As a storyteller myself, I always get excited to learn about how content designers fashion the lore for their game worlds. To the average MMORPG adventurer, it may seem inconsequential to the gameplay itself; but that's a position I heavily disagree with.
MMORPGs are unique in the fact that they present players with a world to cooperatively (or in the case of Crowfall, competitively) explore. I've never been satisfied with the idea that a player's role in these elaborate game worlds is determined purely by their character's "class". I prefer to believe that in a well-designed MMORPG, players will carve out a unique role for themselves, and find their niche in the grand scheme of the social landscape that these massively populated worlds provide.
The best storytelling and world-building, by my estimation, comes from embodying the very game mechanics with the lore of the world. Needless to say, I found myself pleasantly surprised when I finally got some time to dig into the lore for Crowfall, a game which I had - up until now - only been loosely following.
The Pantheon of Crowfall
It's always been a curious ambition, having a destructible world; but also by trying to embrace the positives of closure that most gamers can only find in single-player RPGs or MOBA-type arena games. There are many unique benefits that come when you provide players with a finishing line, and then afterwards offer a clean slate to begin with in another race against the clock - or rather, the complete destruction of a world...
So when I finally began digging into Crowfall's backstory and lore, my curiosity reached a whole new level of interest.
It's been a long time since I've looked into the lore of an upcoming MMORPG and actually believed that it mattered. Usually it's just a custom skin for another serving of the same PvE grind with the occasional PvP instance that doesn't really influence the rest of the game in any meaningful way. As such, lore crafted in that vein is practically useless in most online RPGs other than providing some color for the quest text that you and I both know the majority of players never read.
Crowfall has me intrigued.
Its story seems to actually matter and provide a context for the gameplay; and honestly, I think it even helps provide a better understanding of the game's intended mechanics. So with that, I'd like to delve a bit into Crowfall's story and lore to help players get a grasp of what this game is all about.
Fortunately, I won't be alone in this endeavor, as J. Todd Coleman himself will be helping explain the setting for the game.
For those not in the know, he is the Creative Director for Crowfall, and the game's unofficial Keeper of Dark & Many Secrets. Read on to hear the conversation we had about this game's fantastic lore.
Interviewing the Myth
Alex: First of all, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me and talk about the lore of Crowfall; but let's jump right into it.
JTC: Absolutely, happy to take some time to talk about lore. It’s one of my favorite (and frankly, most satisfying) things to work on as a designer, and it so rarely gets the attention that it deserves.
I totally agree, lore doesn't make into the spotlight nearly enough. I don't suppose you have an idea of why that is?
A few reasons, I think. MMOs are notoriously hard to write for; traditionally, there are two approaches:
- You ditch the idea of following an epic storyline and design your quests as collection of short stories, or
- You get comfortable with the idea that you’re writing an epic heroes journey that thousands upon thousands of players will experience with only minor variation. This does provide that “hand-crafted RPG feeling” (at first) but the illusion is very, very fragile and that eventually players see right through it.
In sandbox games, it’s even more challenging because you can’t rely on linear questlines to “feed” your narrative to the players. Instead you have to treat your narrative as a backdrop, try to surface it through your game systems, and then allow your players to craft their own stories (or not).
When it comes to the story of Crowfall, it all originates with the gods. Can you talk about why you decided to go full-depth with the lore and create an entire pantheon of gods for your game?
It does start with the gods – actually, to be more precise, it starts with a creation myth:How did this universe come to exist?
Usually that’s not particularly important to players. In our case, though, it gained a bit of significance because the core idea behind our game is that players can actually win or lose a server. Players participate in campaigns; each server has a unique map and only exists for three months at a time.
Sort of like a giant game of Risk, each campaign will have a specific beginning, middle and end – and at the end, one faction or guild wins the world. Then the avatars can move to the next campaign (Players’ characters are persistent, worlds are not.)
Because this idea of eternal heroes, dying worlds was key to our design, we felt like we needed a strong narrative wrapper to explain this phenomenon. Why are these worlds being destroyed? Why are the characters able to move from one dying world to the next?
Our narrative concept is The Hunger – a mysterious, corrupting force that spreads from one world to the next, draining it of life until it becomes brittle and hollow and fractures into nothing.
It looks like an interesting blend of mythologies so far. Do you have plans for the gods to intervene at any point in the future; or will they always serve as the backdrop for what's happening between the players?
Well, a strong apocalyptic myth requires an equally strong creation myth, the two are always connected. What role do we want the players to take? In a single player RPG, we could have just said “You’re a hero! Now go stop The Hunger.” But that idea doesn’t scale to tens (hundreds?) of thousands of players.
Instead, we decided to line up an active pantheon of gods, and have the players acting as their champions. If you look at Norse or Greek mythology as a template, the gods are petty, vindictive, noble, generous, treacherous… It’s a huge array of potential motivations that players could hook into. It also gives you instantaneous enemies (and allies) both of which are entry points for the strong social ties that can eventually lead to a strong sense of community.
Can you talk about some of the outside influences that played a part in your creation of Crowfall's deity design?
Beyond the historical mythologies that I mentioned, you’ll also see a very strong dose of Roger Zelazney’s Amber series, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and, of course, GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire.
How has your design for this pantheon influenced the plan for gameplay; and vice-versa, how has the planned gameplay influenced the design of your game's pantheon of gods?
From the beginning, I wanted the universe to be grim. I came up with the idea of killing the Earth Mother (Gaea) and thought it was a perfect starting point. Traditionally, of course, the Earth Mother is the well-spring of all life -- the embodiment of fertility, birth and creation. Starting in media res with Gaea dead, killed through some violent and mysterious means, would provide a deep-seated sense of hopelessness.
Coupled with this, we also have the fact that the PCs are immortal. I have always found it strange that this core MMO design conceit (that players infinitely respawn on death!) is almost universally ignored in the game lore. A few MMOs own the idea and work it into the narrative -- but most don’t. Usually it’s just something that happens and the NPCs seem not to notice.
I think that is a missed opportunity. Put these two ideas together and the natural cycle of life and death is fundamentally broken – that’s fertile ground for storytelling! A universe where solace can’t be found in life OR in death? I’m interested, tell me more!
Did the core idea define the gods individually? Or just the high level concept of the universe?
It touched on everything. First, it gave a reason for the players’ characters to be immortal – they are crows – immortal champions, chosen by the gods at the moment of death and sent to these dying worlds to pick them clean of artifacts and scavenge the souls of the damned.
Once the foundation was laid – who are the players and what are they doing – the next step was to create a massive rift in the pantheon. I took the All-Father (king of the gods) out of the picture to create a power vacuum.
Arkon and Cane, his eldest children, are central to the fracture that divides the pantheon. Both of them were in love with Gaea, and of course each one blamesthe other for her death.
From there, the rest of the pantheon was created by filling in the wide array of emotions that seem reasonable. Each of the gods, for a variety of reasons, would be siding with Arkon (Order), Kane (Chaos) or to try to maintain the status quo (Balance).
Remember, there is an all-too-real apocalypse coming. The Hunger is consuming this universe one world at a time. This isn’t just a narrative device, these worlds don’t reset. They are being destroyed at the end of each campaign.
So players are essentially scavenging pillagers operating under the will of the gods in their seemingly-endless conquests against one another. Are there any plans to give players agency and influence through their individual progression after each conflict?
This is a tough one, because we’re trying to avoid a design problem known as slippery slope, where once a single team or guild gains an advantage they can use that advantage to win more campaigns in the future. So we basically build a firewall between our worlds.
The Eternal Kingdoms are the guild and player homeworlds. They are fully functional worlds, but (1) unlike campaign worlds, they never go away and (2) they are limited in terms of resources. If you want to build a massive, vibrant kingdom then you’ll need to bring back the spoils of war from the campaign worlds (and to do that, you have to win.)
The Campaign Worlds, however, are severely limited in terms of what you can bring in and take out. We call these “import and export” restrictions, and the idea is to enforce a level playing field at the beginning of each campaign, to keep it interesting and avoid slippery slope where the winner of the last campaign has an advantage going into the next one.
Player advancement, then, is primarily determined by the passage of time and participation across multiple campaigns. You can find artifacts in the campaign worlds and install them in your Kingdom – which give you and your vassals cross-world bonuses – but again, we need to be careful with these. We can’t let them get out of control or we’ll be back to facing the slippery slope problem again.
Lastly, what unique ways will players be interacting with the larger narrative of the world? Or more directly, how will your players' goals and the rewards from pursuing them affect their standing amongst each other?
Our approach is really to provide this as a backdrop, reinforced through our system design – and then let the players decide how much they want to engage with it (or not).How much do I care about the lore? is a question that varies wildly between players -- even players who group together consistently. Our goal was to make it compelling and pervasive, but recognize that it won’t be for everyone and (as sad as it makes me to admit) a lot of players are going to ignore it.
Thanks again for sitting down with us. Crowfall looked quite interesting to me originally, but the backdrop for the gameplay makes it look even more appealing!
Thanks! As I said, I’m delighted when people takes the time to look into our lore. We’ve spent a LOT of time and effort on building this universe – and as you can see, we are taking some very different approaches with Crowfall. While it’s a universal truth that not all of our players will care, our goal is to make it deeply resonate for the ones that do.
Never-Before-Seen Dave Greco Art!
Below is an excerpt about the Hero of Crowfall, followed by his really sweet concept art by Dave Greco. It's brand new art that I can guarantee you'll be feasting your eyes upon for the very first time.
Hero, the First Crow
Little is known of the immortal the bards call Hero. By most accounts, he was a mortal soldier. It is said that he fought with distinction in the War of the Dragons, that he carried the All-Father’s banner in the campaign to tame Yaermir and Lyessa.
Did Hero return to find his wife and children slain, innocent victims of a savage time? Did he slay them to prove his devotion? Kill them in nightmarish fit of rage?
Perhaps none of these stories are true. Perhaps all of them are. Who can say, when a man who has lived a thousand lives?
We know only that Hero angered the gods. As punishment, they shackled him with immortality.
Only fools dream of eternal life. Denied the chance for peace in the afterlife, Hero became an undying soldier – cursed to fight and die in every war, across every world, in every age. He wakes on the eve of each battle with no memory of his past lives. He remembers only his sense of duty and how to carry a sword.
Each life ends the same. As his heart falters, the memories come flooding back: his wife, his children, the love and the longing, and the anguish and the pain. He remembers every life he has lived and the pain of every death.
With his final breath, he curses the gods…. then wakes to fight again.
If you're still hungry to learn more about this "Hero", you can read more about him HERE.
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Crowfall Game Page.