Gamebook store

Friday 12 May 2023

GM in your pocket

When Jamie and I were trying to convince the Eidos execs to fund development of the Fabled Lands MMO way back in the late '90s, one of the features we talked up was a storytelling AI:

"The GamesMaster AI will have a library of partially scripted adventures and story elements that it can bring in to liven things up whenever your character is having too easy a ride. These adventures are templates with slots to accommodate friends and enemies you've picked up in the course of your travels.

"For example: you take a bounty hunter's job and go hunting bandits. You round up most of the horde but the leader, Black Nat Varley, escapes. Later, while implementing a random attempt on your life, the AI fills in the assassin's identity as being Black Nat. If Nat survives your second encounter, he'll eventually show up in another encounter and so on. (Maybe NPC adversaries who survive more than three encounters are classed as "dear foes" and have their own level increases tied to yours so as to always give you a good battle.) 

"And the GamesMaster AI will also take account of your character class, deity, etc, when introducing new missions and encounters. It can also randomly generate adventure locations as needed, spicing things up by adding special elements so that they never seem just random. This means that every campaign will be unique."

We looked at Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale for patterns the GamesMaster AI could draw on. The idea was that it would throw in plot twists and tropes, applying them with common sense. So having a storm at sea might be an interesting random event when you were setting out on a quest, but if you'd completed an adventure and were sailing home to deliver the princess back to her father (or vice versa) then it would realize that a potential shipwreck would just be an irritating distraction.

Fast-forward 25 years and the AI is nearly there. Game developer Hidden Door is working on a platform that effectively creates gamebook-style text adventures on the fly. So when I was talking a little while back about AI-generated covers for Fabled Lands books, I might have been a little too unimaginative. Pretty soon you could have endless open-world adventures whenever you want them, right there on your phone. Not just text, either. This is the current state of play with text-to-video: 

By the end of the year, who knows where we'll have got to. Nick Henfrey and I are using AI artwork for our boardgame A Thunder of Dragons (details on the Flat Earths gaming blog) and maybe by the time we've finished that it'll be time to think about a videogame.


  1. That proposal about Black Nat Varley becoming a recurring antagonist is remarkably similar to the nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor.

    1. I haven't played that but the nemesis system is described here:

      It's interesting. I like the way they implemented it. Still frustrated that Jamie and I didn't get to do it 15 years earlier, but the Eidos execs were never convinced that MMOs were worth developing and were disdainful of our predictions that games could move to a subscription model with lots of DLCs.

      Our take on the nemesis idea was inspired by a game of Empire of the Petal Throne in the mid-70s. The players were exploring an underworld and I rolled a random encounter with some hlĂĽss. They killed them all except for one that ran away. I then had that hlĂĽss (a sorcerer) pursue them through the underworld chucking in spells whenever they were trying to deal with other threats.

      I could see right away what a powerful effect it had. The players really began to hate that hlĂĽss. I gave it a name (Charuk Ssha) and to this day that's a byword among the players for any persistent annoyance.

  2. I think that there's a real potential for an AI engine in an old style game such as Lords of Midnight or Barbarian Prince where you have to do much more diplomacy to convince people of your cause (tapping into your good vs evil post from mid-April). The normal game mechanics of these games wouldn't have to change much, the real change would be in the interactivity.

    So for example, for Luxor to recruit the Utarg of Utarg to his cause he may have to find out a motivation for the Utarg from some other Lord, tower or village NPC, and then present that in the argument for persuasion.

    In my view this would improve the immersion of role playing games immeasurably.

    1. I agree, and we're going to see some remarkable advances over the next year or two. To take just one example, NPCs in a sandbox CRPG will be able to have long conversations with the player thanks to GPT, rather than cycling through limited dialogue trees.