Behind the Veil of Tolham

Welcome to the FM Author Spotlight, a series of interviews that provides an exclusive peek into the world of fan mission creators. In this episode, we are talking to Lord Taffer, the author of a recently released mission Mysteries of Tolham.

Aemanyl: Please introduce yourself and tell us how you discovered the Thief games.

Lord Taffer: I'm known as Lord Taffer on TTLG and Discord. I live in southern Finland. I can't say for sure the year I first saw Thief: The Dark Project, but I think it was 1999. My older brother bought the game, and I used to watch him play. I liked the atmosphere immediately and was hooked! At that time, I was 9 or 10 years old. We had one computer, so often I was just watching my brother play. He bought a new computer around 2004, which is when I dived into the world of Thief myself, as I now had the old computer. Back then, I didn't understand texts very well or pay much attention to them, but I absorbed the unparalleled atmosphere and was very impressed by the cutscenes and the story. Garrett's persona was absolutely fantastic, and Stephen Russell's voice acting was superb!

I registered on TTLG in 2013 but played several FMs that my brother downloaded years before. I wasn't active at all from 2013 to 2017 and took a total break from Thief that lasted about 4 years. I got back into it in late 2017, played the OMs again, and then started playing FMs. I became active on TTLG at the same time that the TDP 20th Anniversary Contest was open, and what amazing timing to become active! I was so impressed by this contest - 23 missions in total! We can only wish to see such an event one day again! Of course, the TMA 20th AC was a great success too, and I managed to submit a very small and simple debut FM myself. This contest also has a very special place in my heart because I started my FM creation, and not to mention the contest's top trio that belong among the very best FMs ever made!

Aemanyl: Congratulations on releasing your TDS 20th Anniversary contest mission, Mysteries of Tolham! How do you feel about this achievement?

Lord Taffer: Thanks! It's awesome to be part of a 20th Anniversary Contest again. I'm very pleased with my creation, especially when comparing it to my first FM from four years earlier. Mysteries of Tolham is a work of passion, and I think it should be a challenge even for well-experienced taffers, mainly because it's so large and circuitous. My strength is probably the visual side and the stream of consciousness style of the creation process. I know I still have work to do to improve the gameplay and the story, but overall I feel very good now that my submission is out there for playing!

Aemanyl: Mysteries of Tolham isn't your first mission. In 2020, you released Time for Change, a humble yet promising debut. How did you get started with DromEd?

Lord Taffer: Thanks to Nicked for starting my FM building career! His Guide to Creating a Mission is the reason I dared to start DromEding in the first place. I had built some levels in Heroes of Might and Magic III, which is my all-time second favourite game after Thief 1. Creating levels in those games differ totally. It's much harder in DromEd to get something worthwhile done.

I started building Time for Change in a late state, because there was two to three months building time left for TMA 20th Anniversary Contest. I did what I could, and you should have seen it before beta testing - it doesn't get any rougher than that! It changed very much in one week of beta testing. It was really a time for change in that matter.

Aemanyl: What inspired you to create the concept of Tolham, a labyrinthine city steeped in ancient sorcery and intricate machinery?

Lord Taffer: At the time I started building Tolham, I replayed The Whistling of the Gears and Rose Garden. During my first playthrough, I knew that these two missions are very special, but back then I wasn't as experienced as now, so they weren't in my top trio in the contest, but close. Now after replaying them, they climbed to the top. They are a work of passion, it shows and feels! Especially The Whistling of the Gears inspired me to create city streets where metal and machines are in the centre like in no other FM. Rose Garden, on the other hand, is a very massive and captivating city mission. There are other FMs that inspired me a lot such as: Catacombs of Knoss, The Tomb of St. Tennor Pt.2, and of course Into the Odd and Alcazar. I think the duo Schlock and Squadafroinx has one of the most recognisable and wondrous styles to build and it inspires the taff out of me!

I don't really plan very much as I build; I just go for it. It's a stream of consciousness style as I place one brush after another and listen to music. I also visualise areas even when I'm not at the computer. For instance, when falling asleep, ideas of cool and weird areas emerge in my mind, and sometimes I remember them the next day. Then I might write a description of that in a notepad and see if it's worth building one day.

Tolham's centre, where the cataclysm happened and lava flows, I dreamt up much earlier. A couple of the weirdest underground areas, which involve objectives, I envisioned how they would look and then built them. Other areas are mostly created on the go. The first area was a small but tall city section where players can go to Salimar's house or climb high up, and then another even smaller area with a water hole and some debris. After that, things evolved and became connected as I built more. The overall idea broadly was to create a combination of an ancient magical city and blend it with metal and machinery. I tried to create an atmosphere of mystery, and the player can read about older events and characters that had an impact on Tolham.

Aemanyl: The readables in Mysteries of Tolham often reference names from Sperry’s classic campaign, Shadow of Doubt. What do you find interesting about Sperry’s work?

Lord Taffer: I really like old FMs as they have a special feel to them. They aren't so polished and beautiful overall, but that is exactly what makes them cool. They evoke the same atmosphere that I felt as a kid when I was watching my brother play, or later when I was playing OMs myself. Simplistic or quite minimalistic design definitely has its own aura. Oftentimes, I'm surprised by how creative they are, and the story and gameplay are very strong.

Sperry's Shadow of Doubt has two missions that I especially like: Tears of Blood and Broadsword of Sheol. Tears of Blood perfectly captures the feel of isolation and hopelessness in this Hammerite prison called Guilesatpeak. It's also a great contrast as you finally get to see the daylight, transitioning from pitch-black darkness to merciful daylight. Shadows are a thief's best friend, but this time it felt like a relief to see the daylight. Broadsword of Sheol is a very unique mission, and from that early era, I haven't played anything like it. It's honestly terrifying at times, and the total isolation and loneliness are palpable. The beginning pathway where you once again see the daylight is magnificent, and then into the darkness we go, and in the end, back again to the daylight. It's perfect that way! Needless to say, I'm really looking forward to Sperry's new work: Shadow of Doubt Re-edition and Goblin Den!

Aemanyl: Can you walk us through your typical DromEd workflow? Where do you typically begin, and how do you approach the different stages of mission development?

Lord Taffer: I usually start from one of my old FMs and load a very early version, which has one average-sized air cube and maybe all the basics set up. So, Garrett has a health bar and some basic equipment. I haven't so far drawn any sketches of what I'm going to build. I just start building and thinking about what would be cool and possibly unique. At the same time, I'm thinking of how the area should look, and what style: city streets, ruined streets, or something weirder maybe. I'm not a very rational person when it comes to the world of Thief. I don't think about realism very much, because I think it can extinguish your creativity to some extent and then you start to think maybe too 'normally'. That's why I don't really care if FMs don't have restrooms and such necessities for real life. For me, Thief enables a way to get away from the world we live in and fantasise. It grants me strength, as long as I don't spend too much time on it daily, of course.

About different stages: I first build quite a lot of the level, and lately, I have started room brushing partly at the same time. It gives me a better picture of the atmosphere, and it feels much better than silence. I usually put in lots of lights at the same time I build, but that can slow down building because optimisation takes longer. Lights just make it so much more lively that I've felt I needed them to get a better picture of the area I'm building.

Aemanyl: Are you currently working on any new levels? Do you have any WIP screenshots to share?

Lord Taffer: Yes, I have three WIPs of which one is quite far built. I started building it (TG) for New Dark 10th Anniversary Contest, but couldn't make it on the deadline. Then, there's a big snowy city mission (T2) that has a lot of potential, and a mission (T2) that was supposed to be for 2021 Summer Speedbuild Competition.

Open screenshot
The big snowy city mission for Thief 2.
Working title: Shadows and Silence

Open screenshot
The big snowy city mission for Thief 2.
Working title: Shadows and Silence

Open screenshot
The big snowy city mission for Thief 2.
Working title: Shadows and Silence

Open screenshot
2021 Summer Speedbuild Competition project for Thief 2
Working title: Ruinenham

See all work-in-progress projects by Lord Taffer:
Ruinenham (working title, T2)
Shadows and Silence (working title, T2)
Zulkan the Traitor (working title, TG)

Aemanyl: What are your most irritating pet peeves in a fan mission?

Lord Taffer: I've never really thought about these, but overall I don't get very excited about extremely hard missions where you need a walkthrough all the time. What else? Maybe very realistic FMs that have no weirdness in them. That's a broad description, but basic manor missions are so common in the history of Thief FMs. This might sound silly, but I don't yearn for restrooms in FMs, and if an author doesn't build these, I don't blame them. If there's a cool passage from the privy, it's much more interesting. But often it's just a moss arrow you find there, if even that.

Aemanyl: What are some of your other interests, pastimes, or hobbies that you enjoy in your free time?

Lord Taffer: I listen to music a lot and play guitar myself, acoustic and electric guitar. I'm even in a band but we're gigging rarely. Hopefully, in the near future we will be able to publish our first album and the second one has already many finished songs.

I like to read fantasy and horror books like those authored by Roger Zelazny, Stephen King, and Robert E. Howard. In the last few years, I haven't read at all because Thief has taken all my time, really. Also, I watch movies weekly. Both books and movies can be inspiring for building a mission. I could say that Roger Zelazny’s The Great Book of Amber was one of the sources of inspiration. ‘The Eternal Circle’ in Tolham is kind of a similar thing to ‘The Pattern’ in The City of Amber. Also, I should mention one of my favourite movies that inspired me: The Ninth Gate (1999). I used some cool phrases from that movie in Tolham’s three ‘poems’.

Also, I draw sometimes. This happens rarely, but if I see some cool photo or a map, I try to mimic it closely. I drew the map from J.R.R Tolkien's The Children of Húrin. It was good practice for Tolham's map. I drew Tolham's map quite fast as it is much simpler, but it was a fun process. There's that cheerful sea monster added in the map corner. It was just a wild idea that I decided to carry out. Aemanyl, I can thank you for showing me this medieval sea beast.

Aemanyl: Is there anything else you would like to add or share at the end?

Lord Taffer: I just want to say I hope our community grows steadily and new authors come to the scene. It's been very positive to see multiple debut missions released from brand new authors recently! Also, I want to thank all the members in TTLG and Discord for keeping Thief alive! Keep on taffing everybody!


Thank you for reading! We hope that you've enjoyed this insightful interview with Lord Taffer. Every Thursday you can look forward to a fresh interview with fan mission authors, featuring both the rising stars and the seasoned veterans of our beloved community.

Stay tuned and see you in the next issue of FM Author Spotlight series!