It had been 30 in-world years that I watched Fawn travel with her troupe, The Walkers of the Candle, in my most recent Wildermyth campaign. In that time, she rarely stepped into the spotlight, giving space for her comrades to shine. While the group did not have a leader, Tymlow the warrior had made it clear that she could get any job done without much help at all. Meanwhile Fen and Gail, the two remaining members from the original group, had discovered their own existential meaning between travelling back home and dancing with misunderstood spirits. Fawn had nothing but the stories to tell of others. Then the voidling called.
No one wanted to enter the tear of reality, but Fawn, who rarely felt the need to diverge from the party’s actions, felt differently. Words entered her mind—”communion, acceptance, care, intimacy”—as she drew near and submerged herself into the void. In that moment she met with the being that touched her heart with those fantastic emotions. The game prompted me to make a choice: Does Fawn give up her control to this unknown being? Or does she snap out of this dreamlike place to go back with her group?
Despite my sadness at the thought, I felt like Fawn would allow this being into some part of herself. There wasn’t much written after I made the decision about why, but it still felt right. This was Fawn’s chance to feel connected to something, to feel cared for by someone.
Fawn vanished immediately. Gail and Tymlow looked around calling for her for hours, but it almost felt like she had never climbed that mountain with everyone to begin with.
This is one of the many stories I’ve helped tell during my time playing the newly released Wildermyth, and every moment I’m struck by just how deeply the game provokes me to think about the story and it’s characters. It’s not a feeling I experience often in videogame RPGs. What leaves me more impressed is just how often Wildermyth diverges from my expectations of how videogame RPGs typically function to show me that something different is possible. For as long as I have been a fan of the genre I have known RPGs to offer me two things; deep explorations of worlds due to a longer length of text-based gameplay, and a numeric progression through the content that is transparent but limited in what the player can change. What I couldn’t put my finger on before playing Wildermyth was how much more limited RPGs really are.
For a long time videogame RPGs have utilized the lens of a single character to influence and witness the world through combat, dialogue, and quest sequences. A hero helps a travelling salesperson who lost some goods. A party member has a silent moment with the protagonist, sharing the hardships they faced. The party of misfits makes it out of their toughest fight yet and the player must choose at the end whether the enemy deserves to live. These are all scenarios that are easy to expect in any popular RPG title, but they are the result of games adhering to the videogame-player empowerment relationship.
Many times, the RPG character is designed for the player to customize and identify with. This is one aspect that could be said to be especially well-suited to videogames. Not because interaction inherently gives us the potential to experience stories which we suture ourselves into, but videogames have continued to foster a sense of identity with single characters since the early days of the medium. It was almost inevitable that the early translations of tabletop role playing for the medium would design a world for the player to interface via a primary character they can identify with. Consider games like Dungeon or Baldur’s Gate. These games attempted to automate the DM for the player to navigate. However, it was in that decision to automate the DM, and not experiment with how to create a system specifically for a computer, that videogames limited themselves to recreating only a portion of the RPG experience. In these games the personal character growth, party member conversations, quests, and numeric progression were all present, but the player character became sanctified in the process.
I won’t make a blanket statement for all games in the genre, but this generally became the standard for the RPG genre even to this day. The player customizes an avatar to identify with and gameplay styles take the form of stats. Dialogue interactions give the character chances for those stats and the player’s morals to impact the game world. Party members gather for your character to interact with each having a very explicit personality for you to learn more about but also to reflect your character back at you. RPGs have been a genre that prioritizes the player’s identity within their gamespace.
Wildermyth handles this differently by never prioritizing a character’s story over anything or anyone else, and putting the player in the position of a sort of co-DM. There is no main character, but a group of characters that the player is managing over the course of the campaign. Some leave to go chase their dreams, some die and others disappear by the most unruly means. All that to say that there is nothing sacred in Wildermyth; the game doesn’t prioritize the characters but the story which their actions tell, a story passed down for generations.
Every Wildermyth character is randomly generated by a hybrid choice of the computer and the player, so from the beginning there isn’t much about the character that is explicitly designed. The initial choice the player has is a random generation of character appearance and a pair of words that describe their personality. Then if the player wants they can go deeper and make more deliberate decisions about those elements.
Due to the fact that none of these characters are meticulously prepackaged for the player, they feel more particular to your story. This generated Warrior with the greedy attitude and tied up ponytail is part of your story, and it’s up to you to determine how his story will begin, progress, and end. This repeats with every character that joins the party in the game, excluding characters who have children. Creating characters with a light, but generative, detail recreates the feeling of characters having backstories created in the beginning of a session with friends instead of something coming out of a long process in a writers room.
A large part of the reason this succeeds is because there is a trust in the ambiguity that the game’s writing utilizes. You never see the step-by-step, on the ground moments during a Wildermyth story, nor in the detail written about characters. Instead, stories broadly tell a sequence of events like that of a book, with character interactions and moments on the ground included for context and critical details. This leaves a lot unsaid about the characters and the world, but because these stories are written with imaginative, open-ended language it allows the player to imagine what else exists beyond the written words.
Everything that is said about the characters experience are additive to their initial creation, and many times are the result of the player choosing whether they want the character to change or not. That’s another unique element to Wildermyth: most of the drastic character changes are always presented as a clear choice for the player. There isn’t an ambiguous dialogue option or decision between good and bad. The game just tells you the different ways that the character is affected and it’s up to the player to decide which is more interesting for their story. When a ranger who has stuck with the party since the beginning is downed during a fight, it’s up to the player to decide if that signals their death or something traumatic they must live through. When there is a critical moment in a quest, such as choosing how to interpret a mystic text, the player decides whose decision the group follows.
Decisions in Wildermyth aren’t about getting something right or wrong. They’re about telling the most entertaining story. And that’s why no videogame has ever been more reminiscent of my tabletop RPG experiences with friends. Rather than a system like Dungeons & Dragons that offers small variants of failure and success in actions, it is more similar to modern systems like Powered by the Apocalypse games and Blades in the Dark, games that are designed for players to “fail forward.” It’s a thematic value that I wish more games implemented.
All this is what makes me so excited about my continued time with Wildermyth. It had been such a long time that RPGs gave me something so fresh and thought out that I almost forgot to remember that there could be something else. I do get excited by the popular, standardized RPGs still, but I am even more excited to be reminded that there is so much potential in how we can reimagine them. That’s a form of excitement I’d like to continue feeling in all games.
Waverly is a trans game artist and freelance writer. She has written at Uppercut, Into The Spine, and Fanbyte. You can find her on Twitter @hotelbones.