I'm axing the arbitrary shipping can only be used one-way rule that really never made any sense. I thought it might make shipping decisions more interesting, but it defies common sense. Now each mule will provide room for 5 outbound and 5 inbound heavy goods, and as many regular goods as you like. However, now the market can only be visited once per month in a single run, so you must make execute everything in one trade order. This is because the market has been centralized, which I'm getting to momentarily.

E. Less coinage follows from this so less money overall will be needed - silver denari are now 10 sens, whereas a gold cent is 100 silver denari. That means you'll be working mostly in silver and bronze and a gold coin represents a truly significant amount of wealth.

Obviously reduction in scale creates other changes that have to be worked through, but I think people will understand everything a bit easier if everything is smaller and simpler, and the needless complication was due to insufficient abstraction of the original idea, I think.

3. Centralization of Town Functions: The Market, Black Market, and Tavern

Once again inspired by outrageously great board games, I wanted to capture the feeling of everything being "in reach" on a board game and simplify the map screen and town interactions.

We've merged towns and roads into a single tile. Tiles can be occupied by enemies and hence access to that tile (and all tiles behind it) will be blocked. You can now not visit towns directly (except to visit the resident) but they have significant effects on the centralized market and you depending on your reputation at the town. Town reputation is now a central part of the early game - you'll be filling market orders (essentially demand quests) for towns in order to build reputation with that town, unlocking extra goods to be sent to the market, getting free goods shipped to you monthly, and ultimately the town resident, the local person of note, will offer their special skills to you if you help their town enough. Town reputation can also be gained by Patrolling the tile, using the Influence Espionage action (Espionage had to be greatly altered to fit the new town map, vastly for the better in my opinion), and assisting the militia in town defense. Town reputation gives a much more focused feel to the early game, as players work to win over the towns they think will benefit them most.

You'll note that in addition to the ring of starting towns, there is a market, black market and tavern tile. These each represent a centralized area for legal trade, illegal trade, and information gathering/recruitment. These tiles can be occupied by hostiles (except for the Black Market, which operates differently) and, except for the tavern, can only be visited once per month; essentially, you have to take a discrete Market action (although it does not cost actions, similar to attacking). I could write a separate article about each of these "new" systems but they are mostly a much-needed abstraction and centralization of game concepts that were a bit unwieldy and confusing in their past incarnation. I will summarize as briefly as possible.

The Market

The Market is essentially a storehouse for goods that the player can buy. Each season, all open towns will send a certain amount of different goods to the market based on their town type and size. The player can freely buy these as they become available, and the market will store goods up to a maximum number based on the town sizes of all non-blocked towns in the market. These goods will also be subject to a perish rate, as other interested parties snatch up the goods. Market events are represented by goods suddenly becoming depleted, or abundant, and the price changing. During a wood crash, the market might suddenly have a stack of 10 cheap wood to buy, or during a stone spike all stone might suddenly disappear from the storehouse. Market events will be fairly common, and predictable in a number of different ways.

The market demand mechanics have been replaced with market orders. Rather than simply receiving a boost on sale prices from demands, each town will put an order for a specific number of needed goods directly to the player. The player can choose to fill any, all, or none of these, and when filling the order receives extra money for each good shipped (same as greater demand). If the player completes the market order before the end of the year, they receive a completion bonus, usually a chunk of money and a small reputation boost at the town. This system combines an economic model with quests to focus the player towards building town reputation and producing certain goods. Really it's a hundred times more elegant than the clunkfest I had originally cobbled together.

Last but not least on this note is that the player can only sell up to 4 of any one type of good each month, and receives less money for each successive same good sold. That means the player only gets full money for the first type of the good sold each month, then about 3/4, then half, and then 1/4. This immediately encourages diversity, and letting goods trickle out slowly, since you will make more than 3 times as much money letting 1 wool go to the market each month for 4 months then selling them all at once - but if it's the end of the year, or you can't spare the shipping, or you have way too much anyway, you have the option. This makes shipping much more precious because you want to be able to ship a little of everything as much as possible. This elegantly mimics reducing demand in a predictable way that player can strategize for. So much better than messing around with market saturation calculations and price decay rates. :P

Black Market

The Black Market is a specialized market that can only be successfully reached if it is both active and the character traveling succeeds on a smuggling roll. Let me tell you immediately that gone is the two-separate-rolls overly complicated smuggling thing from before. Now you simply make a single roll ahead of time, and either fail and reap the consequences, or succeed and can take your time to ship as much as you like without fear. Assuming you succeed, you now have access to a smaller market that offers Black Market Contracts - smaller quests that are like market orders but change rapidly and have greater rewards. Some Black Market contracts may also require an Espionage roll to complete. In addition, the Black Market sells a small selection of discounted rare goods. These contracts and goods can be cycled by the player with the Influence action, and skilled Agents may even be able to choose the next from two or three possibilities. The Black Market has no interest in buying goods generally, so you may only sell goods directly by Black Market Contracts, and buy what is on offer.

The Black Market starts the game active, and is occasionally raided by Roman authorities, temporarily inactivating it. Under ordinary circumstances, the Black Market is unavailable while inactive, and randomly reactivates a certain amount of time after a crackdown - this can be influenced by both Agent abilities and special events. It can never be occupied, except perhaps under very unusual conditions...


The Tavern is a centralized place to gather information, receive quests and hire workers and mercenaries. You can also interact with visitors by buying them a drink, or buy a round for the workers or mercenaries in the hopes of increasing your guild reputation or getting a hiring discount. You may also buy a drink and have a private chat with the Tavern Keeper, an information broker who can help his friends find the right people in the right places. The Tavern can be visited any number of times per month. Visitors and mercenaries are constantly changing and cycling through. The Tavern is a place of activity every player will want to keep an eye on for opportunities. It is also rumored that the Thieves' Guild works through the tavern and those with enough clout with the Guild can even hire thieves and assassins here.

That sums up my intentions on this town map redesign fairly well. Some stuff probably looks brand spanking new but honestly most of these ideas were in the game design in some way but didn't make it into the prototype explicitly.

We're also taking another crack at the combat system, simplifying and en-safening it for main characters, with the addition of robust mercenaries and town militias taking some of the absurd risk out of early combat.. We definitely want it to be decisive, and have a rogue-like feel, but we're removing a lot of the complications and automation in favor a command driven interface with some hidden depth. We've got so many facets, you don't even know what facets are. :) And that's not even talking about the faction towns, which you can see on the graphic there but I won't get into here, not least because they were a non-factor in the prototype and hence are unknown to the vast majority of you. We've come up with much more of the endgame than ever before (which is good, considering we're a week away from starting this build!) so stay tuned for more dev blogs, podcasts, and other fun stuff as we live the dream of creating impossible worlds. Thanks everyone for your support!

Submitted to Indiecade! Aftermath and new goals

Posted by Chris Crooks on July 2, 2013 at 1:45 PM Comments comments (2)

Well gang, my brother and I submitted the prototype/proof of concept/work in progress that is FreeHolder to Indiecade 2013. The game is certainly not bug-free, and probably not even game-ending crash-free, but it goes smoothly enough and has enough variety and concepts implemented to give them a clear idea of what we're going for with this game. Considering that they encourage works in progress, I suspect our game has as much of a chance as any such submission can have, if lack of polish or buginess will count heavily against an unfinished game. Considering that the inception of this was really only about 8 months ago, and I had to learn many things as I went, I'm pleased with the progress on the game.

I think our overall chances of being finalists is fairly strong. I have great faith in the appeal of both the core concepts and narrative of the game as well as the style of play, the huge level of replayability the game already has. and its potential for becoming something truly remarkable. It's an odd but appealing mash-up of board game mechanics, JRPG graphics and leveling, farmsim/survival plus a roguelilke environment that can't help but be attractive to people that are looking for something different, and deep, and adaptable to many styles of play. If you like to fight you can focus on the combat aspects of the game to accomplish your goals, whereas if you prefer stealth and subterfuge there is a system in place for that. If you like to raise animals you can focus on breeding and sell scads of wool, extra cheese, and prime grade meat. Money can accomplish most things in FreeHolder, and people that want to focus more on the farming/production side of the game can still succeed mightily with a bit of shrewd marketeering. Mercenaries and the like will also be available if you want to keep your vital non-combat characters out of the fray entirely. People like me, inclined to the mystical, have a highly customizable magic skill and enchantment system that lets your Initiates fill in the gaps in your lineup. And what we have planned for the final game, a second two-choice class advancement that further specializes your character, unlocks an extra equipment slot, typed minor action, and eventually gives access to an Epic skill, well, you can see how obsessed I am with class changes. Way back in high school, one of the absurdly huge rpgs I exhaustively designed out with my friend Mike had 3 class changes inherent in the game design. My favorite Super Nintendo game, Secret of Mana 3 had 2 class changes, each one going either in the light or dark direction, meaning each character had a total of 2 mid and 4 end-game classes, and since you can only choose 1 per game, the replay value of each character is higher than any other SNES RPG I've played. The character often receive massively different skills and special attacks depending on what you class them to.

"So what?" you may reasonably ask. "Who cares about classes?" Well, they are (or should be, in my mind) a game design method with which to allow the player to experience a couple of things.

1) Open up new and more complex play options as they play through and become more used to the simpler earlier game. In FreeHolder, once a Ranger learns Forester, you can now completely hack down a forest for a large quantity of wood, but of course it becomes a meadow and you lose the ability to get wood from it ever again. This is a consideration that would probably be lost on a beginning player who still doesn't understand how much lumber and firewood they'll generally need. In the hands of a more experienced player, though, Clear Cut can be used with some discrimination to deal with emergencies and respond more flexibly to the situation.

2) The more complex and powerful play options that are unlocked are tailored in some fashion to the style of the player playing the game. People that play a certain way will be given high-level options in the very areas that they focus on, encouraging them to explore more fully aspects of the game that they enjoy, or they think will be useful. In FreeHolder, when you level you are given the choice to learn any skill from the class that you don't know, or upgrade an existing one. There are three in the demo but there will probably be four or five in the final game. That way the leveling itself can also be a response to in-game challenges. You might level a character into a Ranger specifically to learn Forester as you have a lumber crunch, or you need to plant some saplings because there aren't any additional forests in your immediate starting area.

Ideally, classing up should bring players to a new level of gameplay, where they have more powerful skills but they will require more experience and discrimination to use them properly, as well as having more difficult challenges that will require such skills. Being an all-powerful god is fun for a little while, but challenges are what make games rewarding, and the player should feel a proportionately greater reward for beating more difficult challenges because they've evolved as a player, not just because their character has become insanely strong.

However, I'm not denying the pure awesomeness when you send your gladiator to deal with a few bandits and he just carves through them and scatters them to the winds. I liked the movie 300, after all. This game would not entirely be mine without some type of combat. Lots of fightin' happenin' back in them Roman times. Plus Matt is a mild fanatic vis-a-vis ancient Rome, and the dice rolling mechanics of the combat system are an adaptation of a MUSH based on ancient Rome called the The Eternal City. The combat system still needs a great deal of work, but my original goal, to make it quick, exciting, and strategic without being overly ponderous, seems possible when I see it working at its most bug-free.

So I have high hopes for Indiecade, but irregardless our current goal remains the same: to have the most polished, delicious demo of this game ready to go by Indiecade, whether that's due to the fact that we are finalists or not. Then we gonna go and network like it's the Matrix all up in there. One way or another, be it venture capital, kickstarter, or some other method, this game will be realized in full. And then, my friends, people will be able to play it on their Ouya. That will be one surreal day. :)

The Indiecade submitted version, v.630 in honor of the submission date and my birthday, has a plethora of visual upgrades, bug-fixes and tweaks plus a host of dandy new mousover infotext features that will make the game approximately 72% less confusing for new FreeHolders. You'll be treated to "hand-drawn" (on the computer) plot tiles, characters that are specifically designed to activate every part of your brain involved in playing Squaresoft games, and icons for every item and good in the game, Now if only I could squash that damnable icon display bug. :D Check it out and play, friends. Plenty of tweaks and updates are coming down the pipeline, and your involvement in testing is critical. Give us some feedback, and we'd much appreciate it.

Keep your fingers crossed for Indiecade 2013 - we'll know at the end of August. In the meantime, enjoy FreeHolder and the fancy gameplay guide section on the website which Matt has assembled with astonishing speed and vigor. Plenty more sections of that are also going to be released soon, so hopefully people who feel a bit intimidated by the complete lack of information on or in the game can find some help. Unless they want to e-mail us directly, of course. Or use the forums. Yes, we have forums. 

Thanks to all our supporters, and good harvest to you!


5/5: Save & Quit, Combat Preview, All Classes Available

Posted by Matt Crooks on May 5, 2013 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (0)

Howdy Rogues and Roguettes,

We didn't quite hit our goal for the end of April, but boy are we close.  Every starting class is now available at the start of the game including the Gladiator, you can now save and quit then continue a game later and a preview of the combat system is available.

Now I say combat preview because it's not yet hooked into the main game.  What you do in this test battle won't open up any roads, reward you with loot, or affect your reputation with a faction yet.  But we've left the player with an array of weapons and armour that they can try out and then by pressing the middle mouse button, you can open up a test round of combat with three bandits.  

Club Sauce also provided us with a better background for the HUD, a nice dark cobblestone texture.

More to come this month as our deadline for Indiecade 2013 approaches. Give us a like, stalk us on Twitter. Tell a buddy.  Play the demo.

Oh, and Happy Cinco de Mayo.

4/21: New Build, New Systems

Posted by Chris Crooks on April 21, 2013 at 6:15 PM Comments comments (2)

Hey everyone,

Wanted to announce a new developer's build going up today, with a number of key new systems somewhat implemented. Of particular note is the much-improved magic class, the Initiate. Rather than simply being a useful gatherer of medicines, the new Initiate-only action called Enchantment is now available. For a cost of one rare, uncommon, and common reagent you can attempt to enchant a plot with a myriad of useful but temporary effects, Currently available are:

Dreamscape - Adds an extra gather point to a plot. 

Secret Upwelling - Farmland or Sapling plots will be automatically watered each turn.

Familiar Spirit - Enchant a plot to provide a small amount of basic resources automatically each turn.

Wintersun - Ward your villa against cold, negating the need for wood during the winter.

Remember you can only gather rare reagents from the appropriate terrain type during its favored season. Also, you can start your main as an Initiate and choose your starting skill from a small randomized list. 

Additionally,  the basic espionage actions, Gather Info and Smuggle Goods, are up and functioning. although there are some button toggling issues when smuggling goods at the market. Gather Info lets you examine the Market and Forum at a blocked town, as well as revealing if any day labor quests are available, and your knowledge of the town will decay over time rather than last one turn. Critical rolls double the length your information network lasts.

Smuggling goods allows you to sell goods at a blocked town market,hopefully at a substantial black market bonus. There is a risk of getting wounded if it fails, though, and wounds prevent you from working at all until you're healed. The ability to add mules to smuggle more is not functioning yet, although I doubt anyone has made much use of mules yet. 

Also the Forums at each town are enabled and have a bit of functionality. There are some visibility toggle issues but a town will spawn with permanent residents based on its size, and those residents can be talked to to get a variety of tips about the game. Resident quests and trading are still non-functional. Visitors will also appear and leave various towns from time to time, and similarly they can be talked to but that's about it at the moment.

There's a new resource list that shows what you have as icons, only spawning new icons when you collect that resource type. There are a huge number of icons that still need to be created, and what we have so far is mostly to the credit of Club Sauce, a Rogue who has stepped up to contribute some sorely needed initial artwork to our demo. We our much in his debt,  as we are to Thundercliese, who has more or less been our head playtester for the last several weeks, contributing detailed notes on a number of bugs that we need to squash. Props to him as well.

There's plenty more features, but you'll just have to take a look for yourself, or wait for an official release. I just want to remind everyone that this is a development build, and there are no guarantees about the level of playability of this is more or even the same as the previous build. I mean, I can guarantee it with this build, but dev builds are code snapshots that are generally unplaytested, so player beware. Next on the dock, hopefully tomorrow - I'll let you start saving the game. :) I will upload build with saving as soon as I have it, and it works.

Thanks to everyone for your support, enthusiasm, and contributions. We are making something truly amazing here. Enjoy the build!


4/17 - RogueSpeak #1

Posted by Matt Crooks on April 18, 2013 at 12:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Yesterday, Chris and I threw together an impromptu Podcast or whatever the hell the kids call it these days.  You might want to sit down, cause It's 38 minutes long. (Download it here:

We did get through quite a lot - Why we're making games, a previous prototype idea we scrapped called Space Panic, what Roguelikes are and how they influence us, FreeHolder's status, and our chances at Indiecade 2013.

If you're not sure who is who, I'm the one who speaks less eloquently and clearly isn't used a microphones.