Hostile Nudists and Permadeath - A Salem Hands-on Preview

Ten Ton Hammer met with Björn Johannessen, Creative Director, for our first ever hands-on with Seatribe’s early colonial crafting MMO, Salem.

While most MMO players know Salem as one of the few MMORPGs to embrace permadeath (a no-extra-lives system that emphasizes player persistence through goods rather than characters), we had an in-depth look into the game’s intricate progression and crafting systems, which concluded with a quick tour of a working player claim and a large player village.

First Steps in Boston

src="" width="300" alt="Roaming around the streets of Boston."

Boston is the first stop for those fresh off the boat from England. The town and environs function as a safe place for new players to gain a few skills as well as the silver needed to stake a claim, though Björn noted that silver will also be available in exchange for real money. Later on, Boston is where you’ll go to sell your goods and also perform some industry tasks (like grinding flour in the town’s windmills until your village can build its own windmill).

Unlike every other MMO in existence, no nameplates appeared above characters in Salem. Instead, you’ll have to right click and “memorize” every new person of consequence, giving them a name of your choosing in the process. This came in handy later in the demo, when I found myself surrounded by members of what we’ll simply call the hostile nudist colony. More on that later.

src="" width="300" alt="It's not much, but it's home."

A player’s first goal is to establish a homestead. Just about all the game’s industries depend on owning property, and Salem is first and foremost a crafting MMO. But before you can spend some silver for a gray-faced NPC scout to drop you in the wilderness (AI-controlled vendors have gray faces, AI controlled enemies have black ones – not very PC, but that’s how pilgrims roll) you’ll have to forage some marketable goodies like Indian Arrowheads and pick up a few skills along the way.

Skills and Humours

Speaking of skills, Salem’s level up system works like no other. Skills are arranged in trees and each skill might have multiple prerequisites – this much we’re used to. But in order to train a skill, you’ll have to study “inspirationals” (like a smooth stone or beautiful seashell that you forage or other items that you craft) to increase your points in one of ten categories (Hunting and Gathering, Arts and Crafts, Sparks and Embers just to name a few).

Each skill requires a certain number of points in multiple categories, but once you purchase a skill, all categories reset to zero. The other twist: some skills require more than your current limit of category points, so players have to fill that category bar completely, then click the bar to raise the limit by 100 points. Doing so, again, resets all counters to zero.

The long and short of this process is that it took me several hours of foraging and studying before I could do things like hunt small game, swim across deeper water, or climb a small cliff. Frontier life is harsh!

We reached the edge of Boston town, and Björn explained that things might get a bit hairy from this point on. “This is as far as our intervention into the game stretches. Boston covers an area of a few square kilometers, and the idea is to provide a small starting area where newbs are safe from player killings because, as you might be familiar with, Salem features permadeath.”

Bound by cliffs that must be climbed and deep water that players must swim across. These activities require phlegm, one of the “four humors” - black bile (used for studying), yellow bile (used for crafting), blood (health points), and phlegm (used for physical exertion). Players can increase the size of their humour pools in a manner similar to increasing skills, by clicking on a full "humour diamond" at the top of the screen and using the gluttony system to overfill one humour at a time. When one humour is increased by a small amount, the diamond resets.

src="" width="300" alt="Scouts allow players to set up a homestead of their own."

Permadeath was the one system in Salem that I was in no hurry to try out. It takes a lengthy amount of time and effort to train up a character and begin producing goods that I imagine the loss of a character would be pretty frustrating. As such, woodland creatures and certain poisons (curse you, Devil’s Wort, and your “Eat” option!) knock you out if they reduce your Blood humour to zero, and you’ll wake up with only the clothes and equipment on your back (no inventory) in Boston. Other players can, however, kill you. Björn explained that your kin can exact vengeance by summoning the murderer online, and your earthly goods (which is what much of the game’s progression revolves around) are passed on to your next of kin.

With our business in town concluded, Björn used a scout to create our homestead somewhere out in the wilderness. He had no idea where we were at, but explained that all players have a travel ability to move between their homestead and Boston.

Into the Wilderness

The surroundings were fairly bright and sunny, meaning that the area is reasonably civilized (Björn explained that building density drives the civilization level of an area). The nearby fauna were relatively normal and tame – beavers, deer, bears, and some particularly scrappy crickets. The farther we go from Boston, however, the map becomes darker and the creatures-- with names like squonks, hide-behinds, and jersey devils (not the hockey team)--become more fantastical and aggressive.

“The wilderness is quite huge. I think it’s 25x25 kilometers right now,” Björn noted. The entire map is randomized once, but after that whatever changes players make (digging out clay pits or cutting down trees, etc.) are permanent. For Björn, that’s a big part of the game’s charm. “You don’t play Salem for nice graphics; you play it because it’s badass to be able to affect the world, because we’re all playing in the same world.”

To illustrate his point, Björn expended a fair amount of phlegm to cut down a tree, then chopped some wood blocks from the fallen log. He used the wood blocks to build items like a baking table, a coal clamp (used to create charcoal), and other items.

src="" width="300" alt="An early production chain--trees become wood blocks, which become coal clamps."

Rather than building a base camp from scratch, he ported us over to his private claim – something he’s been building for about a week and a half. Ore Smelters and a mine dominated our view, and Björn invited us down into the mine. No Minecraft-style picks here, folks. In order to break apart the solid stone walls, Björn built a small fire to crack the wall, which yielded a boulder, which in turn yielded ore and other goodies. The ore we stuck in a smelter along with a ton of charcoal to produce a bar of iron and dross (the failed outcome).

With iron, Björn could build an anvil. With an anvil, he could build a whole mess of blacksmithing goods, but Björn was more interested in flattening the area around his property and building a wall to keep out would-be thieves. Walls force thieves to enter through areas that can be protected in various ways – lighting fixtures which act as AI turrets, for example.

src="" width="300" alt="A look at Björn’s happy home ."

We asked what prevented folks from filching Björn’s goods while his wall was incomplete. “Crime has a cost associated with it,” he explained. First, crime costs black bile, needed for studying. Crime also leaves evidence. Build up a body of evidence over time, and players will be able to exact vengeance in creative ways, up to and including summoning offline players into the game.

Elsewhere on the claim, Björn had a number of tanning racks with hides laid out, coffers to store his in-process inventory, kilns to dry clay to create bricks and pottery. Pottery is handy to replant foraged herbs and create a sustainable source of herbs. Growing these herbs takes humus (dirt – not the chickpea relish), water, and time – about 3 in-game days. Humus comes out of the compost, what Björn called the “dark god of the wilderness, it eats anything and everything biodegradable and produces humus.”

Farming Illustrated

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"You don’t play Salem for nice graphics; you play it because it’s badass to be able to affect the world, because we’re all playing in the same world."

Humus is also needed to fertilize fields, which utilize agricultural concepts like crop rotation and produce four different tiers of output. In order to increase the tier of output, Björn explained that you have to increase the “level” of the field. “Every time I harvest, two meters will increase a lot, and the other two meters will decrease slightly. This causes me to have to cycle – I can’t just grow rye in a field, I need to mix it up a bit with pumpkins or cabbage or cotton. Those are the four we have implemented right now, but we have about 8 more crops in the pipeline.”

If farming doesn’t have your head spinning yet, fields have four other stats that affect output: upkeep, plenty, speed, and influence. Upkeep is how much humus and seed a field requires to be replanted; plenty is how much output you get (“Not the tier, but the amount”); speed is how long a field takes to grow, and influence is how much a field will add to its crop meter once harvested.

Farming, just like in real life, requires patience. “Running through one cycle on one of these fields takes about a week. To get these fields up to tier four, I’d have to keep growing and rotating crops for anywhere between a month and two months.”

By now, you’re probably getting the feeling that just about everything you do in Salem requires a skill and is part of a vast production chain, and you’d be right. “We want to force players to make interesting choices. Coal can be used to fuel smelters, as a fertilizer to increase speed, and even in the production of soap. A lot of the items in the game can be used for a lot of things.

I asked Björn how many production chains are currently in the game. “They’re more like trees or node structures than chains. If we were to compartmentalize things into formal industries, I’d say maybe 8: farming, mining, forestry, hunting, and foraging are currently fleshed out; pottery, metallurgy, animal husbandry, and fishing still need to be implemented.”

The Hostile Nudist Colony

src="" width="300" alt="Naked character creation."

To show us what’s possible when players work together, Björn brought us to one of the major player towns currently in the beta. “I announced yesterday that we were going to come this way, and it looks like they’ve dressed down just for the occasion,” Björn quipped, and sure enough, we were swarmed by a host of naked villagers. Thankfully we had “The Lord’s Blessing” dev buff enabled, which prevented us from being attacked by other players (it would have been a lousy way to die).

We got an invite to be their kin, and Björn hastily noted that we shouldn’t accept or take any candy from these strangers. “It cannot end well,” he laughingly added, noting that these players came in from Seatribe’s other game, Haven and Hearth.

“The thing I really want to illustrate here is, their shenanigans aside, they’ve done quite a good job of creating a little village for themselves. They’ve taken random wilderness, flattened it out, built walls and houses, and a town bell - a central object that can be used to organize village members.”

Why create a village? It comes down to PvP, Björn explained. “Most people who play the game this seriously play it for the PvP aspect of it. Death is permanent, it’s extremely harsh, and besides death, you can destroy everything. Murder, vandalism, all the specific crimes have skills associated with them. In order to engage in the higher end PvP, you have to learn a bunch of skills first. And then there’s the real task of creating a war machine – weapons, men, materials - to engage in PvP. So raiding another village is hopefully as much work as building it in the first place.”

For players who love Minecraft-style crafting, Anno-series style production chains, world persistence, or just the chance to kill players, raze villages, and ruin a short lifetime’s worth of effort, Salem is just the kind of game to float your square-rigged boat. Our thanks to Björn Johannessen and the Paradox team for arranging our hands-on access and tour of Salem.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Salem Game Page.

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