Saturday, January 14, 2017

Tabletop Ideas from Skyrim

It only took five years for my kids to convince me to start playing Skyrim.

Since I spent the past year and a half sequestered as an academic, lots of family stuff and hobbies fell by the wayside - limited vacations, no GenCon attendance, things like that.  Each kid extracted a solemn promise to do something cool over the holidays; my daughter wanted to spend an afternoon at Barnes and Noble, hanging out at Starbucks and talking about life; my youngest wanted me to learn Madden '17 and try to challenge his crown; the oldest has been obsessed with getting me to finally play Skyrim and 'get it'.  With the master's degree safely behind me, I took the plunge over the holidays and got the Skyrim special edition version for Xbox One.  I've been enjoying the "open world" nature of the game, and it’s hard not to reflect on how we can adapt some techniques to enhance our table top games.

If you're reading this post based on the title, there's a good chance you know what Skyrim is already (or played one of the earlier incarnations).  If your luddite tendencies have kept you cloistered from modern video games - and who can blame you, really? - this brief video review provides a decent summary of the game and game world:  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Legendary Edition Overview - Newegg TV

Now that I've seen enough to become a 23rd level high elf destruction mage, arch mage of the college of Winterhold, and member of the Stormcloak rebellion, here are various sandbox techniques that I plan on borrowing next time I do a homebrew sandbox game:

Through Line Quests
Regardless of what minor quest or story line the player is pursuing, there are some overarching "big threats" in the campaign setting that create verisimilitude as the player traverses the sandbox.  Examples in Skyrim include a rebellion between the Stormcloaks (rebel Nords) and the Imperials from the south; a plague of vampires and the presence of the Dawnguard, fanatic vampire hunters; the return of the dragons and the threat of a powerful, apocalyptic dragon lord.  Regardless of what you're doing, you might encounter patrols of Imperials and offers to join the Legion; voracious vampires and vampire thralls attack the towns at night; dragons wheel in the distant skies.

Thanes, Lordships, and Property
There are a half dozen major towns across Skyrim; each one is led by a Jarl, and there's a path to become a thane or lord in the Jarl's hall through service.  This opens up the opportunity to gain a follower, buy a house, or develop a homestead land out in the wilds and build your own fortified manor and hall.  After all, you need a nice wall to hang all those trophies!

Guild Memberships
There are a handful of major organizations where the player can climb the ranks - think of it like the thieve's guild, but covering other classes  - so far I've encountered the mages, the assassins, and the companions (the companions are Norse mercenaries that can turn into werewolves).

Discovered Backstory
NPCs disburse elements of the history and setting through brief one sentence blurbs, like tweets, limiting the narrative dumps.  Books are a much richer source of backstory - you're constantly finding books and notes in ruins and tombs; they tell history, and provide hints and clues on negotiating the current dungeon, too.  You can ignore them if reading is tedious.  Dwimmermount used this technique to great effect, and Jim LOTFP pioneered it way back in Hammers of the God, where the secret shame of the dwarves could only be discovered if you worked through the library of books.

Each town has a distinct character, lots of little subplots and stories, and a number of common services;  an inn, a merchant or armorer, and an apothecary or alchemist.  Plus the local lord and guard.  There's a lot of value in putting more effort into the towns in your game.

Quest Overload and Organization
Skyrim overloads you with things to do, forcing you to prioritize your own story arc.  However, all of the quest ideas and rumors are conveniently organized in a journal.  As a busy adult who only plays once a week, it's really helpful to return to a game log and see my current options as a memory refresher.

In my Dwimmermount game, I made some play aids to help the players keep track of quests and lost knowledge.  I can see myself generalizing it further to include all sorts of quests and rumors that get picked up.  As old school DM's we sometimes view 'note taking' and memory as skill testers, which runs counter to casual, beer and pretzel D&D playing; if the setting is going to deluge the players with options and things to do, help them keep track of the options with a journal of some sorts.  When you show up to game at the end of a bruising 40 hour week, the last thing you want is to have to recall obscure parts of The Silmarillion in order to play.  (Or Forgotten Realms lore).

Level Scaling the Extreme Sandbox
This one is a bit controversial, but Skyrim uses what I'm calling "quantum difficulty" - the levels of ruins and dungeons get established when you enter them the first time.  It's not 100% level scaling, or else you wouldn't feel like you're making any progress.  For instance, a wolf that used to be a dangerous fight can now be dispatched with a single blow.  But a newly discovered barrow, which might have contained Norse undead (draugr) when the character was low level, will feature more dangerous draugr variants if you first discover it as a higher level character.

I'm getting more pragmatic as I get older.  If you're going to present a plethora of choices right up front, there might be an opportunity cost to choosing one thing, and ignoring something else.  But if the dungeons aren't going away, the players may loop back to an earlier rumor and pick it up when they're more powerful.  For instance, the early game has the players hearing about a group of "vicious bandits" that have made travel north in High Saddle Pass difficult.  The players travel in the opposite direction and have a series of engaging adventures somewhere else.  When they return to the north and go after the bandits now, assuming the problem persists, maybe that group of zero level men and humans they might have encountered as level 1 characters is actually a mixed band of humanoids and ogres that can challenge a higher level party.  Is that palette shifting, or just-in-time development, because the nature of the bandits was never fully established in prior sessions?  I'm choosing the latter.

However, there are a couple of things I haven't been happy with in Skyrim, but these are issues you can address on the tabletop:

Suspended Quests
You can be engaging with an apparently time sensitive quest (example:  go ambush the evil guys when they cross the bridge near the town) but there's nothing stopping you from sleeping for the night, selling some gear, and heading out to the bridge a few days later.  Whenever you pick up the quest, now is the time the bad guys happen to be  crossing the bridge.  Ouch.

The game is full of shrines to the gods (Divines) and the demons of Skyrim (Daedra).  There's nothing stopping you from swearing allegiance to a Divine for one quest, and then doing something terrible to win a Daedric artifact the next quest.  For that matter, NPCs and characters don't pay that much attention, either; you can swear yourself to Meridia, the goddess/daedra of Light, and wield her holy sword, Dawnbreaker, but a priest isn't likely to know the difference, and there's no problem joining a quest on behalf of Meridia's arch enemy next game session (thanks for the fact check on Mara vs Meridia, +Grey Knight).  Just about the only thing that gets you in any trouble is performing a public crime, especially with guards around.

I understand that in the video game context, all of these quest lines are just "content", and the designers want to maximize your ability to experience all of the content without having to create a new character.  It's a bad video game experience to make choices that completely close other quests. However, in the table top, we don't have the same considerations and can handle both suspended quests and natural consequences in a way that reinforces the setting.

Overall though, I've gotten a lot of good tabletop ideas by playing and observing Skyrim - even if it is 5-6 years later than the rest of you.  Adventurer Conqueror King would make a fine campaign system for a Skyrim style sandbox, since it envisions crafting, homesteading, economics, demographics, rulership and guild establishment - lots of world-building stuff that enhance the campaign side of play in addition to exploration and combat.