Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Will AI Change the Hobby?

Somebody posted an excellent comment in reply to my previous post, predicting that the next big 'advance' in RPG play will come from the use of AI. Picture the scene: rather than the DM laboriously keying hexmaps and dungeons, or buying hexmaps and dungeons somebody else has laboriously keyed, he just downloads some software that creates entire settings - nay, worlds - at the push of a mouse button. Every NPC, every lair, every treasure trove, every random encounter table... Different every time, and ready to explore.

AI will, I suppose the argument goes, create our music, our films, our books, our poetry; so why not our campaign settings?

I have no doubt that this kind of thing will become possible, and that it will be a very fun tool to play around with when it does - human input and creativity coming in the form of fiddling with parameters and inputs rather than the nitty gritty of content. But I am not convinced it will supplant the traditional model, for the same reason that radio did not replace books, and TV did not replace radio, and VHS did not replace the cinema, and CDs did not replace vinyl, and so on. New technologies tend to disrupt, but not totally subvert, old ones. And, indeed, they can ultimately give older ways of doing things a new lease of life - as the availability of limitless disposable streaming of music has led, for example, to a mini-stampede to vinyl. 

It is so trite to point out that the OSR was yet another iteration of this phenomenon that it is almost embarrassing to do so, but it is worth reflecting that the movement would probably never have taken off (certainly not with the popularity it did) were it not for the creation of 4e lighting the touchpaper. Advances in gaming technology did not kill 'old school D&D' - they put rocket fuel in its engines.

More broadly, it seems to me that the contemporary popularity of D&D (and it really is popular: lots of people I know, people who are normal and successful and have real jobs and kids and would once have been described as 'cool', will these days openly talk in public about playing the game, which I don't think has ever been true in its history before) has also been given wings by the a reaction against the overwhelming dominance of video games in the broader culture. It's not that people are driven to play D&D by fear and loathing of video games; most people who enjoy the former also enjoy the latter. It's just that D&D's more tactile, meditative, bookish elements are thrown into relief when set against a backdrop of primarily digital pursuits. People go to hobbies like D&D much as beasts flock to a waterhole in the savannah - it's not where they spend all their time, but it's where they go from time to time to slake their thirst when the need strikes them.

We face a future that is going to become increasingly dominated by the digital. This will open new possibilities for RPG gaming. But my suspicion is that it will also further bolster traditional, analogue pursuits - like sitting down at a table with pen and pencil and some dice in order to key a dungeon or hexmap.


  1. I struggle to imagine AI making a meaningful impact onto gaming, aside from being used as a glorified random generator, until some significant advances are made. Popularly available AI tools at the moment are rather crude for the purpose of anything that requires subtly, and it's likely that any AI wrangled into making a dungeon right now would make one that reads somewhere between a fever dream and a ninth graders first dungeon.

    For AI to become relevant to gaming it not only needs to advance significantly, but needs to advance significantly AND then become commonplace that it can become accessible to something as relatively removed from the "technology" pipeline as RPGs. I don't know whether this will happen, but I agree that even if it does, it's unlikely to totally wipe out other fields of RPG writing. We're like weeds.

    1. I'd agree with this (and the original article). To make good use of AI, you need to understand its limitations in the given circumstances e.g. numerical codes that churn out spurious solutions. Did fantasy computer games wipe out table top roleplaying? It turns out there are things a human referee does particularly well. Even programmed adventures have seen something of a resurgence: there is something satisfying about rolling your own dice, possibly playing the encounter out on a battle mat, and writing down the result on a piece of paper.

  2. I know a little bit about this subject, and I've thought about it quite a lot.

    My take is this:
    Will AI change the hobby? Yes. It's going to change everything. Here's a picture I personally generated the other day: https://i.imgur.com/FrwEoHE.jpg I think the quality speaks for itself. Note that this did take a fair amount of input and guidance from me. This is how I see things working in the near future - AI as a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled user.

    Will AI render all human GMs obsolete? No. At least, not until we solve General Intelligence, at which point all humans become obsolete, so whatever. For now though, GMing is AI-complete. It requires logical and problem-solving abilities that an AI cannot perform unless it is at least as clever as a human. It can generate very creative contents for hexes or dungeon rooms, but it cannot connect those together into a coherent structure with cause-and-effect. This could change, but if it does we should start getting worried. Also, GMing requires a huge range of skills that AI would find hard to do: game design, art, writing, acting, strategy, dispute mediation, timetable planning. There are few disciplines so broad.

    Will AI render some human GMs obsolete? Or RPG writers? Probably. You know how you sometimes read an RPG book and it just doesn't have anything worthwhile in it? Like there's a few pages describing an orc tribe, but it doesn't introduce anything that you didn't already have in your head the moment you heard the words 'orc tribe'? That kind of thing - the 90% of everything described by Sturgeon's Law - that's all fodder for the AI content-printer. I think there's going to be a weird situation where we have an unlimited tap of mediocre media flooding everything. But the 10% that's actually Good will remain the preserve of human artists (using AI tools).
    I expect this will make human-made media more of a status symbol and increase its value, much the same as in material culture, where hand-made objects are vastly more sought-after than factory-made things despite often being of inferior quality.

    RPGs, as an in-person, human-interaction hobby will likely come out of that quite well.

  3. I agree with all of this, and think your last point is particularly astute. Whenever anything gets too baroque, there's a minimalist response (cf The Artpunk Wars of 2021). When trends lean towards the future, there's a traditionalist response. Nothing beats hand-doodling dungeon maps.

    Although I'm firmly in the camp that fully general AI is more likely years than decades away, whether that intelligence could write a kick-ass module is moot (it could).

    The technically-minded RPG hobbyist probably could pick up something like GPT-2 and really have some fun with it; not as a magical content machine, but something akin to a writing prompt or (insane) friend to bounce ideas off. The thing I find most exciting about this is that these tools don't "think" like people, and so make connections and leaps that maybe even the most creative human mind wouldn't.

    So I think that's where the value is, right now; using machine learning not as a crutch or to fill blank spaces on the map (so to speak), but as a creative aid.

  4. The content my players most enjoy in my game is the extemporaneous details that comes from my understanding of what my friends fear, enjoy, or despise. The future and direction of my campaign has swing on them keying in on a particularly eccentric NPC that they felt attached to. I think that level of communication is far beyond the horizon.

  5. I'm not sure I'm seeing how AI would impact RPGs that much, I'd see the bigger impact being more computer games with more interesting procedurally generated stuff in the vein of Dwarf Fortress with an actual budget and more mainstream.

  6. This seems to be exactly what you described in that first paragraph:


  7. I look at it another way.

    AI will eventually make digital escapism too immersive for people (not us, but those generations who will come after) to even ponder any other entertainment activity.

    A handful of digital-averse recluses would remain buoyant, much as we do now, but in ever dwindling numbers.

    Also, the nature of games partaken by people born to a world where machine thinking has taken over all weighty intellectual tasks would likely be very different from what we would expect.

    Then again, you could simply conjure up a number of mock-sentient 'people' to play in your game and while away your existence with nothing but.

    The future is a strange and frightening place.

  8. I'm starting to dig deeper into doing some AI (or Machine Learning, as the pedants would have it) work myself, and reading around it I stumbled on this, machine-generated D&D character bios. Some of the "really really weird" ones strike me as something Patrick might write:

  9. Inspired by a conversation about AI on the NSR Discord, I was prompted to try the GPT-3 playground to generate some absurd tiny deities (I'm sure I've mentioned to you before my Deitygalaxy twitter bot; I'm hoping to use AI as an alternative to this).

    Below are the things that it came up with (after being primed with some similar examples which I wrote myself). The final one should particularly appeal to you :)

    I think I can safely predict that AI will smash the random tables market within a fairly short time.


    Sneezeweed, goddess of the common cold, always takes the form of a small child sneezing. Her snot is green, her eyes are red, and her mouth is always open in a silent O. To worship Sneezeweed, one must first catch her cold, and then build a small shrine out of used tissues.

    Turdblossom, goddess of constipation, is a great black slug with a thousand tiny eyes dotted across her slimy body. She is always found lurking in the darkest corners of public toilets, and can only be placated by offerings of soft, runny faeces.

    Plugh, god of paperclips, is a small, sprightly creature made entirely out of paperclips. He is very difficult to catch, but if you can manage to pin him down he will gladly help you to organise your papers in a more efficient manner.

    Zoob is the god of lost keys. He is a small, furry creature with a long tail and a knack for hiding in the most unexpected places. To worship Zoob, simply leave your keys in a conspicuous place and wait for him to find them.

    Wobblegoo is the goddess of wobbly teeth. She is a small, mischievous creature with a large, gaping mouth full of sharp teeth. To worship Wobblegoo, simply wiggle your teeth until they are loose, and then offer them up to her.

    Gribbly is the god of earwigs. He is a small, wriggly creature with a large pair of pincers. To worship Gribbly, simply leave a small piece of fruit or vegetable out for him to feast on.

  10. Some more examples, and some more thoughts: