Breaching Black Rose Keep

Posted date / 04.11.18

We excitedly unveiled our newest iteration of Black Rose Keep, a level spanning zone that begs to be explored, at PAX East this month - and the feedback was incredible. As we continue to progress through Pre-Alpha testing, our testers are bristling with excitement at the prospects of soon breaching the walls and plundering the keep for all its treasures. We recently corralled three our favorite developers and got them to almost spill all of the beans about BRK, how it evolved, its lore and some of their favorite parts of the creative process.

What can you tell us about the history and lore of Black Rose Keep?

Justin Gerhart, Lead Writer: First I'd direct anyone to the section of our website that has general info on the origins of the Black Rose itself. It does a decent job sticking your head under the murky water of what befell their leader, E'mani Karos.

As for the Keep itself, it was built around 150 years ago in an attempt at fiefdom by a devious Thronefastian Noble named Wolsifen Sevil. Sevil, whose family has a reputation for these sorts of things, constructed the fortress under the name Luckson Estate, with a goal of carving out a plot of personal sovereignty and revenue generation. (He was very careful not to call it a keep, which would have immediately transgressed Thronefastian regulations).

Due to the extremely limited amount of land available for family manors and estates, it is not uncommon for Nobles to try and gain land holdings by illicit means. (Such a thing has troubled Thronefast from its founding and is still an issue to this very day). In the last 500 years much policy has been crafted on the heels of those attempts.

Yet Wolsifen Sevil outpaced them all. He quite literally constructed a castle in Avendyr's Pass, called it an "estate" to avoid scrutiny, then staffed it with a personal army and added a farm of indentured servants (as in debtors impoverished by his own misdeeds). When further plans to tax and extort merchants using the main thoroughfare through the Pass were uncovered, Sevil was deposed from nobility and Luckson Estate was abandoned.

Over a hundred years later, forgotten and in abject disrepair, the Keep was rehabilitated and refurbished by E'mani Karos and the Black Rose. It was rechristened Keep Leon, and became one of the primary strongholds of his burgeoning movement.

Jared Pullen, Senior Concept Artist: I've had the absolute pleasure of synergising with Justin a great deal on a good number of creative endeavours here at Visionary Realms, but this is my first Q+A with Tim 'T-Bro' Wathen, so it's pretty exciting stuff. It's wonderful to be here with you m'man talking about my favourite building in Pantheon to date. So good. Now that that's properly done, all I can say is that Black Rose Keep (BRK) is more than just a building for us. We've each of us poured out a genuine overflow of creative energy into this special locale and we've made BRK our momentary home away from home while we've built her as a Team. From the get go it's been a true labour of love. The lore for BRK is a rich tapestry of storytelling abundant in drama and thematic gravitas, and in honesty I can go no further and do this justice… Justin has said it all, and rightly so. It's been an incredible journey thus far diving into the unique history and backstory for such an endearing locale with such a gifted writer, and with more yet in store for Black Rose Keep I cannot wait to dive even deeper still… hey Tim...

Tim Wathen, Game Designer: Hey Jared!! Just a little context here, I routinely interrupt meetings to say hi to Jared. The team has been pretty good about that awkward moment we all get to share together... multiple times a week... I really don't have much to add to the overall history of the Keep but its inhabitants are some real baddies. Military experts that mostly live a life on the opposite side of the law.

Q: The attention to detail in the architecture really makes the zone feel alive.

Justin: Jared and I had a great discussion early on about the origin and purpose of the Black Rose, which quickly centered around Karos, the type of organization he would attract, and environment that would foster. He's much more than a bandit lord leading a grown up gaggle of lost boys and girls, and the Keep needed to reflect the legitimacy of their operation. While the soldiers of the Rose come from a variety of backgrounds and have different motivations, most are bound by a deep loyalty and respect for the cause and character of E'mani Karos.

Yet there are also "barbs of the soul" embedded in these men and women. Just like their leader they carry a sense of betrayal that has sharpened their instincts for survival (though some are just in it for the sw33t l00ts). We wanted everything from the layout to the architecture to the iconography to reflect those two sides of the Black Rose. There needed to be a sense of beauty and anguish, and for once I didn't think we should be too subtle with it. The Keep needed to feel like Karos himself had a hand in the design and wanted to use it as a tool to inspire his soldiers. This space needed to carry as much identity internally toward the Rose as it did externally toward the rest of the world and the players.

The detail of the design is all Jared though, and the execution of it is all Ben Droste. The two of them made this structure memorable and alive and not just another lonely castle. Without their skills and attentiveness all our careful story planning is self-indulgent and worthless. It's often the case that world building makes the story come alive more than wordsmithing.

Jared: I have loved her from the very beginning… this weathered beauty, this Black Rose Keep. Thank you for your kind words Justin, though it must be said that without the bones of the lore in place we wouldn't have gotten far :) Being part of the design phase in building Black Rose Keep with Joppa, Justin, Ben Droste, Bruno and now Tim, has been for me the single most shining highlight in the reel of my time here at Visionary Realms. For me what really makes her feel alive is just a great deal of love. In bringing details to life, one simple rule of thought came to bear, that Black Rose Keep was 'an elegant lady, afflicted by the accoutrements of war.' In this she is an island girt by the smouldering fires of violence, yet her grace remains undiminished. What began as a diversionary art mission for me with the brief of: "Jared, please take a week out from Elves and come up with some rough sketches for this keep and some fence pieces that we can repurpose", ended up becoming an absolute love affair with a beautiful old building cradled amidst the rugged cedar woodlands in the hills of Avendyr's Pass.

From floor-plan to motif treatment, attention to detail was paramount for us. When Justin said, (and I'm paraphrasing here, sorry Brother) "This is Keep Leon, home of E'mani Karos, master of the Black Rose organisation", and words like "bulwark" and "bastion", I began to imagine her as a grand ocean going ship… her prow-like prominence emerging from that secluded deciduous forest set upon a defensible bluff of rock in the hills of a sheltered pass. But there was also a grace and beauty under duress which groaned beneath the crushing weight of wrath; a lovely visage to juxtapose the overt signifiers of war. Justin's lore and background for Karos fuelled the desire to show these duel themes at odds. His lore is the heart of it, in every way. The tale of the Keep Leon becoming Black Rose Keep is very much a tale of a beauty and a beast, and nothing quite captures those dueling contrasts in one quite like the rose. It is of petal and thorn both.

The irony that the keep serves as a Black Rose headquarters was not lost on us, and so the rose imagery took on a gravity all its own. Needless to say I went just a little bit over the week to present a visual treatment that captured that essence ;) It must be said that Ben Droste our environmental modeller held nothing back, portraying this iconography painstakingly. He set it in stone relief, on banners, inlaid upon wooden furnishings... just a deep attention to craft. He read brilliantly between the lines where concept was not available, went above and beyond and delivered an absolute beauty. The appeal is all in the micro details lovingly crafted in, from lore through to finished article.

Tim: Not much I can add to this one. All I can say is it's great watching Justin and the art team collaborate. Jared's concept art was brilliant and then Ben just nailed building the place. Getting to see weekly updates on his progress of building the Keep was always something I looked forward to. From there, Joppa and Bruno added those extra layers of polish and visual goodies. We're lucky to have such talented people.

Q: We know Lore starts the ball rolling, but how much of the final product drew from Creative and how much came from Design

Justin: So I get 2 questions before Tim comes up, is that how this is going to go? I think the final identity of the Keep is fairly equal between Creative and Design. Players know this all too well, but a significant part of the relationship they will have with a place like this comes from the encounters, which is wholly on Tim, Corey, Joppa and the NPC work of Tod Curtis. Some aspects of that effort is also synergistic between C and D, and Creative tries to be as responsive to Design's needs as possible. Usually we've done an initial pass on the NPCs that inhabit a given POI during the first phases of story creation. Certainly by the time Jared gets to it there has been considerable thought given to that end. While I usually take the point on art directing (and I use that term as lightly as possible), Joppa is involved from the very beginning to ensure that gameplay is heavily factored into the layout of most POIs. Then it goes to asset creation, where Jared makes certain the 3D objects match the 2D ones and anything that needs additional reference is given it.

Before the zone or POI is handed over to Tim and Corey we will meet several times to discuss what still works from the initial NPC ideas, what doesn't, what new ideas nes they've come up with and hopefully a good list of what we're still lacking. Along with those efforts, ideas for mob abilities and initial thoughts on encounters are recorded, with each piece building upon the previous one.

Honestly our lines blur a lot between these two developmental teams. We can't afford to keep a pen of sacred cows around, and I know that Keep Leon benefited from close and consistent cooperation.

Jared: It so did. We've used the word 'synergy' a few times here already, but that is the truth of it as Justin has said. Black Rose Keep is the result of that powerful synergy between Creative and Design from opening foreword to placement in the zone. There's been a constant stream of open dialogue between both disciplines, so much so that it's hard to distinguish them apart some days. They fuse as one element sharpened in a common purpose. This continues even now as we plan the next steps for this wonderful locale. So much more to come!

Tim: Sorry Justin, they like to save the best for last but I have to say, you gentlemen have a real gift for writing, and when I say gentleman, I mean Jared.

I think it's a 50/50 thing. Typically, when I get handed a new area like this it's already in great shape and well planned. I'll do some sessions with Justin, Corey and Chris and we will just try to make sure that the NPCs that are living in there make sense and fill out the zone properly. We want to make sure a place like this feels livable and self sustaining. The great thing about that approach is it presents the opportunity to tie in other aspects of gameplay. For instance, adding in a cook and blacksmith was important to Corey so he could take care of his fellow crafters with some crafting drops.

Q: What was the inspiration for the keep? It seems to have echoes of the indoor/outdoor zones from great games of the past. Was this intentional?

Justin: I think making it the feature it has become was largely on Joppa, and yes it has echoes… oes… es. We discussed having a fortress-type structure for the Black Rose very early on in their concept, and he's always had an ideal that really felt big and yet identifiable. Chris is very keen on identity within a playable space, specifically one that we hope players will spend a lot of time in.

The indoor/outdoor aspect just really fits with the Keep and the Black Rose lifestyle. They are trying to carve out more than mere existence in the hills of Avendyr's Pass, and you'll see that this isn't just a shivering fortress waiting to be attacked. It's got a buzz about itself.

Jared: Indeed she is alive :) The close relationship between indoor and outdoor spaces was certainly intentional, and again the inspiration for that emerged from Justin's lore. When I heard the BRK tale in that late night lore session with Justin, I was so moved. From that moment onwards I simply fell in love with it all. Every detail had to be right. From the intricate rose vine filigree work upon her oak timber doors, to the hand crafted rose stencils gently beaten out in plate steel and fused into stone, every effort has been made to tell a story. I have loved every second of working with Justin design side - every word, every turn of phrase within the lore has deeply inspired to make this locale a place of resonance and meaning. Spatially it was important to offer a seamless transition from interior to exterior, mainly because of the natural immersion that it brings - it reaffirms to the player that they are not merely playing 'inside a box' while the game world outside is disabled. A seamless transition both ways speaks to there being a larger world, a wide ranging and integrated world that reaches far beyond what is seen. As to the exterior, we originally had planned on the floor-plans a secret hedge maze garden with a narrative revealing surprise - yet space within the keep's rear courtyard would not allow us to deliver both that and the clearances required for the dramatic action that needed to take place there. And so it was to become a much humbler central garden. And that's absolutely fine, I feel its' humbled staging there offers us a window in to the diminishment of the grounds' condition, and gives us room to go bigger elsewhere. Ideas never truly vanish, they merely lay in wait for their moment. No doubt we'll have something special in the place of that, perhaps something of a similar flavour executed elsewhere.

Tim: Like Justin said, Chris has a great mind for player spaces. He really did an awesome job overseeing all the work and making sure it came together at high level of quality. Ultimately, this place will feel unique to Pantheon because of it!

Q: What innovates and sets it apart from those old zones?

Justin: Well when it's all said and done hopefully we've depicted the lifestyle of the Black Rose alongside genuinely fun and challenging gameplay. Players should want to explore the nooks and crannies of every room while they're improving themselves with creative use of violence.

And unless we have committed brazen theft of intellectual property, none of those places had the Perception System.

Jared: Staging, for me it's staging. When the floor-plan was made it was laid out with NPC encounters in mind, from the ground up. Nooks and crannies, pockets of deep shadow and spaces of varying size both interior and exterior, purposely designed to house specific NPC encounters. Each room with its' own flavour, pacing and style is bent to that purpose. When at the planning stage every effort was made to ensure that the central space of the Main Hall was well used; a hub providing a way to link and flow from one space within it to another, to weave through it, past it, over it, even under it. There's more to Black Rose Keep than meets the eye presently, and that will be revealed in due time, but for me it was a delight to stage and plot out the layout of this building and her grounds. I'm hoping she will become well received and long remembered in the players hearts. Hey Tim, you said something that resonated with me to Justin before… something about Black Rose Keep being a 'home'...

Tim: I can already tell it's going to be home to a lot of our players for a long time. Sometimes you don't really need to innovate when there is good design. We will obviously have fresh and interesting things like Perception going on in there but this place sells itself.

Q. Is BRK more of a camping experience or a dungeon crawl?

Justin: I'd say camping but always consider the fact that I'm terrible at MMOs and shouldn't have this job.

Jared: I'd camp there man… steel plate greaves off and my feet up on a wooden stool before a blazing bonfire - a bag of decadent s'mores at the ready with m'man T-Bro here, and I'm set.

Tim: Hmm. You can definitely do both but the player in me is screaming camp. It just feels that way with the layout.

Q: How big is the zone?

Justin: Yes, well she has put on a few pounds of late. Personally, I don't think it's a very considerate thing to ask of someone who's over a hundred years old. We should all be so lucky to look as good as Keep Leon at 150.

To answer your question: it's a decent size, but also includes a good chunk of land outside the Keep itself. We are still tweaking a few of the outdoor features, but there will be several fun areas for players to poke around outside the walls if you're too timid to head inside right away.

As for the Keep: it's big enough for you to get lost in, but not so big that no one will ever find you.

Jared: There's a fair bit planned in here all orbiting around a pretty special storyline, so that makes for a lot of action, but from the outset when staging the keep's layout the goal was to get as much exploration out of our spaces as possible. Big storyline does not necessarily equate to big play space. For example, a great deal of action can take place in the Main Hall, but the experiences will vary within it owing to it's multi-level nature. It has two floor levels, and those are accessed by adjoining tower chambers with winding stairs. Beneath that second floor walkway we have 6 celled rooms on either side of the Main Hall, each serving to house several of the shady bandit denizens of the Black Rose organisation. But the great thing is you can see the second floor walkways and cell rooms from the first floor because they're in the same vis-zone (visual zone) and visa versa. We can openly explore a multi-leveled space without really having to leave the same chamber, and this allows for lots of action to be placed in the one space, readily witnessed by any in the same vis-zone, yet still maintain that 'unique to your group feel' because of the winding layout. It weaves and overlaps, but does not sprawl. Spaces like this are also easier to populate with props and NPC's because those placements contribute to the vista from anywhere in the vis-zone. It's good economy that works to fill the entire vis-zone :) Dungeons are a bit different because they tend to sprawl by their very nature.

Tim: It's not our biggest zone but it's pretty large! Big enough that we decided it needed to be its own zone. We previously had it as part of Avendyr's Pass, which is a massive zone in of itself. I think we made the right call to break them up.

Q: What is the level range of the zone? Will you be able to revisit it at later levels?

Justin: This line of questioning is just to make me feast of on the crowd of my own snarkiness, I assume. Actually, I can help with this one. You will be able to revisit BRK and you'll want to because the level range is very well spread out, depending on which area of the zone you're in. That's not to say we have fenced off portions that check your level before entering. There's a fair amount of intermingling between tiers throughout, but with higher concentrations of specific tiers in specific locations. Unless you've spent your whole char life outside of this area you should hit sections you won't be able to progress through your first time in.

The goal was to make BRK a memorable and substantial experience for players, and planning for revisitiations and diversity of content were a critical part of that.

Jared: Revisiting is definitely factored in, but this question is a good one for T-Bro… putting my feet up now and having another s'more. Hey, you want one man? Take it Tim.

Tim: This place has some real spread to it. You could spend a very large chunk of your characters life in the Keep. The lowest NPC is level 8 and the highest is 35. There might be one individual that's much much higher in level and difficulty but you didn't hear that from me...

Q: Will there be quests that are specific to the area? Will the perception skill play a part in the keep experience?

Justin: Absolutely! I'm working on a storyline right now that will give players an opportunity to uncover some of the old intrigue and modern day dilemmas of the group. When all is said and done there will likely be multiple threads that run through the Black Rose, and I'm excited to add a narrative layer to the exploration of a place like Keep Leon. The future of Karos and his followers is a tale I'm very happy to weave.

Jared: As we populate the keep and grounds, Tim from an NPC staging perspective, and myself with Joppa from an architectural set dressing one, it's very clear that we are going to have some amazing opportunities to create unique pockets for veiled experiences… opportunities to seek out and find those spaces first unseen. Items of interest and enemies alike both hidden in deep shadow or behind the space that players perceive on the surface will no doubt have a role to play here. Deeper examination often yields deeper insight, and there are more than enough spots in and around BRK for that to occur. The keep and her surrounding grounds offer so many opportune places in which to secret away that 'something special', something that only Perception could reveal, be it that quest giving item, NPC or story thread revealed through more thorough investigation. Justin has exercised his creative powers strongly to weave a fantastic narrative storyline for this neck of the woods, and Tim has a solid handle on enemy placement, staging and positioning NPC's perfectly to create a highly challenging approach to the keep for players who wish to survive her many layers of danger. It's really satisfying to see these guys work and watch it all unfold. Plus Joppa and I get to place like a thousand barrels in the zone. So good. So very good...

Tim: Absolutely! Perception is Chris' and Justin's baby. Expect to see it not only here but in just about all our zones.

Q: How does a POI like BRK stay relevant well beyond launch?

Justin: I think the first piece is genuine relationship and likability from the player base. The more an area like the Keep grabs your attention, provides meaningful and enjoyable content, and is designed well enough to keep you guessing, the more someone will make time to revisit it. Secondly, the significant range of content levels should ensure that multiple stages of your char life will be rewarded by spending your precious time here. Third, we plan on using this space for some interesting encounters that will make you want to keep an eye on Leon. (Yes, I am very pleased with myself, thank you.) Not to mention Storylines and Items of Insight, loot and crafting perks that will be exclusive to this area. Lastly, I think it's one of the best views in AVP. It's hard for a test group to go in there and not come out with a host of screenshots. I don't know if anyone can climb to the peak of the Central Tower, but I'm sure they will let us know if they do.

Jared: Provision for revisitation to the Keep and her grounds at higher levels has definitely been made, for there's the nuanced flavours of the play experience to consider. The ranging cast of NPC personalities who are ever in motion having made this region their home, offer a wonderfully varied adventuring experience. I'm hopeful that alone is enough to warrant revisiting time and again. Yet it's the E'mani Karos storyline with its' Black Rose thread, and the entire purpose behind his soldiers of the Rose that we hope will also keep players coming back. As they explore the world of Black Rose, mysteries will be revealed throughout the narrative, unveiled layer by layer - the way any riveting tale should be. There's such a beautiful plot component at play in this region of Terminus, that simply knowing how the story unfolds proves a sufficient motivator for return.

This keep is not simply a three course meal that one enjoys and then leaves, never to sample again. We're preparing an entire table of many flavours, and the planned courses still 'cooking in the kitchen' can only help to deepen the appeal of this place. Beyond these factors and simply put, Black Rose Keep is just a beautiful old world locale with visual layers all her own, one I hope that experienced Pantheon players will want to bring new members of their playing groups to see, just to share with them the experiences that they've had in BRK before. I dare say there will be surprises when they do.

Tim: Great question! There are so many things to think about when you look back on your favorite areas. Those dungeons that just kept you coming back. It needs to hit on a lot of things. Obviously, the art, ambiance and story have to be there but some of the other things are desirable loot, good XP camps and memorable boss encounters. One of the other things I like about this area in particular is although it's large, it feels reasonably accessible within. For instance, you can enter the first room from the keep and pull the lower tier content but there are higher level NPCs just up the stairs to your right or left. You could spend a lot of time (10+ levels,) if you wanted to, in that first room and the bedrooms above.

Q: What's your favorite part of the zone?

Justin: The presence of the place. Jared did an amazing job with the spatial relationship between the player and the environment. It feels like somewhere you'd want to go in real life, which isn't always how in game castle-types make me feel.

That's not to say it's warm and cozy, of course. I'd want to go there in real life with aggro off, and a lot more companions than the party size we designed for. And a friendly Rhy'Vulrene, which there aren't very many of if we're being honest. At least not ones who are friendly with me, even after I gave them so much austere in the world. Look, it's not something I really want to discuss publicly. Lava under the bridge of Ka'Druhorr.

Also the characters that live in the Keep. They are truly some of my favorite darlings.

Jared: Can I say everything? It's been a blast. Actually in all seriousness there is one spot that does stand apart for me, and that's the reception atrium at the beginning of the keep, showcasing the sculpted 'Rose of Kindred Hearts.' Justin and I went back and forth on this one a bit, honing as we shaped the concept design to bind it stronger with the lore and the story of E'mani Karos, lord of Black Rose Keep. For me any concept that hinges on story and then is brilliantly executed in the game world in three dimensional form gives me goosebumps. It's been a joy to work with Justin art and lore-side and then with Ben Droste on seeing the piece come to fruition in 3D space. Ben again absolutely nailed the beauty of the piece, installing it as the heart of the keep itself. I love it. When the moonlight pours into the atrium chamber through the ornate double doors to pool on the floor and highlight the sculpture's faceted steps and stone work, it makes me feel so satisfied. I start sending Team members high fives via Skype out of nowhere, and my wheels just fall off, but my Team is still good to me. I'm grateful to every one of them, because this zone is the child of the entire Team. While we may still have some shader tweaking to handle the coloured glass of Archai make used to craft the roses on that sculpture, for me it holds a special weight within the entire setting. To think that we have further tweaks yet to make that will only increase the grandeur of the zone is a wonderful thought :) Let's bring it T-Bro.

Tim: The top of the keep. I know it's going to feel like an accomplishment when you finally get up there and look out over the yard. You can really grow up in this place if you want.

Q: What's something about the Keep or the Black Rose that players may not know? (No spoilers!)

Justin: It's not always run by Karos, in fact he's usually away from Kingsreach entirely. And there's a very large bell. I'll leave the rest to Jared, who I'm sure has nothing to add --

Jared: Oh man, where to begin? There's what you'll see up front that the eye drinks in, and then there's the unseen. Layers of revelation will dawn only upon deeper investigation, and the keep has layers in spades. It's going to be a lot of fun and more than challenging a good deal of the time :) It's true that I've had to censor myself answering some of these questions already, and now this juicy question pops up. Let me say that there's so many exciting pieces I'd love to share on this particular topic, but such surprises are so intertwined with story and lore that it's best to let things unfold as players experience them. I wouldn't dare ruin those moments for our audience. Sometimes it's hard to sit on this stuff without exploding, but I'll be content when players start really delving into BRK's intricate plot. I just can't wait.

Tim: You ask me that but you say no spoilers!? We will have a raven pen on the top of the Keep. I think that's going to be pretty cool. Great idea, J-Dawg!

Q: Is it true Joppa put his initials in the concrete steps before it dried and now has to wash the Keep twice a month as penance?

Justin: Yes, but I thought we agreed on twice a week? Did someone change the frequency of his scourging? Not that I take pleasure in his humiliation, it's just the integrity of the game world at stake.

Jared: Three times…. I heard it was three times a week. It's Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays now. Tim said so. He decided on adding Friday because Joppa drew a smiling stick picture of himself somewhere else in the keep...

Tim: Fight club

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