Disciples II: Dark Prophecy Designer Diary #11

Level designer Erin Martel gives us an update on the game's progress.


Entry #11 - 10/02/01

By Erin Martel
Level Designer, Strategy First

Last month, production assistants Eva Bunodiere and Emanuel Protopapas generously brought you the secrets of designing skirmish maps for Disciples II: Dark Prophecy. Now it's my turn. I was the final production assistant to join the team, which I did two months ago. My role is designing the Mountain Clans saga for Disciples II--seven game levels following the Clans' fate through the story I wrote.

The team has been hard at work, adding countless details.
The team has been hard at work, adding countless details.

Many changes have been made to the "look" of the game in the past month, so take a good look at the screenshots here--the art team has worked hard and taken their imaginations to the limit. The map terrain has been completely overhauled and is so evocative of the mystical-magical-mystery world of Nevendaar--it's gorgeous! The first time I visited the Strategy First offices, I met our producer, Pro Sotos. He kept on calling everything crap. For instance, "Oh, don't look at that battle background, it's crap." (He was referring to the placeholder art.) He must have said that word a million times. I thought that everything looked fine, and I didn't understand his attitude! So, I was left with a weird impression, but also a copy of the first game to play and the editor too, so I could practice making scenarios! When I got home I fired up Dad's computer and became completely addicted.

Selling the Punch

So now here I am! The first thing I did when I joined Strategy First was get together with the designer and project leader, Danny Belanger, to work on the prose in the game. All of the voice-over narratives were reworked. We wanted them to be easy to understand and sound powerful and impressive when spoken aloud. It was the first time that I had to keep in mind the way words would sound when spoken, not just when read. Then, a myriad of other writing tasks followed--Danny opened up the text strings database and let me have at it!

All this helped when designing the Mountain Clans campaign because I was completely acquainted with the background story. See, Disciples II follows the four different races that share the world of Nevendaar. You can play as any one of the races, but the whole plot will not be revealed unless you experience them all! We hope that gamers enjoy the interplay of the stories of these four races:

  • The Empire are virtuous, and they pray to a being called the Highfather. They are renaissance-style units with elaborate armor and clothing. The Empire don't wish harm on anybody, really.
  • The Legions of the Damned are akin to devils, with lots of fire, lava, and scary black jagged peaks surrounding their cities. Demon god Bethrezen commands the legions.
  • The Dwarves follow the warlike god Wotan and have a more tangible form of religion based on the use of runic symbols. The runic letters contain miraculous power, and each letter is considered potent--signs and writings are used as amulets and in magical practices. They are hard working (and drinking) literalists.
  • The Undead Hordes are...dead. The goddess Mortis commands this army of living corpses--who are not so much her followers as pawns in her plot to bring Gallean (her husband) back from his torpor.

Four very different races, each race allegiant to its respective gods. The gods of this world do not always have the same aims or ideals, and their unique struggles force them to use and abuse the other groups. This is where the story really develops. The player has to put him- or herself into the role of ruler and outsmart the other races. But watch out! The other races may not always be as transparent as you assume! At least that is how designer Danny Belanger has tried to structure the story--with a lot of misinformation and missing information to keep the player guessing. He always admonishes me to not "sell the punch." (Those are his words--I am not sure of the exact meaning of this phrase.) But, when Danny tells me that I am "selling the punch" by revealing the identity of this person, or whatever, I understand! It is one of the best little bits of advice he gave me while I was designing the Mountain Clan saga.

We Create Worlds...

So, when I sat down to build the campaign, I had in my head the back story that is a constant in the world of Nevendaar. Using this, and what I knew of "dwarven culture"--culled from anthropology books, no doubt--I wrote a story, the story that would become the Mountain Clans campaign. Ta da! OK! Great, but wait! I have to turn this "story" into pretty looking maps, landmarks meaningfully placed here or there, bad guys, wise men, ominous messages, startling events, rewards and treasure--something that you can play. A game!

Though it's rendered in 3D, the game has a very animated look.
Though it's rendered in 3D, the game has a very animated look.

I planned the levels on paper first--all designers on the Disciples team do. Some people laugh at us, even some Strategy First employees...perhaps they believe in a more dynamic and rapid development style? No matter, if you ever try designing on paper first, you will realize that so many design pitfalls are caught before you even touch the level editor, so it's all worth it in the end. Luckily, we have a really great scenario editor to create our maps with, and we can really let our imaginations go wild and do whatever we want to shape our stories.

This brings us back to "selling the punch," right? Danny hit upon a very important principle of design when he coined this phrase: knowing how to present events, when to reveal information, what to emphasize, and what to omit. This is what I have to think of constantly when designing gameplay. Like, should the "loremaster" come down from his mountaintop and give the player information about a wise man who will help him or her defeat the dragons, or should I create an event where the wise man guides the party to his location using "telepathic" messages? (I said that we could do anything using the scenario editor, right?) Each event in the level has to be planned out. Each level holds anywhere from 20-100 events. I guess "events" could be defined as anything that, um, "happens"--whether it's the arrival of a unit, a line of dialogue, a spell being triggered, and so on. One hundred little decisions to be made.

The scenario editor is what the level designers use to define events. It is kind of like a cause-and-effect type of structure. We set up a condition in the editor, and then an effect that we also define will be triggered if that condition is met. For example, I make an event where the condition is a Mountain Clans unit entering a predefined zone on the map--for our example, the zone is a mountain valley. When the zone is entered by the clan unit, I decide that the effect will be "X." Cast the spell "summon hellhound" on the person who tripped the trigger, "Y." Display a message stating, "My Lord, it is magic trap!" Now we have an event where a player entering this valley will be faced by an opponent.

Story vs. Strategy

The Disciples II scenario editor holds many more possibilities for events than its predecessor does. This equals more drama, which in turn requires more personalization and characters. And before you know it, you believe that you are designing Link's Adventure with more dwarves thrown in--it is sometimes difficult to remember that Disciples is actually a strategy game. It's so tempting to force your players to experience every event and nuance in your awesome story in order to complete the quest. But, the team has decided that in order to be true to the spirit of the original game, there must be a very specific win condition for each level. Danny established the "one path" rule--no subquests or side stories, however fun, are to be necessary to the completion of the level. It is an interesting challenge to cram in as many story elements into the game as possible without breaking the "one path" rule.

So that is what I do as a level designer here: I decide how to tell the players a story while hopefully making them feel like they are discovering it themselves--the beauty of interactivity!

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