Words by David C. Obenour
The world that is lingers as a shadow of the world that was. Their relics and ruins peak from underneath centuries of decay. Their secrets buried far deeper from long gone generations. And generations. And generations. And while the world has quieted from its rage and raids, mysteries seem to be awakening once again.
Through tattered posters of gnarled wizards and blistering metal songs of powerful champions, art can create a rich world of sword and sorcery dungeon crawling adventure. Where literature and gaming take us further are into the mystery of what can’t be comprehended as immediately. What came ages before and what lies deep beneath. Nail-biting escapes and clashes are harrowing but the awe and wonder of the unknown unlock the limitless adventures of our mind.
With cooperative and DM-less play, a simple combat system, and an anything-but world of card laying story-telling, Forgotten Depths plunge us deep into what was, what is, and what couldn’t possibly be.
Off Shelf: Do you have any favorite Dungeon Crawl games? What aspects of them do you most enjoy?
Peter Albertson: I actually haven’t played a ton of dungeon crawlers. I do still have my copy of Advanced Heroquest though. In the early 2000’s I had the original Descent, and had a blast playing through all of it with my cousin. When I was really little – like 6 or 7 maybe – I played a ton of the old TSR Dungeon boardgame. I loved the feeling of getting down into the lowest areas and finding magic swords. I’m still big into magic swords! [laughs] It’s not really a dungeon crawler, but I’ve been pretty obsessed lately with Magic Realm. I’d say my favorite aspects of them are the sense of exploration, and the feeling of danger.
OS: Dungeon Crawls are a well-established style of gaming. When creating your own, what original elements did you hope to bring to the genre?
PA: Hmm… there were a couple things I was focused on. I was trying to create a mysterious and interesting environment for players to explore, I wanted an engaging but quick-playing combat system, and I was hopeful I could get some nice evocative art made for the game.
OS: For as many Dungeon Crawl board games as there are, some of the most well-known examples are role playing games. What considerations did you have in creating a board game instead?
PA: Well, there is some character development, or at least advancement, in Forgotten Depths. And a run through the whole game is meant to be played over three sessions, so it’s kind of an RPG/campaign game? I’m a big fan of board games, mostly middle to heavier weight euros, and I was definitely setting out to design a “board game” with Forgotten Depths. I suppose that meant to me that I should create board game-style mechanics and systems for the game. I think I also felt it meant the game should have a certain ease of play to it, like a decent flow, and also an elegance or “rightness” to its parts.
OS: It’s also a genre of game known for miniatures. Did you ever consider using those for Forgotten Depths? What do you see as their limitations and why did you decide to forgo them for Forgotten Depths?
PA: I never really considered miniatures for Forgotten Depths because there didn’t seem to be a need for them. The way I designed the movement and combat didn’t seem to call for that kind of representation. If Forgotten Depths had a combat system where tactical movement, and things like facing or flanking mattered, than I would totally have considered them! I’m definitely not opposed to miniatures, but I feel like they should be used intentionally, for a reason. I think they make total sense for games like Warhammer Underworld, or Space Hulk, or Zombicide…
OS: You’ve created a fascinating setting for Forgotten Depths. Can you talk a little about some of your inspiration for the world building?
PA: I played D&D for the first time when I was five, and I loved all kinds of fantasy things as a kid, Conan, Dragonslayer, Dragon’s Lair, all things D&D, fantasy novels, etc. So all that’s been with me for a long time. As an adult I’ve become reacquainted with tabletop RPG’s, and have been specifically fascinated with the OSR, or Old School Renaissance, or Old School Revival, systems and adventures. I’ve spent a lot of time with modules for Dungeon Crawl Classics by Goodman Games. There’s a pulp adventure feeling and quirkiness to the adventures that I find exciting. That “old school” feeling, that mix of the adventurous and mysterious, is definitely something I was after.
I read a lot of sci-fi and fantasy novels and that’s influenced this world too. I love Ian Banks and C.J. Cherryh in particular. Their characters and worlds feel authentic and lived in, and their writing is robust. One of the fabled blades in Forgotten Depths is a direct lift from my favorite fantasy books, the Morgaine Saga by C.J. Cherryh. The other fabled blade is basically the black blade from Michael Moorcock’s Elric books.
There’s a concept used to describe a type of fantasy RPG setting called “Points of Light,” where human settlements are few, with large dangerous wilderness spaces between them. That kind of world is what I had in mind when I was writing the backstory text. There’s an amazing world described in Ian Bank’s Feersum Endjinn, where past ages created landscape-sized structures. The “construction” described in the backstory borrows that idea.
OS: With so much intent put behind creating that setting, what were some of your favorite elements? Things that really fleshed out the story or hinted at something larger
PA: Oh man, I have lots of favorite moments. I don’t want to spoil too much from the game, but if I had to pick one it would be the sleek metal hull embedded in rock. That one stands out for me because of the weird juxtaposition of something high tech and refined with the rock and strange plant pods. There are a lot of moments like that that I think are fun, where you feel like you’re just seeing part of something.
I was attempting to tell some of the story with the nature and character of the ecologies themselves. I really like that as an idea. They’re like geological layers you move down through. The upper level has things that are most familiar since it was relatively recently inhabited by humans, and things below that get progressively more foreign. My hope is that it gives players a sense of time, a sense of older stranger things layered below newer more familiar things.
OS: For as much as you say about the world, you also leave a lot unsaid. What role do you see mystery playing in Forgotten Depths?
PA: I definitely favor the unresolved or unexplained. I think it activates players imaginations in a special way. You have to sit with a kind of strangeness when a phenomena or thing is unexplained. That strangeness sits there and your mind starts filling in all kinds of possibilities. Or you just kind of bask in a sense of awe and wonder. It seems weird and you just appreciate it for that. That happens too!
A fair number of players have actually asked for more explanation or backstory to what the game presents. They seem to be looking to fix what they are experiencing in a context. There’s definitely room for some of that, to fill in details and flesh things out. The expansions I’m working on do exactly that, where more about the world and Heroes is discovered as you play. I think It’s important to leave some things unexplained though.
OS: Marian Churchland did a fantastic job with the art – can you talk about your creative process with her? What direction did you give?
PA: Yeah! Simply put, it was very fun and super easy. My day job is as an architect, and I’m often collaborating with creative people and ideas, so the process was familiar. I also really trusted in her skills. I knew she’d produce something amazing, so I always felt the process could stay light and fun.
We started with a bit or world-building, for the setting but also the Heroes. For those I’d write up long-ish emails to describe what I was seeing for them. Marian would write back with her own thoughts and questions, and we’d talk back and forth a bit. For the things you find in the Ecologies, I’d basically just give her the text blurbs that you see italicized on the cards. Once in a while I’d say a little more, but usually she’d just run with it and the results would be excellent on the first pass. It was very rare that she adjusted anything.
OS: After seeing the illustrations for the first time, did the game change for you? What nuances to the world did she add that maybe you hadn’t envisioned?
PA: I wouldn’t say the core of the game changed. The world and the gameplay didn’t change. It was more a case of her breathing a real life and depth into what was envisioned. There’s a specificity to her drawings, a high level of clarity and detail. Her ability to draw clothing and outfits, and details of gear, like straps, pouches, handles, etc. really give a depth and grounding to the Heroes and items. She’s also very good with figure drawing, both humans and creatures. So there’s a certain naturalness to the fantastic things she was drawing that greatly expanded the game in an experiential way. Now it feels like her art and the game are inseparable. I can’t imagine the game without it.
We definitely had fun adding small “hidden” things; little references we built into the art as part of the world-building process. As one example, take a close look at Sil’s fingers…
OS: Do you see yourself revisiting Forgotten Depths either for expansions or other stand alone games? What sort of other adventures or explorations would you want to adapt?
PA: Yes, absolutely! I’ve actually got four expansions headed to Kickstarter in March, one large-ish, two medium sized, and one small one that will be bundled in with one of the medium ones. All of them will build into the base game to enhance that experience. That’s all I’m focused on for Forgotten Depths at the moment, but I have had various other ideas, like a new a wilderness area environment with a bunch of small dungeons you discover, or Forgotten Depths “Advanced,” that introduces a more complex tactical combat system with a spatial component, or integrating set piece battles, like sieges, that utilize the base game’s combat system but build on it.
I also have a sort of dream project brewing in the background; a separate new game I started working on while Forgotten Depths was shipping. It’s actually based on some ideas I’ve wanted to develop for quite a while. It would also be a fantasy adventure, but arranged very differently than Forgotten Depths. There’s a lot I could say about it, and several aspects to it that I think are quite unique, but one I’ll mention here is that there are several “factions” of denizens in the area you’re exploring, whose behavior toward you will change based on what you do for them, or against them. These changes in relationship will also set certain things in motion separately from the characters, opening up or closing down certain areas, even physically altering the environment. So there’s an organic fluidness built into the game world.