Bardsung: How Critical Role, Final Fantasy and a piece of potato peel inspired this year’s most ambitious dungeon-crawler
Designers on Mat Hart and Sherwin Matthews on taking inspiration from classics for an RPG board game that doesn't skimp on the roleplaying.
First revealed last month, Bardsung is the next big release from Steamforged, the British publisher behind miniatures games Guild Ball and Godtear, as well as tabletop adaptations of hit video games Dark Souls, Resident Evil 2 and Horizon Zero Dawn.
While the upcoming game is a brand new creation for the studio, with a fresh gameplay system and original world, it draws heavily from tabletop roleplaying, roguelike video games and classic dungeon-crawling adventures as it ambitiously blends together tactical combat, players’ control over the story and a dynamic way of making each playthrough unique.
Ahead of the game’s Kickstarter launch on November 10th, I asked lead designer Mat Hart and co-designer Sherwin Matthews about Bardsung’s ambitious gameplay, the inspiration taken from RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons, and the plans for the future of the setting - as well as getting an exclusive first look at its eponymous character, Bard.
How are Bardsung’s roguelike elements integrated into the game? How do they compare to other tabletop experiences and video game roguelikes?
Mat Hart: The roguelike elements are inspired by the randomly-generated dungeon tables you find in things like the [Dungeons & Dragons] Dungeon Master's Guide and other roleplaying supplements.
We've then combined that concept with an overarching player goal. So, at all times, the players know where they have to go, but what they don't know is how they're going to get there.
That’s where the exploration mechanic comes into play. When you really want to turn right, you can almost guarantee the game will throw you a curveball and give you a lefthand turn, or a dead end. Suddenly, you've got to backtrack and work your way around. Or maybe you’ll spawn in a big room with a ton of bad guys, and everyone's limping along on just a couple of wounds. So you shut the door quietly and try to find a way around them.
At the design level, one thing we're trying to do with Bardsung is teach players the core game play loops that make for a great roleplaying experience. One of the most important is point-to-point-style gameplay, which goes hand-in-hand with dungeon-crawling and hex-crawling games - getting from start to finish, overcoming whatever’s thrown in your way.
For a creative player who’s imaginative and thinks about the world in a different way, there’s a lot to get out of this game.
And emergent scenarios will happen. You may well come across a piece of pipework that's broken, and the challenge is that this particular room is flooded and you need to find a way to fix it and move through the room. Let's say you fail that, and the flooding starts to get worse. Well, that flooding can actually then begin to affect other parts of the dungeon. The water might burst into another room and start flowing towards you, and there's no way to turn back. Maybe the flood cuts you off from your exit and you need to go round and find another way. Or maybe you can use it to your advantage, like to trap a Wandering Monster that’s been stalking you. And all this comes from a couple of cards that say, “Hey, there's a broken water pipe. What are you going to do?”
For a creative player who’s imaginative and thinks about the world in a different way, there’s a lot to get out of this game. Because of the procedural way Bardsung answers players’ interactions, the world will respond in a predictable fashion but sometimes with unpredictable results.
We’ve also drawn inspiration from RPG video games, in that player characters will have access to a wide array of abilities. One thing we’ve leaned into that you come across in games like Final Fantasy and Fire Emblem is the way player characters can work together in harmony. Their abilities and specialisms create situations for the other players to riff off. You don't see that enough in board games, or even roleplaying games to a certain degree, for my tastes.
In Bardsung, you’ll see one character set out a cool situation for another character to basically play off of and create a bigger and better effect. And for us, building in as many of those circular combo opportunities is what makes it fun for you to work together as a party of heroes.
We've taken nods from games like that because, ultimately, they themselves are inspired and influenced by dungeon-crawlers and roleplaying games. It’s a reciprocal relationship. And RPGs have such vast range across so many different products and games, but we’ve all drawn a lot of our influences from D&D.
How does Bardsung’s gameplay - particular combat and exploration - compare to mechanics we’ve seen in Steamforged’s previous games such as Dark Souls, Resident Evil and Godtear?
Hart: The exploration mechanic is an evolution of something we wanted to do for the Dark Souls board game. We’ve been able to take it a couple of steps further in Bardsung because the pieces you put down are smaller than the full-sized tile sets we used for Dark Souls, which were large sheets, whereas these are individual rooms and corridors.
You’ll see inspiration from some classic dungeon-crawlers.
Then you’ll see inspiration from some classic dungeon-crawlers. We’ve looked at games like Claustrophobia and DungeonQuest, and taken cues for exploration.
The thing that differs the most from any other Steamforged game and any close comparison is that you truly have player agency. Every single time you build a map, whether you succeed or fail, the map is going to be different.
For me, one of the best barometers for exploration is, “Would I be happy if I played this as a full RPG experience with a dungeon master taking me through?” And, invariably, the answer is yes. This would be cool as a fully-fledged D&D setting, but the beauty of Bardsung is you don't need a dungeon master. You're working together. You don't have a lot of the slower paced elements of dungeon crawling that you get in a pen and paper RPG. You just get straight into the action.
This would be cool as a fully-fledged D&D setting, but the beauty of Bardsung is you don't need a dungeon master.
Leading on to the combat, unlike other Steamforged games and dungeon crawlers, the combat will be zone-based as opposed to pixel counting or squares based. So you’re moving from zone to zone with combat swirling around inside. They create game states that feel very dynamic, and the game state changes with pretty much every character’s activation.
Like a lot of Steamforged Games, the actual resolution of conflict is super slick. You roll a number, you add a skill, you compare it to a target number, and that tells you whether you succeed or fail. And then there's a simple mechanic that determines whether you just make a normal hit or an extra special hit.
The simplicity of the combat resolution is what enables us to open up the depths of the combos and the strategies and the overall fluidity of the combat state. That’s key. You can't have both. You can't have a really complex conflict resolution and an incredibly deep game state, because you'd just end up getting locked into playing a game of chess every time you want to activate. So, it's really simple, fast and fluid to resolve.
Sherwin Matthews: When we were designing this game, we spent a lot of time thinking about the best place to spend our complexity points to make the gameplay really shine in the right places, without slowing anything down.
It's almost a discrete system, but one where players can’t ever sit back and relax, because something will always be happening, and there will always be meaningful decisions to make.
You’ve described Bardsung’s narrative as having a ‘choose your own path’ format and player agency. How deep does this go - what level of player-led storytelling can we expect?
Hart: One of my fondest memories is playing Advanced Heroquest back when I was a teenager. One of my mates was running it and we just took the adventure out of the dungeon you get for Advanced HeroQuest and we were just rolling with it, creating our own stories. One bit I remember fondly was trying to disguise myself as a town guard to get into an entrance to a different part of the dungeon, and using a piece of potato peel to try and fake a town guard badge, and somehow getting away with it. I mean, we were 18 and doing crazy things. Bardsung is a fully-formed RPG in that respect.
If you want to take Bardsung out and start creating your own stories, there's nothing to stop you from doing that. It's a fully-formed RPG in that respect.
If you want to take Bardsung out and start creating your own stories, there's nothing to stop you from doing that. That ties in a lot with how we've built the narrative within the game. So we offer opportunities for players to create their own narrative moments. There is an overarching story of what's going on. There is an unfolding thread that goes through it all, and we reveal it to the players over the period of time.
We’re extremely privileged to have had access to [Fighting Fantasy and Warhammer co-creator] Ian Livingstone. As the father of fantasy choose-your-own-adventure narratives, he’s the person who best understands what this all takes. So we’ve been privileged to work with him on how best to construct choose-your-own-adventure stories that feel like a very personal experience to you as you go through them.
Bardsung is said to combine its dungeon-crawling mechanics with a “full-strength RPG system”. How does this element of roleplaying come into play in the game?
Hart: There's a couple of aspects to a roleplaying game and one of them is fairly absolute and common across all role players. The other one is actually a little bit more subjective and down to personal interpretation. What I'm talking about is the difference between combat interactions and social interactions, or skill-based interactions.
The underlying system can support a full RPG experience for the players.
What we have in Bardsung is a full-strength combat resolution system that's supported by skills, attributes, equipment and anything else players can use. It's entirely extensible into the softer side of things, the more social side of things at a time when we're ready to do so.
Right now, the focus of Bardsung is very much the dungeon-crawling experience, but we have ideas for the future to open it up into different locations. And with each of those, we’ll then bring out another aspect of what you’d expect to see in a full RPG system. So by “full-strength”, we mean the underlying system can support a full RPG experience for the players.
There's a huge amount of player agency. So, at a simple level, each character will have a number of abilities they can pick from, and that depends on the path their character has chosen.
We've kept character progression really simple. Every time you finish a section of gameplay and encounter, you're going to get a number of XP which you can spend on improving either an attribute or an ability. Every character has core attributes. So, you can either improve those, improving an existing ability along the ability scale. Or you just add a whole new ability and increase the amount of options your character has available. It’s entirely up to the players as to how they grow their character out.
Do you level up all your attributes and become a jack-of-all-trades, good at everything, so you've got a tool that fits every occasion? Or do you go really deep on a couple of specialist abilities and max them out, so you're the shining example of your craft? It really is up to the players and there's no right or wrong answer in that.
That really then ties back into that sense of roleplay. In terms of comparison, we've done a lot of reverse engineering on some of the really popular RPG systems out there. Look at how many options you get when you hit the 20th level of barbarian in D&D or Pathfinder, and it's equitable. By the time you reach the 20th level in Bardsung - or the equivalent - it’ll feel very similar to what you would expect to see in a more traditional RPG. So we were really within the boundaries of RPG players’ expectations when it comes to the amount of options they want their characters to have.
By the time you reach 20th level in Bardsung - or the equivalent - it’ll feel very similar to what you would expect to see in a more traditional RPG.
Matthews: Weapons are another element in the game with a lot of scope for player customisation. We have an upgrade system where you get gems that upgrade your equipment.
A certain type of gem will make your weapon more lethal, by making it do more damage. Or it could make it more accurate, or it might give it an extra ability. Poisoning enemies on contact, for example.
Because you actually have a tree of options for upgrading your stuff, your weapons can change over time. The actual workings of the weapon itself will completely alter as it’s upgraded. It’s similar to the way the rune system in League of Legends works, and it’s where you start seeing a lot of similarities with the JRPGs we talked about.
Bardsung is set in an original universe. Why was it important to create a new setting for the game - and what can you tell us about the lore?
Hart: It's incredibly fun to create new worlds that are awesome. We seem to have a never-ending fount of ideas for cool worlds.
In Bardsung, we have a world that was once built up and bustling, but its people start to forget about preserving the world and all that’s good within it. It’s far easier for a group of people to destroy something than to create something, and that’s what the destructive behaviour of the previous citizens made the world decay. Magic has fled, and the world has gradually lost its life, becoming encased in ice. But there is a new emergence of different adventurers cropping up across the word to discover life that’s managed to refresh itself. Wild magic has started to come back to life.
Then we get to the Bards. Bard is an honorific title given to the guardians of history, and each area has its own Bard.
One of the original goals was to create a product for people who want to get into RPGs and fantasy because they’ve watched Critical Role or other streams, but don't really know where to start.
The Bards are people who have been charged with carrying on your history of this universe because all written records and everything else has been destroyed. People look to them for inspiration and hope, and they create the only records of what happens in the post-apocalyptic time in which you’re playing. Legends of heroes are immortalised in their song so the world can bloom once again.
Given the strong presence of narrative and roleplaying elements in the game, do you have future plans to explore the world of Bardsung in other releases and formats, such as an RPG?
Hart: One of the original design goals with Bardsung was to create a product for people who are interested in RPGs, and fantasy, and want to get into it because they’ve watched Critical Role or any other number of amazing streams that are out there, but don't really know where to start.
Let's be honest, some of the fully-featured RPGs - you know, full-strength RPGs out in the market - are quite intimidating. 300-page books; you know, 10 different books that have already been released. It's very difficult to know where to start. So, we wanted to create quite a really easy onboarding tool that will really catch the imagination of people who are new to the hobby, making it very easy for them to get into and also to start teaching them good habits.
We have a number of future plans to explore the wider world and to develop a full RPG that is supported by everything that we’ve put into the Bardsung products up to that point. This is just the beginning of a huge range for us.
Matthews: It’s not just a gateway to dungeon-crawlers for new players either. It's also a really good tool for a returning player of RPGs. Someone who hasn’t played for a number of years and now might have kids so they’ve got less time, or who wants to play with their family. It’s a really user-friendly and accessible game, which isn't daunting.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.