Random generators have a number of different functions in tabletop RPGs, functions that often contrast with their role in other analog games. This week, I’ll be addressing those functions as well as a number of different ways that random generation can be used.
I will begin with some general theory about how the use of random generation separates an RPG from a miniatures game or a board game, both of whom use random generation in some similar ways to RPGs. Indeed, I think that the distinction in this usage is one of the primary means of telling these kinds of games apart.
Board games and war games use random generation to introduce a factor of luck, which is meant to impact the strategic decisions made in the game. Random elements keep a game from being purely solvable and forces the use of probabilities rather than certainties. In RPGs, random elements are used to add chaos to the narrative. They are not meant to alter strategy but to alter story.
Even in games that don’t forefront narrative in their mechanics, the emergent story that derives from the combination of random elements is often far more interesting and exciting than the retelling of purely strategic decisions. The uncertainty introduced by random chance creates moments where the probabilities do not predict the outcome and thus the outcome stands out as memorable.
The main ways in which an RPG can use random generation is in two fashions.
Conflict resolution is the most often considered method of random generation in RPGs because a lack of balance in the random factors here can make the game far less fun for the players. A game that balances its conflict resolution and has a random generation system that fits the desired outcomes leads to more engaging play.
Not all conflict resolution needs to be done via random generation. Fiasco handles conflict resolution purely through the Conversation, and Polaris uses a form of negotiation via keywords to handle most of its conflict resolution.
Games also vary in how granular this conflict resolution is. Some games might have every action taken in tense scenes be handled via random generation, while others might only have a single resolution to determine the entire scene, even in the most volatile of scenes.
The higher the granularity, the greater the chance for something unexpected to happen, which allows for more emergent storytelling. A game with rarer random generation, meanwhile, has a more directed narrative where the random generation serves the purpose of turning the resolution of key story beats from the players to the system.
In their case, the use of random generation provides alibi for the players. It allows them to place the burden of a story’s outcome onto the designer rather than onto their own decisions, allowing the players to feel more free to engage with the world and helping to establish the magic circle.
The other function of random generation in RPGs is to provide tools to ease the difficulty of adding new elements to a game. These elements can range from random treasures to entire new plot lines to character names. This sort of random generation is often seen in character creation, where the dice fall where they will in order to describe the sort of character that a player is going to be playing.
It can be used in a similar way in world generation to help create a setting that has its own mysteries and quirks that do not seem carefully engineered but rather emergent from the whims of chance. In this way, there can be excitement for all players in exploring the world as it might be, rather than leaving the GM as a tour guide to their own construction.
They can also prove useful when generating new elements to bring into play later on, especially if the player in the GM role finds themself in a spot where they don’t have any specific ideas. This can also serve the function of providing alibi, while also generating new ways for the plot to diverge and travel in different directions.
For a designer, using random generation in this manner can also help to enforce tone and genre, by limiting the possibilities to ones that are in keeping with the desired tone of the game. By placing these constraints in the random tables and references it also encourages that tone to be held up by the players during play and helps to forge a cohesive work.
Three primary tools exist for generating random information, each of which provides its own advantages and disadvantages.
This form of randomization occurs when the random generator is unrelated to previously generated randomizations. This can be seen most commonly in dice. The result of a previous die roll does not directly impact which face will show the next time the die is rolled. This form also includes coin flips and using an electronic random number generator.
This is the most common form of randomization and the most familiar to players. It is also the most easily ported into an electronic format, as electronic die rollers are easily found, in addition to pure random number generators. Over the years of RPG development, a number of different ways of parsing dice results have developed, each of which comes with their own advantages and disadvantages.
However, all forms of discrete randomization are prone to unusual probabilities. An unlikely result might turn into an unlikely string, or a perfectly expected one, or into generating the same result on tables multiple times in a row. While these results can be mediated, their appearance can make game play less fun.
Sequential randomization occurs when the results of a random generator are impacted by the previous results. Most commonly, this occurs with card decks. By removing or using cards, the probability of future results from the deck is altered. The exact same card cannot be pulled multiple times unless the deck is reshuffled after every pull.
This allows sequential randomization to also serve as a time keeper, with exhausting the deck or the probabilities to result in end or transition states. It also prevents the string of similar results that can result from discrete randomization. However, these tools are a bit more difficult to model electronically and require specific tools to do so.
In addition, sequential randomization can lead to counting the cards or otherwise predicting the likely outcome of the next randomization in a way that discrete randomization can only guess at. This knowledge might shape player actions to result in waiting for the randomization to reach a point where the desired result is more likely.
Finally, some random generators are not actually random. This is most often seen with games of rock, paper, scissors which do not generate purely random results. In addition to the even greater difficulty of porting systems like this to electronic formats, as they often rely on precise timing, they also can allow player skill to dominate over the random generator. Still, these methods, if used sparingly, can allow subconscious player inputs to have a stronger impact on game play and create play that goes into stranger or more intense places.
Randomization can add a lot to a game. It can provide tools to encourage and allow for improvisation. But it is important to understand the function and the role that randomization serves in a game, rather than utilizing it without full understanding.
What’s your favorite random generation system in a game?
What’s your greatest moment that occurred because of the random outcomes of the dice?
Have you played any games that have asked you to make things random that you’d rather determine on your own?