Generative Games

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about procedural ways to generate campaign elements. In my mind, this is significantly different than randomly generating things using some framework, which is often how computer tools work. There can also be randomness in the kind of system I am talking about, but each decision point need not be decided randomly or from some set of limited options. The ACKS guidelines for creating a campaign are kind of like this, but are perhaps a bit more free-form.

That is, the rules for such a system must be clear enough to guide you at every step, though they don’t need to be algorithmic. These are, it seems to me, the same requirements for a good game, and in fact there are a number of standalone games that can be used like this. Microscope was probably the first of these kind of games that I have started to investigate recently. It is a collaborative game that designs a setting. I really like the idea of using Microscope to build a D&D campaign setting, as the resulting setting would grow from the entire group rather than just the referee. It seems like a very natural way to navigate the problems of expectation regarding genre and tone. See also the discussion of Microscope on Monsters & Manuals here and here.

How to Host a Dungeon is a game that develops a dungeon by proceeding through historical eras. There are some standard assumptions about fantasy races built in, but it should be easy to hack for other styles of setting if so desired. It is available in PDF for $5.

FrDave over at Blood of Prokopius also had a recent post about using the railroad board game Empire Builder to generate underworld settings like the one presented in D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth. There are also themed versions of Empire Builder, including Martial Rails, Lunar Rails, and Iron Dragons (about “fantasy” railroads). My guess is that the original is probably fine for this purpose, as some post-processing will be needed in any case to adapt the results for use with a tabletop RPG.

I asked a question on G+ about other such games, and someone mentioned Dawn of Worlds, which is freely available in PDF. It looks somewhat similar to Microscope, but it starts with the premise that every player is a god that has a certain level on influence on the resulting world.

Several people suggested the computer game Dwarf Fortress, a text-only computer game that simulates a dwarven colony. I have never played Dwarf Fortress, but there is an interesting article about it in the New York Times. I don’t have time to look into this game now, but I know it has a very devoted following and might be worth returning to at some point. I’m not sure how easy it would be to import the game result directly into a tabletop RPG, but it could still provide inspiration (and maybe maps).

I would be curious to hear if anyone knows of other games that can be used in this way, or if anyone has experiences building setting elements using games like this.

8 thoughts on “Generative Games

  1. Brendan

    There was a whole series of Gygaxian Fantasy Worlds books that were aimed at doing this sort of thing, but as you can probably guess they were very heavy on random tables that could leave you with silly results.

  2. Talysman

    You missed one, although it’s probably hard to find now: Aria. The Aria Worlds book has random tables governed by strict rules that generates medieval fantasy cultures. The book was actually intended to be usable for group world generation, with players taking the roll of cultural forces or societal factions to help develop the history of the setting before dropping into standard RPG play mode for significant moments. However, the rules for doing that were a little vague, and I only ever used it in GM prep mode.

    Dwarf Fortress is not actually a text-only game, but rather a game that uses ASCII characters as graphic symbols. This is important, because it can procedurally generate ASCII maps and export them in Legends mode, along with the region names and history. The titans, demons, forgotten beasts, and night creatures are also procedurally generated, so you get some pretty unique creatures. There are also external visualizers that let you transform map data into 3d isomorphic views or other kinds of map. So yeah, you can use it to generate a campaign setting for tabletop play.

    1. Cedric P

      I guess you can use DF legend mode, but it mostly generate a massive block of random names, so I don’t know if it would be really interesting to work with it.

    2. Talysman

      @Cedric: those names include personal histories, though. There’s an external utility, the Legends Viewer, which allows you click on a name to see the history associated with each one (hero starts to wander the Swamp of Dreams, kills a jaguar, fights the bronze colossus and loses, that sort of thing.)

      My old computer seems to have problems with exporting from legends mode, so I don’t often use that.

  3. John

    DF is an absolute gold mine. The names are often a bit silly for use in tabletop play (Murderrampage the Mists of Euphoria, an ettin?), but sometimes it generates really good stuff (a spear called the Barb of Will, a short sword called Bowelburst, great heaping piles of dungeon maps and events, and random forgotten beast and demon descriptions).

    Also, I believe there’s a free version of How To Host a Dungeon that comes with fewer civilizations and fewer masterminds…

  4. Ωmega

    There’s a free solo pen and paper game I found on called epic solitaire notebook adventures. It’s basically a generate-as-you-go hex crawl. I’ve cribbed tons of ideas from it to apply back to sandbox 0e games. Particularly quests and settlement dispositions.


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