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

Setting and Resetting the Scene

Both the Angry GM and the Alexandrian have written excellent advice about how to set scenes and the importance of resetting it. the Witcher uses these same techniques to keep its interactions clear and precise.

The Witcher’s dialogue mechanics are created for simplicity and clarity. Yellow text moves the conversation forwards and usually leads to quest important information. White text is optional and either conveys an attitude Geralt can feel, or will reveal optional information.

But where it excels is in the clear  way it will restate information to keep the player’s attention on important information. When opting to say a white text option the dialogue will diverge from the main conversation. To keep the player informed about the main topic often at the end of one of these diversions Geralt or whoever he is speaking to will restate the original point allowing the conversation to progress naturally and reminding the player about the important points.

In the long often sprawling conversations keeping track of the through lines is incredibly important, especially since the Witcher relies so heavily on the conversations to generate mood and theme.

Use in RPGs

The Witcher serves as a good reminder on how to do NPC conversations well. Don’t be afraid to restate the main point in a conversation. Players might lead conversations to all sorts of odd corners and reminding them of the main take aways, even in sometimes obvious ways, can insure that the players remember the point and not that the NPCs favorite color is blue.

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Things I’ve Learned from… The Witcher 3 (4/5)

Simpler is often Better

One lesson the developers of the Witcher series have learnt between games is that simplicity is often a good thing. In the Witcher 2 potions, bombs and other alchemical items were hard to make. Diagrams were scarce, potions had to made for very specific situations and usually it wasn’t worth the bother. In the Witcher 3 once you’ve made a potion or bomb simply resting for an hour will refresh your stock. Alchemical ingredients instead are reserved for making better versions of old potions instead of repeatedly making the same things over and over.

This simplicity makes the mechanic so very usable, and while there is a large variety of potions, effects, decoctions, oils, and bombs to juggle the simplicity of making them removes the worry of having to search high and low for more herbs later. The simplicity opens up the chance to experiment.

Use in RPGs

Honestly I’ve never been comfortable with crafting in pen and paper gaming. There isn’t a great way to let one player spend the table’s time smashing ingredients together into new gear. I once suggested to a friend interested in putting alchemy in his game that potions be based on the PCs ability to craft them and one ingredient, often tied to a mini quest usually of one or two encounters. Other players can contribute to the “quest” while the crafting itself is simple and not time consuming. Adding to this the Witcher’s policy of once made can be remade with nothing but time would let players try out crafting without fear of wasting time.

A crafting system based on a simple one ingredient basis will also let the players keep some agency over encounters in the GM’s world. The alchemist can be told ahead of time that a healing potion can be made if they find a harpy feather, then later the alchemist can call for the party to encounter a harpy. The players will opt to fight an encounter the GM didn’t need to prepare and the players automatically learn something about the setting.

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

Learning about NPCs

(SOME SPOILERS)

The Witcher has a huge cast of characters drawn from the original books, the previous games, and a vast quantity of new people filling its wide world. In a game where decisions are supposed to be impactful and the grim often tragic state of the world should make you feel bad characterizing and introducing a player to these NPCs is very important. And the game doesn’t slouch, using a wide range of techniques.

At the beginning of the game Geralt is on the trail of his long time lover Yennefer, a sorceress. To introduce you the game first puts you in a flash back, infamously beginning with Geralt naked in a bath tub. Geralt is bathing in a chamber with Yennefer nearby letting you browse through her belongings, noting her distinctive perfume of lilac and gooseberries. Soon thereafter waking from the flash back Geralt shows a letter from Yennefer to his companion who comments on the scent. Her cold nature and black and silver clothing style are all mentioned by Geralt and others throughout the game giving an impression of a cool, haughty, and controlled woman.

Like its monster tracking much of the game is spent trying to find NPCs important to Geralt and in the process the player can learn who the character is and why they are important. One quest in Novigrad leads Geralt to the homes of several women that the bard Dandelion had wooed. In the process not only do we learn about Dandelion’s less than faithful ways we uncover his care for Geralt’s daughter Ciri, and part of his plans for a heist revealed later in the game.

Likewise much of the game features Geralt back tracking Ciri’s escape from the Wild Hunt and through flash backs and the clues left behind by her flight you learn about her problems and her nature before Geralt and Ciri reunite. The game earns a touching moment though Ciri doesn’t feature as a main character until two thirds of the way through the game.

Use in RPGs

Getting players to care about NPCs in games can be tough. If I had a dollar for every time the players coined a nickname or jumped to conclusions about an NPC before they’ve even opened their mouths… It can be hard sometimes to remember that NPCs will leave as many traces in the world as the players do.

If NPCs have opinions about each other as well as relationships to each other the players will get an impression about them well before they meet. A shopkeeper who has an annoying younger brother will stand out when the players meet the child outside his shop.

Their home, work, and places they visit will also color how the players think about them. While playing Masks of Nyarlathotep I found that players quickly were bored of the NPCs who almost all seemed to be importer/exporters. Each NPC sat neatly in their offices or warehouses and had no personal details in the world.

Having to track down an important NPC can also teach the player plenty about them before they meet them. Of course you also have to make sure its not so much of a wild goose chase that they get annoyed with them. But giving the players a path through the NPCs favorite haunts, or in an area where the NPC had a task to complete can lead to interesting facts about the NPC. Facts like how the NPC deals with problems, where they relax, or what sort of people they interact with are all great details to add to an NPC.

Things I’ve Learned from… The Witcher 3 (2/5)

Monster Tracking

Geralt is a monster hunter and accordingly you spend a significant amount of time tracking them. These little interludes of following tracks through the woods, literally sniffing them out, or tracking blood from the monster’s victims teach you as you go what the upcoming monster is going to be like.

The tracking of the monster also helps build up a natural crescendo of play. Seeing its victims, a site of a fight, and its lair helps build up the creature. Likewise each of these scenes help define the monster. A notable quest leads you by following a trail of claw marks on stone menhirs and macabre signs of ravens and horned skulls lead to its lair. Pretty quickly you know that a leshen, a wood spirit, lurks in the woods. A powerful one at that.

Many of the larger flying creatures, griffins and wyverns and the like, have trails that demonstrate their flight and predatory nature and each individual nest often tells its own story. An early quest leads to a nest raided by soldiers who later became the monster’s lunch.

Use in RPGs

I think more scenarios should have this sort of tracking. The environment can tell you a lot about a creature and if the GM has a quick list of signs to lead players up to fighting or avoiding a creature they can learn useful (or intimidating) information about it.

In horror games this can be incredibly important. A monster suddenly come upon is hardly scary, no matter how dangerous it really is. At least have the PCs stumble upon a victim, rent asunder, covered in saliva, or mentally disturbed by its multi dimensional form.

Even better have the PCs learn how exactly the creature can be dealt with and then put them in a situation where that is incredibly hard, or in the inverse teach them what triggers the monsters unavoidable attacks and make it hard to avoid doing.

A creature that only attacks when you look up at its face is far worse when they have to keep on searching for keys at the top of book shelves the monster might be hiding behind.

Of course monsters don’t always need literal trails to follow. The same principle applies to a series of murders spaced out in time, or a series of online blog posts the PCs can stumble upon while googling “strange occurrences in my area.”

 

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.

 

Journal of an Archaeologist in Assassin’s Creed 4

Day 1: Gosh darn I’ve done it! I managed to get Abstergo Entertainment to agree to let me use their memory system thingy to do research. I have so many theories about the ancient civilizations of the Caribbean. And it just so happens that this “Edward” fellow is my ancestor!

Day 2: Finally my interview with Abstergo. A very friendly lady with one of those, “better take notes or I’ll kill you” demeanors. She explained how their “animus” memory system is supposed to work. Essentially I don a VR headset and relive the life of Edward Kenway, a pirate and one of my ancestors. The memories implanted in my DNA (the repercussions of such genetic memories seems less then well thought out) will allow me to explore a good portion of the world around Kenway, so long as I indulge in actual events that took place under his watch.

So now and then I might be bothered by having to replay some violent act, but otherwise I should be happy to explore the ruins around the Caribbean to my heart’s content.

As long as its all recorded Abstergo is happy to let me do my research, the lady reminds me. Shame I didn’t catch her name.

Day 3: I have a desk and electronic passport to Absertgo now! I can log in and browse Kenway’s memories however I want.

I can’t help but be annoyed by Kenway already. He’s brutish and seems to only want money. He was a pirate I suppose… but no motivation like misguided loyalty, or mistaken identity, or even romance like other more famous pirates. I guess that’s why he doesn’t have any mentions in the Lyfe of Pyrates. 

I’ve already discovered a fair number of ruins. Surprisingly in Kenway’s time many wooden structures seem to be in good condition.

Jotted notes:

  • paint still on walls
  • huge temples in several places
  • diffusion among islands
  • obsession with patterns and “key stones” involving a religion based around puzzles and locks? Opening the way to paradise? (Too christian?)
  • Weight based locks that involve climbing – gymnastic peoples
  • Cavernous temple structure – extreme use of water as decoration/protection involving very advance engineering
  • weird prey = predator symbology

I’ll formulate my notes into some more complete ideas later. Meanwhile the Abstergo company people have been acting really weird. The IT guy wants me to hack into computers here. Not to mention what my supervisor is going to say when I tell her that my research will also involve an interactive media product sold by a private company.

Thing’s I’ve Learned From… 13 Demons

13 Demons is a 2016 low budget horror film that recently was added to Netflix. While the cover image might make you think it is a fantasy film it really isn’t. Instead it is a bizarre psychological twist on a board game. Two men covered in blood (and this isn’t a spoiler, this is literally the first shot of the film) tell police interrogators that they paladins of the realm hunting the 13 demons of the apocalypse. They are forced to explain how with another friend they began playing a board game. The movie progresses as they grow more obsessed with the titular board game and slowly descend into madness. If you like horror and role playing games this should be a great watch.

But the movie struck a note for me about concepts. The movie ends in a very particular way that I have to respect a great deal. You see every Halloween I run a role playing game where each person plays as themselves in a horror scenario revolving around the real world. It’s usually good fun with a variable amount of actual scares. But as I started watching 13 Demons I wondered what it would be like to run a game where I ask the players to start with D&D characters and slowly reveal that they’re in reality themselves killing innocent people around them. This seems like a valid horror game idea. In fact I’ve played several video games that do just that.

But in reality it probably isn’t a great concept. For one letting players think they are in one type of game where killing things is a valid way to solve conflict and then revealing that they were wrong and you never hinted at it at all is as they say “a dick move.” But also doing this while the players are literally themselves is an even worse idea. Not only are the players forced to commit immoral acts that in hindsight you will chastise them for, but you will make it extremely personal. The players would have to condemn their own actions.

Horror games, and ones like Call of Cthulhu with sanity mechanics especially, let players be rather lose about their morals. I to this day slightly regret that I formed my main group with a CoC game instead of DnD. Something about the risk of going insane, (or the things going insane allows) lets players play really morally corrupt people. I was rather distressed recently when I ran a game with a very clear villain, anti suffragette cultists, yet a player not only sided with the misogynists, but nearly murdered the head suffragette.

I recently posted about the rather depressing EAT 3, where players discover that the human race has decimated a dungeon’s ecosystem and institutionalized colonialism has doomed the world.  On reflection it is very important to consider the implications of a game. In EAT 3 (not unlike 13 Demons) I’m not sure I know how I would excuse and eventually payoff the players  behavior.

Indeed it was the ending of 13 Demons that really made me think. I won’t spoil it, but you may be a bit surprised. But the more I thought about it the more I liked it. The movie let the characters reach a point of no return. Sometimes I forget to do this with the insane and irredeemable PCs. Take a step back explain why what the player did was bad and turn them into an NPC, or if they are really that bad simply have them die off screen, they’re either too crazy to have around, or two guilty to interact anymore.