The year was 2k17, and League still didn’t have a champion who actually used a scythe in combat. Combine this with a lack of darkin characters, and it seemed like a match made in heaven… or hell.
Enter Kayn, a semi-darkin composed of equal parts arrogance, power, and xXedginessxX.
War, Corruption, and Really Inflated Egos
Legends whispered across Runeterra tell of a time long ago when the darkin entered the world and wreaked bloody havoc. While what happened during the invasion remains a mystery—for now—it is certain that, in the end, there were some dangerous darkin weapons left behind.
Fast forward to current-day Runeterra, where one of Zed’s disciples learns the whereabouts of a scythe of immeasurable power. This young shadow master decides immediately that he just has to have it. “Kayn is extremely confident in his ability to beat anybody,” says narrative writer Michael “CoolRadius” McCarthy. “And he thinks he can not only wield the weapon, but also destroy the darkin within.”
The instant someone lays hand on a darkin weapon, a battle of wills begins. The darkin trapped inside fights to control the wielder’s mind and body, and it’s a contest the average person can never win. Most are instantly overpowered, their bodies becoming no more than a vessel the darkin occupies while searching for a more worthy host.
Many have tried to wield the scythe Kayn seeks, and all have failed. But to Kayn, none of that matters. Those scrubs were all just too weak, and he believes he will triumph where everyone else crumbled.
Kayn finds the weapon and ends up locked in a struggle of wills that’ll end in one of two ways: Either he he will destroy Rhaast, the darkin sealed within, and wield the no-longer-sentient blade, or he will lose the battle and become a Rhaast’s vessel.
This conflict became the foundation for Kayn’s transformations in-game.
Choose Your Own Adventure
Unlike most champions in League who have multiple forms—like Nidalee, Elise, and Gnar—Kayn is unable to swap between his during the game. Instead, Kayn begins in his base form, and his actions in-game determine which irreversible transformation he can take. Game designer Daniel “ZenonTheStoic” says, “This is the first time we’ve really bound a champion’s ongoing story to the gameplay so tightly.”
Darkin Transformation Concept Art
Kayn’s in-game transformation system really needed to do three things. 1) It had to make sense for the story. 2) It should allow players to get better at managing transformations as they play Kayn more. 3) It could not do anything too crazy to the game, such as requiring you to feed your ass off.
The final result, where damaging (or killing) ranged champs unlocks assassin form while targeting melee champs unlocks darkin form, seemed to make sense thematically: The assassin wants to prey on weak yet high-value targets, while the darkin only wants to fight the worthy—beefy, hard-to-kill frontliners. Devs didn’t want the system to be too punishing, especially while Kayn-mains-in-training were still learning, so you can choose to reject the first form and wait out the other one. It’s locked away behind a meaningful timer so it still feels important and rewarding to manage forms properly, but you don’t ever have to be sad for thirty minutes because you accidentally unlocked the “wrong” form first.
Assassin Transformation Concept Art
Kayn was always designed with the jungle in mind, and all junglers need pretty much the same tools during the early game: a way to get in for ganks and some follow-up CC. Typically their strengths and weaknesses diverge in the mid-game, when tanks start to be able to absorb damage and initiate fights, and assassins can probably start wrecking squishies. For Kayn, this means once he transforms into the shadow assassin, he gets the extra speed and damage needed to threaten the enemy backline, while his darkin form gains the sustain and CC needed to thrive in chaotic fights.
Balancing the two forms against each other means constantly asking, “Are there enough scenarios where each form is clearly preferable?" Even if, say, darkin form generally did more damage to champions, that could be okay. “As long as there are games where you must get to the backline to blow up a fed ADC, and the shadow assassin does a better job of this,” ZenonTheStoic says, “then we can be happy and consider the two forms balanced against each other.”
Terror Three Ways
Creating concept art for a new champion normally means communicating the story and gameplay for just one character… but not for Kayn. “When we heard he had three forms,” concept artist Hing “Hdot” Chui says, “We were like, ‘Well, that’s terrifying. That’s a lot of stuff!'”
Of the three forms, the darkin one was the easiest to approach. Even though darkin aren’t actually demons in Runeterra (that title is reserved for characters like Tahm Kench), the darkin’s appearances are often inspired by underworldly characters. There’s a lot of familiar visuals to play with that communicate this particular flavor of darkness: massive horns, glowing red eyes, and a face straight out of nightmares. Hdot says, “It was basically like, ‘Take some demons and turn them into a really awesome darkin.’”
Everyone can thank anime for Kayn’s base form—his appearance was heavily influenced by cool and collected anime villain tropes. “I drew a lot of inspiration from the unflappable, super bad guys in anime,” Hdot says. “The ones who are uber badass and not afraid to just stare you down.” Base Kayn also doesn’t wear any armor, which is because he’s so certain he’ll be the fastest one in any fight: If you can’t catch him, what does he need armor for?
Pinning down Shadow assassin Kayn’s visuals proved elusive. Hdot says, “What does a master of shadows even look like?” He needed to seem like a total badass and insanely powerful, but not inhuman or hellish. While he should look evil, it needed to be the controlled type rather than the unrestrained wrath of a darkin.
Shadow assassin Kayn is like a limitless version of himself—a true master of shadow magic. This manifests on his body in the form of white markings, which, in Zed’s Order of the Shadow, indicate one’s control over the shadows. Base Kayn only has a few markings on his hands and forearms, but shadow assassin Kayn is nearly covered in them. His free-flowing hair also reflects the unrestrained power he now possesses, with shadows emanating from the luscious locks.
Master the shadows or embrace the darkin: Kayn’s fate is in your hands.