Board and Paper Games

Freedom in the Galaxy (SPI, 1979)

The reason I bring up Freedom in the Galaxy (which exemplifies the "character/army" games SPI pioneered) is that its mission system foreshadows random quest generation along the lines seen in games like Elder Scrolls: Arena.

Freedom in the Galaxy's story elements were essentially a mashup of sci fi cliches, drawing heavily on events in Star Wars, Lensman, etc., and adding some obvious extras. Interestingly, everything that happened in the sequels could easily occur in a game of Freedom.

Grail Quest (Metagaming, 1980)


Grail Quest was a very early paragraph-driven adventure which assumed the player would be able to more-or-less fairly play out combats solo using The Fantasy Trip role-playing rules (the original TFT rules (Melee and Wizard) were written by Steve Jackson, and feel much like a simpler, fantasy only version of GURPS).

Aside: eventually, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In The Labyrinth fleshed the rule system out to the point of being a functional role-playing game (rather than a combat system and not much else).

Grail Quest is, in essence, a "choose your own adventure" but much of the navigation is actually based on a discernable grid map, giving the game more of a sandbox quality. To allow all of this to work with a very small number of paragraphs, the player has to keep track of quite a lot of world state (compared with paragraph-driven book adventures which used few or no rules).

Thieves' World (Chaosium, 1991), UNIVERSE (SPI, 1981), Skyrealms of Jorune (Skyrealms Publising 1984)


These three paper role-playing games all featured extremely sophisticated "random encounter systems" — random encounters being an idea from D&D designed to keep players on their toes when exploring dungeons. These games had random encounter systems designed to operate as procedural story generators. All three had specific settings (UNIVERSE's was not well described (again, another monograph); Jorune and Thieves' World were extremely rich and detailed), allowing the encounters to be tied into the setting to some degree.

Here is an example of a "random encounter" from SPI's UNIVERSE:

NPC Nr. C5: Trader


ST (B) EN (B) DX (C) AY (B) IN (D) MP (B) EM (C) LD (C) AG (C) SS: Independent trading family

Skills: Urban 2; Grav NW-1; Temp CD; Environ 2; Trading 6; Economics 3; Handguns 2; Pilot 2; Streetwise 3; Diplomacy 2; Shuttle 1; Planetology 4.

Possessions: Stun pistol, portable computer, Geoscanner, expedition suit, camera, trade stuffs.

  • First Description: As the characters are talking to the booking agent at the Starport, a distinguished looking person approaches them and asks for a minute of their time.
  • GM’s Description: This person is an important interstellar trader who has overheard the players state their next port of call. He may ask them to deliver something; find their ship valuable for a separate trip after the next; ask them to pick something up and deliver it on further; etc. He is what he appears to be.

Whereas, as originally conceived, random encounters were little more than "suddenly you are attacked by 3 ettins" and became "you come across a party of adventurers carrying a dead comrade and having several wounded members; they are in the midst of vehement negotiations with a hunting party" or "you see a businessman scuffle with some anonymous looking thugs, he flees; a member of the party realizes the businessman has switched one of their luggage items." In UNIVERSE's case, the encounters were in fact sketches of mini-adventures, whereas in Skyrealm and Thieves' World they were merely evocative and appropriate — any "good GM" could easily extemporize a storyline from one of them.

Here's the thing: in my experience, many of these little extemporized storylines were in fact more engaging and memorable than the elaborate set-pieces on which GMs were typically reliant because they were events that occurred organically to/around the players rather than well-defined "missions" a player consciously and knowingly undertook (e.g. by seeking out a "patron" or being tasked by an important personage).

It's for this specific reason that I think of this project as being a dynamic story generator and not a dynamic quest generator. I view quests as a subset of stories, and not the most interesting subset.

Note: Thieves' World was a multi-system game supplement designed to allow role-playing in the Sanctuary fictional setting, and not a set of rules in itself, it's worthy of a monograph on game design by itself).

Voyage of the BSM Pandora (SPI, 1981)

Boardgame Geek

This game presages the sandbox adventure game. In the game, the player controls an interstellar biological survey ship and is tasked with traveling between planets, managing limited resources, and dealing with unexpected events. The game is driven by paragraphs (much like a "choose your own adventure") combined with random elements. In a sense, a very simple, highly specific instance of a dynamic story engine.

Return of the Stainless Steel Rat (SPI, 1981)

This is another sandbox-like, paragraph-driven adventure game from SPI. Once again, they invent techniques to leverage a relatively small content pool (they were limited by both design budgets and printing and postage costs to keep games to a small number of magazine pages). Conceptually, this game is rather similar to Pandora but it also has a "random mystery generator" (the core of the game is a whodunnit) which allows the player to obtain clues throughout the game, and then solve a mystery at the end. Unfortunately, the mystery component was quite artificial, and felt "tacked on".

Tales of the Arabian Nights (West End Games, 1985)

Boardgame Geek

This is perhaps the most ambitious hybrid board / paragraph game I've ever seen. It's a multi-player game, but fundamentally the designers have broken down a huge number of stories from 1001 Nights and turned them into fragments that can happen to players in any order, with the added idea of players performing their stories for one another, and assisting each other in spicing up the stories.

The "winner" is the first player to experience a sufficiently interesting life (by living through stories) and return to Baghdad free of harmful enchantments so as to be able to beguile a king a la Scheherazade.

I should add that when we played this game, players eligible to win (by re-entering Baghdad) would refuse to do (at risk of "losing") so as to keep the game going.

paper games markdown 06/02/2015 06:51:40

Computer Games



Rogue is in essence a "dumb" version of what I want my game to be — it procedurally generates a "world" (which happens to be a series of increasingly dangerous dungeon levels) and populates it with enemies. It does, in essence, exactly what I want to do, except that all the stories involve navigating mazes, killing monsters, and identifying loot.

Rogue essentially foreshadows an entire genre of combat and loot oriented games, most notably Diablo et al.


Elite is a 3D spaceship simulator set in a procedurally generated galaxy, where players are encouraged to earn money by killing pirates (or engaging in piracy) and trading in goods via a simple economic system. There are a small number of "missions" in the game which are (as far as I know) hand-designed; most of the game simply involves dealing with the simulated economy, pirates, civilians, and the military (who become hostile in response to the player performing illegal acts).

Again, like Rogue, this is essentially what I am attempting to improve upon.


Starflight was an epic SF game of exploration, with a (fairly thin) arc quest. Most of your time was simply spent exploring the (large, dynamically generated galaxy) and building up the capabilities of your ship and crew, and occasionally achieving a goal on the way to saving civilization from something-or-other (the Galactic Core exploding or something similar). One of the brilliant devices in the game was interaction with aliens, who each "spoke" (in text) with their own unique style and suffered from faulty translation (how faulty depended on the skills of your communications officer).

The game didn't really have "dynamic" stories, so much as arc goals which you had to work hard to accomplish, mostly by setting yourself goals and trying to achieve them efficiently or simply explore and slowly get there anyway.

I never finished the game, but it was addictive and enjoyable.

Elder Scrolls: Arena

Bethesda's first Elder Scrolls title was in many ways its most ambitious (Daggerfall was bigger in every way, but less playable and an obvious expansion of ideas already seen in Arena). Pretty much the entire world is built out of procedurally assembled components — entire landscapes, cities, their populations, and most of the quests in the game (there are hand-made arc quests, but they constitute a tiny proportion of what a player typically does in the game).

While the randomly generated missions are enjoyable (and profitable), they are very thin in narrative terms, and often seem hilariously poorly embedded in the game world (there's generally no plausible reason why anything is asked of you, and nothing you do has any lasting impact).

Escape Velocity

Escape Velocity was essentially a 2D version of Elite, but with a much richer simulated universe, including multiple factions that would constantly interact (the universe felt quite alive, with NPCs going about their business and fighting each other for sensible reasons).

In addition to currying favor or gaining the enmity of various factions (including by performing both random and hand-made missions), the player could take over star systems and make money from them.

Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997)


Fallout probably represents the high water mark of hand-made mission-based games. Because the developers leveraged 3D rendering techniques to produce their 2D content, they were able to produce entire alternate versions of various signficant game locations and have the world respond to the various outcomes of major quests somewhat dynamically. Fallout also allowed players to take a widely varying set of approaches to problem-solving — e.g. most quests could be solved using a variety of both violent and non-violent approaches. The more recent successors to Fallout are quite good by modern standards, but in significant ways less dynamic than the original game.

Neverwinter Nights

(This is the 2002 Bioware Game — there was an earlier AOL MMORPG)

NWN is a large single- and multi-player quest-centric D&D-based computer RPG. It was radical at the time in having included with the game itself a very powerful toolkit for creating new content. As such, it, along with some of the recent games from Bethesda which offer similar (albeit single-player-only) toolkits, stands at the apex of games with powerful tools to enable content ("level") designers to implement story content with little or no actual programming.


The Fable games are interesting in part because they represent the culmination of Peter Molyneux's obsession with "procedural everything" in his games (he first became famous for the "god game" Populous which featured procedural levels and an unreasonably tough AI opponent.) The Fable games attempt to allow the game world to be richer and more dynamic by making player actions, especially interactions with NPCs, somewhat abstract. In essence, conversations are exchanges of emoticons. But, using this mechanic, the player is able to woo partners, run businesses, etc., in what is otherwise a fairly conventional computer RPG.

Mass Effect Trilogy (as representative of most recent Bioware RPGs)

This trilogy is probably the most highly acclaimed action RPG of the previous generation of game consoles. It features quests with multiple approaches, and multiple outcomes (including variable level of success) that have follow-on effects on the game-world. Some interpersonal storylines vary based on whether the player has chosen a male or female avatar and whether the player plays that character as straight or gay. A lot of missions offer the player "good" vs. "evil" options, but the designers seem to be confusing "good" and "evil" with "polite" and "brusque" most of the time.

Very interestingly, throughout the trilogy the player can retain the same character, and — if so — has to live with the consequences of choices made in earlier instalments. In the end, the trilogy has three (four?) possible endings, which are made available based ons very simple variables, differ only cosmetically, and were generally found unsatisfying.

Fallout 3, Skyrim (as representative of most recent Bethesda RPGs)

After Daggerfall (which was playable but buggy) and several nearly unplayably bad games, Bethesda turned away from procedural content and switched over to creating powerful tools for hand-building content (which they made available to players). It's pretty clear that their toolchain is currently unmatched in terms of handling complex multi-path quests, as exemplified by Fallout 3 and Skyrim (among others).

A good dynamic story engine should also be a powerful tool for expressing hand-made content, both from scratch and by assembling pre-built story elements.


Dishonored stands out chiefly for affording players a great variety of viable approaches to resolving its missions. The missions themselves are "hand-made" (although with some randomized setup to make replaying missions non-trivial) and presented in linear order, but the missions themselves are very freeform, and allow players to operate using violence, stealth, or (sometimes) other approaches.

Grand Theft Auto V

GTAV builds on earlier sandbox games from Rockstar (including non-GTA titles such as Bully and LA Noire) to include both a bewildering array of polished minigames (e.g. tennis and golf simulations that are deep enough to qualify as games in their own right) and quasi-dynamic side-quests (e.g. crime victims a player passes on the street that he/she can ignore or choose to help). The qualitative difference between the hand-made "arc" content (which tends to feature richly detailed stories with elaborate cut scenes) and side-quests or quasi-dynamic content is marked.

Elite: Dangerous

Not yet played. Extremely impressive dynamic content — jury is still out on the story component. Still in beta and only available for PC.

computer games markdown 12/16/2014 15:17:47


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