I'm not gonna be smug about it.
Wait, screw that. Yes I am. Play Wildermyth, you cowards.
Wildermyth was already one of the best games I'd ever played when I wrote about it during a week off in 2019. There was never any pressure to do this. I just had to. I had so many stories. It was doing so many things so well that I couldn't stand waiting any longer to show it to people. Wildermyth does that to you. It brings you joy and drama, and it makes you want to share your stories. Oh and for the record, when I said "If this game doesn't take off like it deserves to in 2020 I will eat my own face", there was an implicit understanding there, see, between reader and writer that... look, I'm not doing it on a technicality.
To describe Wildermyth as "a turn-based tactical RPG about taking a crew of homemade adventurers around a fantasy world, fighting monsters, and concocting your own stories" would be accurate. It would be accurate to describe Earth as "a local planet". But while I will absolutely bang on about the writing and narrative design and various anecdotes Wildermyth generated, it's worth mentioning that the tactical battles are excellent. In most areas of its strategic map (revealed to you chunk by chunk as you progress through chapters) you'll fight monsters with a small band of adventurers, typically a core of five, with between two and four more rotating on the injury bench or pursuing secondary objectives. It's important, however, to spread skills and weapons around, as everyone eventually leaves, and focusing overmuch on a few overpowered champions can scupper an entire game.
Each fighter has a class, generally focused on melee and defence, stealth and archery, or magic. Magic is mostly the purview of the mystic class, who interfuse with scenery on battle maps to power a variety of spells based on what that scenery is. Interfuse with an anvil to cast Shackle, pulling a heavy out of the fight for a while, or with a candlestick to lance fire all over the place.
Positioning is already vital thanks to flanking bonuses, cover, and multiple adjacency-dependent support skills, but the mystics really dial it up. You can't just spam lightning, you have to pay attention to the map, be resourceful and flexible, and consider whether you should use that wall for ammunition, leave it intact to protect your teammates, or destroy it so the enemy can't use it as cover. Some hostiles can interfuse too, making for moments where you'll seize an item just to keep them from using it, or destroy them so you can use your Ignite skill to set the rubble on fire... or have your fire arrow guy hold back in case the enemy interfuse with his fires and use them against you.
I've yet to see a useless skill in Wildermyth. On levelling, everyone can pick one of four skills (initially three, but most existing ones can be upgraded), randomly chosen from a longer list. Many are class-dependent, but cross-class skills are often strong, and add immensely to the variety of options. One of my most lethal warriors is actually a hunter, who eschews knives in favour of slamming dudes with a gigantic hammer. When she scores a kill she automatically re-enters stealth, and thanks to a second skill even gets to do two attacks per turn. One mystic fights on the front lines with spear and shield, using a skill that deflects incoming attacks onto items she's interfused with. A warrior can make a strong archer, or even a healer.
All this is before considering the options opened up by the physical transformations that anyone can undergo in random events, or the way you'll find yourself choosing options and skills that suit people's personalities rather than what fits best into a spreadsheet. Which actually opens up more tactical possibilities as you chance organically across combinations you'd never have thought of. I love you, grumpy speedster who does free damage to any enemy you simply run past. In addition, characters who are friends are better at protecting each other. I spent four chapters with a team who didn't like each other much, only for four of their children and followers to forge a wholesome tight-knit friend group that could form a near impenetrable defensive wall.
I could go on. But great as the tactics are, and as impressed as I am with how they integrate with other parts of the design, it's the narrative design above all that makes this game a masterpiece.
Wildermyth comes with a campaign for each of five monster groups, plus endless procedurally generated ones. And here's where I'll start tripping over the words "story" and "narrative" over and over. What Wildermyth does with storytelling is so far beyond what most RPGs settle for that it will be difficult to go back to reading reams of fluff text and rehashes of Tolkein, Mad Max, or Star Wars.
There's the basic story of a threat to your world, usually some terrible evil to track down and destroy. There are the dozens of scripted micro-stories that your party will play out along the way, which vary based on their personality traits, skills, background, relationships, and your decisions. Then there's the more interpretive emotional story that will form as these overlap with each other, and your group's personal experiences change the tone of the scenes they’re in. You can replay one and get, on a technical level, the same story, but between the many, many permutations of dialogue, consequences of decisions and who lives or dies, and which side stories and character developments you've gone through this time, it's never the same twice.
And finally, there's the story that you'll tell of each of your characters as you bring them back for more campaigns. When a hero retires or dies, you can add them to a roster of "legacy" heroes, immortalised with some skills intact. If they rejoin another band in another campaign, they become part of a new story. Old C-listers get a chance to shine, and old favourites can become legends, crossing over into other realities in impossible ways as their fame endures, but the details blur. Achilles slaying the minotaur. Aladdin and the forty thieves. Or Jilly Poole, the mystic who lived through three campaigns, but was always on the periphery.
"You can get, on a technical level, the same story, but between the many permutations of dialogue, consequences of decisions and who lives or dies, it's never the same twice."
But this time, the small things were adding up. The scene where we recruited her started with villagers calling her the "Silent Strike", to which she replied "Spend enough time on the outskirts, people will call you all sorts of things". I know that this was probably because of a personality trait recorded in her character sheet. Sometimes the assemblance of code that forms a hero will change your opinion of them, but often it will align spookily well with how you already viewed them.
As you explore and fight, pretty comic-book scenes periodically pop up for a side story. It could be a ghostly voice taunting your hunter about a terrible secret in his past. A retired singer could ask to join your camp and your mystic gets all excited because she's a huge fan. Bandits are extorting a local village. Much of it is adventurer material but some is just life stuff. Sometimes it has no material benefit, but sometimes it bags you a powerful weapon, or magical power, or even transforms your least favourite warrior into a wolfman.
Jilly's all started alone. Trailing behind the group, or unable to sleep and going for a walk. She'd typically come back to the group and never mention it. I started to realise that during her time on the sidelines, she'd not only taken part in most of the greatest events of her society, but been having these incredible private moments the whole time.
I fell in love with this most undramatic of heroes. I valued her opinion enough to turn down a rare and precious free recruit, because she thought they would do more good as a healer in their home town. In another event I was given four options, three of which would give a unique reward, but the fourth option was to be kind, and I knew it's what she would do. Also... she fought a bear. JILLY! She had her day in the end. At the age of 70, this hardy mystic was recognised as the leader of the group that stopped the Drauven in the latest campaign, All The Bones Of Summer.
At the start of a game, you generate heroes to fill certain character roles, like casting a play. The more recent campaigns asked for Legacy heroes among the starting cast, replacing the "three farmers have adventures" dynamic with things like "a familiar hero returns and is recognised by two young siblings", or "a grumpy jerk's largely absentee mother returns to drag him off on some personal obsession". The game structure is always the same, but by changing the character dynamics, the devs created plots that feel wildly different. The opener is a straightforward sinister evil lurking in the wilds, but the later Thrixl campaign is a gruelling, urgent tale about a bizarre force of ghostly, faintly insectoid things, with multiple plot-critical characters who can play a role in all five chapters... but can still die.
All The Bones Of Summer is completely different again. It's a calm, melancholy story told across such a timescale that my final lineup five included the great-grandson of one founder, and a key starting character was a barely-remembered legend. And it's tragic. What I suspected from the opening scene would be a story about supporting the noble oppressed non-human in their campaign for justice instead went in a wildly different direction. The Drauven, its purported villain, and the only faction easily compared to a stock fantasy race, are nonetheless my favourites now.
I've complained before about games that try to guilt the player out for doing what's necessary to play the game. Wildermyth avoids this. What you're doing seems like a reasonable thing from your party's perspective, and the narration even acknowledges that one less misunderstanding might have prevented it. So by the end, when I was utterly ploughing through enemy ranks with my most powerful group yet, I was both delighting in my success and the power of my team, and feeling more intensely what a horrible, undeserved situation that same enemy was in. But what led us here stretched back generations, and even after we'd succeeded, we'd never truly understand what we'd done. Jilly finally getting recognised as a great hero was no less bitter for my knowledge that she'd have been good friends with her foe if only she'd really known them.
But it was just one story. One of dozens I've had, of hundreds I will have, and one of tens of thousands that people have been having of their own this last week. I cannot possibly express to you how brilliant Wildermyth is nor how fully I recommend you play it and get started on your own. It is one of the best games I have ever played and it will bring you more delight than you thought possible.