In the tabletop roleplaying game Apocalypse World, time is given to the idea of the character sheet being both prescriptive and descriptive. Put simply this is about the interaction between game mechanics and the narrative of the story. When something about the character changes mechanically on their sheet, this should be reflected in the story. And when something happens to the character in the story, the character sheet should reflect the impact of that event. The two forces of game rules and storytelling are in conversation with one another, working together to fully flesh out your character and ensuring that nothing about them exists in a vacuum.
The turn-based tactics game Wildermyth may have nothing to do with Apocalypse World, but you can see the prescriptive and descriptive philosophy at play in the way the game works. Wildermyth is a game in which your characters, their gear, and many of the events which happen to them are procedurally generated. But it is the interaction of these otherwise random factors – along with the choices that you make as the player – that makes each character feel unique and special as they move through the game. Since writing my first impressions article a week ago I’ve done two more Wildermyth campaigns – one five-chapter authored campaign and one procedural three-chapter multiplayer campaign with friend of the site The Final Counselor. Over the course of these games I’ve seen more about the ways in which mechanics and story interplay, and learned that leaning into these connections can add to the fun of the game.
Let’s start by discussing some of the new mechanics I’ve encountered in the game. One big one is dying. When a character reaches zero health, a choice menu comes up and you as the player decide whether they survive the encounter or not. Survival comes with a cost. Often that cost lies on the wounded hero but sometimes you can have another hero intervene on their behalf. During my second campaign, I had a map where every single unit got wiped out and I completely failed a mission. Each survivor permanently lost two points of health, making them easier to kill in the future, and my mystic Romena even lost their leg, giving them a permanent penalty to speed. The option to survive is only available once per chapter; when the same unit reaches zero HP a second time, they must die. Scenes of being defeated or maimed are often accompanied by story beats which reflect how the characters feel about these events, but other opportunities may come up in the future. For example, Romena the mystic eventually got an opportunity to become transformed by a shadowy entity living inside of them. This transformation gave Romena two new legs, finally restoring that old wound from so many years ago.
“Many years ago? Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?” As it turns out, Wildermyth is a game that takes place over years – sometimes over generations. A single chapter can easily span a couple of years as the actions on the overland map cost dozens of days to complete – depending on how far you have to travel, a single overland action could break 100 in terms of the days spent. This means even the events within a single chapter are capturing the experiences your characters are having over years of traveling together. Between chapters, a number of years passes by based on the success of your actions. These years are called “years of peace,” and generally you’ll have 10 or 11 of them if you’ve fully cleared the map of enemy infestations and hostile sites. Characters who start out between 18-25 will easily be in their 50s by the end of a three chapter campaign unless you are trying to crit-path your missions. In a five chapter campaign, you are almost guaranteed to have members of your original crew retire unless they receive transformations or story events that help to boost their retirement age.
Aging impacts the game both prescriptively and descriptively. As characters become older there are mechanical changes affiliated with that – increases in tenacity while their physical stats are reduced, that sort of thing. It also changes the flavor of some of their scenes, as older characters are more likely to get scenes which imply their imminent retirement or show them reflecting on their past experiences. As characters age they can start families, either with other player characters or offscreen with random NPCs. I remember being particularly surprised when my mystic Piora during my second campaign had two children reach adventuring age at the same time – half my party was her family! Those two young women joined at the same time that two elderly members of the party retired, and I was able to pass down some of the experience from those older characters to these younger heroes and get them immediately up to a more useful rank. One thing I like to do with this mechanic is have the new characters learn abilities that make thematic sense with the person who trained them. In the example with Piora’s daughters, the warrior Stilla was trained by a woman with a wolf head. One of the abilities Stilla drew in the pool was Wolfcall, which gives speed to allies after Stilla gets a kill. I decided to give her wolfcall since she would have probably gotten into the habit of howling after kills since her master was literally a wolf-person.
In cases like the one I just described, the game doesn’t make you make decisions in that way. But what it does do is support decisionmaking that is driven by story context, and create a world that is just evocative enough with established lore while also being vague enough for characters to fill in the blanks. Here’s another example of that from my game with The Final Counselor. As we played together we were giving voices to the characters, and of course anyone who has watched me stream knows that I can get pretty into doing silly character voices. We had a warrior named Emli who I had given a thick cockney British accent. When Emli started learning new abilities, one of our options was Engage, a move in which the warrior taunts enemies into attacking them. We made the decision to give Emli that ability for no other reason than the idea of her shouting obscenities and insults in that accent to piss off enemies being hilarious. Yet the ability to engage had mechanical benefits that were practically useful and the decision to define her as an aggressive Brit influenced other choices we made for her character down the line. Wildermyth doesn’t make you play this way, but it encourages it by giving the characters personalities that influence what happens to them and teaching you to let story moments feed back into the mechanical aspects of the game.
It’s really satisfying when you are able to do this in a way that doesn’t just build interesting characters but also builds good characters from a combat standpoint. In my second campaign I had a warrior named Madgwen and a hunter named Tilly, a pair of women who were both starter characters in my game. Madgwen liked women but Tilly was straight, so when I got the option to establish how Madgwen felt about Tilly, I thought it would be interesting to set up an unrequited love scenario. To my surprise, Tilly fell in love with Madgwen and the two formed a relationship. Mechanically this gives the characters an ability called Lover’s Vengeance, which increases the damage they deal against enemies who attacked their lover. Well Madgwen was a warrior and I had given her the Engage ability described earlier. This allowed her to force enemies to attack her instead of my other characters. Tilly could then take advantage of this to deal big damage with her arrows because she was pissed at all the monsters trying to beat up her girlfriend.
Even when the procedural generation ends up doing some weird stuff to you courtesy of RNG, often with a little creativity you can still find the fun in the hiccup. For example, there is a random event that can happen when starting a battle on a tile where one of your characters falls into a building into a den of enemies. You have a choice to either leave that hero to it, to try and calmly find a way down to them, or for one person to jump down and risk harm in order to help that person in their vulnerable position. I got this same event twice in one campaign, which admittedly felt like a bummer at first; an unintentional reminder that to some degree your experience is at the mercy of compelling RNG. But here’s what I realized – not only did the event happen twice, but it happened twice to the same character. My mystic Jayk was the guy falling into the hole both times this event happened, and this random fact gave me the justification I needed to find the fun. “What a klutz,” I thought. “Even after all these years Jayk still hasn’t learned to watch his footing!” The running gag of Jayk as a goofy old man continued on in other ways (such as falling out of the starseed tree, an event I had completed successfully with a different character in my first campaign), and in this way the repeated events once again simply worked to contribute to the organic lore of the game.
As I play more of Wildermyth, I find myself more and more fascinated by the design approach that drives it. Even when the game just gives you a small, temporary bonus for a character’s inspiring speech or a tiny health penalty for someone who pricked their finger during an event, it is teaching you to look for the ways that the mechanics and the story work together to create a complete experience. And as you learn to approach the game that way, you begin to see how that approach to play creates the best environment for telling compelling stories about the characters. I take huge risks in Wildermyth that I would probably avoid in other fantasy games because the game has taught me over time to prioritize what is interesting over what is optimal. Even if things go awry, you’ll at least come away with a damn fun story to tell.