Role-playing games and video games came of age around the same time. While D&D was published in 1974, the very first attempts to emulate D&D with a computer came in 1975; Dungeon and DND were written for mainframe systems like the PDP-10 and PLATO, though they were unlicensed and never saw commercial sales. The first licensed D&D video game came in 1982, and it paved the way not only for later licensed games like the SSI ‘Gold Box’ titles and Baldur’s Gate but also virtually the entire video game RPG genre, from Final Fantasy to The Elder Scrolls to Diablo.
Role-playing video games were fairly direct emulations of rulesets like D&D early on, but as the software became more sophisticated they played more to their strengths. Current titles have gorgeous graphics and complex storylines, but narratively are mostly static affairs. Meanwhile, tabletop roleplaying games have always had the flexibility of a human GM to give them more breadth and a personal touch that video games couldn’t match. So what happens when a digital game designer tries to make their video game feel more like a tabletop RPG? You get Wildermyth.
Wildermyth is designed by Worldwalker Games, and was published in June of 2021. It is primarily a tactical turn-based RPG in the vein of X-COM, where party members move across an overworld map and then face off against a variety of monsters in grid-based dungeons. The game is competent as a video game, with interesting combat and optimization choices across its three character types: Warrior, Hunter, and Mystic. What makes the game fascinating, though, is its narrative engine. Characters each have personality types which play off of each other and the environment. These personality types and ingame events drive scenes, displayed as comic panels, which occur in between combat encounters. These scenes can drive relationships between characters (Friendship, Romance, and Rivalry), as well as help the player understand a bit more about who the character is and how they fit into the party. As the game goes on, characters age, acquire scars, and even have children, and when a campaign ends (campaigns are three or five ‘adventures’ each consisting of an overarching objective and 6-8 combat encounters), they join your legacy and may appear in future adventures.
Before digging into the implementation of these mechanics, let me just say they work, and work well. At this point I’ve put about ten hours into the game, playing through two pre-written campaigns and one randomly generated one. The degree to which you see your characters’ personalities is phenomenal; I’ve never identified with randomly generated characters this much before. The scenes are all really interesting, I love the inter-party dialogue. And on the more video game side of it all, the scars and mutations are really neat. I had a character begin transforming into a bear, and another one grow wings, and these things happen based off of events ingame. Speaking of events ingame, there are places where two characters sneak off together for a sidequest, and I find that those sequences are perfectly designed to let me see a character relationship.
What you begin to run into in Wildermyth, at least after playing a couple campaigns, is the limits of the handwritten content. The game comes with several pre-written campaigns, each focusing around one of the game’s five monster types. I’ve enjoyed the pre-written content a lot so far; the campaign focusing around the Morthagi (a race of mechanical constructs gone wrong) had an interesting underlying story that unfolded across its five chapters. The good thing about the pre-written content is that it’s well-integrated into the game’s story engine: Plot events have the same amount of flexibility to let characters react to them based on their personality, history, and relationships as any of the randomly generated events. The bad thing, really, is that the pre-written campaigns help illustrate the limitations of the procedural generation. When all is said and done, there are a finite number of vignettes, selected to appear based on characters’ personality and relationships. By my third campaign, these vignettes had started to repeat themselves. Now, something like this is going to happen eventually, of course, but it did noticeably blunt my enjoyment of my non-written (i.e. entirely random events, no handcrafted plot) campaign, only the third one I played. It also helped me observe the scope of Wildermyth’s event generation, which in turn led me to some observations about how the game compares to the sort of tabletop campaign it aspires to emulate.
The biggest missed opportunity in Wildermyth is the map. Each campaign of Wildermyth randomly generates a new map with new locations, meaning that the connections and characters in existing places are lost. Now, this is a design decision made entirely in deference to the gameplay loop as-written: each campaign involves the party exploring and clearing out parts of the map for a chapter, after which there is a ‘period of peace’, the characters get downtime, and then new areas of the map are revealed for the next chapter. The problem with this is mostly that it confuses the legacy aspect of the game: if this is a new region, where did these old heroes come from? Given that the broad strokes of the setting stay the same, this is likely brushed off by a lot of players (and to be fair it doesn’t bother me so much as I noticed it). Where it creates limitations, though, is in the locations. Locations in this game simply don’t have the impact they should, and while some of that does come down to relying on procedural generation, a lot has to do with their lack of permanence. It wouldn’t be too hard to procedurally generate a village and then have it stay across a player’s entire legacy, seeing the village change as NPCs change; hell, the whole character change system is already written. In fact, that does happen to some degree within a campaign, often your party will meet an NPC and then help them in a later chapter, or see them help you resolve a later encounter. Having locations change each time seems like a missed opportunity, though I do understand the reasoning. The metaplot of each Wildermyth campaign is that a region is overrun by monsters, and it’s up to your heroes to answer the call and beat them back. Having your one region overrun by monsters time and time again is not only depressing, it strains suspension of disbelief. So, within the confines of the game’s conceit, I understand the decision, even if it represents a significant opportunity for improvement.
And this talk about metaplot gets us to a larger point about video games, tabletop games, and their relative lack of overlap. As relatively narrow as D&D is, as much as it’s focused on one genre and one gameplay mode, D&D has more breadth than any of the video games ever designed to emulate it, Wildermyth included. Wildermyth will always tell one basic story with a limited set of tools, no matter how many DLC there are or how much it’s modded. D&D might pull from the same toolbox of dungeon fantasy, but given the breadth of the ruleset and the discretion of a human GM it can do so much more even with the same building blocks. And once you step outside D&D, the possibilities grow that much more.
What Wildermyth is, really, isn’t the next step towards true emulation of a tabletop game. Rather, Wildermyth is a recognition of what makes tabletop RPGs special, and specifically that what makes them special is not combat and not mechanics. Wildermyth looks at characters and adds depth both through procedural generation and a fair amount of writing at the backend, and it works incredibly well. As much as I can point out the limitations of video games, what Wildermyth has done is shown that design with intent is still able to generate a better experience with random characters than many video games do with pre-written stories.
The reason I find Wildermyth so interesting is that it illustrates the appeal of narrative RPGs so clearly, and also shows that that appeal is broad-based. Wildermyth is currently Overwhelmingly Positive on Steam with over 10,000 reviews, which means that Wildermyth has almost as many reviews as Apocalypse World has sold copies. Though the game can’t replace a tabletop experience, it shows how appealing that sort of storytelling is, and is likely the first taste of a narrative RPG for many, many people. That is something that we in the tabletop RPG hobby need to pay attention to. Video game RPGs will walk away from us with increasingly more sophisticated mechanics, better graphics, and more engaging combat, but story is a level playing field. Wildermyth has successfully built engaging narratives for whatever characters you want to play, but even a moderately skilled GM can do so much more.
There are some takeaways for both GMs and game designers that come from Wildermyth. Make the introduction easy; you aren’t going to be attached to your characters when you first create them, but that will change. Make sure the most interesting events in your characters’ lives happen in play. Make sure your game has stakes; your players will react strongly to consequences and show you what they really care about. And finally, make sure that your characters impact the world, and that the impact is seen. Although Wildermyth has its limitations just like any video game, it follows key guidance from the GM’s toolkit, and that’s a big reason it’s so good. My hope is that more video games will follow in Wildermyth’s footsteps, and push on the technology of emergent narrative just like we’ve already pushed on the technology of graphics and physics. And if it wasn’t clear already, RPG fans should pick up a copy of Wildermyth. It’s not going to replace your gaming group by any means, but it’ll probably feel closer to a tabletop experience than any other video game in your library.
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