Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Skyrim Makes Me Want to be a Better GM.

Skyrim isn't technically me first Elder Scrolls game. I tried playing Oblivion on both the PC and the PS3, and could not get into the story at all. I didn't care straight away from the opening, and the controls seemed counter-intuitive for me (the same could be said for my experiences trying Fallout 3 sadly). I was however taken in immediately from the opening cart ride through avoiding the dragon to choosing (obviously) to work with the Storm Cloaks instead of escaping with the Imperial Legion. The game just felt right immediately. If a game grabs me like that, it usually has me for the whole ride as I delve deeper into the story. Skyrim took that and ran with it, and Bethesda has done something truly amazing with the game.

I've got two big reasons why Skyrim just works for me. Because I love making lists, I made a list!

1. Your character gets better at doing the things you like your character to do. I've never played a game where it's so obvious that you can make the character your own. Skyrim famously is a class-less system (which we, as tabletop gamers, will find to be quite the familiar term). You can mix and match all the skills to create a character that works best for you. Want a ranger? Stick with archery, alchemy, sneaking, and light armor, and you can't go wrong. Want to be a paladin? Focus on heavy armor, one-handed weapons, shields, and restoration spells. Want to be something we don't have an obvious name for - a war mage perhaps? Go Destruction spells, Heavy Armor, and Alteration spells.

Characters get better by practicing the skills you like to play as. You only level up through the increase of your skills, so the only way to get more powerful is by actually doing things. Practice makes perfect, and as an extension of this, you're almost constantly being told that one skill or another has improved unlocking perks (we'd call them Feats, Advantages, Edges, etc.) for each specific skill as you level. There are easily hundreds of different types of characters you can build in Skyrim, and I'm guessing that they're pretty much all top notch to play. For me, my character, a Redguard named Feanor, is a ranger through-and-through with lots of sneakiness, dual-wielding weapons, archery, and, because he's inspired by his namesake, extra good at enchanting and blacksmithing. I can't wait to try the other dozen or so character concepts I'd like to see eventually down the road...

I have no idea how we can emulate this in a tabletop game. Incremental skill increases are pretty popular, most noticeably in Call of Cthulhu's Basic Role Playing engine, but it's still pretty slow. You need a huge range of skill levels to show such a gradual, continual feeling of reward for your character solving problems using skills you favor. Mouse Guard even better emulates this in that you also move up your skill when you fail a check. As far as creating your own character, these games and countless other class-less systems do this well as a focus, so at least we have that.

2. Oh man, I have to walk half the continent to get to that quest... Oh! What's that?! I'm constantly discovering new things in Skyrim. Bethesda has created a country jam-packed full of caves, dungeons, bandit-filled forts, and mountain-top dragon lairs. Each little (or long) encounter has a story whether told in random journals strewn about or told through more visual means such as the items found around an abandoned camp fire.

It's actually very hard to stop playing Skyrim sometimes. You can be on your way to a quest location and come across this epic tomb of an ancient dreadlord, and you just have to explore it. Every dark place is full of an adventure and great rewards that never get old. There's just so much to do in Skyrim that finding - and beating - it all feels like a hugely daunting task but one that I could believe is worthwhile in the long run.

So how do we use this in our own games? I want to give my players the sense that there's just so much to do that where ever they end up going (especially when they go against what I might think they will - as players always do), I must have planned and predicted exactly where they would go. That being said, I really don't want to plan out everything in that much detail. I've never taken advantage of random tables in the middle of GM'ing a session, but I think choosing a couple of key tables and having them at hand in the heat of moment may make this happen.

Depending on the genre, you can have a couple of toolkits on hand. Let's use a generic fantasy setting for example. To start with, organize your tables into a couple of different groups: forest, mountain, plains, coastal, etc. Each of these groups contains several tables that are appropriate for that kind of region. You'll want a table for just a couple of things to make your on-the-fly dungeon work out. First, you need a boss table. You should start with some generic things such as ancient lich, giant dragon, bandit warlord, etc. You'll want to assign a name to each of the big bads, and like all of these tables, you'll cross out an option once it's used. You'll also need a minions table for each region. From there, you should roll a d3 to determine if your dungeon is small (1), medium (2), or large (3) to give your players some variety and make it hard to expect what's to come. From there, you also need a quirk. Each dungeon should have its own thing that makes it unique and stand out from the rest. Maybe one dungeon is sunken and slowly flooding while another is haunted by the ghosts of past heroes who tried to clear it. Finally, don't forget loot! You'll want to determine again with a d3 roll how much cash is in the dungeon and put at least one magic item or cool unique item that really stands out as the cool thing of the dungeon.

So, easy peasy, right? Of course it's easier said than done, but really the big work is in getting your table groupings together with each table filled in. Once you get that far, you should have an easy 80 or 100 dungeons to throw at your players, each one feeling unique and (hopefully) like it belongs right where the players found it. Good luck!


  1. Good post and I agree that Skyrim is rather inspirational for what can be done in tabletop gaming. For me I have come to the conclusion honestly a mostly sandbox game with some major plot points woven in is my game of choice both as a GM and as a plyer. I came to that conclusion before Skyrim, but really Skyrim did reaffirm this for me as well (350 hours in on that game and it was glorious). I hate to feel shackled in on a game anymore ... I hate the invisible walls ... to be fair skyrim has them but they are so very far away in the beginning of the game. By the time I ran into them I was so caught up in all the other stuff I didn't care.

    I liked almost all of the mechanics, my only complaint was that the game didn't just go on forever!! LOL :) See for me if they'd do a Skyrim type game like an MMO ... but a one player MMO ... where they updated the content every say 3 or 4 months ... added zones, new dungeons, rare items, rare recipes, etc. I'd pay 15 bucks a month :) Alas tis not to be ... ah well the DLC and endless mods will eventually come for the game.

    I liked the exploration in the game and the true feeling of choice and consequence. To me that is what most RPGs always lack, no matter how well intentiond the DM is, they always sacrafice either consequence or choice for the sake of convenience and/or to placate whiny players. The best of us as players and DMs fall victim to that.

  2. As to the XP system, it shouldn't be that hard to emulate. The basic formula is just gaining X amount for failure, Y amount for success (modifiers on both depending on Sign/difficulty/etc) and after Z skill ups you get a level. Every player would have every skill, initially only modified by their race's starting amounts.

    It might be a bit too much tracking for the tabletop, though.

  3. @LoE: Totally agree that I could see playing Skyrim for really quite a long time. Granted, I don't have your total hours (quite impressive) in the game - I'm closer to 60 over my first character which I accidentally dumped after about 20 hours and my current character (the afore-mentioned Feanor). Still, I am very excited to see what Bethesda comes up with for DLC considering the massive amounts of extra content produced for Fallout. I really wouldn't mind seeing a soft-sequel like New Vegas was either for Skyrim.

    @Placide: I agree that every character starting with every skill is a great way to start out. I like the idea of players doing in-game character generation with advancement slowing down as skills get higher (just like in Skyrim). I think the challenging part to emulate is just how little the increments need to be to feel like constant improvement without being too over- or under-powered.

  4. Skyrim's advancement system reminds me quite a bit of Burning Wheel. Like Mouse Guard, you get better at things you do a lot in BW. In order to advance, you need to track a certain number of "routine", "difficult", and "challenging" tests. It's not a lot at first, but it gets progressively more difficult as time goes on.


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