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October 4, 2019

Procgen in RPGs

Procgen is a hot new term for procedurally generated content.  It's used by computers to create a large number of varying experiences, such as the guns in Borderlands, radial quests in Skyrim, or the worlds of Minecraft. 

It can get repetitive:  With a large enough sample size, the end user can see the way the procgen content was created.  Skyrim's radial quests become repetitive after two or three.  Borderlands players quickly learn how to assess the guns they find, and while it takes hundreds of hours, you will eventually get used to the ways Minecraft worlds work.  But in tabletop RPGs, there's a human at the helm, customizing everything, so with good procgen in an RPG, there's literally infinite variety.

I wrote a procgen Fate quickstart for a light urban fantasy campaign that I will probably share on this blog eventually.  With just a few rolls on tables, I was able to generate some urban fantasy plots with subtle twists sufficient to drive an 18-month campaign.

Wandering Monsters

RPGs have always done procgen.  Take a look a the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide for procgen NPCs, plots, dungeons, and encounters.  Take a look at any D&D content, going back to the 1970s.  I recently ran the original, 1980s-era Ravenloft module in 4e D&D, and enjoyed its procgen -- it has random encounters with various monsters. 

But good procgen isn't just a wandering monster table.

The OSR and storygames communities have expanded on procgen content in exciting ways.  Forbidden Lands tells GMs not to prep anything for their first session, except perhaps to pre-roll a settlement or keep or legend, or choose a pre-made adventure site or artifact and use its legend. 

Blades in the Dark also urges GMs not to prep for their campaign.  It has nine pages of tables that let you procgen NPCs, a score, locations, and even demons.  Because a Blades in the Dark campaign starts in the pre-made setting of Doskvol and is meant to be driven by how the PCs interact with that setting, the GM really shouldn't prep anything ahead of the first session. 

Example of New Procgen

Here's an example of the new kind of procgen I'm talking about, from Blades in the Dark.  The setting built into the game is integral to the game -- a common feature of good procgen:  Mix a detailed setting rife with conflict  with procgen tables to create exciting conflicts, characters, and locations.  The type of details in the setting matter.  The details of trade routes and food production, long lists of noble houses, etc. aren't as important as conflict.  The setting has trade routes, but only the ones that push conflicts.  The setting has nobles, but only the ones involved in conflicts.  Et centera.

Because of that, I'm using the book heavily here.  It takes a lot of work to make Blades work for another setting -- to the point where, if you do that work, you should publish it. 

Blades also relies on the PCs' decisions to drive story, so we're going to make a few statements about our hypothetical PCs' actions.  Let's say our PCs already decided they're broke and need to pull a score.  They're skilled at heists, being Shadows, so they reach out to a contact from their crew sheet to set one up.  All the sheet says is "Fitz, a collector" -- the sort of person who might know of something valuable to steal, and might pay the crew to steal it. 

All I know at the start is that they're going to meet with their contact, "Fitz, a collector," and ask about opportunities to pull a heist.

So we procgen Fitz using the NPC chart. 

She's Akorosi, likely from Doskvol. She's a woman. She's old.  That's her look.  So we imagine an Akorosi woman with short-cropped grey hair and a wrinkled face. Her drive is Achievement.  That makes sense for a collector!  Her preferred method is subterfuge.  The sort of person who prefers to hire deniable assets and ask them not to make a lot of noise.  Perfect.  If I had rolled "Teamwork" she might want to come along on the job. 

Her profession is either Tanner (common) or Composer (rare).  She has to have enough Coin to pay crews to help her collect rare items, so I'd jump to Composer, except that Tanners can be successful, too, and our Crew is Tier 1, so they're not exactly hobnobbing with the rich and famous.  But they could be.  Hmm...  What would a tanner collect?  Probably not leather or chemicals -- they have access to that stuff all the time.  Maybe fine wines made with real fruits - a rare thing in the Dusk.  What would a composer collect?  Possibly rare music or instruments.  Maybe the imprisoned ghosts of skilled performers. 

Given those options, I get to decide what themes I want to push.  If Fitz wants the imprisoned ghost of a dead performer, I'm pushing the occult themes of Blades in the Dark -- the dead become ghosts unless their spirits are destroyed.  It's grim and bleak and spooky.  If Fitz wants fine wine, I'm highlighting the "punk" part of steampunk, with poor criminal scum (the PCs) helping a middle class person aspire to the trappings of the wealthy that are denied to poor people like them.  I like that better. 

I decide Fitz is a well-off tanner.  She's old and rich, so she owns and operates an established company known for quality work.  She employs many people in the PCs' neighborhood, and they get along because she's a relatively ethical employer. 

Fitz is brash.  Though she prefers Subterfuge, she isn't a coward.  She takes what she wants, and doesn't like to wait.  Her interests are architecture and furnishings.  She's proud of her well-furnished office and probably talks about the history of the Skovlander architecture of the old brick building she has her office in.  She probably snaps at people who get her cushions dirty or write on her desk without a blotter.  She's a drug or alcohol abuser, often impaired by her vice.  OK, her interest in fine wine isn't purely aesthetic.  She can get drunk on cheap swill, but now that she runs a powerful company, she wants to get drunk on the good stuff.  She probably drinks like Mallory Archer.

OK!  Now we know a lot about Fitz.  Let's roll up the score. 

The target... I have to decide between civilian, criminal, political, or strange.  I'll go with a civilian.  I get a doctor or alchemist.  A doctor has some fine wine.  So does an alchemist.  Let's figure out what that means as we go.

And the work?  I have to decide between skullduggery, violence, underworld, or unnatural.  Skullduggery for sure.  It seems obviously a burglary, but I roll anyway I get "sabotage or arson." 

Interesting!  I could just override that, but it offers a chance to take me away from the obvious.  So how does arson or sabotage get us a bottle of wine?  Procgen tables often lead us to these challenges. 

I brainstormed two ideas:  Sabotage a train so it breaks down, then sneak into a boxcar and steal a case of wine (and anything else you can carry!).  Or set fire to a poisonous night-tree in spooky-beautiful Jayan park (pulled from the book setting writeups) and steal the wine of picnicking rich people as they flee the toxic smoke.  I'm a sucker for a train job, but the deathlands are deadly for a Tier 1 group.  And we've established that this score's theme is all about economic disparities, so let's spoil the rich people's picnic!

Now for a twist or complication: The job furthers a city official's secret agenda

I remember seeing that the Ministry of Preservation wants to Seize Control of the Leviathan Hunters (a 12-tick project clock that I can use if I want).  To do that, they would benefit if a Leviathan Hunter died in a criminal arson at the park, right?  I think the Ministry of Preservation has an NPC following a wealthy Leviathan Hunter.  I choose Lady Clave (captain, daring, cruel, accomplished) from the Leviathan Hunters faction description and Captain Lannock (mercenary commander, shrewd, ruthless) from the Ministry of Preservation faction's description. 

The Ministry meddling will also involve the Leviathan Hunters' clocks: Discover New Hunting Grounds and Surplus Runs Dry, both 12-tick clocks.  I think I'll tick the Seize Control of the Leviathan Hunters three times if Lady Clave dies and once if she doesn't.  I'll tick Surplus Runs Dry once no matter what.  Once I start using that clock, I'll commit to ticking it at the start of every score.

Sometimes a procgen table sends you off to other stuff in the system or setting that brings in a lot of story, like this.  That one "job furthers a city official's secret agenda" result really colored in implications for this score. 

The next table tells me that the job is connected to a PC rival.  Every Blades PC has six NPCs they know, one of whom is a friend, another of whom is a rival.  The crew Lurk has pissed off Roslyn Kellis, a noble.  Roslyn Kellis will also be at the park and recognize the Lurk if any roll introduces a complication.

The last procgen table is what factions the score is connected to, but since I already have two factions involved, I'm cautious.  I have dice left that let me choose between Sparkwrights (26) or Sailors or Dockers (62). 

I think our Tier 1 crew setting off chaos between two Tier 5 factions is great, but it's going to need a lower-tier faction for them to deal with until for the time being, so I like Sailors or Dockers.  The Dockers support the Leviathan Hunters, according to their faction description; so they're going to be mad if a Leviathan Hunter gets killed.  I notice that the Ministry of Preservation has the Billhooks -- a Tier 2 faction -- as an ally.  So let's drag those in on their side on top of everything else.  Now the Tier 1 PCs can get involved in a proxy war between the Leviathan Hunters (via the Tier 3 Dockers) and Ministry of Preservation (via the Tier 2 Billhooks). 

OK, so here's what we've got! 

Fitz, a brash, wealthy, elderly woman invites them in and offers them some wine.  Nothing too valuable, but a rare treat for our Tier 1 crew.  She starts off with small talk about the history of the old building and fine furniture in her office.  Then she explains that she's a wine collector, and wants to get her hands on the fine wines that the rich and powerful drink.  At the end of each month, on the Moontide holiday (pulling this monthly holiday from the setting info in the book), wealthy folks congregate in Jayan park (also pulled from the book) to picnic and drink copious amounts of wine.  The most wealthy compete to show off the wines they drink, using it as a proxy for their wealth and power.  There will be cases and cases of wine.

Now, Jayan park is beautiful, but its trees are poison to touch -- and just as bad to inhale.  Burning just one tree will send the picnicking rich people scampering, and cases of wine are too heavy to carry off when fleeing toxic smoke.

"I don't want anyone dead," Fitz will say.  "That will bring too much heat.  They should run at the first whiff of smoke.  If you bring gas masks, you can walk right through the smoke, grab all the unopened wine you can, and conceal your faces all at once.  Don't put the masks on until the last minute, or you'll tip your hand."

She'll buy any wine from them that they bring back.

The engagement roll (how Blades cuts to the chase) will tell me how well it goes when the PCs start the fire.  It could go as easy as starting with them standing in the smoke, wearing masks, with the sounds of alarm bells in the distance... or as bad as Bluecoats catching them as they douse a tree with oil.  After that, we want to introduce:

  • Lady Clave, who the PCs will discover unconscious and dying of the toxic smoke.  Captain Lannock hit her on the head with a wine bottle and dazed her so she couldn't get away in the chaos.  This is an opportunity for the PCs to intervene.  If they save her, she'll owe them a favor!  But they'll make powerful enemies, too.  Procgen details:  I rolled that she's a Dagger Islander, but they approach Leviathans in a unique way.  So I just went with Akorosi.  She's a woman, since the book calls her Lady Clave.  She has to wear glasses.  Her goal is revenge (or will be if she survives!).  She prefers brave methods (no roll -- this is what we know from her super brief NPC description from the book).  She's moody, she likes fine wine (lucky coincidence), and is fanatically loyal to a group, ideal, or tradition.  I think she's loyal to the ideal of free trade.  She's a fanatic libertarian.  Since she's technically the person who has wine to steal, we'll make her the doctor or alchemist we rolled earlier.  I think she's an alchemist, educated in the process of refining Leviathan blood.
  • Captain Lannock, just at the edge of the smoke, tossing a cracked and bloody wine bottle into a fountain and looking back to wave a cruel-eyed "thank you" to the masked PCs.  He'll notice if the PCs rush to save Lady Clave, but without a gas mask, there's nothing he can do about it except try to track them down later.  His procgen details:  He's Akorosi and male.  He's disfigured or maimed.  I think he's a one-armed man.  His goal is wealth.  Mercenary captains tend to have that goal.  His preferred method is study, which makes sense since he's shrewd. He's suspicious. His interest is hunting and shooting. He's shooting pistols, since he has one arm.  Maybe he has a steampunk cyberarm?  That's badass.  I write that down.  He's also surrounded by toadies.  
  • Roslyn Kellis, who I'm keeping in our back pocket for the first time the PCs get a complication while not wearing their masks.  I rolled "ambiguous or concealed" for gender.  I think she's mostly nonbinary, but she uses she/her pronouns given that she goes by Roslyn, a traditionally femme name.  She's a Skovlander.  Being a noble, she probably keeps that secret.  She's stooped.  Her goal is pleasure.  Like Lannock, her preferred method is study.  This is dangerous, as she's going to meddle if she catches on to what the Lurk is up to.  Her profession is noble, obviously.  She's dishonest.  That includes concealing her origins, pretending to be Akorosi when she's a Skovlander.  She's interested in antiques, artifacts, and curios. And she's a celebrity, popularized in print / song / theater.  That means the other PCs will know who she is.  I think she's beautiful and single, and the papers love gossip about who is courting her and who she's courting.  If this was more than hypothetical, I'd email my Lurk play about this and ask if maybe their rivalry is a bitter break-up or jilted lover.

I also want to think up a few conflicts, obstacles, or dangers that fit our procgen content.  You have to make it all fit together. 

I want to ask the PCs how they find the best wines to take.  Finding better wines might earn them more profit from the score, but it comes with risk -- I'll call for an action roll. 

I want to ask them if they'll sacrifice carrying wine for stealing other stuff.  I want to ask them if they're looking for other stuff, use Fortune rolls to see if it's around, and call for some other action roll for them to hunt it down without getting in trouble.  The fortune roll will be just one die, unless it's the kind of thing you'd bring on a picnic and easily leave behind.  Military equipment or dangerous / illegal items won't be available.

I need to look up bluecoats, since there's ample opportunity for bluecoats to catch them.  I'm also interested in Captain Lannock's mercenaries.  I decide they're not Tier 5 like the Ministry.  I'll make them Tier 3 -- still well above the PCs' tier, but low enough to drag them into any ongoing conflict that could brew. 

I want them to have to roll an action to save Lady Clave, but I decide ahead of time that if they roll a 1-3, I'll use a fail forward approach -- they can save her, but there will be a nasty complication. 

I also figure out how to reward them for the score:  They can make 10 Coin, but carrying Lady Clave instead of cases of wine will cost them 4 Coin worth of wine.  Stealing other stuff of any significant weight will cost them 1-2 Coin as well.  If they try to bring a cart, it will raise their take by 4 Coin, but raise their Heat by 2 as well, since the cart can't be hidden on the way in and out of the park, even though the gas masks can.  If they don't bring back at least 3 Coin worth of wine, Fitz will be annoyed.

Depending on what happens, the PCs could be blamed for killing Lady Clave or Captain Lannock could be mad at them for saving her.  Dockers or Billhooks or Lannock's mercenaries could be coming for them in Entanglements, later.  If Lady Clave dies, Fitz will be mad at them, too; in addition to the increased heat from a death during a score.  Fitz didn't want any deaths.  This may mean she withholds 2-3 Coin, paying them less for the wine than she might have.

Instead of drawing a map and deciding a lot of what the space is like, I'm going to lean on procgen tables as well.  I need to procgen the street upwind of the picnic -- where the PCs will escape to.  It's bright and lively (for now). lit with lots of spark lamps. It has crackling electricity, wires and mechanisms (for those spark lamps!). Sounds of laughter, song, and music (at first anyway).  Smells of the ocean carried in on the winds today.  Good thing there are winds!  The street's use is shops.  That's probably cafes and consumer goods.  It's a narrow lane.  There's an ancient ruin here - the columns of an enormous acropolis-style building, around which cafes and shops are built, their patrons and tables spilling into the cluttered, narrow lane.

When to Procgen

Could I do all this during a game session?  Yes, in a pinch, but not all at once. 

It took me an hour, including refining it and writing it up for a blog.  I'd say it would take 15-30 minutes to do all at once, which is too much time to make the players wait if you do it in the middle of a game session.  It would be really easy to do as prep for a session, though.

I could do it during a game session, but only if I didn't do it all at once.  I'd generate Fitz and the score when they went to meet her.  That would take 5-10 minutes, but that's an acceptable amount of time for a break.  This is also a good reason to learn the setting details for a game like Blades in the Dark or Forbidden Lands:  These games make procgen work by packing a lot of conflict into the setting, so if you learn the setting, you get a lot more out of these sorts of tables.  Because I studied the setting, I could remember details like "there's a park somewhere - let me look that up" and "there's this cool conflict between the Leviathan Hunters and Ministry of Preservation.  Let me go pull those details." 

I wouldn't generate my details for Lady Clave, Captain Lannock, and Roslyn Kellis until the first time the PCs met each of them, taking about 1-2 minutes each.  And I'd generate the street when they came to scope out the area.  That would take about 1-2 minutes, too.  So it's doable.

But it would be better to generate it all before the session.  Doing this much prep before a session, especially in a game like Blades in the Dark, can be dangerous.  But here again, procedural generation comes to our rescue:  Because this is all just junk I rolled on random tables, if the PCs hare off in an unexpected direction, I'm happy to toss it and roll up some new stuff.  It just makes me pause the game for 5-10 minutes to roll a new score or new details.

Let's say the PCs decide not to set fire to the trees, but instead disguise themselves as bluecoats and seize some of the wine in a fake raid.  That's fine!  I just have to think up if and how that action "furthers a city official's secret agenda."  Maybe nobody attempts murder here, but instead Captain Lannock drops a murder weapon into Lady Clave's wine case, framing her for a murder his men did.  Only, the PCs aren't actual bluecoats, so the twist is that they find a bloody knife in one of the boxes of wine!  It's a mystery they can follow up on or not.  If they don't, I don't mind dropping all that story potential, because, again, I didn't spend hours on it.  It's just random die rolls!

Benefits of Procgen

  • Less Predictable:  It forces you to make choices you wouldn't normally make, pulling you away from patterns you may not even know you have.  When I had to make the score about arson or sabotage instead of my first instinct of burglary, it took me out of the obvious and in an exciting direction.
  • Inspiring:  Table results jump-start your creativity by giving you neat prompts to expand on.
  • Use Setting:  It hooks you into setting details, especially for games where the setting is ripe with conflicts to hook the PCs into
  • Flexible:  It's easy to throw out procedurally generated prep, because you can just generate all new stuff in a few minutes if the PCs do something unexpected.
  • Efficient:  The biggest benefit of this stuff is how time-efficient it is.  There's an initial investment of time to learn the setting and all its conflicts.  Once you have that, the tables are quick to use, and bring in a lot of content with a single die roll.
  • Improv, without Having to Improv so Much:  Procgen has many of the benefits of fully improvised GMing (flexible, efficient, leans on setting) without forcing you to come up with everything on your own, without prompts or aid.  Improv GMing also tends to lean on disclaiming decision making, but some groups of players aren't very comfortable being asked to improvise setting details, just like some GMs aren't.  Procgen helps there, too:  You can still ask the players to contribute, but it's easier for a player to answer, "Fitz is an old and runs a successful tannery.  What does an old, wealthy tanner look like?" than "What does Fitz look like and what is her profession?"