The Alexandrian

Valley of the Sapphire Waves

September 22nd, 2014

Valley of the Sapphire Waves

Many moons ago I was talking with a guy online who claimed that, by the year 2017, computer games would exist which would allow GMs to create off the cuff in real-time just like they can currently do at the table. And I said, “Bullshit.” (For obvious reasons.) In the process of calling bullshit, however, I ended up creating an example of off-the-cuff design that would be virtually impossible to replicate in a computer game engine even with procedural content generators vastly superior to anything we have available to us today.

It’s nothing particularly spectacular, but it’s got a few touches of the fantastical that I think are rather evocative and worth sharing.


The Valley of the Sapphire Waves is filled with rolling fields of vibrant blue grass. Anyone standing in the waters of the valley will perceive the sun as eclipsed because Helios mourns the loss of his first wife (the Ur-Goddess of the Rivers, see hex 1).

HEX 1: The Falls of the Ur-Goddess. The 300 foot tall waterfall at the end of the valley flows up because it is the place where the Ur-Goddess of the Rivers was slain millennia ago.

HEX 2: Obelisk of Moonstone. Raised as a holy site by the Heresy Cult of the Ur-Goddess. The moonstone will heal anyone touching it at night, but under the rays of the sun it is cursed. (Anyone touching it suffers as per a bestow curse spell.)

HEX 3: The Stirge Mires. 1 in 3 chance of encounteing 1-6 stirges.

HEX 4: Goblin Moonstone Scavengers. Small tribe of goblins scavenging the moonstones scattered in rocky crevasses here.

HEX 5: Vale of the Dryad. This forestland is protected by a dryad whose spirit is bound to a treant. All the squirrels here can talk, many spontaneously forming acting troupes performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

HEX 6: Graveyard of the Moonstone Cults. 1 in 3 chance per turn of encountering 1-3 wights.

HEX 7: Medusa’s Vale. A medusa makes her home in the Sinkhole of Statuary.

HEX 8: Sphinx Guardians. Once a great tribe of sphinxes guarded the entrance to the valley (they were placed there by Helios), but their numbers are depleted. 1 in 3 chance of encountering a sphinx, which 75% of the time will be an undead skeleton. Remaining sphinxes will ask sun-oriented riddles before attacking.

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9 Responses to “Valley of the Sapphire Waves”

  1. Auroch says:

    The only part of that which would be beyond the reach of procedural content generation now is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because generating realistic speech is hard. The rest is very doable. Effortful, yes, but achievable.

    This still probably won’t exist by 2017, but that’s because there’s no money in making it, not because it’s not within the reach of current techniques. Other than the realistic speech generation, I expect something that could handle all of this comfortably will arrive in the early 2020s, as tools for automating design make it not just doable, but easy, and within reach of a hobbyist in their spare time, distributed via Kickstarter or an equivalent.

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    Yes. Everything I’ve described here is easily achievable in a computer game.

    But that is very, very, very, very different than allowing a GM to create this stuff off-the-cuff while actively running the game. There is a huge difference between “something a computer can achieve if you spend several hours/weeks/months/years developing it” and “something you can get playing on the computer within 30 seconds so that your players experience a seamless playing experience”.

    So, yes, you could theoretically design a procedural content generator that could spit up results like this one. But you’re not designing it in the first 30 seconds after you have the idea.

    Nor is it particularly likely that we’re going to magically see that technology appear in the next 6 years. The Singularity will arrive before this technology.

  3. Gareth Wilson says:

    Obviously there should be a division of labour – a human GM for NPC dialogue and on-the-fly improv, a computer for graphics and bookkeeping. You could have a multiplayer game run over the internet that looks like Skyrim but with a human GM. Of course this has the old problem of finding people willing to be GMs. Maybe you could combine player and GM. Have a two-person game where the players are two gods controlling half of the universe each, and being GMs for each other.

  4. Auroch says:

    All of these things except natural language processing are things that would be trivial to add to an existing engine. The effortful part would be setting up a wrapper on that engine that has a big enough library to support everything easily, and the actually difficult part would be making the interface intuitive enough that the DM can set up the peculiarities of each area as their players are approaching it, which is always the difficult part.

    None of the advances needed involve procedural generation. The procedural part is the part that’s already well established; it’s adding the details from the DM’s head that is slow.

  5. GreyKnight says:

    It depends how random your random is, I guess. :-) If we allow for a generator that has some understanding of theming and relationships, perhaps it would be possible?

    Here is a relevant sketch of a procedure that might be useful:

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    Once again: There is nothing about this scenario that it’s impossible to do on a computer. Nor would it be particularly difficult to create a procedural generator to create stuff like this.

    But you will NOT be developing this customized content in the 30 seconds it takes for me to produce stuff like this off-the-cuff at the gaming table.

    @Auroch: The “natural language processing”, it should be noted, is actually the EASIEST thing to realize in this scenario. Why? Because we’re talking about an actual GM generating this material within the computer program in real-time. Communicating dialogue via either text or microphone is a solved problem and absolutely trivial.

    For those of you still convinced that you can totally implement stuff like this in a modern computer game in 30 seconds, I highly recommend seeking lucrative employment in game development. Because there are companies spending hundreds of man-hours developing content that you’re claiming to able to whip out during the commercial break of your favorite TV show.

  7. GreyKnight says:

    Nobody’s talking about implementing such a generator in 30 seconds. We’re talking about implementing a generator — in some undefined period of time — which could then perform such a generation in 30 seconds.

    Talking about implementing the software-generator wouldn’t be comparing like with like, since on the human-generator side you’re only talking about performing a single generation. I am sure it took more than 30 seconds for you to develop your skills to the point where you can do that: probably years. :-)

    Now that that confusion is cleared up, I guess I can say that communicating via text isn’t such a solved problem after all. 😀

    Also, I wasn’t considering such a generator a “computer game” in its own right, more of a tool for producing tabletop scenarios. I suppose you could build it into a roguelike or something of that sort.

  8. Fenyx4 says:

    GreyKnight you seem to have completely misinterpreted Justin’s statement.
    Justin isn’t “suggesting that a random content generator couldn’t produce such a thing” (to quote your blog post). He agrees that it can be done.

    Here is what Justin is saying broken down into steps;
    Step 1) GM imagines a scene
    Step 2) GM inputs what he imagines into computer
    Step 3) Playable computer game environment that closely matches scene GM imagined.

    Justin is saying that Step 2 to Step 3 will take longer than 30 seconds.

    Relevant XKCD;

  9. Justin Alexander says:

    More generally, claiming that “nobody’s talking” about the topic which is, literally, the only topic of discussion just leaves me baffled.

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