Here’s a quick preview of the Labyrinth Adventure Game, coming sometime early next year from River Horse Games! I wrote about 85% of the book, and did 100 minimap illustrations. The production quality is going to be off the charts. While it isn’t an OSR game, the River Horse people were definitely inspired by OSR products when it comes to making the book a gorgeous artifact at the table.
So here’s a (probably unoriginal) hypotheses. It’s something that’s been floating in my mind for quite a while and I don’t know how certain I am of it. I’d like feedback in the comments if you have any.
In OSR campaigns, if you change the rules pretty drastically mid-campaign, most players would say that they are still playing the same game because to them the “game” means the content of the game that they interact with: items, spells, NPCs, the setting, etc. To this group, the reality and believably of the game world is paramount, rules are just a convenience to make this illusion easier. Altering the rules will certainly alter the feel of the campaign to one extent or another, but nothing essential has been changed.
On the other hand, someone with a storygame mentality (or maybe this is more of a Forge mentality) would would say that those players are now playing a different game, because that tradition sees the “game” as the mechanics by which you interact with the content. To this group, the particular kinds of choices and twists delivered by the rules is paramount, while the content is a servant to that.
I feel like this is the core of the mutual incomprehension I see between the two camps when they talk about each other’s work.
Maze Knights continues to evolve as a system, but today we’ll be looking at the look and feel of the game. It doesn’t have any art right now, but it does have a pinterest board if you want to see what it looks like in my head. Building this board has been very important to the game’s development, as I find it hard to work on a projects before I lock down the aesthetics. It gives me a more complete sense of the world, and ends up guiding a lot of my other decisions. As Skerples pointed out, making a good game is not so much making all the right decisions as it is making consistent decisions in the same direction. Aesthetics is the first decision I make. It also helps me narrow down artists I might be contacting in the future to do illustration work.
As I’ve been collecting images for Maze Knights, I’ve started seeing a pattern in the images I like.
Architecture and environments
Verticality: Whether it’s a city, a building, a dungeon, or a wilderness scene, adding that extra dimension adds visual interest as well as tactical options and held energy. Balconies, staircases, trees houses, catwalks, elevators, ziplines, whatever. The Y axis is often exaggerated: roofs are too steep, buildings stack up and up impossibly, etc.
Worn but Functional: Everything has a makeshift, ramshackle feel without feeling grim or apocalyptic. Architecture has a humanity and warmth to it. This is sometimes represented by things being slightly droopy or rounded, as if slowly succumbing to gravity. Lots of fine detail brings out the personality of the structures and adds interactivity.
Isometric: Art where you can see most of the structure at a glance is great, especially when you can see paths and connections that let you visualize how you would move in, on and, around and between structures. Looking at the picture should inspire plans for escapes, break-ins, sieges, and ambushes. An isometric view also conveys way more information per square inch than a 2d map.
Color: Maze Knights doesn’t have the survival horror or grimdark palette common in OSR games. It has more in common with Break!! in that regard. It’s going for excitement, engagement, brightness, and clarity.
Strong silhouettes: Strong, distinctive silhouettes give it a videogamey feel. I like characters in Maze Knights to feel very tool-like, and clear, vivid design communicates their functions quickly.
Variety: In most OSR games I play humans, and I wanted to break away from that here. The world of Maze Knights is a melting pot of thousands of stranded species from across the planes, so the gonzo is turned up to 11. I want to avoid typical demihumans like elves and dwarves, though. Your species should open up concrete gameable abilties; “lives a long time” or “sees in the dark” are too weak.
Equipment: In true JRPG fashion, I like my characters laden down with potions, weapons, spellbooks, piecemeal armor, monster parts, and random junk. Not only does it reflect the item slot system, it communicates how important gear is in the game when it comes to problem solving.
The biggest single influence was probably Final Fantasy IX. It’s a game I’ve only started playing recently, but I had a copy of the Art of Final Fantasy IX as a young teen and the look of it stuck with me every since.