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The small town of Salem, Massachusetts has a rich history. It was one of the first places in North America to be settled by the English way back in the 16th century. Along with Plymouth and Boston, it was part of the Hudson Bay Trading Company and settlers had to carve out their lives in the midst of an American wilderness previously untouched by European hands. Salem also was the location of one of the most famous witch hunts in the New World, with several young women accusing the wives of rich landowners of practicing witchcraft (as supposedly taught by a Haitian servant.) The Salem witch trials resulted in several executions of both men and women, and became a cautionary tale of mass hysteria and religious extremism for centuries to come. Nowadays, the town banks on its “occult” background, growing exponentially with tourists around Halloween, and anyone with even a passing interest in Wicca or witchcraft seems to gravitate there. Given all that history, Salem seems a really screwed-up place to set a massively multiplayer game focused on crafting and building.

But that’s exactly what makes Salem one of the most interesting concepts that I’ve heard for an MMO in a really, really long time.

It’s hard to encapsulate exactly what makes this game from two Swedish college students so compelling in a pithy statement, because it’s an amalgam of so many different and fascinating ideas. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the ideas in the game:

  • When you die in Salem, you stay dead.
  • It takes a long time to make stuff, which is shortened by your tools and how many friends you have helping you.
  • Instead of HP or Energy, your status is determined by how much of the four “humors” or bodily fluids you possess: Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile and Black Bile
  • Killing another player, or committing any other crime such as vandalism or stealing, produces a “scent,” which can be tracked by a player with the ranging skill
  • If someone wants revenge and tracks you, they can summon you even while you’re offline and kill you. (See line item #1)
  • You level by eating and drinking.
  • In places of civilization, the area is full of light. As you move into the wilderness, it gets darker and more mystical enemies will show up.
  • Building certain structures like churches will increase civilization, i.e. make the area brighter.
  • Practicing witchcraft (placing curses, etc.) will produce its own “scent” which can only be detected by those with the correct skill.

Interested yet?

Bjorn Johannessen and Frederik Tolf currently run a game called Haven and Hearth that is kind of like the first draft of a lot of what Salem intends to be. But where H&H feels homemade with its simple 2D graphics, Salem has the full support of Paradox Interactive behind it and a full 3D interface. It’s meant to run on one server where everything is persistent for all players, but they may add more servers after launch. Salem will be free to play, and I’m interested to find out how it is monetized without jeopardizing the balance. Unfortunately, the publisher isn’t ready to share that information just yet.

The four humors: Black Bile, Blood, Phlegm, and Yellow Bile.

The four humors: Black Bile, Blood, Phlegm, and Yellow Bile.

When you step off the boat in Boston, your avatar will be dressed in typical Pilgrim clothing. For all of the hardcore concepts in the game, you are actually pretty cute and have a multitude of emotes and expressions at your disposal – the lol and facepalm animations look pretty good so far. From there, you must build your own place in the New World by meeting friends and, well, building buildings. So how does the crafting work? Is it fun?

“If we were to chop down a tree here, it will generate a stump and a log,” Bjorn Johannessen, the creative director of the duo that call themselves Sea Tribe. “Logs can then be further processed into boards and other wood products that you need to build for example houses, looms, or a table and chairs.”

You can accomplish this task on your own, but it’s much faster with friends. “We’ve tried to build in cooperative gameplay, even in the smallest details of the game,” he continued as his partner Frederik Tolf demonstrated. “Chopping down this tree is going to take quite a while if he does it by himself, but if he were to team up with a couple of friends, and also if he had a metal axe instead of the crappy stone axe he has now, he would be able to chop down the tree in no time. We want player to have a distinct edge by playing cooperatively in the game.”

Johannessen drew my attention to possibly the most RPG-like element of Salem, a red black and yellow shape at the top of the screen. “This parallelogram illustrates the ratio of your bodily fluids or humors,” he said. “This is obviously based on 16th century medicinal theory where it was thought that you had four bodily fluids and the balance of them determined your psychological mood, your health and well-being.” The four humors are Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile and Black Bile and everything you do in the game has a cost associated with one of these bodily fluids.

“If someone were to punch you in the face, you’d lose blood,” Johannessen said. “If you throw a punch, you lose yellow bile.” Phlegm is used for crafting and the demonstration avatar had a severely diminished pool of phlegm from chopping down the tree earlier. You can replenish your fluids by eating foods, which can also increases the size of your “pool” of fluids, essentially making you stronger. “Leveling up is primarily done through eating food, which is why you want to farm, build and craft.”

What skills your character possesses is important but it will not be a grind. “We haven’t decided how you will acquire skills yet, but it will probably involve black bile because that’s the more intellectual resource,” Johannessen said. “Skills are more Boolean in nature: either you have them or you don’t.” Some of the tasks in the game will be impossible unless you have the right skill; you can’t build a certain building, say, unless you have carpentry, but not all skills are related to crafting. “If you have a mountaineering skill, that could allow you to ascend a steeper elevation.”

Bjorn Johannessen

Bjorn Johannessen

I’m one of those WoW players that will spend way too much time picking herbs and disenchanting items, without any XP reward, so the idea of having to forge a network of material suppliers in order to create the most food to level is intriguing. Combat in Salem is certainly de-emphasized, but it’s still there as Frederik Tolf directed his avatar to attack a deer that wandered by. The feeble punches he was able to muster were no match for a few swift kicks by the beast’s hind legs and Tolf’s avatar fell to the ground, unconscious.

Here’s where the really hardcore stuff comes into play. “The deer is a nice and peaceful creature, so it won’t hurt him after it’s knocked him out. But if Frederik were to receive another hit now, his character would die,” Johannessen said. “If you die in this game, your character is for all intents and purposes, gone, dead, finito. You have to roll a new character. We might allow you to keep a percentage of your stats — we do that in Haven — but the psychological aspect of losing your character and all your gear – gear is often way more important in a game like this – can definitely hurt.”

You’re telling me. I remember the days of leveling up a character in old MMOs like Ultima Online and dealing with the repercussions of some schmuck who’s way over my level ganking me for no reason. That death resulted in a loss of experiences and loot, but at least my character was still there. What’s to prevent the same brand of schmuck going around killing poor Pilgrims in Salem who just want to chop down some trees in peace?

“You need to unlock a couple of skills before you’re allowed to PvP,” Johannessen said. “You need to learn murder in order to kill other people.” The image of murder trainers (rogues?) in the safe-area of Boston immediately came to mind, but Johannsen said they were considering the mechanic of buying a book to learn skills. Still, even if you have to learn how to kill someone from the esoteric process of reading about it in a book, how will the world of Salem be policed?

“When you commit a criminal act, you will leave a theft scent or a murder scent. This scent can be used to track you down, and summon your character, even if you are offline, and your character can then be summarily executed,” said Johannessen. Even that killing will result in your executioner dropping a murder scent when he takes his revenge. “What we’ve seen in Haven is that people are very cautious of engaging in PvP at all. They know that if they kill another player that carries consequences, for a while.”

Timing becomes important, as is what you do after you commit the crime. The scents expire after an amount of time relative to your crime, so if you can hide far away, in a cave or behind walls, then your chances of outlasting the authorities increase. Perhaps the worst thing you can do is kill someone and log off, because anyone who has the scent can summon your avatar and kill you without you even knowing. At least, if you’re online in the world of Salem, the tracker must find your location manually.

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It wouldn’t be Salem without a little witchcraft, but it’s not in the sense of magic that you’re accustomed to in other games. “Witches will be players,” Johannessen said. “We want to create the paranoia of an early Pilgrim society. Witchcraft and magic in general won’t be anything like hurling fireballs and crap like that. You can put a curse on things. You can make your neighbor’s cow milk blood — all of the traditional perceptions of what witches were believed to be capable of.”

If you are the victim of what you believe to be a witch’s curse, what’s your recourse? How do you accuse Goody Smith of turning your milk red? “There will be a special crime scent for witchcraft,” he said. “So it’s a crime to practice magic.” The catch is that not everybody will be able to detect that particular scent. “We haven’t decided yet but you will probably have to be a priest.”

“We were thinking that burning a witch would remove all of the ill effects that she had created,” Tolf added. Unlocking the magic or witchcraft skill will be fairly high level, and that’s because they want it to be special and not common. The danger is that every player will want to be the most powerful character and therefore unbalance the game, not unlike the Jedi problem in Star Wars Galaxies, but the danger of being outed as a witch and burned will hopefully cap that desire.

As the player settlers head out into the wilderness in search of resources for their crafting, they will encounter more and more fanciful beasts based on literature of the time, including Squonks, Hidebehinds and even Cthulu-inspired baddies. You can also encounter Native Americans, and choose to befriend or eliminate them as you see fit. As buildings and crafting becomes more complex, no one player will be able to accomplish what a village can – it takes a village after all. There will be ways to organize into groups, as well as set crime permissions in the lands that you or your village has claimed. Boston will be the starting area, and you’ll be able to buy and sell goods from the Hudson Bay Trading Company on a limited basis.

Salem is one of those games that has me intrigued as a functioning world simulator because it has so many interlocking systems. The reward for crafting is increasing your humors, which in turn depletes your humors. Killing enemies or other players reduces their blood, which can only be replenished by eating food that you or someone else crafts. Players will be encouraged to specialize, explorers are needed to map the wilderness and find new resources while bounty hunters will inevitably pop up to track the guy who killed your character. Witchcraft will be a more subtle form of PvP, poisoning the well of a neighboring village to drive down their productivity, and then priests will specialize in rooting out their evil. That in turn can create a whole hysteria, with players pointing fingers at who the witch within their midst might be.

Yeah, there’s a lot going on in Salem. This isn’t your typical hack and slash MMO. Who knows if it will end up as revolutionary as it looks right now, but Salem has enough going for it that I’ll be on the docks of the Hudson Bay Trading Company when this game comes out later in 2011, ready to enter a brave new world with my fellow Pilgrims.

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