Hang on, tell me what Innkeep is again please!
INNKEEP immerses the player in the experience of running a fantasy world inn as a less-than-scrupulous master of the house. Each day, groups of unique guests will come to visit. Eavesdrop on their conversations as you serve them, learning their secrets, and acquiring new stories and jokes to tell. Gather a band of down-and-out bards to help fill them with mirth and keep them drinking until late. Then, when they are sound asleep each night, sneak into their rooms, rummage through their belongings, and take their pretty trinkets for yourself.
Sound’s pretty cool, right? By the way... Did you know that Innkeep has a Steam page? It's true! Go check it out, and hit that Wishlist button. More wishlists helps a lot with getting steam to recommend the game to people, or for when I try pitching to publishers for financing to finish the project.
The Basic Setting
When I first started working on the concept of Innkeep, I knew that something appealing about using a fantasy world Inn as a setting was that you could minimize the amount of work needed on creating different locations. You have the interior of the inn, maybe a bit of the immediate exterior… and that was it. A nice, narrow scope that would be suitable for a solo-developer.
Another thing I knew from early on was that I wanted to bring in a sense of resource scarcity, particularly at the beginning of the game. The player was not a cheerful, honest fellow, running a bustling inn, located in a prosperous town, which they had inherited from their dead uncle or some such. Rather, they were somewhat desperate, struggling to make ends meet, and willing to steal from (some) of their guests in order to survive. Not necessarily because you were roleplaying as a villain, but because you had to make some hard choices in a difficult situation (and maybe because some of your guests deserve to be robbed!)
The Narrative Problem
The above basic setting does however, does pose a narrative problem. Put it simply, we need to be able to answer the following question: What is the situation? In other words, why is the inn experiencing a state of resource scarcity? This might sound like a fairly easy problem to solve. We could imagine a number of scenarios.
For example, perhaps we could opt for a financial reason: the previous owner had a significant debt, and you need to help pay it off. So supplies are technically available, but you are unable to easily afford them. Yet this answer has some difficulties. Debt can be an interesting emotional mechanic in a game (like in Hard Space: Shipbreaker, or Landlord’s Super), but if the player has fairly easy access to income (from stealing from guests), then it becomes less a problem of resource scarcity, and more about remaking loan payments. It might work mechanically, with some tweaking of how difficult it is to steal, and how frequently / how much you have to repay, but would this be a satisfying situation for the player? And more generally, while wage slavery is an increasingly common topic in indie games for obvious reasons these days, did I really want to rehash that particular dystopic subject in my fantasy world game?
OK, so what if there had been some kind of war recently? The land had been ruined. Perhaps the inn itself was damaged and needed repairs. Supplies are scarce, because times are hard for everybody. This answer is potentially a little more interesting. But again, it raises some problems. If times are hard, then who exactly is the player stealing from? If not local people, then presumably outsiders. And if outsiders, then what is their motivation for being in this ruined area? Are they just passing through on the way to somewhere else? And if so, why? Is there a nearby mountain pass, perhaps? With the war ending, had traffic been restored that had until now been cut off? Perhaps this might explain an increase in certain kinds of guests (merchants?) But what about adventurers? How could we get the kind of diversity of guests that would help to make the game interesting? There is also the risk of falling into some grim-dark fantasy world clichés about war and violence. Themes about armed conflict were not really linking up with what I wanted my particular game to be about.
Reformulating the Parameters of the Problem
And so, as I explored different possible answers I was able to clarify the parameters of the problem.
- Resources were hard to come by (expensive, but also somewhat rare).
- The player was willing and able to steal from guests to help deal with that scarcity.
- Stealing from guests presupposes a supply of guests with something to steal, who are visiting the inn.
I needed a narrative solution that would help address these requirements in a satisfying way. More specifically, how could we make sense of a situation where there was both scarcity (of resources) and abundance (of guests) at the same time.
What inspired my eventual answer was a friend telling me about the TV show Deadwood, based on a real life town in the United States. Deadwood was a built illegally on the land of the Lakota people, in the 19th century. Its population increased massively during the Black Hills Gold Rush. Numerous famous individuals passed through (and /or died in) the town, including Wild Bill Hickok (1837–1876), Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary) (1852–1903), Wyatt Earp (1848–1929), and George Hearst.
This scenario resonated with me right away. You had a situation where there was a sudden increase of people in an area (an abundance of people with money you could cheat or steal from), and yet supplies had to be brought in from the outside, at some expense and difficulty (because of bandits, or attacks from local tribes).
What it needed was just a bit of a twist, to adapt the situation in a way that would make it feel more suitable to a fantasy setting. What if, instead of a rush for gold or silver, we had a rush for the robbing of tombs?
The Lore of the Land: A Fantasy World Gold Rush
Let me now paint a picture of the narrative setting of Innkeep, building on the above. In our fantasy world, an old empire had traditionally entombed its noble dead in a certain valley, which remained uninhabited by decree, and was located some distance from its core regions. The specific reasons for this are historical (and relate to the kingdoms that predate the empire, and some other narrative elements I won’t go into here). This “Valley of Ancestors” was a site of holy pilgrimage for many, as the dead Emperors and Empresses were worshiped as deities, in a manner similar to the Imperial Cult of Rome. The Weary Pilgrim inn was located at the entrance to the valley, a place where pilgrims could rest when visiting the holy tombs to pay homage. The local area was also watched over by imperial guards, who prevented any looting.
Then, following certain developments that aren’t important here, the empire collapsed. The praetorian guard was disbanded, and the provinces began to split into their own competing kingdoms. As a result, the Valley of Ancestors was now unprotected. The ancient tombs, filled with treasure (and traps!) were waiting for somebody to loot them.
The Weary Pilgrim was no longer a place for pilgrims to come and rest, but a stopping point for tomb robbers. A fantasy world gold rush, which would explain a diverse cast of visiting (and possibly wealthy) strangers, yet resource scarcity brought on by remoteness, and danger.
This was an unstable situation. How long would it go on for? Would a nearby kingdom come and secure the tombs for themselves? And questions remain about the nature of the tombs. Do some of them actually pre-date the empire? Is there, possibly, something locked away down there that had better remain locked away? Was the imperial cult in fact established to hide and protect something? Hmmm… We can see how this setting could help feed into the broader narrative arc of the game quite nicely.
A Gold Rush ‘Ecosystem’
What I particularly liked about this answer however was that it could work really well with helping to establish the different kinds of guests the player might encounter over the course of the game, and how those kinds of guests might relate to each other. This particular ecosystem finds its origins in the “input” of treasure from the tombs (like sunlight and nutrients might be inputs for organic life), but this input is then spread around the system in different ways via the different groups and their relations to each other. A non-exhaustive list could include some of the following:
The ‘Prospectors’ (tomb robbers)
These individuals have come to the Valley of Ancestors to try their hand at looting the abandoned tombs. Some of them fancy themselves “adventurers”. They want a bit of treasure, a bit of excitement, a bit of glory. They might be in groups, and be well supplied. Others might be more desperate individuals who have been lured above all by the call of gold, and are willing to attain it by any means necessary.
Ancient tombs contain more than just gold. They also contain texts. Knowledge. Secrets. Was the imperial cult hiding something? What is there to lean? Learned magic users might see this opening as a long awaited chance at getting some answers.
While the prospectors might seek profit in a direct fashion, by delving into the tombs, and the professors seek an abstract profit in the form of knowledge, the provisioners profit indirectly by providing them with food, shelter, or equipment. As an innkeeper, the player could be regarded as belonging to this group. Other members of the group would include traders who continue to bring supplies into the valley, selling them to the player. The roads have become quite dangerous these days, however, on account of the bandits. Somebody has to pay for the protection, so prices have gone up even further!
Another form of ‘indirect’ profit is to simply take the looted tomb treasures from the prospectors, professors, or provisioners. Bandits have begun to swarm into the region. Perhaps some of them initially intended to be prospectors themselves, but found the tomb raiding a little harder going than expected. Perhaps some bandits are carrying out a little of each activity at the same time (there is no reason why any particular individual can’t belong to more than one group at a time, or switch between them.) There is also the general appeal of a now lawless area. Some of the bandits might have come to the valley because they are wanted by the guards of a specific province-turned-kingdom.
If there are bandits in the area, then there is need for some protection. The professors and some of the wealthier prospectors may have brought their own guards with them. And the provisioners such as the traders and merchants certainly wouldn’t brave the road to the Weary Pilgrim without some hired muscle.
The Bounty Hunters
If there are bandits who are wanted elsewhere, then we can imagine bounty hunters who have come to profit by taking their heads back to where they came from.
The Secret Keepers
And to push it a bit further, there may be those who, like the Medjai from The Mummy, want to prevent the professors and prospectors from disturbing things best left undisturbed. And they are willing to go to great lengths to do so.
From the above, you can hopefully get a picture of how the setting of a fantasy world gold rush works so nicely. It helps make narrative sense of the scarcity of resources and abundance of diverse guests, and also provides a framework for thinking about a kind of ecology of those guests; what kinds there are, and how they relate to each other. Importantly, it helps with enabling the player to enjoy some of the transgression of being a thief, without feeling the need to roleplay as a moustache twirling villain who steals from innocent townspeople. Furthermore, it fits very nicely with another theme of the game, which is the inversion of the typical position of the player at the center of any fantasy world game. In the ecosystem mapped out above, your role as a provisioner is a marginal one in terms of importance. Your job is to pour the beers, rather than explore the tombs. Yet it is also a role that still brings you into contact with all these other different kinds of people. The treasures and stories of those tombs still might find their way to you indirectly. In other words, you can still have the experience of a fantasy world, only now recreated within the microcosm of your inn.
Hope you enjoyed this not-so-little update. I'll follow up with another soon.
Do remember to drop by the Steam page and give us a wishlist!