Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Frayed Knights: Research

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 30, 2013

I actually did quite a bit of research developing Frayed Knights.  And I continue to do some now. One might not think this would be strictly necessary, and it’s probably not (I happen to have a little bit of familiarity with fantasy RPGs, after all).  But I wanted to make sure my foundation was solid, and there were lots of bits and pieces that I wanted to make sure I referenced correctly  – especially for the humor.

Delving the Computer Dungeons

An obvious area I spent time researching was PC RPGs of the appropriate style.  While this could easily be confused with simply “playing games” (and I, myself, became joyfully confused on this myself, and I don’t care), a lot of this was quick, fierce efforts to rip away the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and become re-acquainted with the classics on their own terms. It wasn’t always fantastic. Some games, like Ultima Underworld, were a little painful to revisit. In some cases, I became hooked all over again – or for the first time, in the case of Wizardry 8 (NOW finally available on GOG.COM – I had to pay a premium price to get it on EBay at the time) and Might & Magic VII. I spent a lot of time reading walkthroughs, watching videos, reading reviews, and became hooked on The CRPG Addict’s blog. Out of all of this came some fodder for jokes, but a lot of it was just to help me remember what made these games tick – or more particularly, what made them fun. And to get some kind of handle on at least my own interpretation of the “feel” of these games – why I loved them.

And there were more concrete bits that I studies. Like how quests have been structured through the years, from the incidental or informal up to the popular modern strict, scripted quest lines.  Approaches to “quest journals.” Or how the main menu is typically laid out. Or various approaches to spellcasting. Or types of quests / tasks. This led me to my current belief that there is no such style as “old-school RPG” – even excluding the obscure ones, there was tremendous variety in approaches to role-playing games in the old days, and it’s very hard to nail down any loose group of elements as being particularly descriptive of the games of the era.

As a side-note, I’ll state that … possibly to my detriment, these games were generally a lot simpler than Frayed Knights.

Another interesting note – as much as “rats in the cellar” quests are lampooned in CRPG design, while rats and giant rats are not uncommon as low-level monsters, actual quests involving them are relatively rare (and, almost as often, twisted as a joke, as they are in Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon). I think this one is rooted more in classic tabletop gaming tropes and the bias was simply carried over.

Pulling Out the Books and the Dice

Another area of research came in the form of studying the tabletop RPG industry and culture of the 1970s and 1980s. In part, this was because the old-school RPGs that inspired Frayed Knights were themselves rooted deeply in this tradition. At least for the first couple of generations of these games, they were an attempt to capture the experience of playing a tabletop “dice-and-paper” role-playing game in a digital form. In a lot of ways, I’ve actually been trying to go after the same inspiration – I want to go back to the same source, rather than imitating the imitations. Of course, CRPGs evolved quickly from that point, and I don’t want to neglect the improvements to the genre since those early efforts. But for me, the early tabletop experiences are as much of something I wanted to recapture in Frayed Knights as the classic first-person CRPGs.

I ended up studying a lot of old D&D modules, early issues of Dragon Magazine (and the later adventure-oriented companion, Dungeon magazine). I re-read a lot of Gary Gygax’s wordy text in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons manuals, as well as going back and studying earlier game systems such as the original “white box” Dungeons & Dragons releases, and the early editions of Traveler, Call of Cthulhu, Champions, and other systems (including some fairly obscure ones – Lords of Creation, anyone?)

From these kinds of sources I picked up a lot of tropes that I’m trying to capture in the Frayed Knights series, the “feel” of the tabletop experience, and of course joke-fodder. But some things – like the drama-star system that encourages players to “play through” setbacks rather than optimizing via save / load strategy, or the banter between the party members – were direct efforts to pull in more elements of the tabletop experience.

Comics and Humor

I don’t know if this was research so much as inspiration, but Frayed Knights also has its roots in comics like Order of the Stick, Dork Tower, Knights of the Dinner Table, Nodwick, and some old classics of the Dragon Magazine era like Snarfquest, What’s New with Phil and Dixie, Wormy, and of course Finieous Fingers.

Community-Supplied Materials

Next, there was some research aspects that were thrust upon me by others. For this, I owe thanks to my community. A lot of people have been excited about this project for a while, and directed me to all kinds of interesting information – including old interviews with game creators, examples of styles I was trying to achieve, and so forth. I was directed to a lot of resources that, in some cases, I hadn’t even known existed (like the original “Bob White” storyline for Ultima 9, and the never-released expansion for Ultima 8: Pagan).  Most of the time, these kinds of things provided me with background information, but some bits actually made their way to “inside jokes.”

Myths, History, and Fiction

In some cases, I’ve found myself delving into “real-world” mythology and  popular fantasy which inspired RPGs in the first place. Once again, I’m trying to steal draw inspiration from the more original sources.  And I found myself studying history – ancient battles, the use of castles, the “Tudor” style of architecture, primitive shaminism, weapons of the ancient world, etc. Much of these found their way obliquely into the game. I found that the more I studied these things, the more the game, background, world, and content would seem to “fit.”

Skill Development

While I’ve been making games for a long time, now, I still feel like a newb in so many ways. Even in areas where I formerly felt like I had a good handle on things. Like RPG design – I mean, I’ve only been playing and studying and critiquing RPGs for three decades! But there’s something about having to do it yourself “for real” that lays bare your weaknesses and shows you how much more you need to know. Up until then, it all seems so easy…

Anyway, a lot of the research I did was on the process of game-making, and in particular anything I could find (and it’s scarce!) on creating role-playing games… both dice & paper and CRPGs.  Interactive storytelling (and storytelling in general) were other hot topics, as well as books and articles on art, level design, animation, texturing, how to use my tools, etc.


Some stuff… well, some stuff I just had to research as I came to it. As I was working on the traps & locks system, for example, I realized that I didn’t really know how lockpicking worked in the real world, and while I didn’t care about being truly authentic, I did want to make something that might be vaguely grounded in the real world. So I learned about it. I even bought myself some lockpicks and practiced a little bit (I’m still terrible at it, BTW).

A lot of game designers talk about the research that they did during the “design process,” but I found that I was studying up on these things all through development. I might have been better off if I’d done more of the research up-front when I was doing the early design work for the game, but I don’t know that there’s ever a time – unless you are in crunch mode – where there’s no longer a need for it.

Filed Under: Frayed Knights - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Tom H. said,

    Can you share any of the scarce materials you did find on creating RPGs? Some of your readers aspire to become your competitors. 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Unfortunately with a recent disk crash and OS reboot I ended up losing a lot of my bookmarks, but many have been shared here on the blog (and many were provided in comments to the blog).

    For the specific examples cited, google “Bob White Ultima” and “Ultima 8 The Lost Vale” for more info.

  • Acrin1 said,

    I’ve been carrying out some similar activities recently (and always read CRPG Addict), playing old games and looking at paper based RPGs and games to give me ideas for my first original RPG.

    I’m taking my first steps with Unity 3D and have been watching lots of Unity RPG videos trying to see what people have been trying. If you’re looking for future post topics I’d be interested in a couple about how you’ve found Unity 3D for the sequel.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’m always looking for topics, and that sounds like a great one, Acrin1! Consider it done!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Although I guess I should say that for much of the more recent development, it’s been like, “What? I’m programming in Unity? Wow, I forgot. I was just cruising right along writing a game in C#!”

  • McTeddy said,

    I’ll be honest, research is one of my favorite parts of being a game maker. I have an excuse to study anything I want and I can still claim it’s work.

    That said, I do far less “Playing a game” research than I do ACTUAL research. I’m one of those people that wants picking a lock to “Feel” right, so I study every the crap out of everything I may potentially make.