The first thing I did in the early access version of Book Of Travels was wander aimlessly into a dangerous forest, get robbed by a Ruffian, refuse to hand over my meager starter items because I had given myself the 'stickler' personality trait, and completely flub the resulting combat encounter because I had no weapons.
Might And Delight's creative director Jakob Tuchten was quite apologetic about my fate, but a life is a small price for a surprise - the greatest gift to an old MMO player like me. I'm telling you this off the cuff because this is not, in fact, representative of my ten hours with Book Of Travels so far. Aside from my initial unwitting choice to spawn in a dangerous area, the Braided Shore is a serene world with a meditative pace. It's a fable in game form, with its painterly visuals and homely magic. If you are looking for danger though, it is out there waiting for you off the roads and far from city centers.
Book Of Travels is what Might And Delight are calling a TMORPG. The "T" is for "tiny" as opposed to "massive". Each time you log in, you'll select a server instance to join with a current maximum player count of seven. It shares the Journey philosophy of multiplayer - occasional player meetups facilitated by an emote system rather than text chat - but set in the world of a classic cRPG.
The pen and paper influences begin in character creation, where my name is rolled from a pool of setting-appropriate choices (Ari Arin, because I'm a gremlin for alliteration), as is my starting gear. I recommend starting with a lantern because I was jealous of all the NPCs cheerily carrying them at night. My character class The Veiled specialises in 'mechanical' and 'social' activities. I chose the 'sensitive' trait that allows me to see ghosts, along with a starter spell Align that, if I have the proper ingredients, makes those ghosts visible to other players. As when playing around a tabletop, my choices about what will eventually evoke interesting play situations aren't based on knowledge so much as my gut.
After re-awakening from my bandit encounter, I point-and-click my traveler's little legs to the nearby city of Myr. It's bustling with NPCs milling about the city square. Book Of Travels has different styles of quests to guide your way. Some are direct like introducing yourself to a scholar who will teach you to read the knotted language in Braided Shore. Others are more opaque in the style of RPGs of old such as a snippet of dialogue that might just be a bit of flavor or may be hinting at a task. Tuchten points me to one of the former: a suspicious individual hanging around the town square at night. They offer to introduce me to someone who can teach me "certain effective trading techniques" if I take a knotted note to a particular person at a teahouse on Friday night. As in, actual Friday night.
"What we've done that I'm curious to see how it's received is we do a lot of scheduled stuff," Tuchten says. Sure enough, night is night and Friday is Friday based on the server's time. I compare it to Animal Crossing, which Tuchten says they've studied plenty. "We are about to meet the same sort of critique," he says. "'That shop is closed now? But this is when I get back from work!'"
All of the Braided Shore has a schedule that waits for no traveller. Even the boats from Myr to Bat Saha run about every five minutes. More than once I've sprinted into town only to just miss getting on board. It makes a good time to fish off the pier for my dinner, though. Some of Book Of Travels is scheduled, like NPCs who come out at night, while other events are randomised and unpredictable.
"The main story quest line is set off by a randomly-occurring event that you meet on the road," he explains. "She sets in motion a chain reaction of quests and storylines that takes you through what's going on in the world." As far as I can tell, I've not stumbled upon that encounter yet even in my ten hours.
They haven't been hours spent feeling bored, though. I've foraged for spell reagents. I've bartered with a fishmonger to teach me the art of fishing. I've cast my line out to collect fish both for dinner and to trade because there's no standard currency in this world. The fish, and a few other trinkets looted in lockboxes and forgotten satchels off the road, fund the purchase of my first sword. They also buy me the skill for whistling. I don't know what whistling does yet, if anything, but why not? I've also bravely ventured far south of Myr, sidestepping my second bandit encounter, to gather Whispering Orchid for my Align spell, because I have a hunch I know where a ghost is hanging about. While deep in The Jade Urn forest, I stumble across a contraption that requires seven ranks of Mechanics, meaning a group of players is needed to complete the task that Might And Delight call 'Endeavours'.
Despite the small server count, other players are often flitting in and out of my life. Often we'll pass in large towns like Myr or Crossroads, giving one another a wave emote, but I also manage to wrangle one player into following me to a lockbox I'd spotted not far outside town to combine our Mechanics skills so we could successfully open it. As for co-op, Tuchten suspects friends will hop onto servers together in small groups of two or three while casually chatting in Discord or the like.
For all that laid-back charm, Book Of Travels is as enamored with status effects and items as any RPG. When it rains, my clothes are wet, which makes my stamina for running drain faster. A passive skill I learned makes me walk faster on roads. Meanwhile, its merchants sell everything from interesting skills to commodity items you might carry as a currency stand-in. I loot knotted messages that might be the loose end leading to a quest. I'm keeping a small lock that I'm convinced might be of interest to someone somewhere.
"You'd better keep a pen and paper next to you because there's going to be hints and secrets going on that you might want to catch," Tuchten says of all the game's many items and random events. Eventually, he says that there will be an in-game notebook where you can freely write notes and reminders to yourself, as well as a diary for dated memos.
Book Of Travels is coy, if anything, drawing me in with a myriad of possible secrets that I have yet to see through. As a former resident of Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, The Elder Scrolls Online, and brief vacationer to Final Fantasy XIV and Black Desert, it's the unknown that attracts me. I've been an expatriate of the MMO genre for years now because despite how I've enjoyed those worlds, they're all, by their own design, inevitably reduced to Skinner Boxes dispensing colour-rated gear and ascended weapons. The magic fades when I understand every part of the machine.
Tuchten calls himself a World Of Warcraft fan, and says he appreciates the "sugary" quality of those giant games that always have an activity waiting when you log in. He's familiar with the slow slide into boredom, though. The endgame of most MMOs is optimization - of gear or aesthetics or PvP ranks - or something else that can be quantifiably mastered. I'm sure there will be players who even play Book Of Travels that way. They might find optimal looting spots and trade routes. Or perfectly balance their Ward and Force ratings for combat. I think, or maybe just hope, that its more open-ended world won't require me to dominate it that way. I have my eye on things such as a costly spell that sets off magical fireworks. You know, just for fun.
Tuchten isn't shy about Book Of Travels' possibly limited appeal. He calls it a niche game, maybe more so even than Might And Delight's Shelter series or Meadow. He reiterates often, both in my chat with him and in a recent livestream Q&A, that early access really is the beginning for Book Of Travels. It isn't finished. It needs a world populated with even more events and secrets. It needs more features. He's wary of traditional MMO concepts like player housing and direct player trading (neither of which are in the game), in favor of possible updates like more visual customisation or treasure hunting. Might And Delight really want player feedback on which ones to pursue.
I believe Tuchten understands, and maybe relates to, why I've broken up with MMOs, which is why I have faith (and even ten hours in, it is still faith) that Book Of Travels is the match I'd been waiting for.
Book Of Travels launches into early access on October 11th over on Steam, setting out on what it's calling the game's Chapter 0 for the duration of Might And Delight's intended two years of early access.