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Monday, 3 June 2013

Grimm... it ain't no fairy tale

No, not Grimm the TV show (which I still haven't seen; opinions, anyone?). This is another of those might-have-been game concepts that I worked up in outline form while working at Eidos in the late '90s. Here it is exactly as I wrote it back then. I referenced it in the first edition of my book Game Architecture and Design (co-authored by Andrew Rollings) but other than that it hasn't seen the light of day in fifteen years...

Grimm is set in a fantasy world derived from the most ancient folktales. Players are clans and will sometimes struggle as rivals, but often must ally to counter threats to the whole realm.

How Grimm differs from standard CRPGs is that quests and interactions are oriented to the community rather than single individuals. In that sense the game is like a cross between Might & Magic and SimCity or Warcraft. You can use your most powerful characters, the Heroes, as a standard adventuring team if you like, but that leaves your clan vulnerable while they're away. Offense and defense must be balanced, and as your clan gains wealth and power your Heroes will become stronger and more skillful.

Each clan comprises:

  • Four Heroes: The Lord, the Lady, the Priest and the Wizard
  • Up to twelve Elders: initially with undefined powers
  • Up to twenty-four Clansmen: the generic "citizens" of the clan

The Heroes are the most powerful characters, each representing an archetypal power:

   HERO         POWER                 RESPONISIBILITY IN CLAN

    Lord            battle                        military fortifications

    Lady            wisdom                    agriculture, trade

    Priest           spirituality                 health, protection from evil

    Wizard         secret knowledge     magical research

The Elders start out with no special responsibility. By assigning an Elder as lieutenant to one of the four Heroes, you cause him to "borrow" some of his master's power. An Elder assigned to the Lord becomes a Knight; if assigned to the Priest he becomes an Acolyte; if the Lady, a Minister. Once an Elder has one of these titles, he becomes a lower level equivalent of the Hero he serves with about one-third of their power.

The Wizard's lieutenants are special. Each gets a special title. Instead of being one-third as powerful as the Hero as in other cases, the Wizard's lieutenants are as powerful as their master but only in one area of magic. The Illusionist can conjure mirages, the Summoner can create temporary servants, the Elementalist can hurl bolts of fire, wind and rain.

Building up the clan

The ordinary Clansmen are not directly controlled by the player. Rather, their AI just responds to the power structure of the ruling council (Heroes plus Elders). The Clansmens' activities will reflect the priorities you've set in the council. For instance, if you assign six Elders to the Lady then half the Clansmen will concern themselves with trade and harvesting.

The clanhouse is a walled enclosure (like a motte-and-bailey castle) which constitutes the player's "city". Clansmen do not leave the vicinity of the clanhouse under any circumstances.

Maintaining the clan

Each Hero's area of responsibility is magically tied to him/her, the way the land was supposedly tied to the High King in Celtic times. This means that when the Lord is absent from the clan, the walls will no longer be maintained and will gradually crumble, the Clansmen assigned to sentry duty will become less alert and capable, etc.


Quests must be undertaken by a group of no more than three characters. These could be three Heroes, but note the drawback mentioned above (your clan will decline in their absence). More often you'll send one Hero with the power most suited to the quest and a couple of Elders with different powers to back him up. Therefore the first phase of any quest is usually to find out what's in store, so you can pick your adventuring team to meet the likely challenges.

Examples of quests:

The gods demand that a player clears and blesses a path through the Forest of Thorns. The player knows that the Priest will be needed for the blessing. The Lady would be useful for scouting a path, but he cannot spare her so he sends a Minister in her place. The third member of the team is a Knight to deal with bandits rumoured to live in the forest.

Following on from the previous quest, when the path is blessed a mysterious stranger comes through the forest and bestows a broken sword on the clan. He departs without saying anything, but the Priest learns from prayer that the stranger was the Herald of the Sea Goddess. Presumably if the clan can locate the other half of the sword they can forge it into a useful magic weapon - but what if that other part resides with another clan who won't readily give it up?

A marauding band of skeletal warriors appear at the edge of the map, attacking any who pass nearby. Trade suffers, and Clansmen are reluctant to go out to the fields. If nothing is done, the skeletons start to build a tower. Players must act to stop them before a necromancer moves in and starts calling new soldiers from out of the graveyards.

The Trickster God steals the sun, causing continual darkness to descend on the world. The crops and cattle are dying as eternal winter sets in. Someone must find where the sun has been hidden and restore it to its rightful place in the sky.


Wealth (in the form of gold) is gained by prospecting and trade. Gold is used for a one-off payment to build and repair structures, as in most strategy games. It can also be gained in the form of ransoms, as gifts from the King, or by selling magic items to passing NPC merchants.


Each Hero has his or her principal domain: the Lord has the Barracks, the Lady the Hall, the Priest the Church, and the Wizard the Tower. These structures broadcast a continual supply of power to the Hero. Upgrading the structure (with gold) increases its "power supply".

There are also other structures that provide special functions - eg, the Watchtower from which balloons can be sent aloft to spy out the land. Some of these peripheral structures are specials that you can only build once you've got a certain item; for instance an ancient codex allowing a clan to build a Naphtha Turret.

Birth and death

New clansmen are born some time after one is killed or promoted, the time depending on the power of the Lady. If an Elder is killed, a clansman can be promoted by the Heroes.

If a Hero is killed, he awakens the Afterlife and must journey back to the temporal plane. In his absence, the clanhouse declines in the area he's responsible for, so the death of a Hero is a serious business and you must try to get him back from the Afterlife as quickly as possible.

A journey through the Afterlife is always fraught with peril but it is an opportunity for the character to gain experience. Also you may meet up with slain Heroes from other clans, and forming an alliance may be the best policy.

A typical game
A campaign starts with just the four Heroes, four Elders and four Clansmen. The way you assign the Elders will decide the activities of the Clansmen. One Elder to each Hero leads to a well-balanced development of the clanhouse, but some levels may require you to specialize. (For instance, a clanhouse set on haunted plains might make early concentration on religious affairs a priority.)

According to your policy decisions and any gold or items found, the clanhouse will grow and upgrade. Typically, upgrading of a building requires only time and manpower. Upgrades at a building (eg, the Plough to increase farm productivity) then become available but cost gold to carry out. And special quest items are needed to construct special buildings.

New Elders are usually encountered on quests, or may arrive as rewards between levels. (“The High King is pleased and sends you his cousin to serve as Elder.”) More Clansman gather to serve you as your Clanhouse’s renown and experience spread.

It’s envisaged that the view would be 3D or isometric, as in Diablo. Control during a level is via the usual interface for realtime strategy games. Between levels, you would have a strategic interface allowing you to reassign Elders, send campaign messages, etc.

Network gaming

Played on a local network, the game can be run as a regular multi-player RPG or one player can use the built-in editor to become Games Master and design the Quest Challenge. Using a set number of points he must "buy" adversaries, hide clues, ward quest objectives, etc. The players then attempt to complete the quest, the winner earning points to spend on designing his own Quest Challenge.

The One King

The land is ruled by an NPC King who is sufficiently powerful that he would be a tough adversary for all the players' clans combined. The King will set tasks for clans (usually a contest like "Bring me the antlers of the questing beast") and success earns royal favour that the player can use later. Favour can also be gained just by Heroes spending time at court, but as noted above this entails a penalty in the form of clanhouse deterioration.

Online gaming

The problem with MUDs (“Multi-User Dungeons”) is that they usually turn into an ego trip for power-gamers. Players who have been in the game a while get so powerful that newcomers are put off - they just have no way of matching the old hands in power.

Grimm gets around this by making a clan's power mainly a matter of versatility rather than brute strength. You might collect a hundred magic items, all with different powers, but each character can only take say two items on an adventure. So the long-term player will usually have more items to choose from, but he's not impossibly more powerful than the newcomer.

In addition, the One King imposes laws that all must obey. For example:

  • No-one may attack allies without giving one minutes' notice of breaking off the alliance.
  • A group that includes a Priest may not kill an enemy who's surrendered.
  • No hostilities are allowed within the Royal Parks.
  • A Lady on her own must never be attacked.

These laws provide a regulatory structure that ensures the game never degenerates into a free-for-all. Players can still plot, scheme and cheat one another, but the need to observe certain rules of engagement enhances the fun.


  1. Hi Dave, that sounds like a game I would like to play, with a good mix of adventuring and strategy. Maybe a goal could be to become the High King. Any reason it didn't get past the concept stage?

    1. Just limited resources, Nick. And it wasn't ultimately my decision which game concepts to prioritize - if it had been, the online gaming world might be dominated today by the Fabled Lands MMOG and the Conquerors TV/game.

  2. It's a great concept and I imagine it could also be adapted into a very engaging tabletop game. If it ever does go any further, would you consider renaming the heroes? Something like:
    Warrior, Steward, Cleric, Mage
    My little girl won't like the idea that lords go to war while ladies make the sandwiches! :-)

    1. I guess so, John... though then it becomes more of a standard DnD fantasy setting rather than the 18th/19th century European fairytale theme we originally had in mind.