Will you overthrow the queen and her clockwork iron army, or join her as a spy? The relics you recover from the elven dungeon will change the course of history! A Crown of Sorcery and Steel is a 450,000-word interactive fantasy novel by Josh Labelle. I sat down with Josh to talk about his experiences writing the game. A Crown of Sorcery and Steel releases this Thursday, October 27th. You can play the first three chapters today, for free.
This is a really interesting fantasy setting. Tell me about this world and how you dreamed it up.
The goal with A Crown of Sorcery and Steel was to give players the feeling of being part of an epic tabletop campaign. In keeping with that, I wanted to include common and recognizable fantasy characters and tropes, but try to go a little deeper or complicate things wherever I could.
I started out by drawing a map and creating a timeline to figure out where each culture of Kanda would live and what conflicts would naturally spring from that. I picked themes and motifs for each culture — from the seafaring humans to the mosaics of the orcs — to help figure out who they were, deep down. I was also very conscious of the pitfalls of fantasy worlds like this — from racial essentialism to making monoliths out of the various cultures of the land — so I tried to make it so that each culture in Kanda has its own internal divisions too.
So, for example, not every dwarf in Kanda agrees with the Artificers’ Guild. There are orcs who are fiercely loyal to the royal family and some who feel neglected by them and would love to see them fall. There are elves who hold on to the old ways and elves who would rather move on from them. And as for humans… well, they’re hopefully at least as complicated as real humans.
It was great fun to draw out all of those struggles and imagine how they might have played out over a couple of thousand years. It also made it easier for me to create and sympathize with the queen. Though she goes about it the wrong way, she’s ultimately someone who wants to put a stop to all that fighting, and there is a nobility to that… if you can get past the fact that she’s trying to do it with a colossal army of metal monstrosities.
This is your first title with Choice of Games, but not your first foray into interactive fiction or game design, right?
I’ve been creating interactive fiction for about five years now. In 2020, my Twine game Tavern Crawler tied for first place in IFComp, the annual interactive fiction competition. Tavern Crawler shares many themes and is loosely set in the same world as A Crown of Sorcery and Steel, but it has much lower stakes and a slightly more comedic tone.
I also work professionally as a narrative designer, though the games I work on at my day jobs (Disney Dreamlight Valley, Kim Kardashian Hollywood, Originals: Interactive Stories) have regrettably had far fewer dragons than my interactive fiction work.
What did you find most interesting about the process of writing a ChoiceScript game and the mechanics of one of our games?
The most interesting challenge was the sheer volume of choices required for a game like this. Keeping them from becoming repetitive was always a balance.
In terms of just sheer fun, after spending so much time working in the games industry where scope and art budget are always considerations, it was great to work on a game where the only limit was the ability to describe something in words. It was amazing to be able to write “An army of a thousand humans, orcs, and elven spellcasters clashes with an army of a thousand metal men” and not have to worry about someone having to create rigs, vfx, and animations for all that.
Did you have a favorite NPC in Crown of Sorcery and Steel?
All of the characters had their charms and their challenges. Vid’s sassiness and ego were fun to write, but keeping him dimensional and relatable could be a challenge. Anattho is a fundamentally good man who’s being pushed past his limits and making bad decisions, but keeping him from becoming either boring on one side or unlikeable on the other was a constant balance.
But the character that I came to appreciate writing the most was Khattya, the elven scribe. Khattya’s struggles with her religious beliefs and her values, what to keep and what to abandon, ended up feeling very relevant. Even as the writer, I would sometimes struggle with what choices to pick for Khattya when I was testing the game.
One thing that I’ve really loved is hearing completely opposite opinions about each character from different beta readers. I hope that means that they’re complex and engaging enough to draw out different opinions, and that different playthroughs might lead to different perspectives on each of them.
What else would you like our readers to know about this game?
This is a game where the choices you make early on will really shape your experience. A human player may have a very different perspective on the War of the Wilds than an elf player will. Siding with the queen will be quite a different experience from being dedicated to her destruction from the beginning.
At the same time, players should know that in Kanda, where you come from does not decide your destiny. Your stats are not bound by whether you’re an elf, dwarf, human, or orc. I’m excited to see heroes set out from a dwarven enclave and become a hero among the orcs, for example.
I also wanted to thank everyone who helped with beta testing and providing copyedits for this book. Everyone who reached out with feedback made this book at least a little bit better, and I appreciated it so much.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I’m focused on my busy day job working on a game in early access, but I do have a side project in the early stages where you play as a tabloid reporter in a world of superheroes. I’m hoping to dedicate more time to that soon.