The Travelling Apothecary. A discrete optimization approach to… | by Nathan Pratt | Dec, 2020


A discrete optimization approach to Skyrim’s alchemy system.

Nathan Pratt

Whether you are replaying the game for the 5th time or on your 15th character (unable to remember what you were doing with the other 14 saves when you last had free time), Skyrim still holds a warm spot in the hearts of many players. For me, this replayability does not extend to the alchemy system within Skyrim. Nearly a year ago, I had some free time over the holidays and was starting up another character. I was trying to find a way to avoid the grind of unlocking ingredient effects when I recognized this could be represented as an optimization problem.

I would like to share with you the premise behind this problem and the approach with explanations (written in R).

Skyrim is a role-playing game set in a medieval fantasy world. There are several mechanics the player can master within the game. These include archery, swordsmanship, blacksmithing, magic, and alchemy among others. Alchemy, in particular, involves collecting 111 different ingredients (from the wild, purchasing from shops, or occasionally finding them as loot from fallen foes).

  • In Skyrim’s alchemy system, a potion is created using 2–3 ingredients and has all the effects that are shared between any 2 of the ingredients.
  • Each ingredient has 4 effects.
  • The effects are all unknown unless revealed by creating potions with those effects or eating the ingredient can reveal effects 1–4 depending on the level of your Experimenter perk (requires level 90 in Alchemy before you can fully unlock this perk).

A player on his first playthrough will begin by randomly testing hundreds of ingredient combinations that will often fail to produce viable potions. By the end of their playthrough, most will eventually go to a wiki site and look up the effects of unknown ingredients. Others will invest some points into the Experimenter perk and eat any ingredient they see with unknown effects.

On subsequent playthroughs, many players will open up the console and cheat in the Experimenter perk early or go to online forums for an optimal route to unlocking effects. This forum post is the most well done of these posts that I have seen, but unfortunately, it only contains ingredients from the base game (none from the additions to the game). For reference, the recommendations by the players on this board consist of 74 potions to unlock the effects for the 90 ingredients in the base game. The slower of the two algorithms mentioned in this article can unlock all these effects using only 67 potions. Unfortunately, the faster of the algorithms uses 82 potions due to it currently leaving isolated pockets of unknown effects (This will be discussed in the Testing section of the article).

When effects are known, you can easily filter by which effects you want and choose ingredients accordingly within Skyrim’s own crafting system (at the alchemy table). For this reason, revealing the effects the first time will subsequently provide a great deal of convenience for players.

Since I am not willing to level up to 90 in Alchemy before unlocking these ingredient effects, we will attempt to unlock effects by creating potions using the fewest number of ingredients.

We will be setting up this data in a directed graph where each ingredient connects to its associated effects.

I will assume you have some familiarity with R and the libraries I will be using. I will provide explanations/comments that should provide sufficient context if you aren’t familiar with any particular library.

The following libraries will be used (links lead to cran for each)

  1. stringr: present in your base install of R for string manipulation
  2. rvest: for web scraping
  3. igraph: provides a graph data structure and associated functions
  4. dplyr and tidyr: for data frame manipulations

We will be scraping the data from a fan-based wiki using the following code:

This data frame should look like the following:

We now must decide how to represent this data to most efficiently use it for this optimization problem. I have chosen a fairly simple graph representation where the nodes consist of the ingredients and effects and the edges represent connections from ingredients to their effects. (One important point to note, I am adding in a property count which we will discuss later)

The following code will set up this data in an igraph object for use in our functions:

Notice that this creates a graph where every node has the following properties:

  • Name: Accessed via V(alchemyGraph)$name Note that igraph ignores the first column and references it via the lowercase name
  • Type: indicates whether the node represents an ingredient or an effect. Referenced via V(alchemyGraph)$Type
  • Count: A placeholder to indicate the user’s current inventory of the ingredient (always NA for an effect). V(alchemyGraph)$Count
  • Comments: Comments from the scraped data. We won’t be using this field in this exercise

Also, every edge contains a boolean property Known, which represents whether or not that ingredient-effect relationship is unlocked by the player. Accessed via E(alchemyGraph)$Known

The resulting graph contains 111 ingredients, 55 effects, and 444 edges. For a sense of scale, it can be visualized using the following:

vertex.label = NA,
vertex.size = 4)
Light blue nodes are effects and the red nodes are ingredients

Below we will define several utility functions. Error handling is included for some. My apologies for the length of this section and congrats if you can follow them all. Feel free to use the table of contents if you would like to skip this part.

First, we will define a few functions that will get ingredients and their effects back out of the graph.

Next, we will define functions to set/get the ingredient count as well as set the Known property of ingredient-effect edges.

Next will be functions for calculating the effects present in a potion given the ingredients used and another to calculate the number of ingredient-effects unlocked if the supplied ingredients were used. We will also add a function to simulate creating a potion using a given graph as well as one to evaluate the number of ingredients a series of potions reveals.

Now a couple of functions that are a little more abstract and will be used to get all possible combinations of a given set of ingredients for use in the main function. (The expand grid function is a modification of one found on stack overflow. The original function is linked in the comments)

I went through 5 alternative versions of the algorithm to attempt to gain processing efficiency without sacrificing results. One of which pre-loaded the graph with all potential potion combinations and connected those potions to a single root node for searching (root > potion > ingredients > effects). The following two algorithms keep the same graph structure defined above and show minor tradeoffs in terms of speed and efficiency. In a Gremlin graph database, there are a few traversal strategies that could make this easier than when done in R.

I mentioned I would explain the need for the Count property. The simplest approach would assume that we have all the ingredients and I want to know the fewest potions I should make to unlock all ingredient effects (With this algorithm that answer is 78). With the Count property, we can use subgraphs to only calculate for those ingredients we currently have in our inventory. This makes the solution much more dynamic and useful to the adventurer who wants to be an apothecary but hasn’t found the rarest of ingredients yet.

The function recommendPotionForEffectReveal() will serve as the primary logic for the optimization. This function will take a graph in the form of alchemyGraph above, and return a vector (length 2 or 3) of the ingredients to use to make the next potion. This recommended potion should be the one that will reveal the highest number of unknown ingredient-effect edges with a secondary priority of fewest ingredients. Other factors we could also prioritize are cost/rarity of ingredient (not included in this algorithm) and quantity of ingredients (showing a preference for unlocking more effects for the ingredient we have fewer of)

We will cover this function step by step. Before we begin, let’s look at a simple subgraph consisting of only 4 ingredients

layout = coords,
vertex.label.color = V(sampleGraph)$color,
vertex.size = 0)
Ingredients in Red

Next, we’ll showcase known/unknown edges by using a dotted line for unknown ingredient effects. Also, you’ll note that this graph has effects with only one edge. This would not happen in the original graph. For now, we will mark those edges as known to ignore them.

Dotted Lines indicate unknown ingredient-effect relationships (from the player perspective)

In the first phase of the algorithm we will create the following subgraphs:

  • sg: A subgraph showing ingredients with a count > 0 and effects that connect to more than one present ingredient.
  • sgUnknown: A subgraph of sg where we delete all Known edges.

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