13 October 2020
We explore the world of Roll Player
As soon as we began telling stories, we also began creating new worlds, filling them with exuberant details from our imagination, shaping them to be our escape from everyday life. We explore the world of Roll Player and discover how a game about creating fantasy characters started a whole new universe.
There is no ‘right’ way to create a new world. Some choose to write epic fantasies, others make films out of them, others still gather around a table to create a new world together in a roleplaying adventure or a board game. Some worlds were born from a single scene of children finding wolf pups in the summer snow to grow into the epic fantasy that is Game of Thrones, the world of which can be experienced in many mediums, including tabletop games. Other worlds started with a setting fit for a purpose: a design of a new sci-fi video game to follow the footsteps World of Warcraft’s popularity, only to blossom to its full potential as the world of The Expanse when it gained its ‘second life’ as the role-playing game later on.
Sometimes, the creation of the world is unplanned. It was an idea, where the imagination could not be contained, and it kept developing and growing into something much bigger than it started as. That’s what happened with Roll Player. A dice-drafting game about creating a fantasy character, Roll Player has grown into its own world with space for many other games, like, worker-placement Lockup or roll and write Cartographer, and depth to explore more stories in its universe with the upcoming Roll Player Adventures.
In The Beginning
Keith Matejka was at a local convention, helping to playtest an RPG prototype designed by his friend James Ryan, when he had a ‘lightbulb moment’ – “What if the whole game was about building characters?”, he thought.
Matejka had worked in the video game industry for many years, including some games that had elaborate character creation elements, so the translation of that idea to the board game format felt natural. The decision on the type of setting for the game also came quickly:
“I have always loved fantasy as a genre,” Matejka explains, “the escapism of going on an adventure, killing monsters, being part of a party, solving quests and getting more powerful – levelling up – has always been something I’ve loved.”
“Dungeons & Dragons was an obvious influence,” he continues, “but I also was looking hard at electronic fantasy gaming I did throughout my life. As a kid, I played a lot of the Ultima series and Wizardry series. Then, later, the Elder Scrolls games like Morrowwind and Skyrim.”
The game started to take shape soon afterwards. Players would be creating their fantasy characters by rolling and drafting dice. The individual player boards, loosely based on the RPG character sheets, had spaces next to skills like strength, wisdom, charisma, that would be filled with different valued and colour dice. Players had abilities to manipulate the dice, buy equipment and had objectives to complete to win the game. After a game of Roll Player was finished, players had created their own character – with skills, traits, alignments and items – that they could take further into an RPG adventure, if they wanted to.
“People always tell me that I made a game about the best part of playing D&D, so it seems other people like making characters as much as I do,” Matejka explains, “during development, I often thought about the game as parallel to other games. Dominion is to Magic the Gathering, as Roll Player is to D&D and Pathfinder. It’s the game before the game.”
Shaping the World
When Matejka began working on Roll Player, he was not envisioning the game as part of the series or a new world. His focus was just on one game and how to make it the best possible experience for all the players.
“I wasn’t intending on making a world with its own lore. I wanted players to imprint themselves on the characters they were building,”’ he elaborates on the Roll Player design process, “I didn’t want people to ‘make Drizzt’ [a popular character appearing in the Forgotten Realms D&D campaign setting] I wanted them to make their own character.”
As a result, a lot of Roll Player is very generic, but on the upside, this allows it to break away from many long-established fantasy tropes. There are no restrictions on which races can be which classes or what armour they can or cannot wear.
“I wanted the players to be able to build an Orc Wizard that carries a longsword instead of locking out certain choices due to trope rules,” Matejka elaborates. “I also wanted to make sure that every race has a male and female option. I think it’s important that players have the maximum amount of choices when building a character in Roll Player, so I didn’t want to limit gender by race, or any other restriction.’
After Roll Player release, Matejka turned his attention to possible expansions for the game, still intending “to stay squarely in the existing system.”
The most common feedback he received during the development of the game and after its release, was that players wanted to take their newly created characters and do something with them. After all, if you rolled a powerful fighter it is only natural to want to test them through a round of combat with some grizzly mystical monster. So, the combat became the focus of the first Roll Player expansions – Monsters and Minions.
“I knew players wanted to do more than just kill a few monsters with their new characters,” Matejka says, but he was also realistic about how much the current game could cover.
“The character creation system in Roll Player isn’t built for strong storytelling. In the end, Roll Player is a character creation game at its core. Not an adventuring game, so I figured that a new game would be necessary to meet that desire.”
The narrative games were on the rise, taking on a variety of genres and experimenting with board game mechanics and story-telling tools in really exciting and innovative ways. Keith looked at games like Time Stories, Near & Far, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and thought that creating a narrative game using Roll Player characters could be an amazing project one day. Yet the scope of such game also scared him.
“I am not a writer,” Matejka explains his initial hesitation, ‘narrative games are hard to create, so it took me a while to decide to go down that route.”
James Ryan, the friend who ‘sparked’ the idea of the Roll Player, got in touch with Keith wanting to work on a narrative game together. They both were really excited about the project, even knowing it might be difficult.
“I had a lot more confidence in the idea knowing that James was a talented writer and had a design-centric mind.” Matejka recounts.
The project, the recently announced to be Roll Player Adventures, was ambitious and would take many years to develop. Matejka had to figure out what to do with his publishing company, Thunderworks Games, in the meantime.
PRISONERS AND A CARTOGRAPHER
At Protospiel Convention, Matejka played a worker-placement game Lock Up by Stan Kordonskiy.
“It was not a formal pitch,” Matejka recalls, “After playing it, I told him I really liked it, and we started talking about working together. The idea of connecting it to Roll Player didn’t come until much later.”
When Matejka played Lock Up for the first time, it was well into its development. Stan not only had a pretty good idea of its main mechanics but also had a solid inspiration for its theme, ‘My original idea was to design a game with a prison theme but set in a fantasy world,’ Kordonskiy recalls. “The inspiration came in part from the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. I went after kind of humorous vision of what it would be like to have elves, dwarves and orcs ‘doing time’ together.”
At the time, Ryan and Matejka have already began developing some lore for Roll Player Adventures. So transitioning Lock Up which was still based in very generic fantasy world into Roll Player’s more defined one, made sense. The application of the theme went smoothly.
“Designing a game to fit an established universe can be quite challenging. Luckily for me, in this case, it was quite straight forward.” Kordonskiy recalls. “Roll Player theme was applied to Lockup after it was already a 90% complete game. So, I did not have to fit mechanics into the theme but rather the other way around. We already had things like fantasy gangs, goons, items and guards. For example, my original prison guards were big mean trolls whom I affectionately named Troll Patrol. In the final version they became clockwork guards instead, based on a creature type that already existed in Roll Player lore.”
Matejka also saw this as an exciting opportunity to continue developing the Roll Player world:
“If I’m going to do multiple fantasy games, and I’m developing a world, it was a logical jump to lean on the material I was already developing,” Matejka explains, “I love Easter eggs in video games and building connections between the games for players to discover, is just as fun. Putting these games in the same world gave me that opportunity.”
The next addition to the Roll Player line came through a recommendation by Luis Francisco, the graphic designer for every Thunderworks game to-date, including Roll Player. He suggested a game by Jordy Adan, at the time named Doodle Realms.
Jordy was looking to create a roll and write game that would be more creatively complex and ‘not feel like a math test.’ One of his first successful prototypes, called Doodle Squire explored special planning through the drawing of tetrominoes (teris-block shapes).
“Another thing that I wanted in this new game was to invoke the artist side of players and that’s when the theme of Doodle Squire had to change, drawing equipment inside tetrominoes was too complex!” says Adan, explaining the design process, “that’s when a new game in the Doodle series was born, Doodle Realms. After that, came the Isle of Skye-esque scoring system and at last but not least, monsters where born.”
Once again, Doodle Realms had a very light fantasy theme that fit well. The biggest challenge was finding elements in the world that fit with game mechanics. Ryan and Matejka took that as an opportunity to develop the world further, add a more detailed history, that would also help them with the work on the Roll Player Adventures that was still happening in the background.
Adan has been very excited about Doodle Realms transition to Cartographer. To him, there is no IP more fitting for his game and he acknowledges being part of Roll Player universe was an important contributing factor to Cartographer’s success. Kordonskiy also agrees, “Roll Player has a name recognition and fan base which definitely helps to get a game noticed and that’s a very good thing.”
AN EXPANDING WORLD
The world of Roll Player is still developing, growing and evolving with every game.
“We add details to the world as we need them to support the fiction of the games,” says Matejka, “It’s like different areas of a painting are coming into focus slowly as we need them to. I think the process was easier since we started from such a generic fantasy place and slowly added details instead of having all the answers and shoehorning the games into the fiction.”
However, although each game started from purposefully generic premise, once they have all come together, their developed into a setting with unique elements and district identity, and having games so different to each other mechanically definitely helped that.
“I like that each game in the Roll Player universe is very different mechanically, and I’d like to keep it that way. I don’t think there will ever be another roll and write game, as Cartographers is already in place. So, for future games in the series, I’d want them to be significantly different mechanically from the other games I’ve published so far. We can add to the lore as needed to make sure new games fit the world, so it’s really flexible,” says Matejka
As for adding new games to the stable, Matejka follows a specific process of evaluation for every possible game and the gameplay quality always comes first:
“Whenever a designer pitches me a game, or I have my own ideas, I always think through or discuss if the game could fit with Roll Player in some way. When I sign games from outside designers, I look for great games first. That’s the core deciding factor as to whether I want to sign a new title. Then, I evaluate whether it’s a good fit. If not, that’s fine. I still move forward. If it is, then we start developing it in that direction.”
However, not every new game that comes to Thunderwork Games needs to be re-worked to be part of the Roll Player extended universe.
“For example, a game that is clearly connected to some historical event isn’t a great fit, or if the mechanics are really intertwined with another theme, it probably doesn’t make sense to place in the Roll Player universe.” Matejka elaborates.
Afterall, there is no need to mould and change something, just for the sake of fitting into the theme. The process, Matejka explains, is more organic than that, “If I sign a game that makes sense to add it to the line, and it deepens the world, I do it. If not, I will keep the original theme or change it to something else.”
That, of course, doesn’t mean that Matejka is not excited about introducing specific game mechanics into the Roll Player world. He would love to see an area control game or an economics game in the world. However, to him new styles of games are also an opportunity to deepen the lore of Roll Player.
“My focus is more in adding different styles of game to the series knowing the world-building needed to support that title will naturally add more story to the growing world,” he says.
As for now, his focus is on the upcoming Roll Player Adventures. The game that started development right after Roll Player, but was deepened and enhanced by the solid framework developed with the addition of Lock Up and Cartographer. Just as Adventures will showcase just how vast and complex the cosmos around Roll Player has become, any new games in the series will build up on that to give players more to explore and fall in love with.
By Alex Sonechkina
This article originally appeared in issue 42 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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