It’s the start of a new series! Well, maybe that’s a bit optimistic as I’ve only thought of two entries for it so far, and I might not even get around to writing the second one for a while. But hopefully I’ll think up some more. Perhaps it will just be a very slow series. Anyway, the idea with Wishful Thinking posts is to describe some designs for games I would love to play. Some of these will be relatively simple while others might be essentially impossible to actually make, but since I’m certainly not going to make any of them I figured I’d share.
This first entry is an idea I’ve had for some time, but playing Skyrim has brought it to mind again. Essentially it would be a full-on fantasy role-playing game, similar to Skyrim or other open-world games, except instead of playing a hero or adventurer as usual, one would play as a bandit. Players can have their own reasons for choosing this way of life, but the important thing is that they live outside the traditional, civilized part of the world. Rather than starting in cities and heading out into the wilderness for adventure, as is usually the case, players live out in the wilderness, and find adventure the closer they get to cities. Most of the time they’re tending to their lair, raiding hapless travelers, defending against the odd adventurer, and generally scraping out an existence on the wrong side of the law.
Bandits, of course, are classic RPG enemies. Fighting monsters and undead is all well and good, but eventually players want to face off against some human (or at least humanoid) enemies, who will use various weapons and armor and even magic to give a more varied challenge. Plus they drop lots of loot. The easy way to provide such enemies is to include bandits. Since they’re outlaws, they need to have bases out away from the towns and cities, which means they can be treated largely like other monsters. Rather than send the player off to a cave to kill some undead, the game can send the player to a cave to kill some bandits that have been causing trouble. Of course, in most cases these bandits don’t really act like bandits; they don’t go out on raids, or really do much of anything except wait in their lair for the player to show up and kill them. But some games put in the effort to make the bandits more believable, be it by actually including bandit attacks in certain areas, or by thoughtfully designing the bandit camps and lairs in ways that justify their existence.
Skyrim employs the second method, but it’s hardly the first game to do so. I think the first time I was really impressed by such a technique was when playing Avernum (which was just recently remade as Avernum: Escape From the Pit, if you want to check it out). The bandits in Avernum’s subterranean world live in small caverns or in ruined forts, but they’ve turned these places into real homes. They have kitchens and sleeping areas, disgusting holes where they throw their garbage, training areas, and places to relax and unwind. The player learns a lot about the bandits just from how their base is laid out. Sometimes the leader’s room is far more opulent than where the rest of the band make their beds, betraying his authoritarian rule; other times the camps are set up more equally, with the loot divvied up evenly among all the members. Often there’s a lot of personality among the inhabitants too, like the wizard in the gang having his own little makeshift library in a corner, or the leader possessing a collection of fine wines. When playing Avernum I found myself wondering about these bandits’ lives, and what it would be like to live in such places, making one’s own rules. Often these lairs were more interesting than the towns I would visit, which so frequently felt like places to sell off extra loot and find quests, and nothing more.
Skyrim has got me thinking about bandits again in the same way. Although I’ve only visited two of Skyrim’s eight (nine?) cities and explored only a fraction of the province, I’ve already found plenty of interesting bandit lairs. I found a bandit gang who dug a hole filled with spikes next to their cave to catch stray mammoths. Then they would lug the mammoth carcass into the cave and butcher it for meat and its valuable tusks. Another bandit cave consisted of dank, cramped tunnels leading upward into the mountain, with meager living areas set up in nooks along the way. At the top, the tunnels opened onto a high mountain cliff, where the bandit leader could overlook the road for merchants to waylay. Some bandit gangs have taken control of mines, digging up valuable ore that rightfully belongs to the Jarl. Other gangs are smaller and less successful, living in small camps where they poach deer for their hides and maybe rob the odd traveler. But I did find one large band that had taken up residence in an old, crumbling fort. They’d set up dummies on the walls to make a show of strength, and erected siege defenses as well; with one of Skyrim’s cities visible from the walls, they were openly defying the Jarl’s men, confident that they could handle whoever the Jarl could spare to send after them.
Why don’t we have a game that lets us play as these people? Skyrim is lauded for the freedom it grants the player, but the core experience is still very much like countless other games. The main storyline is a traditional hero saga, and even those players who ignore the story and set out on their own will find themselves doing standard adventuring things, like exploring tombs, killing monsters, and finding loot to use or sell. While you can become a criminal in Skyrim, something I have not yet tried, my understanding is that it’s fairly limited. There are guilds that criminal types can join, but I don’t think it affects the rest of the experience much. And players will seldom take to criminal activities openly, preferring instead to steal or murder while undetected.
No, what I want is a game that is focused on being an outlaw. A game where the player avoids towns at all costs, and is constantly on the run from militias, or defending against the very adventurers we usually get to play. As I am mainly inspired by the lifestyle, there would need to be some management aspects to the game, where the player can create camps or lairs and employ a gang of other bandits. Setting up a base in the right location to remain hidden from patrols but still be able to waylay merchants and other travelers would be centrally important. Social interaction and internal conflicts within the gang would also be critical. But I should note that I don’t want a pure management game; I want to play a specific character in the world, leading raids myself or even exploring and clearing out old crypts or mines as sites for new lairs. There would definitely need to be survival elements in the game as well; I want to worry about being able to feed the gang and avoiding mutiny, and having to relocate if there aren’t enough caravans to raid or if there are too many guards starting to sniff around for us.
Before I go any further I should note that there is a game that comes close to this idea: Mount and Blade. I haven’t played it yet, but it seems to be something like a Medieval version of Elite, with horses instead of spaceships. The player does not have to be a bandit but it is possible. Mount and Blade, and the other games in the series, look cool but they’re not exactly what I’m looking for. For one, they are largely historically based, with a pretty realistic model of mounted combat and the tactics involved in skirmishes at the time. I’m looking for a more fantastical setting, with multiple races, magic, and other supernatural forces at work. I don’t just want to raid merchants all the time, I also want to deal with the undead-infested crypt that we accidentally broke into when mining, or the troll who stumbled into our camp and thought we looked tasty.
The other thing I worry about is that the Mount and Blade games will, like most other games of their type, encourage players to strive for monetary success and power. Players might begin in charge of a small band, roving around and waylaying merchants, but by the end they own castles and have become nobles due to sheer force of arms. That’s not what I’m looking for. In the bandit RPG I imagine, the bandits aren’t in it to get rich. They can have a variety of motivations; doing it for the freedom, or because they were kicked out of the army, or because they got in trouble with the law already and can’t show their faces in the civilized world. Or maybe they were simply destitute, and had nowhere else to go. But none of them think banditry is a great way to earn a comfortable living.
That’s going to be the hardest part of the design: creating a progression curve for the player that doesn’t inevitably end with them owning the whole country. If bandits can simply walk around with impunity, with no need to hide from soldiers or anyone else, then what’s the point? At that stage they’ve become legitimate by default. No, the force of the law would need to be strong in this game. In fact, it’s probably easiest to make it draconian, a totalitarian state that bleeds its people and cows them into submission. A citizen must obey, or die… or become an outlaw. But make no mistake, a band of outlaws has no hope of ever defeating this regime. Their priority is simply surviving, and when the military starts to take notice of their activities, it’s time to clear out and relocate before they’re killed.
Perhaps the best way to handle it would be to follow Skyrim’s example of an optional main quest. Those looking for a more structured story could join a band of freedom fighters, hiding out in the wilderness and fighting back against the oppressive rulers. These players would start in poverty, living in caves or campsites, constantly on the move, hunting for food and running any time they encounter more than a few soldiers at a time. There could even be moral decisions about how much actual banditry is warranted. Do you rob that caravan to feed your men, even if it’s manned by civilians, not soldiers? The answer might well be yes, because without supplies your rebellion will be doomed. But as the player builds more successful bases and starts to win a few skirmishes, the freedom fighters become more entrenched and more organized. Then as the story moves forward there could be some spectacular battles, perhaps even seeing the player take back a city or two from from the oppressors, and culminating in establishing their own free nation. Players who don’t want to follow this storyline are free to set up their own bandit gangs, living however they see fit, but such small independent gangs will never pose any threat to the military, and will often need to turn tail and run for greener pastures when they attract too much heat.
Some of you are probably thinking that this sounds like it would make a great multiplayer game. That’s not really what I’m looking for either; multiplayer can be great fun but what I want from the bandit RPG is to really role-play a character in this world. With other human players it is often very difficult to maintain that kind of immersion. A co-op mode with a small number of players is certainly possible, with a group of friends controlling different members of the gang and getting into arguments about who should lead and what they should do next. But a large-scale multiplayer experience wouldn’t really work, and I’d definitely take a single-player-only version if multiplayer proves too difficult to implement.
I think such a game would be really interesting, and in many ways not that different from classic RPG designs. The management aspects, both for building bases and dealing with unrest among the gang, would certainly be tricky, and balancing the difficulty such that the player feels like they’re really up against the force of the law will be a hard thing to get right. Maybe too hard. But if it is possible to nail those aspects, it really could be something special. We certainly like playing heroes, and we’ve got plenty of games that let us do that, but we also want to be outlaws sometimes; that’s why there are so many movies about heists and western films about outlaw gangs. It’s time we had a few games in the same vein.