Open Fells

Notes on Old World: The Sacred and the Profane

For the last few years I have been working at Mohawk Games on the historical strategy game Old World. With the recent release of the ‘Wonders and Dynasties’ DLC I thought it would be interesting to revisit the year-old ‘Sacred and Profane’ event pack DLC, on which I was the designer and writer, in the style of lead designer Soren Johnson’s Designer Notes for the base game.

Strategy games have always been a natural fit for Expansion Packs and DLC, their possibility space of moving parts deepened and refreshed by the addition of new factions, scenarios and other mechanics that were out of scope for the base game. By the time a game’s release comes around, the team has spent years with the systems and likely have a list of things that they would do differently if they started again. DLC gives designers an opportunity to explore and push the ‘finished’ systems without committing to a full sequel, building into the existing game with the advantages of experience, feedback, and a player-base who already know how the mechanics work. For Old World, the idea for a religion-focussed event pack grew from some of my early work on the game creating events for the four world religions.

As Soren talks about in his Designer Notes on the subject, religion was introduced to Old World as a motivator for diplomacy. It is a way to bring some nations together and drive others apart. My primary goal with SAP (The Sacred and the Profane - named after a seminar on Egyptian cults I took at university) was to use the event system to get players to engage with the religions of the game, as well as to differentiate them: The four world religions in the game are almost mechanically identical once they have been founded, as are the various pagan religions. Events were a fantastic opportunity to add character to the religions, giving each one a distinct texture and acting as a natural hook for getting players to care about the religions and their followers without disrupting the balance of the game.

The second goal was to take the experience of writing for the base game and showcase more of what the extensive event system could achieve. The event system was constantly evolving over the course of development (and is still being expanded and improved upon for in-progress DLC) and although this meant that we could do more with it as the system improved, it also meant that by Old World’s 1.0 release the vast majority of events were not using the newer features that were added towards the end of development.


My first document for SAP was an incredibly rough list of the types of events that I thought could be interesting, to get a feel for the content and scope:

Event ideas

Mystery cults - event chain and traits that lets characters join a cult and progress through the mysteries. Bonus opinion for others in the cult. (15)
Meeting religion variations - different events that spawn the world religions. (8)
Epics, myths and readings - events that play off myths and religious texts. (15)
Festivals - similarly including real festivals as events and culture events. (10)
Unique world religion events - with a couple of new traits like a dead character being named a Saint. (40)
Unique pagan religion events - introducing the different gods and exploring different practices. (40)
Priest trait/characters - new priest characters with specific events and trait. (15)
Different one for each religion
Title tied to traits?
Would be good if religion got a bonus boost for giving priests jobs
Projects - adding some projects and events for cities with different patron gods, heresies etc. (10)
Magic(!) - taboo side of religion, characters can take up magic and try to use it for things like saving people. Maybe a new trait? Pos relation for pagan religions and negative for world?

Check through all of the existing triggers and anywhere else they can hook in to thread the events through the entire experience
Bring attention to them with the border, art etc.

(Aim for ~250 events)

The final events in the pack ended up being very different, although many of the initial ideas remained in an evolved state. As the first event pack for Old World, the production and organisation of creating this DLC was an ongoing experiment. Creating a group of events to be released at once is a very different task to the ongoing writing of adding events during development, one that needs more planning. The tracking of progress evolved over the project as the number of events grew, from informal notes, to a spreadsheet, to the inevitable slew of Jira tickets.

Open Fells

One of the helpful aspects of this spreadsheet was keeping track of how the events were spread out throughout the game. Events in Old World are fired by different gameplay Triggers and each event has a list of required Subjects which could be anything from a character trait to a specific nation. The goal for the event pack was to get a good coverage of the events across the game to give the feeling that the DLC was having an impact on every aspect, from diplomacy to warfare, from childhood to death. To use Jon Ingold’s wonderful term for adding onto existing narrative hooks, the new events were ‘barnacling’ onto existing triggers, traits and religions to seamlessly fit in with and deepen the existing range of events. Although 350 events (the final tally) sounds like a lot, when split between 4 world religions, 8 pagan religions and the various triggers it is difficult to achieve both interesting variety and coverage between all of the different triggers and game states.

One of the effects of this realisation was that I wrote far fewer religion-specific events than I had wanted to at the start. It is a tricky balancing act to make the events feel fresh with each play through, as too much fragmentation leads to repetition of the more common events, making it feel like there are less new events than there are. This is also true in the base game and not at all a solved problem, more something we have to keep in mind when creating. To keep the shared events feeling different I used variable presentation a lot more. Early on in the development of SAP the ability was added to be able to create dynamic text variables, so for example using the tag S0.PAGANGOD in the text would now swap in Zeus for Greece or Amun-Ra for Egypt. This allowed the religions to share a lot more events while making them feel distinct from each other. Using the names of the different priests, holy texts and gods add a specificity that adds a lot of flavour without hundreds of new events.


The mechanics of Old World provide a natural narrative arc for religions:

  1. The player starts without any religions
  2. A pagan religion is often founded early, upon building their first shrine.
  3. The first two religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism are founded and start spreading.
  4. The later two, Christianity and Manichaeism soon follow.
  5. Some point during this, one of the religions is adopted as a State Religion, binding the nation more closely to the religion and forming deeper divides.

This gave a narrative framework for the new events, with many building off the core idea of it being a time when the emerging world religions were in a state of exploration and formation, navigating their uncertain legal and theological standing as they emerged onto a global stage. The game allows a lot of what-if scenarios, like having a nation that follows Christianity with the Mythology theology and the Polytheism law enacted. A significant part of writing for SAP was reacting to these scenarios and encouraging different combinations and ways of playing. This focussed on turning points such as new religions being founded, spreading across the world, and arguments over the theological directions the religion can take.

Outside of these wider shifts in the game’s religious landscape, some of my favourite examples of this what-if historical fiction approach is with the historical characters that were added, such as Ostenes, a pseudo-historical figure renown as the inventor of magic, which was a chance to play with the concept of anonymous writers who were often not a singular person. Each historical figure has a few events specific to them that loosely follow history, but there is no railroading so it is possible to see a character take a completely different path than expected. Magic and myth are an exciting and essential part of the pagan religions. To add them without delving into the realm of fantasy, I was inspired a lot by the writing style of Mary Renault whose adaptations of the Theseus myth manage to blur the line between history and myth, not explicitly depicting gods or monsters while allowing us to see through the eyes of characters who do interpret the things around them as actions of the divine.

Although we are writing historical fiction, research was also needed. Passive research inspired a surprising number of one-off events such as a crystal ball with the word ABLANAQANALBA etched into it, a palindrome that was used as a magic spell, which I discovered through a Tweet and then researched further. A chance bookshop encounter with a captivating translation of Sappho’s poems in Washington inspired her inclusion. Following natural curiosity and staying open to these opportunities was a great help in avoiding burn-out when writing the events. To do active research, I started by searching for expert summaries that could provide a solid foundation: One of my key gateways to learning about Zoroastrianism was finding a pdf of a university lecturer’s course summary online, with an overview of the different primary and secondary sources and the strengths and weaknesses of each. The London Review of Books archive had articles on most of the historical figures, a less academic overview but similarly good at summarising the sources. Although I was not so lucky for others, books and JSTOR articles gave enough of a foundation to do targeted research from. I then looked at a few specific entry points to each religion - their early formation, the rituals and how they were performed, and what role the religion played for most people day-to-day.

With the majority of the SAP events I wanted to focus on giving a feeling for what the lived experience of the religions of the time was like. Pagan religions especially were a part of everyday life rather than a separate sphere of thought, and religion was very different for the various social classes. This focus on key events in everyday life with birth, marriage and death, tied into something else I was keen to explore, giving characters more interesting introductions and endings. Introducing a character with a strong narrative hook immediately makes the player remember and pay attention to them, raising them above the oatmeal crowd of generated characters. Likewise, death is often the least interesting way to end a character’s story and a character’s continued relevance allows overlapping situations for the player to create stories. This inspired events with twins, unusual births, defectors and more events with characters joining from other nations. For endings, there were characters asking to retire to monastic life, mysteriously disappearing and more events about dead characters becoming saints, being memorialised, inspiring later generations or their long-lost child turning up at court.


I knew from early on in the project that I wanted to have a mechanical element to SAP, not a complete overhaul of religions but something beyond events to help drive engagement with them. However, with it being the first ‘event pack’ style DLC there was a question of how much impact, if any, the mechanical systems should have, or if it should entirely focus on narrative events. Old World is already systems-heavy and finely balanced so the aim was to add interest within the existing systems - early ideas such as new study types or archetypes would have been difficult to do without the changes growing exponentially. Adding to one of these means reexamining the whole and one of the key philosophies was not to fragment the player base between different versions of the game.

Religious Dissent was a deliberately simple system in light of this. An upset religion will regularly spawn Dissent in one of its cities, adding a project (effectively traits for cities, sources of long term effects) that increases the chance of rebel units spawning in the city. This gives an additional reason for the player to care about the opinion of all of the religions in the player’s nation rather than just focussing on the state religion. This was especially important with more events than ever where you need to decide between which religion to support. It was also encouragement to use the new Clergy characters, who were one of two ways of removing Dissent - the other being violently with a Governor. Despite this simplicity, communicating the ways to remove Dissent was an ongoing challenge as finding the mission requires selecting the character first, meaning the player already has to know what they are looking for. There was no one solution to this, but rather a scattered approach of using tutorial events, concepts in tooltips and the in-game encyclopaedia, loading screen tips, making Clergy as visible as possible in the UI, and adding some easy to trigger (but not tutorial) events that encourage the use of the new missions and projects.

Beyond removing Dissent, Clergy characters were intended to give a face to the religions in the player’s nation in the court. The implementation of this is through a trait, one for each religion, which allows them to be easily found as the subject for the new events. The gameplay effect of Clergy went through many iterations across development. Due to the worry mentioned before of how impactful these characters should be, upon release they just gave a small opinion boost to the religion, were able to remove Religious Dissent from cities, and provided an alternative path to removing a character from the line of succession without resorting to assassination. This limited use never sat well and it was soon clear that they fell too far on the side of not useful as we saw increasing numbers of messages on Discord with players asking how they should be used. One of the joys of working on a game with such regular updates is that I was able to go back and completely revise the way that Clergy works, giving them a combination of abilities that emphasises their role in controlling the soft-power of religion.

The third mechanical element was cults. These are unique and powerful Improvements that are only added through events. The concept is that they have strong effects, but taking too many can lead to negative events in a push-your-luck style system reflecting the historical worry that these mystery cults, whose membership often straddled class divides, could be giving too much influence to the wrong type of people. Cults started as projects but became tile improvements due to similar visibility problems to the Dissent and remembering that the focus of Old World is the map: Characters, laws, projects, etc. all flow to effect the map, so seeing that change is far more interesting when possible. Ultimately the cult effects are interesting but the system is too reliant on events to be strategic, as the player can’t plan for them, or to be a tense risk with the push-your-luck mechanic as I simply wasn’t able to add enough events to reach the full potential. Perhaps cults are due a revisit...

SAP was well received and solidly met the promises of expanding religions in the game without being a complete overhaul. It has been thrilling to see players respond to it across the last year, highlights being the Discord community and a Three Moves Ahead podcast on the topic of ancient religion inspired by the DLC. There is plenty more to come from Old World so stay tuned on all of the official channels or check out the Discord if you want to hear more. I am planning a follow-up post to this one, going into detail on some specific events so let me know if there is anything you want to hear about. And finally, if you played SAP, thank you.

Until next time,


#Old World #design