The games company that turned The Witcher into a computer RPG has also turned a tabletop RPG, Cyberpunk, into a computer game. You can imagine they learned a lot!
In a bit, Ryan Pergent, who worked for CDProjekt RED, will introduce himself better than I can, but suffice to say, when the chance to find out more about procedural generation in games from Ryan came up, I took it.
A site called Role Gate is in the centre of the overlap. It’s a platform to play tabletop RPGs via a chat interface. Role Gate leans into procedural generation as pioneered by computer game companies and, I think, will become something that traditional roleplayers like myself talk about more often in the years to come.
How you can use procedural generation to reduce your DM workload
I am Ryan Pergent. I discovered the world of tabletop RPGs as a kid, who unfortunately had no one around to play them with. I went back to it later in life, during my career as a Game Designer. I had the opportunity to get on the development sides of RPGs while working on The Witcher 3 and Cyberpunk 2077. After leaving CDProjekt RED, I decided to explore this hobby of mine deeper, by creating tools that would help me find more ways and people to play with; and hopefully, help the TTRPG community expand further!
Procedural generation in tabletop RPGs
By Ryan Pergent.
We’ve all suffered it: as one grows older, it gets more and more difficult to secure enough free time to play your favorite RPGs with your friends. It’s not easy to fit 4-5 hours for a gaming session in a busy schedule, right? Throw in moving to another city, where maybe you just don’t even have friends yet to play with, or the people you get to know just aren’t into the hobby. Suddenly you realize it’s been months since your last game… but the itch is still there – you really miss donning your metaphorical armor and sword to go on an adventure.
And the actual game isn’t the only thing that takes time – preparing your materials and character sheets, learning rules and table. If you are a DM/narrator, your commitment is even bigger: creating adventures for your players can take a lot of time, and that’s if you are inspired and have ideas for your adventures… which can be also a difficult task. You finally clear an afternoon to prepare your next session, and then you’re stuck in front of a blank page for hours. Designing an adventure can be lots of fun, but it can be frustrating as well if you just can’t find ideas.
Fortunately, there are some tools and techniques to ease the creative process and help you overcome the fear of the blank page – or even offset these efforts. Let’s take a look at some ways to help you the next time you sit down to design an adventure!
First of all, thinking of a story as a whole can feel overwhelming – where do you even begin? Understanding the elements that form a story (and what is an adventure that a story led by your players?), and breaking it down to its basic foundations, can help you a lot. You need a goal, something for your players to strive for. You need an antagonist – someone who will try to prevent them from achieving their goal. And then you need some blocks in the way: obstacles, encounters, fights or riddles that they have to overcome.
In the last years, video games have made popular the term “procedural generation” – and this is how it works at its most basic levels: a system where you have certain rules and frameworks, and a big database to draw from and fill the blanks. Games like Battle Brothers, Wildermyth or The Yawgh all do this brilliantly: they’ve got the framework of stories and use the players’ inputs to generate the details that make them unique. It’s not exactly new in tabletop RPG, either: at the end of the day, it’s how the tables for random encounters work. Old tabletop games like, say, Advanced Heroquest relied on a system of tables to generate dungeons and stories.
You can divide the story in a classic 3-acts structure: setting, climax and conclusion. That’s basically writing three main scenes: one where the characters discover what they need to do and meet their main antagonist and enemies, a second scene where they face them, and a final conflict where everything gets a resolution. You can make it more complex if you want, adding more scenes per act; the point is that once you have decided a framework, it’s a matter of filling the blanks.
What will be your protagonists’ goal? It’s going to be a verb: steal, recover, deliver, destroy, protect. It can be an object, a person or even a place – write a list of possibilities (a magical ring, a sword, a holy relic; a merchant, a friend, a king; some lost ruins, a temple…). Who’s going to be the enemy: a wizard, a politician, a bandit? If you don’t want to choose, just throw dices! Usually, having a prompt and a few loose ideas is enough to unblock your creativity and give you a framework to create the rest of the story.
And that’s another option: you can use an external source to nudge you towards the central point of your story. There are some interesting tools you can use in WorldAnvil, a website where you can find worldbuilding and campaign management tools for DMs. WorldAnvil has got some random generators to get you fresh ideas: sometimes a name, a single line summarizing a story or a description of a potion is just enough inspiration to kick off your next adventure. But it also has a very elegant feature for nudging your creativity: worldbuilding prompts, that is, a simple question which answer can be the central point of a story, or the pebble that starts a creative avalanche.
Their worldbuilding prompts are broken down by a large list of items – buildings documents, materials, characters, military conflicts… so you can go from one question to another to create the framework for your story. Let’s say you need to think of a cool location for an encounter in a high-fantasy game like D&D. You go to Buildings and find this suggestion: “Create a building which is feared by a culture of your world”. Ah, that’s a neat starting point: your players will have to explore a forbidden place that everyone fears.
But why do they fear it…? You go to Materials, and you find something that gives you a creepy idea. “Describe a rare organic material and what it’s used for in your world”… Why not having a whole building made of a pulsating organic material? No one knows how created it and with which purpose, and it’s so unsettling that everyone has been avoiding it for centuries. Who knows what kind of secrets there will be within it… There you go – you’ve got an adventure in your hands!
There’s another approach, particularly useful for more combat-oriented games: focusing on places, like dungeons, rather than on stories. For this there are some very cool tools out there, like the One Page Dungeon Generator – click a button and, boom, you’ve got a dungeon with some objective markers (chests, magical items and the like). Yeah, there’s no story behind it, but if you just want to smash some evil creatures, grab the treasure and run, then it’s more than enough! For some people, a map is enough to unleash their creativity and think of interesting stuff to populace the place with: you can use Perilous Shores to design an island, or Neighbourhood if you want to get a sprawling city for your urban adventures.
Now, I started this post mentioning how difficult it can be to find time to play RPGs; with that in mind a few years ago I created Role Gate, a chat-based platform to play tabletop games at your own pace. There are a bunch of features in Role Gate to help the busy DM, but there is one in particular that is relevant to this post’s topic, and that I’m particularly proud of: the AI Generator, which can create Characters, Location, and Magic Items. This can be a very powerful tool to spark your creativity and prepare an adventure for your team within minutes, or lean on it to support your imagination when improvising a scene or story.
Let’s show an example, following the method of deciding a framework for the story and finding engaging elements to fill the blanks. Let’s say I’ve got a session tomorrow and we’re playing, say, Call of Cthulhu – but it’s been a busy week and I just didn’t have the time to sit down and come up with a story, so I’ll have to put something together real quick. I’ve decided the session will have 3 major scenes as introduction, body and ending; so let’s design the first scene with the AI Generator.
In the AI Generator you have to set up a theme (fantasy, urban, etc.) and up to 5 must-have features for your description to have. I choose the theme Cosmic Horror and I pick up Location; as Location Type, let’s say it’s a university (classic Lovecraft!). Then I pick some features: it’s decadent, mysterious and dark, but also rich. It gives me this text:
“The university is a dark and decadent place, full of mysteries that students and staff are only too happy to ignore. The halls are lined with ancient tapestries and the air is thick with the scent of incense. The library is a dark, rickety place, filled with ancient tomes and hidden corners.”
So, there’s a library with ancient tomes and hidden corners… interesting – let’s see how the librarian looks like. Now I choose Character as the element to describe. Since this is the introduction, I want this character to be the one who sets our players into the investigation, so I’ll choose librarian, old and afraid as features. It gives me this text:
“The librarian looks like he’s seen a ghost. His eyes are wide and his skin is pale. He’s shaking and he can’t seem to stop looking over his shoulder.”
What is making him so afraid? He must have found something very disturbing in the dusty, forgotten vaults of the university. Generating a Magic Item, I write weird, unnatural, demonic and powerful as features – but I leave the item type blank to see what the algorithm comes up with:
“The Eye of the Outer Dark: This eerie, disembodied eye is said to have been plucked from the depths of space itself. It is a powerful magical item, capable of granting its wielder great power and knowledge. However, it also brings with it a sense of cosmic horror, as the wielder realizes they are beholden to entities far older and more terrible than anything they could have imagined.”
Dammit – the poor librarian found the Eye of the Outer Dark in a box — and as the philosopher said, he looked into the abyss through it… and the abyss looked back to him. I see the shape of the story: he wants to get rid of the Eye, but most of all, he needs to be sure that They who saw him through the Eye aren’t coming after him… So he wants to hire the players to track down the origins of the Eye and, hopefully, find a way to destroy it and make him safe. Our adventure is on!
Now, the team’s investigations will need to lead them somewhere – let’s get to act 2. Reading through the registers and ledgers of the University, they may find that the Eye was bought years ago in a certain shop in a seedy alley near the harbor. The Generator gives me a quick description:
“The shop is a dark, decadent place that oozes mystery. It’s filled with strange and dark objects that seem to call out to passersby. The proprietor is a rick figure who seems to enjoy watching people squirm. He always has a sinister smile on his face.”
I decide that the owner is the key to the mystery: he sold the Eye to the University for a reason. Maybe the players confront him directly, maybe they prefer to shadow him when he leaves the shop… in some way or another, at some point they discover that it’s not a he, but an it:
“Its eyes are black and soulless, like those of a shark. It has razor-sharp claws and teeth, and its skin is cold to the touch. It moves with a grace that belies its true nature – that of a cowardly, inhuman monster.”
I quickly decide the shop is a front, and the creature is but a pawn: a powerful sorcerer has been using it for years to plant cursed artifacts, like the Eye, within different seats of power of the city. In the next planetary conjunction, the creature confesses, its master will be ready to celebrate a ritual that will summon eldritch entities to each of these artifacts, destroying all its surroundings before they go back to the dark corners of the universe they come from.
This would plunge the city into chaos, and our investigators cannot let that happen – but thankfully, although the creature does not know where its master is hiding, it does know where and when the ritual will take place… Now we need a Location for our third act. A basement in a Victorian mansion seems suitable. This is what the Generator come up with:
“The mansion looms before you, its dark facade seeming to leer at your misfortune. It’s huge, easily the size of a small palace, and it looks incredibly decayed, as if it’s been abandoned for centuries. But there’s something about it that draws you in, some force that makes you want to explore its hidden secrets.”
Our investigators will have to find a way to sneak in… or just get gun-blazing past the guards, of course. Finally, they find our antagonist. For his key words, well, it’s been decided before he’s a sorcerer, he must be ambitious and clever to develop this plan for years, but also clearly mad; with these must-have features, this is the text the Generator throws to me:
“He is a small, wiry man, with wild eyes and long hair that falls in greasy strands around his face. He dresses in tattered robes, and carries a wand. He looks like he’s seen too much of the dark side of the universe, and it has driven him mad.”
That’s a very Lovecraftian theme: he wasn’t initially mad; rather, he lost his mind after delving too much into secrets that should be left alone. This gives me an idea, a nice tie-in with Act 1: our bad guy can be a professor from the University, the local expert in occult sciences. I go back to my drafts, and put up a note for the first act: the librarian actually recommends to visit him to get information; if the players do so he will try to misdirect them, as well as set his minions and cultists after them, making their investigation more difficult.
Well, looks like I’ve got an adventure – and it took me about half an hour to put it all together! The AI Generator gave me the inspiration I needed to create a framework for the story, and from there it’s just a matter of filling the blanks.
Now, how does this work, exactly? Without going too deep into technical details, let’s take a look at the engine under the hood… The generator is actually connected to OpenAI’s GPT-3, one of the most powerful AI when it comes to generating creative text. The AI has been trained by analyzing millions of examples written by humans and can understand what is asked of it using billions of parameters. It has access to quite a lot of the public’s general knowledge and can even write poetry! The results of interacting with it are astounding and generating character descriptions is only the beginning of how it will be supporting the tabletop RPG community in the near future.
I am personally very excited to explore this further and continue to expand the functionalities available on the platform!
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!