Elder Scrolls Development Blog 4: Delving Deep
By Mark Latham
When we first began designing the Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms, we set out a list of goals for the game that would firstly differentiate the system from its sister game, Fallout: Wasteland Warfare, and secondly reflect pretty accurately the narrative and ‘feel’ of the source material. We had a big list of story elements, quest chains, monsters, factions, treasure, random events, traps, and more. And all of these things combine really nicely to bring that Elder Scrolls flavour to the proceedings. But this setting is very dear to all our hearts, and while we absolutely wanted to create a tabletop wargame that let people fight awesome battles in Tamriel, we also wanted to let players gather adventuring parties just like in the video games, and set out to explore and battle in the wilds.
So, we thought: why not both?
Enter the game modes. We settled on two modes to start with, which essentially boil down to Player vs Player (PvP), and Player vs Environment (PvE). It’s through the latter that you get that sense of a small party taking on the world and delving into deep, dark dungeons. And so that’s what we decided to call that game mode: Delve mode. We’ve had a tremendous response to the Delve mode rules, so I thought it’d be a good time to (ahem) delve into some detail behind the development of the rules, and take a look at what the future holds for your Delves.
I’ve seen Delve mode referred to as ‘solo play’ a few times, which is kinda true, but also kinda not… True, the beauty of Delve Mode, especially in these weird times of lockdowns and social distancing, is that it allows you to go it alone, creating an immersive experience. You can, however, bring a friend (or more) along and play it cooperatively if you like. This depends upon the size of the game of course – to play co-op, you’ll need enough models in the adventuring party to go around. All you need then is to work out the turn order (simply use the normal Advantage rules), and you’re all set. Some players have even been discussing nominating a ‘games master’ to set up scenarios, choose quest lines and control the Adversaries – that’s not currently an ‘official’ way to play, but it goes to show that you’re an inventive lot, and the huge amount of options in the core box alone provide a great ‘suite’ of content that players can draw from to create their own adventures.
When choosing your party for the coming Delve, you have a lot of freedom, and that’s because we wanted solo and co-op games to have just as much replayability and variety as PvP games. Want to see what would happen if Ulfric Stormcloak went to Bleak Falls Barrow instead of the Dragonborn? No problem. Want to lead a group of wary soldiers into the wilderness instead of those meddling adventurers? Got you covered. And all those Upgrades – spells, weapons and other assets – mean you can totally customise all your heroes. Just keep an eye on the gold Septim limit. You have to strike a balance between arming everyone to the teeth, and having enough warriors to complete the mission, because the more Septims you spend, the bigger the game and the more enemies you’ll have to fight.
Face the Enemy
We originally wrote the Delve scenarios really with a ‘party vs monster’ flavour in mind – the Dragonborn and her followers exploring a Draugr crypt, for example, or a band of hardy Nords clearing the forest of dangerous beasts. But it soon became apparent that the Adversary action rules we were writing worked just as well for solo skirmishes – why not make Adversary cards for everyone? That way, if you want to play the Imperials in a full solo battle against Stormcloaks, you can absolutely do that. We didn’t want to put too many limitations on the models you choose – while Adversary groups must share a Faction, you can freely add Monsters and Beasts into the mix. So in a game against the Draugr, you can run into Frostbite Spiders and Skeever, just like the in the video game. As long as you spend the required number of Septims on the Adversaries (to make the game challenging enough), you can decide what to include. Using that Draugr example, do you go for the minimum of four models and pick things that are really powerful (a couple of Deathlords, and a couple of Restless Draugr, for instance)? Or do you go for a horde of lesser monsters like Skeletons (individually easy to destroy, but capable of putting out a lot of damage when they gang up on you)?
The Adversaries use their AI rules to act in a fairly intelligent and often unpredictable way. They don’t always capitalise on opportunities like a human player would, and so we compensate for that in two key ways: firstly the Adversaries get 25% more gold septims to spend on their force. Secondly, they don’t all begin in play – half the Adversary models ‘spawn’ later in the game, and really have a habit of messing up your plans.
What precisely Adversaries choose to do when they activate is determined randomly, based on their Faction and their Attitude. The Faction reference card provides a simple table of Actions and tells you how to decide which enemy they target if there are several to pick from. In this way, the Draugr behave very differently from a group of Frostbite Spiders, and differently again to a cabal of necromancers. The Attitude is either Cautious or Aggressive – as it sounds, Cautious Adversaries are more likely to hang back near the objectives or focus on defence, whereas Aggressive Adversaries are more likely to attack you. Precisely how Adversaries attack depends on their equipment and abilities – the average Draugr will try to hit with its sword, whereas a Skeleton Archer will move into line of sight and attempt to shoot you. A Draugr Deathlord, on the other hand, might give you the ol’ Fus Ro Dah before running in to finish you off!
Quests and Objectives
We were really eager not to have ‘standard’ setups in the scenarios, especially for Delve games, which were all about recreating those narrative adventures. So in addition to scenarios that reflect all kinds of situations you might encounter in the source material, we also have randomly determined objectives (either strategic, puzzle or Master chests), and side-quests that are drawn at the start of the game, and can be picked up randomly as Events. Again, this makes no two games the same, as the placement of objectives combined with the draw of a particular Quest chain can make all the difference to your tactics – as soon as you mix in AI rolls and unexpected spawns, you have some pretty frenetic, fun battles, where every tactical decision really matters to success or failure.
Part of Something Bigger
The joy of having such a strong narrative through-line, augmented by the Quest system, is that the game lends itself really well to campaigns (there are example campaigns in the Quest Book, and we’re working on more campaign options for the future). With each Delve scenario, you can almost imagine a different level of the dungeon unfolding before you – you might start a Wilderness adventure at the Dungeon entrance, then play a series of dungeon encounters within. As you go, you draw Quest cards, and if those cards are part of a bigger chain, then the storylines converge to organically raise the stakes with each game you play. We use the word ‘immersive’ a lot when talking about Call to Arms, and we’re not kidding!
Will You Answer the Call to Arms?
What you have in Call to Arms is a robust set of core rules that work in pretty much all situations, which are then modded by the game modes. Theoretically, this means we can add more game modes in the future, and expand the game modes we already have (something I’m already looking at with Delves… teaser alert!). Obviously we’re also adding new models to the range all the time – which means not just alternative warriors for your party, but also new Adversary sets so you can theme your games and your tabletop environment accordingly (we know you’re as excited about Dwemer Animunculi as we are…). Along with the new Quest, Event, Upgrade and Treasure cards that we’ll be adding to every wave, along with extra scenarios and campaigns, there’s a huge amount of room for expansion.