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'Masquerada' Offers a New RPG Paradigm

Singapore-based Witching Hour Studios does away with D&D's traditional rules for a new RPG approach.

Dungeons and Dragons has been ingrained in western role-playing game development since the earliest days of gaming. From early ASCII projects to Baldur's Gate and even today, in Dragon Age and Pillars of Eternity, the D20 has been inseparable from the growth of role-playing adventures.

It was only natural, then, for digital role-playing game developers like BioWare and Black Isle Studios to take the tabletop games that inspired them and add their own flavor. Games like Planescape: Torment and Neverwinter Nights show those colors.

RPGs have expanded beyond the limits and lore of D&D in the years since, there's been a recent resurgence in "classic" RPG's, like Divinity and Pillars of Eternity. Masquerada: Songs and Shadows is certainly an homage to those early Dungeons & Dragons-inspired games , but it's also a risky step forward into a narrative-first approach to game design.

Masquerada screenshot courtesy of Ysbryd Games

Masquerada takes place in Ombre, a city built inside a massive coastal alcove. It's gradually being torn apart by a class war raging between the eponymous aristocrats and the common folk. Venetian-style masks govern who can use magic, and thus who holds the power, but that ratio is slipping as more and more masks are destroyed in the war.

Cicero Gavar, an exiled inspector of the city's police force, is called back to find a missing member of the Regenti, the uppermost caste of the city. Two inspectors have been killed already, and as Cicero delves deeper into the bowels of Ombre with an ever-growing motley crew of companions, he soon begins to unravel a greater conspiracy.

It's unlike any traditional D&D campaign, but the origin of Masquerada started with a frustrated dungeon master who couldn't stand the imbalances of the game. Ian Gregory Tan, co-founder and creative director at Witching Hour Studios, loathed sorcery in D&D's Third Edition, which he believed dominated campaigns and overshadowed other non-magic classes.

To fix this issue, Tan designed a world where magic was a commodity imparted by masks, and mixed in his own memories of a trip to Venice, where he drunkenly dueled friends alongside canals with wooden swords.

"I removed all the magic classes from the game, and instead put anything they could do onto masks," said Tan. "So you have a fighter, or a rogue, or a barbarian that could use magic. It became spell and steel. They would cast a spell, swing a sword. It became a dance, flipping back and forth between what their class could do and what their mask could do."

This became the basis for a much richer world, and as Witching Hour Studios began to expand the concept, it took a life of its own. It was the first departure from the classic recipe for the team, but Masquerada was building its concepts from scratch, rather than working within an established universe.

Tan tells me storytelling and writing were first and foremost on the team's mind. The team at Witching Hour laid out the world and story before any game design work took place, an approach uncommon to an industry where story is often an afterthought.

Veteran writer Darby McDevitt, who was lead writer on many Assassin's Creed titles including Black Flag, wrote in a feature on Gamasutra that "designers frequently forge ahead with level concepts and designs without consulting the writer, not taking into account the huge role that setting plays in crafting an interesting narrative." David Gaider, who wrote many D&D games for Bioware, recently wrote in a Polygon op-ed that writers "[have] to bow to the requirements of gameplay and level design, as well as to the limitations of both technology and the schedule."

Tan tells me the script is a thousand pages long, with supplementary work that is "ten, twenty times more," just for the team's internal use. The result is a world that isn't just believable, but vibrant.

Mask-wearers practice their arts in the streets to increase their impressive powers. Guilds run into conflicts, borne from years of shared history, and characters reference various tall tales and cultural icons in a believable manner. You truly believe that this is a glimpse into a world, rather than a guided tour with narrative set-dressings.

"We do a lot of writing here. We're very focused on building that world," said Tan. "Even [with] our previous projects, the amount of additional writing we do just to make sure everything makes sense is quite insane. Brian, my co-founder, use to scold me and go, 'No one's ever gonna see this!' And I'm like, 'Yeah, but we will.'"

Masquerada screenshot courtesy of Ysbryd Games

In older role-playing games (and even today), "choice" is a bit of a buzzword. It highlights the self-insert nature of a campaign. The player of a role-playing game is meant to be just another person at the table, managing the party in their own personal campaign. You make choices on where to go and what to say. It was a literal translation of the Dungeons and Dragons experience, a home-friendly version that let you play out elaborate campaigns while the computer played DM.

Masquerada doesn't let you make choices. You play from the perspective of Cicero Gavar, but he is his own character. You have little agency other than directing what your party does in combat, and whether or not to initiate additional conversations with party members.

This is less common in a genre that lets players choose everything from their name to their moral alignment. Masquerada doesn't give you the wheel, but that lets the game steer you towards a more interesting narrative.

Storylines aren't determined by your choices, and no one lives or dies due to a dialogue choice made two chapters ago. Everything happens at the Witching Hour Studios' pace, and in their world, they put on less of an interactive cinema and more of a stage play.

Witching Hour Studios put a lot of themselves into Masquerada. Tan admits that the story is as much a reflection of the team itself, touching on class conflict in the studio's native Singapore as well as national issues of race and sexuality. The team implemented a system that randomly generates NPC's of different races in the game to populate its streets, in an effort to reflect the multicultural Singapore. There's a lot of national pride riding on Masquerada for Tan and his team.

"There's this notion, the world has this notion, that Singaporeans are automatons," said Tan. "They're robots, they're incapable of creativity. It would always irritate me, because with previous games, I would show it to somebody abroad and they would say, 'Oh, that's fantastic! Is your creative team in the UK? Is your creative team in the US?' As though there's this accepted value that Singaporeans are only there to be programmers, the hands and feet of the project, and not lead it."

Reflective world-building is a common tenet among modern role-playing games (both digital and tabletop). The narratives of modern Bioware show this well, as Mass Effect and Dragon Age build unique universes, built on their own social conflicts and universes rather than established lore.

In the realm of pen-and-paper RPGs, players mix rulebooks and systems, discussing in online forums and subreddits how best to shape the game to their own story rather than adhering to a ruleset and stock lore at all costs. Today, one of the best signifiers of a good DM is the willingness to pick up and toss out the guidebook in order to keep the audience entertained.

The story of Masquerada isn't owned by the player; they are an audience, a silent passenger, following along as the ensemble cast bickers and discusses, flirts and jokes, struggling through each battle. This is certainly a D&D campaign, inspired in the same manner as its predecessors, but you are only meant to participate in the most ancillary means, to ensure the party's survival so they can hear more diatribes and quiet asides.

What started with one pissed-off DM who fancied Venice ended up driving a fresh approach to game writing and design. That approach allowed Masquerada to be itself: a rich experience not beholden to any rulebook or player choice.