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


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.


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.