DEMONWARS:REFORMATION & CORONA
I am super excited because in addition to this being my first interview ever, I am also a big fan. My book shelves is adorned by 45 books, which i began reading 20 years ago (give or take), that bears the name Salvatore. So i am very happy that none other than Bob Salvatore (RAS), the author of one of the world’s most popular elves, and his son, Demonwars: Reformation’s lead game designer Bryan Salvatore [BGS] took the time to answer my questions about Corona and Demonwars:Reformation.
DEMONWARS PLAYTEST RULES
I backed the Kickstarter for Demonwars:Reformation and I received a playtest package by email in late September. Rifling through the pages of the playtest rules I was inspired to write a few articles where I went over the rules and offered my thoughts on them. I was especially curious about how the rules interpreted the world of Corona, which I knew through Bob Salvatore’s books as well as how the mechanics was going to be.
It was during the writing of my review articles that I had the idea of doing an interview to neatly round off my three part review. My curiousity was not limited to the new RPG system, i have always been curious about the world Corona itself. So this resulted in a sort of 2 part interview, one about the world of Corona itself and one about the game system.
THE WORLD OF CORONA
Many roleplayers take up the world building mantle, designing and creating worlds big and small. I know I am always curious about other peoples’ world creations and am particularly curious about the worlds of Drizzt and Corona, which I’ve been a fan of since I was about 16 years old. So it is my great pleasure to ask you and Bryan some questions about creating Corona and the new RPG system Demonwars: Reformation.
What I have always liked about Corona from the very first book The Demon Awakens, was the sense that this fantasy World was not like other stereotypical roleplaying fantasy worlds. The elves and dwarves especially, even their racial names, were quite different and unique.
They and the magical gemstones really set apart the fantasy aspect of Corona from any other fantasy settings I had read about. And still to this day I love going back to that world.
Bryan, I would like to ask you, assuming that you have read the novels, what in the world of Corona fascinates you the most?
[BGS] Really, the whole tone of the world. The world has a sense of desperate struggle – the peasants are true medieval peasants, living largely in poverty. Plagues sweep across the world, monstrous enemies abound, and when there aren’t monsters around provoking wars, the humans can usually find something to fight over. And yet it’s this world with over-the-top fantastic heroes and villains – the Abellicans, the Rangers, the Jhesta Tu, and many more. These characters can take on a company of soldiers by themselves and win. And it all gets tied together in these very human stories, where characters with Jedi-level powers end up trapped by circumstance and by their own emotions. It’s a very powerful setting for telling stories.
Bob, I am curious about the Touel’alfar. What were your design thoughts when you created these elves in Corona?
(RAS) Although I wrote the DemonWars series very much with the idea that it could be used as a game world in mind, I really didnâ€™t look at specific races in that light. When I wrote the Alfar, I wanted something different from the typical Tolkienesque elves. These are the faeries of the hollow hills, the lithe and diminutive sprites that slip from shadow to shadow in the woodlands.
Theyâ€™re small and beautiful and innocent-lookingâ€¦and that is part of their menace. For theyâ€™re also tremendous fencers, and no one else in the world of Corona has the silverel weapons, so light and so strong. A rapier in the hands of a touelâ€™alfar is as deadly as the greatsword of the strongest Alpinadoran barbarian. Thatâ€™s the paradox of Coronaâ€™s elvesâ€¦gentle, beautiful, deadly.
Bob, your world Corona was so different from other well known settings when your books came out, what was the initial inspiration that got it rolling?
(RAS) Corona was many years in the making, mostly because I was so busy in the early years of my writing career. I had an idea of a gemstone magic system swirling about my mind from the beginning â€“ it just seemed like a natural fit to me.
I almost included it when I wrote the Crimson Shadow books in the early 90â€™s, but I knew that I simply didnâ€™t have the time to do it right. Soon after, though, I had parted ways with TSR and DelRey called and asked me to come into their publishing program. â€œWe want you to take as long as you need to write the best book you can,â€ they told me, and it was music to my ears after the frenetic pace I had been keeping for the better part of a decade.
So I began crafting Corona, and spent months building the world before I ever typed the first line of â€œThe Demon Awakens.â€ I started with the gemstones, assigning types of magic to each. I used folklore from our history (thereâ€™s plenty of it regarded the magical properties of gems) as well as scientific uses of various stones and minerals to concoct a workable, logical system.
From there, it was a matter of figuring out how they would get the stones (the corona of Corona) and who would control them (the Abellican Church) and what implications all of that would have on a medieval society.
Bob, I am such a big fan of Corona. There are a few things about the general design of it that piqued my curiosity, the Touel’alfar for instance, which i mentioned earlier. But if your Elves break stereotype then your Powries certainly break all previous stereotypes for dwarves as well. Where did you dig up the Powrie concept?
(RAS) One of my core resources is the Time-Life series, â€œThe Enchanted World.â€ Itâ€™s a great series that details myth and folklore from all over the world. The Bloody Caps are not my creation; they are part of folklore.
Whenever Iâ€™m creating a world or a society, I look to history, either real of mythical. What I usually do is take such lore and view it through a prism, then turn the prism slightly to warp the legend to fit my fancy. For example, the inspiration for the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan was Mario Puzoâ€™s â€œThe Godfather.â€
As Mark Twain noted, history doesnâ€™t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes. To build a believable and interesting culture in any book, fantasy or otherwise, you need to know history.
A NEW RPGAME SYSTEM
Bryan, I imagine creating a new RPG System must be quite a bear to wrestle with. What would you consider the biggest challenges that you had to overcome in that process?
[BGS] The magic system has been the single hardest piece in terms of the game rules. We came into it knowing how melee combat was going to work, with attack rolls and with Balance for defense and so on, and with a lot of constraints based on how the gemstones are used in the books, where they have multiple related effects, can be combined for further effects, and so on. There were a lot of constraints on that design, and finding a system that is reasonably simple, understandable, fit all the constraints and is fun to play took a huge number of iterations. I think we nailed it in the end, but it took a lot of work to get there.
Bob and Bryan, are there any particular parts of the system mechanics you favor over the rest, as a gamer or designer?
[BGS] The Balance system – particularly using it to defend yourself. It’s really the piece that makes the whole game work. We wanted real depth in combat, but without getting bogged down in 10+ minute turns that really break up the flow of a game session that you can see in some of the other recent entries in the tabletop RPG space – when you have 9 different powers to choose from, and some of them require five attack rolls, two different kinds of damage dice, and so on.
The Balance system plays very fast, yet creates a huge amount of depth automatically. When your dedicated striker (melee damage dealer) gets attacked and has to spend 2 or 3 of her 5 total Balance defending, that’s a crisis for your party – how do we save this character, and how do we deal enough damage to defeat the enemies when our best damage dealer is in that kind of trouble? It’s a problem for everyone at the table to try to solve, and it doesn’t require any artificial decision-making added. You’re not picking which kind of attack to make of the five kinds your character can perform, you’re figuring out how to deal with a real tactical challenge.
(RAS) Iâ€™ll add the notion of Focus to the Balance mentioned above. The thing about DemonWars is that the fuels for physical and spell power, balance and Focus, work elegantly. While they force you to stay focused, they very easily allow you to understand when youâ€™re getting into trouble. Fights can turn very quickly. No one in your group has been hit, or has taken any damage, and yet you come to this point where you realize that the spell-caster is out of Focus and the party is running out of Balance.
And the giant is still there, and when one of his swings finally catches up to you, it will be lights out.
Bryan, Corona was created by your father. Did that fact make it more or less intimidating to take up the lead designer mantle of Demonwars: Reformation ?
[BGS] Less, I’d say. First, it meant that I came into the project with an intimate working knowledge of the setting. I’d copy-edited many of the later books, contributed to the D20 System DemonWars game that came out some years ago, built style sheets for the books, that kind of thing.
Second, it meant there was a level of trust in place that really made it a lot easier to make the decisions that had to be made. I’ve been a professional game designer for quite a number of years now, and he’s very familiar with my work and with my work ethic, so it was easy for him to trust that I was doing generally the right thing. He gave tons of feedback, and we even butted heads over a few design issues, but when everyone’s working towards the same goal and you have a good relationship with the people you’re working with, that stuff tends to work out pretty easily.
Bryan, will the Touel’alfar be featured in the RPG and will their presence bring about another magic system? As I recall, they do not use ringstones?
[BGS] I would love to do the Touel’alfar, but no promises. A lot will come down to whether we can sustain this as a brand – if we can keep making products that will pay the bills, then I’d expect the Touel’alfar to be added eventually.
As for their magic, that’s correct, they mostly don’t use the ring stones. It wouldn’t really be a system – their magic permeates pretty much everything they do, it’s really intrinsic to who they are rather than being something external like the ring stones are, so the rules for the Touel’alfar would just be the rules for their magic – but their magical abilities would work differently from those found in DemonWars:Reformation.
Bryan, the fighting system in Demonwars:Reformation seems to be aiming for a more fluid and dynamic combat compared to old school RPG systems. To get this effect you created ‘Balance’ – a point pool characters use to pay for various choices during combat, no doubt inspired by the intense and explosive combat scenes Bob has mastered writing. Can you describe how you went from the conceptual idea of a dynamic explosive combat to implementing the mechanic?
[BGS] The most important driver for creating this system came from the goals for the game. We wanted to really get into the details of combat, offering tactical depth along with exciting action, but we really prioritized having the game play fast and encourage improvisation as well.
With those goals in mind, I identified that what we really needed to do was to increase the available design space for the game. Design space is basically the options that the game designer has for giving out different kinds of bonuses, rewards, punishments and so on – the possibilities that the game designer can put into the game as options for the players to use. If your game is – roll to hit, roll damage if you hit, move on, then you don’t have much design space, so in order to give the players more options, you have to do something like create power cards. That works, the players do have more options, but it doesn’t play quickly.
So the idea came from a very focused search for a game mechanic that would satisfy the specific goals I had outlined. When I came up with Balance, I knew pretty much right away that we had a winner. It was one of those times in creative work when you just have an epiphany, really. After that it was just a process of iteration – for example, initially, players would get a point of Balance back every turn, which was so fast that it actually ended up creating very static-feeling fights, you just had a higher effective Defense Rating than usual.
Bryan, with many systems these days using d20 or d6 what made you decide on using primarily d100 for your system?
[BGS] That was mainly my dad’s call. The big advantage of a d100 compared to a d20 is that you get more space for your buffs and items to give different numbers in smaller increments. For example, we had a game balance issue where magic users were just doing way too much damage; I toned down some of the +5 attack rating bonuses to +3 instead to solve the problem. The big disadvantage is that some of the smaller, usual bonuses are less exciting – nobody cares about +1 on a d100, where +1 on a d20 is pretty sweet. Ultimately, they’re mostly similar, but the d100 gives the game a bit of a different feel, so it works for us.
Bryan, what are the plans for the future of Demonwars: Reformation after the game book?
[BGS] We’re still in the process of getting this product done, but assuming that goes reasonably well, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll put together another DemonWars product, focused on a different type of hero in the world. After that, I really can’t say – if the brand is successful, we’d love to keep doing them. We won’t run out of awesome heroes to play and interesting places to explore, that’s for sure.
Bob, you have previously worked on creating stories and worlds for computer games, what was different about creating an RPG compared to something like kingdom of Amalur?
(RAS) Building the world of Corona was very much like building Amalur, except that with the latter, I quickly assumed the role of overseer and editor as the teams came together. The concepts to create a believable, logical world that makes sense were the same. Whenever you undertake anything like this, you are asking the reader or the player to suspend disbelief on so many levels – thereâ€™s magic and dragons and elves! â€“ and so the consistency and logic is necessary in areas like culture and commerce and racial relationships in order to keep that reader or player within the realistic boundaries of the world.
Bryan and Bob, I want to turn my attention on another big aspect of Corona, the Abellican monks. What really captivated me about the church was their political power and influence, the way the game of politics was played. Will that game of power carry over into the game book?
[BGS] Absolutely, the information about that side of the Church will be there. The immediate problems facing the Church following the events of Immortalis probably reduce some of that influence, but they’re definitely still some of the major players in the kingdom and in the world and that information will be in the book. It’ll be up to individual players as to whether that kind of political intrigue will be important in their games, of course.
(RAS) Monks add so much to the world of Corona; I felt it absolutely necessary that they be featured in the first product of this game environment. One of the great inspirations for DemonWars, the novels and everything else associated with it, was Umberto Ecoâ€™s â€œName of the Roseâ€ and my own history as a Catholic kid in New England. When you play in the world of Corona, at least some of the time, you should hears the bells of Notre Dame or the chants of medieval monks.
Bob, speaking of the monks, where did the idea of a remote island with gemstone showers come from and what made you decide the monks were the ones who knew about it?
(RAS) It goes back to how could they get the stones and why wouldnâ€™t everyone have some? The island, the time lapse, the ritual to enact permanency with the magicâ€¦all of that served as control mechanisms regarding the power of magic and the power of the church in controlling it. Also, adding a natural event to the mystical god-assigned powers of the stones helped in the development of Brother Avelyn, who would reform the church.
On the topic of magic, Bryan, converting the concept of the ringstones into mechanics must have been a challenge. How did you end up with augmentations and using focus points ?
[BGS] Just meeting all of the requirements for how characters use magic in the books was a big challenge, and really demanded we find a new approach to how magic should work as a game system.
Basically, in the books, characters have gemstones with general uses. For example, a magical ruby will create fire. A lot of these gemstones can also do the opposite – a diamond creates light or darkness. And a lot of them can be used together for additional effects – for example, a quartz (distant sight) and a hematite (out-of-body spirit walking) are combined for long-range spirit walking with minimal effort.
In the books, these combinations feel like they’re essentially limitless and open to experimentation, and the system I initially created was aimed at delivering that in the game. Unfortunately, the gemstones are so diverse that any system like that gets totally overwhelming really fast. On the other hand, a system where you just have a different spell for each of these effects loses all feel that magic is open-ended – your options are strictly spelled out for you.
Spells with augments are the middle ground. Basically, there are a number of core spells for each gemstone. When you cast a spell, you can use other gemstones to augment that particular casting with additional effects. Your options are spelled out for you, but it still has a feeling that you’re combining gemstones for unique effects, and you can cast a spell like Lightning Bolt in several different ways depending on what gemstones you have access to. It’s complicated, but it isn’t crazy – it’s understandable. Overall, it’s a solid system.
Bob, it seems obvious that you had quite a bit of inspiration from our own history with monks and the Christian religion
during the dark ages and medieval times. Would that be a safe assumption and if so, was there a lot of research on that front?
(RAS) As I said above, Iâ€™m a Catholic kid from New England. St. Annaâ€™s was at the center of my Italian community growing up, and a very important part of my life. The history of the Catholic Church is fascinating to me. And so, yes, in DemonWars, the Abellican Church suffers a schism not unlike that of the Catholic Church, only in Corona the fight is over who controls the gemstones. Are they to be used to show the glory of god and the power of the church as his chosen? Or are they to be shared and used to better the lives of all? It is a fight over philosophy, but also over material power, and so it is delicious to write about.
Leaving the details of the fictional worlds, i want to ask you a bit about the practical aspects of it all. How have your experiences been with creating and managing a Kickstarter project and are there any pitfalls you would warn against?
[BGS] We had done our reading in advance, but actually doing a Kickstarter project isn’t very much like doing any other kind of project, and I’d say the only way right now to really understand what you’re in for is to actually do it. The biggest problem we ran into was in our handling of international customers. We initially didn’t want to offer the product internationally at all, since we knew some people who had lost substantial amounts of money on that part of it, but we weren’t prepared for the backlash that some very passionate people sent our way.
We ended up putting up international levels pretty fast, but you can’t edit a lot of stuff on Kickstarter once your product is live, and that left us hacking it together as best we could instead of having a more controlled, planned approach.
On the other hand, we’ve been in close contact with a small but very interested group of fans since the day the project went up, which is a very cool and very encouraging experience. When you’re backing a project on Kickstarter, you really make it your own, you feel like you’re a part of creating it, and I really enjoyed interacting with these people, getting their ideas and feedback, and making sure that we were creating a game that they would like. I’d love to do another Kickstarter even if we maybe could put together a follow-up product without using their service, just for that community aspect of it.
What kind of advice would you give small independent publishers who are aiming to create their own RPG systems?
[BGS] Know what you’re trying to accomplish. There are a ton of game systems out there, and you aren’t going to succeed by making a generic system that tries to appeal to everyone. This really goes for any game design, but it’s especially important with how saturated the tabletop RPG market is: you need to know who your product is for and why it’s good, and make decisions for those people which play to those strengths.
Bob and Bryan, is there anything you would like to add?
[BGS] Just that I’m really excited to see how people receive this game when it’s finished. I hope you all check it out and let us know what you think!
(RAS) Well, the rules are finalized now and weâ€™re still playing DemonWars. I honestly donâ€™t think my group will go back to any other tabletop RPG at this point. Weâ€™re getting everything we want out of DemonWars, and more.
I want to thank both Bob and Bryan very much for taking the time to answer my questions. I wish all the best for Demonwars:Reformation and personally I can’t wait to see the game book.
I would also like to thank Brian ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick for a quick edit on my questions, as english is not my first language.
Thanks for reading, Gork ya later!