Things I’ve Learned from… The Witcher 3 (1/5)

Disassociated Mechanics

One of the most distinctive elements of The Witcher is Geralt’s silver and steel swords. While a nice world building detail the double swords also cleaves the game’s fighting mechanics in two. This simple separation hides one of the games most interesting mechanics.

Monsters and more mundane human and animal enemies are better damaged by the two different types of swords. When attacking an enemy with the wrong type of sword they take much reduced damage. As you play the game and increase your level the damage of your swords increase. But from sword to sword the rate  of increase between steel and silver are different.

According to the Witcher 3 wiki relic steel swords have a damage range of about 57 to 401, an increase of 344 while relic silver swords have a range of 127 to 846 an increase of 719. Monsters have much higher health overall and are trickier to fight.

By separating the groups of enemies you fight the game can keep the difficulty of monsters versus humans very different. Most fights with human (or non-humans) are in groups with multiple types of attackers. Geralt has to scramble between archers, melee fighters mixed in with the odd hammer or shield wielding bandit. Monsters on the other hand are generally in ones or twos or in groups of very similar creatures. Monsters become more of a puzzle, without the range of other attacks (signs, potions, bombs, etc) Geralt will struggle in most fights.

Use in RPGs

In my own game design I usually try to keep mechanics even across the board, but the Witcher’s use of different levels of challenge by separating the mechanics teaches a clear lesson, monsters are dangerous and are very different from human enemies.

Its insistence on monsters being harder also puts the spotlight on using techniques that will counter the strengths and defenses of monsters. Ghost that goes immaterial? Use Yrden runes to trap them. Angry necrophages barreling towards you? Use fire to drive them away. Building enemies with an idea of a strength and how the PCs can counter it and then making sure the difficulty inclines them to learn those counters.



Game Lab: Monster Cleanup

I have a long list of monster ideas based on a variety of sources. To work through this I’ll post a quick idea for a monster every so often. Enjoy!

The inspiration this week was the one line from my ideas notes: “AOE Blind wandering monster.” I can’t recall where I got this idea. I probably should add more context when I write these down.

Vague indeed. To add at least a little context first I should decide what type of game this would be for. The AOE part makes me think of a D&D enemy. But its blindness seems a more gothic/macabre detail so it could be a dark fantasy creature or even a horror monster. Since the AOE part is so D&D it will be more interesting to think about it as a horror thing.

As I’ve mentioned before most monsters are more horrible when they aren’t fatal. If a PC is killed by a monster then the fear vanishes. If this creature is to be a horror monster it should do something weird, out of place, and disturbing that can transport the PCs somewhere far worse than death.

Since it is an AOE creature it should be reasonably easy to avoid, so a shambling slow thing is best, its blindness will let it follow sounds. Stealth rolls would be required to avoid its attention.

Non fatal AOE attacks are… a little hard to think of.

So instead I’ll focus on the nature of the creature. A shambling thing, seen from far away should have a clear shambling silhouette. I see this thing as hunched over, headless, instead a mounded shape with its arms out and also mounded over. Perhaps its covered in wax, candles burning on its back. The light will make it clear where the creature is, signaling to the players that danger is coming.

This lends us what its effect is. A creature made of wax, or at least obsessed with creating the candles on its body, will need ways to create its candles. To do this it uses magic to melt the fat of living creatures in a radius around it. The fat liquifies and seeps out of their skin or orifices. The creature then collects the fat and begins rendering it into candles. If it can catch a living creature it steals clumps of hair to make wicks.

While around the creature within its magical radius its victims lose fat, at first it seems good, they gain charisma or appearance from their new skinniness. But they also lose strength of constitution, slowly growing thinner. Eventually the increase in appearance stops. Soon its just a wasting away. No more does the loss of fat seem a shortcut to standard beauty ideals, it becomes a horrible experience.

Some final questions:

  1. Is the creature made of wax? Or does it just cover its body with candles, hiding some other horrific mystery? (Decomposing corpse, obsessed insane person, golem?)
  2. Who is the creature anyways? Are they a strange off cast of a villains mind? A spirit trapped in a horrid torture? An alien or demon or monster that simply is obsessed with light?
  3. Where does this creature live? A gothic mansion seems a good fit. But it could be a sewer inhabitant, or just wandering streets.


Random & Procedural Generation

Garry Newman recently wrote about the procedural created maps in Rust, his multiplayer survival game. He mentions how the random generation creates a boring experience; there is a lack of discovery and the algorithms and remade chunks start feeling familiar even as it is rearranged.

I think this really solidified my opinion on randomly created content in pen and paper games as well. Randomly created locations for games are boring.

I’ve often picked up interesting looking games and found its a book filled out with encounters and location details on any given number-d-number charts. No matter how interesting the encounter or locations on display its always incredibly disappointing.

For one a book of random encounters creates almost as much work for me GMing as creating my own content. The author might have done the hard work of deciding what monsters, terrain and what have you is in any given space, but I have to figure out how to make the PCs journey through the environment is satisfying, coherent, and naturally teaches them what is going on.

Natural Progression

When I play games I love learning the setting and getting a sense of the challenges in the scenario. If the dungeon is taking us to a challenging fight with a fire demon I want the game through the GM to be teaching us that.

We can figure out how to use anti-fire potions when we had to go through the lava trap room. We learn that spells creating ice and water might or might nor hurt the fire creatures in the dungeon. And all the while we also get a better idea of our characters, their powers and how to work as a team.

That sense of building disappears when the next room is a 1d20 on a chart. We might have only fought zombies so far but a high number and now we have to figure out what to do with gargoyles.

As a GM I would prefer a book with encyclopedic entries on monsters and locations more like Petty Gods. I can read the book as I want, scanning through it without having to figure out the complex random generation system. During a game if a player suddenly asks what sort of statuettes are around or what minor gods they might offer a quick prayer to I can pull up the PDF and open to any random page.

Sense of Discovery

Some might argue that the random creation creates a sense of discovery. But like Garry mentions in his blog the procedural generation either creates a sense of bland sameness as it must rely on similar elements jammed together in scrambled orientations, or it destroys any sense of cohesion.

Even with a “themed” chart of the same type a random chart can quickly rob an area of sense and actual discovery. A chart that generates random lava themed castle rooms might teach players they are in a castle with lava in it, they still will never be able to predict that the hot kitchen will be behind the back door of the dining hall when there’s just the same chance its a bathroom or a lava pit.

Discovery really isn’t the need to find whatever new thing is coming, but instead a sense of finding new things in a predictable manner. As usual the Angry GM has written all that needs to be said on this matter.

Predictable discovery isn’t only about flagging hidden treasure though. Every video game about exploration worth its salt in recent years has done the same thing, put important locations on the horizon and then let you get there. Dark Souls, Minecraft, Witcher III, they all show you the cool thing on the horizon and you can literally walk/sail/ride/fly there.

If you’re players come to a mountain pass into a new area and look out over a plain filled with interesting looking woods, towers, and towns and as they descend every location is rolled on a chart how can they ever pick a meaningful direction to travel. “Heading towards that ice tower” becomes walk aimlessly through the fields chart, the forest chart, and the ice tower chart. The GM can’t build up to the moment they arrive, or authentically give that sense of the game opening up.

The Place for Charts

Of course random generation isn’t useless. When its used in place of smart location or encounter design it is. But sometimes it can work.

A lot of OSR games have made random charts  work, but mostly because OSR games rely on a sense of weirdness and novelty to keep the quirky grimy edge they always strive for.

But randomly generated locations can work to create a sense of senselessness. In Fields of Carcosa: The Iceberg I have included an area where as the PCs move through it the next locations are made randomly. The area is meant to feel like they’re moving, shifting and can never be charted.

Random charts can help build a thematically consistent world. The header image is from a short lived Mongoose Traveller campaign. The galaxy generating rules in Traveller create the background to create a more complex world. The system takes away the boring part of creating the infinite worlds players might visit. Instead of having to decide every atmosphere and tech level of each planet the game does it for you and you can focus on the characters, story and events that will take the PCs through space.

Of course using Traveller’s galaxy building the GM has to acknowledge just how much work it still takes. The system is confusing and it takes work to remember each and every combination and adjustment. At the end you might realize you don’t have any systems with the right tech level for something you wanted in the game, or there are systems just floating unreachable in space. The GM still has to do most of the work, the game just puts a framework in place to get the basic parts out of the way.

The other place for charts is in gambling. And by that I don’t just mean when the players want to hit the slots. Some mechanics can create a sense of reward for player effort through a simple gambling mechanic. Stardew Valley uses this for most of its industries. Fishing, mining, and foraging all use a random chance to generate a feeling of potential reward. By using better gear and other perks you increase your ability to get those rewards.

I’ve borrowed the sense of potential reward in Fields of Carcosa by including fishing zones. The players can use better rods and bait to catch fish.

Random treasure doesn’t work for this since the players only effort is in finding the objects. They have no way of improving their chance to find better treasure without out of game meta powers.

A lot of video games that including scavenging under cut their resources by having them randomly generated. Why can the PC get a power that increases their gold found by 5%? The player hasn’t done anything to increase this chance. It makes no sense that the PCs abilities affects the outside world.

Overall there are things that make exploration fun in games. A sense  of discovery and artistry and progression that randomly generated areas simply doesn’t bring to the table.

The best randomly generated RPG content has to be especially connected. Last Gasp and Vornheim both use interconnected city building to build moody and weird places with randomness.

Otherwise so many game books using randomly generated content feel like they are half full of half baked encounters and half filled with bandages to make it have any sense of coherence. If a game wants to do my work for me, I’d prefer an author to put as much work into the path through the game as the content instead of resorting to 1d100 charts.

Game Lab: Research in the Real World

With such a pithy title I’m sure this will get read all across the rig world. Regardless you might be reading this on a train or bus, on a phone, or on a laptop in class. In a living room with kids running around, or with a loved one in bed next to you. In the end research, of any kind is around other people. So next time your PCs look something up on their phones or scour a library or scroll hive think about how to bring the real world to them.

  1. Someone sits near the PCs and as the PCs do research their silent companion begins looking related topics. The PCs grab a scroll on the rich prince of Akbara? The other researcher gets a book on phylacteries. The PCs are reading about Night Gaunts on the bus? The person in the seat next to them googles cryptozoological stories on winged creatures or the local movie monster designers. If questioned the friendly researcher just smiles and explains that they thought the PCs were looking at an interesting topic and they were similarly inspired.
  2. Speaking of using a phone or computer. What better reminder that the real world exists that a sudden and announced video starts playing at full volume. Who knows what kind of ads are on online witch forums, but having a screaming banshee playing in the middle of a public place (or even a family home) is sure to raise eyebrows. Heck, a magical scroll cursed with a constantly talking face is sure to disturb the silent librarian monks.
  3. A hot tip from many places is to remember that there are plenty of other things included in books. A book mark of a strange material might fall out. Pressed flowers in the back of your hard back book might crumble to dust, or perhaps the paper was made with pulp containing ergot and you are in for a hallucinatory shock. Internet research has this times one thousand. Adds, comments, the editing history of a wikipedia page might all contain other clues, important weirdness, or simply a discussion of the facts that draw your players to specific conclusions. Annotations are an easy way to point out a connection that you want to be 100% sure your players understand.
  4. In magical games books can be evil, cursed, or monsters in themselves. Needing to open them and understand them creates instant conflict. What do you do if the words hide from you? Or the book tries to bite you when you try to read chapter 12? Online sources have viruses, intentional lies, or misdirections. Hitting a 404 can stall research until the PC discovers some friendly NPC who happened to archive the page. A rival hacker might be camping on a page ready to attack the unwary researcher searching for the secrets of the Club of Obscure Elephantile Worship.

New Adventure: The Brother’s Bridge!

I have a brand new adventure for 5E available at Drive Thru RPG!

An exciting fantasy adventure for level 3 heroes. A stranger wants to cross the Echoing Crevasse and needs brave adventurers protect them in the ruined cyclopean Brother’s Bridge. Adventurers can unlock the bridge’s ancient secret, face down the villainous Man with the Tattered Smile and discover strange treasure.

Game Lab: Train Shootout

A tense moment on a train. The landscape outside plays back drop to the tight corridor, the space between chairs, the rush of air outside as people clamber on the roof or jump between carriages.

How might you run a tense shoot out in a train?

Trains are a dynamic place to set an encounter. They naturally change with time, they shake, go around turns, and theres a risk of a massive crash if things go really wrong. Carriages can be disconnected and it can be jumped off.

Any fight in a train should take advantage of this sort of movement.

Charts charts everywhere

(A short aside. I hate random charts. But as I widen by scope of games I find they’re annoyingly useful.)

Set up a chart like this:

 1. Train takes a turn. For the next 1d4 rounds there is no line of sight down the train between carriages.
 2. The train goes over a rickety bridge. For the next 1d4 rounds the train shakes. Any physical rolls are done with penalty. Anyone falling from the train is in danger of dying unless they are escaping to a river.
3. The conductor blows the horn. Combatants must roll to not be distracted by the sudden loud noise.
 4. The train goes through a tunnel. For the next 1d4 rounds the outside of the train is completely dark and anyone on top of a carriage must roll to not get clonked on the head. People inside the train might have a moment of confusion as the light changes.
 5. The train slows for a stop or someone hits the emergency break. Combatants must roll to not stumble as it slows. New enemies might arrive, other passengers might arrive to fill the corridors and contain a tense fight, or police might be waiting.
 6. A switch in the tracks is coming up in 1d4 rounds. Changing the course of the train might derail it, cause it to hit another train, or simply cause a bump to cause an enemy to stumble.

Cover and Tight Places

The other exciting part of battles on trains is the tight constraints the environment create. Trains are long but narrow. Seats provide easy cover, but a hand to hand fight will be tightly constricted. A tussle in a bathroom will be extremely compact.

But as much as the seats, compartments and size of train will keep fights small, the train can also open up into sudden long spread out areas. On a straight away the central corridor can make a long shot possible. Equally moving a fight onto the top or side of a train opens up range very quickly.

Some simple rules can be put in place. First characters using seats or other parts of the train as cover impose disadvantages to shooters.

You might want to rule that a fight in a small space can’t impose damage until they maneuver their enemy into an advantageous place, or all attacks have disadvantage. This way a player can slowly force an enemy into a position where they can slam a door into their head, or they can push them from a window, but with no room to move they can’t do more than jab and choke.

Once the space has opened up the train itself will matter a great deal. A fight on a roof top changes suddenly as it goes through a tunnel. See charts above.

Dangers of Trains

Further the excitement of combat on a train is born in the multitude of dangers. Falling off a train can easily be lethal. Fights out windows or on the roof is subjected to low lights, mail bags, tunnels, and other hazards. In the tighter parts of the train the doors, windows, and chairs are necessary to do real damage.

However its important to note that dangers should be consistent. If players know that climbing up or down from a carriage imposes a certain challenge don’t change it without making clear how the train as a whole is changing.

(A bitter note: in one game a party member easily climbed from roof to carriage with one dice roll and when I tried peaking over the roof I was summarily thrown off and killed with a single save. Apparently climbing up was more likely to buck me off while climbing down was safe. Suffice it to say I disagreed.)

Have fun!

Free Adventure: Camp Sasquatch

Get your pay what you want copy of Camp Sasquatch!

A horror scenario of kids surviving the worst summer camp experience of their life.

When these children’s parents sent them to Camp Sasquatch for a week in the summer they didn’t expect to hear stories of giant pink monsters, aliens, and bad guys, but that’s what they got.

Can be run with the inbuilt rules or any other percentile based horror system.