The Importance of Randomness
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  1. #1

    The Importance of Randomness

    The Death of Randomness

    If there's anything that can be said for sure about 4e, it's that random events are constrained to the combat board, and even then, the range of random events is highly reduced. A creature has an expected lifespan, an expected damage output, and an expected treasure parcel. Encounters are built to minimize the likelihood of a disaster or overwhelming victory, characters are built to withstand the vagaries of the dice, and character creation is more like engineering than hoping for a high STR roll. The general consensus with the New School D&D crowd is that this is a Good Thing.

    For a certain play style of DnD, this is a good thing. Knowing what's in the box lets DM's build encounters and whole campaigns with a reasonable certainty and a minimum of chaos.

    But for other styles of DnD, randomness is absolutely essential. Not just in combat, but in the whole of the world. Randomness frees the Dungeon Master to be an impartial referee. Take wandering monsters, for example. If you decide that in a dungeon there's a 20% chance of encountering a monster every 10 minutes (or hour, or day), you have set a danger level without coming off as a bad guy. Of course, it requires skill to set these danger levels at something the players feel is logical. Walking through a town shouldn't have an 80% chance of being attacked, and walking through sparsely populated woods shouldn't have the checks made every five minutes. When the DM uses random methods to propel the 'story', it frees the DM to describe the situation and watch what happens, and it frees the players from having to second-guess the DM's intentions.

    The Function of Randomness in RPGs

    Random events undermine metagaming. Metagaming requires treating the game world as a statistical analysis, or treating the DM's adventure as a predictable narrative. Humans can only make statistical predictions within very tight constraints, however. With multiple variables, predictions outside of the system become impossible. Instead of wondering why the DM isn't letting my amazing tracker shine, I know that within this town there's a chance that I simply won't encounter any badguys worth tracking. It stops becoming about an antagonism between the DM and the players and now the players have to deal with a new situation.

    Unpredictability spurs creativity. If the DM doesn't know what is going to happen from moment to moment, plot creation involves finding links between events, strengthening some, pruning others and letting the players move through the world freely. It frees the DM to keep low investment in any one outcome, because a trick of the dice might undo all her hard work.

  2. #2
    Random events are quite metagamable. Even moreso than hand-crafted encounter designs, because there's a concrete system to them that can be figured out. Random doesn't mean completely unpredictable.

    Random encounters and such work for certain kinds of games. But I find that those aren't the kind of games I'm looking for at a PnP table. I want well-crafted, and thoughtful encounter designs.

  3. #3
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    I'm all for giving people lots and lots of "help I can't decide" tables, but make sure people can go right for the default just as easily.

    I like to work a certain rhythm into my game, and randomness ruins that.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by JonWake View Post
    But for other styles of DnD, randomness is absolutely essential. Not just in combat, but in the whole of the world. Randomness frees the Dungeon Master to be an impartial referee.
    In what way does this "free" the Dungeon Master? If anything, resorting to randomness removes from the DM the element of control over the way the game world interacts with the PCs.

    Take wandering monsters, for example. If you decide that in a dungeon there's a 20% chance of encountering a monster every 10 minutes (or hour, or day), you have set a danger level without coming off as a bad guy.
    In what ways are random encounters preferable to non-random encounters? The players will not know the difference (unless you roll the random encounter dice in front of them, but why would you do that?), and non-random encounters allow you to tailor the encounters to the situation without being caught off-guard as the DM.

    Random encounters are supposed to be a tool for DMs who would prefer not to spend time preparing encounters. They don't actually offer anything beyond convenience.

    Of course, it requires skill to set these danger levels at something the players feel is logical. Walking through a town shouldn't have an 80% chance of being attacked, and walking through sparsely populated woods shouldn't have the checks made every five minutes.
    I don't think these require much skill. At most, they require some rough, easily-applied guidelines.

    Unpredictability spurs creativity.
    Creativity also spurs creativity. In addition, the DM can easily appear unpredictable to the players without actually being unpredictable to himself. Random encounters make things unpredictable for both the players and DM.

    It frees the DM to keep low investment in any one outcome, because a trick of the dice might undo all her hard work.
    This is some really backwards thinking.

    "D&D should have random encounters, because they actively discourage the DM from being invested in a particular plot!"

  5. #5
    Just to add:

    Randomness is, in a game like D&D, best constructed as a consensual illusion between the DM and the players - an illusion that allows the DM to maintain control of the game world and its impact on the PCs, while giving the players the believable (though often false) impression that the ultimate outcome of their participation in the illusion is not predetermined.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    Just to add:

    Randomness is, in a game like D&D, best constructed as a consensual illusion between the DM and the players - an illusion that allows the DM to maintain control of the game world and its impact on the PCs, while giving the players the believable (though often false) impression that the ultimate outcome of their participation in the illusion is not predetermined.
    That might be true in some games, but as a DM I have no idea whats going to happen. The PCs might live to become god-kings or die ignobly in a pit in the ground. They might uncover the vast conspiracy or become a part of it. I play to see what happens. If I know what's going to happen, I'd just write it as fiction.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post

    In what ways are random encounters preferable to non-random encounters? The players will not know the difference (unless you roll the random encounter dice in front of them, but why would you do that?), and non-random encounters allow you to tailor the encounters to the situation without being caught off-guard as the DM.

    Random encounters are supposed to be a tool for DMs who would prefer not to spend time preparing encounters. They don't actually offer anything beyond convenience.
    Not preferable, or as a replacement for placed encounters but rather as a possible addition to them in locations where it might be appropriate. Some places might not feature any random encounters, others might have random encounters as the only ones there are.

    Basically its mix and match to taste rather than either or.



    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post

    Creativity also spurs creativity. In addition, the DM can easily appear unpredictable to the players without actually being unpredictable to himself. Random encounters make things unpredictable for both the players and DM.
    Yes indeed and this is a feature not a bug. If I want to know whats going to happen without any suprises then I'll just watch a movie that I've already seen.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    Just to add:

    Randomness is, in a game like D&D, best constructed as a consensual illusion between the DM and the players - an illusion that allows the DM to maintain control of the game world and its impact on the PCs, while giving the players the believable (though often false) impression that the ultimate outcome of their participation in the illusion is not predetermined.
    For some of us predetermination doesn't exist.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    In what way does this "free" the Dungeon Master? If anything, resorting to randomness removes from the DM the element of control over the way the game world interacts with the PCs.
    Yup. It frees me to think only as the NPCs might.


    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    In what ways are random encounters preferable to non-random encounters? The players will not know the difference (unless you roll the random encounter dice in front of them, but why would you do that?), and non-random encounters allow you to tailor the encounters to the situation without being caught off-guard as the DM.
    Being caught off-guard is the point. And the players do know the difference: if you hit them with a dozen encounters to wear them down, they know that there's a narrative reason for it. Or you're just a dick. If they'd stuck trekking through the Marsh of Nasty Spanky Doom, and they are getting spanked with doom, well, there's an element of impartiality for the DM.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    Random encounters are supposed to be a tool for DMs who would prefer not to spend time preparing encounters. They don't actually offer anything beyond convenience.
    Nonsense. That might be how some people use them. Some people treat them as actual events in a consistent game world.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    Creativity also spurs creativity. In addition, the DM can easily appear unpredictable to the players without actually being unpredictable to himself. Random encounters make things unpredictable for both the players and DM.
    Why would I want to be predictable to myself? I'm not writing a novel here. I like unpredictability. Keeps me on my toes.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    This is some really backwards thinking.

    "D&D should have random encounters, because they actively discourage the DM from being invested in a particular plot!"
    It's only backwards if you think the point of being a DM is to let the players unfold a plot. That's only one way to play. I like to let the PCs break the story and see what happens. And I'm not just talking about random encounters, but more randomness. Or to use a more common term, 'swingyness'. If the PCs one shot the big bad guy, oh well. If I know there's a chance that this will happen, I won't play a game of Frustrated Fantasy Writer theater and get all butt-hurt when the players break my plot.

    I don't do plot. My day job is doing plot. I run DnD to be surprised. Randomness facilitates this.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager View Post
    In what way does this "free" the Dungeon Master? If anything, resorting to randomness removes from the DM the element of control over the way the game world interacts with the PCs.



    In what ways are random encounters preferable to non-random encounters? The players will not know the difference (unless you roll the random encounter dice in front of them, but why would you do that?), and non-random encounters allow you to tailor the encounters to the situation without being caught off-guard as the DM.

    Random encounters are supposed to be a tool for DMs who would prefer not to spend time preparing encounters. They don't actually offer anything beyond convenience.



    I don't think these require much skill. At most, they require some rough, easily-applied guidelines.



    Creativity also spurs creativity. In addition, the DM can easily appear unpredictable to the players without actually being unpredictable to himself. Random encounters make things unpredictable for both the players and DM.



    This is some really backwards thinking.

    "D&D should have random encounters, because they actively discourage the DM from being invested in a particular plot!"
    I'm not sure you're understanding his point. As a 30+ year veteran GM, havng run almost every edition of the game, I grok what the OP is getting at.

    There is no backwards thinking being espoused by the OP. The OP points out correctly that there are different styles of play and what a couple of them are like and why some people like certain features of either or both.

    The more random method, what I call the sandbox style, can be a lot of fun for the right group. I am currently running a sandbox style campaign and still mixing in some planned stuff with the random stuff. It is working very well, and I can have a very direct hand in things even with the randomness.

    My game is what I call a living sandbox where actions of the PCs can get tangled with NPC plots. Example, my PCs attacked and defeated some bandits that happened to be part of a larger organization with a goal that now had to be delayed. That means I as DM need to determine how that group would respond. They hired a necromancer to zombify the bandit corpses (along with one dead PC that was left behind), shrink them, hide them in large clay jars and have them shipped to where the PCs were sleeping. During the night the jars broke - Instant-Undead-Ambush.

    I certainly don't feel discourages me from being invested in the game or plots at all. I am not the least bit removed from the game world, but I can enjoy some surprises right along with the players.

    When I'm running a campaign with tighter plotlines I dial back the randomness a bit to keep the game flowing and to make it not as risky of something outside the storyline sending it off in the wrong direction. If the players want to, they can still make me earn my improvisation DM badge, and they have many times.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager
    resorting to randomness removes from the DM the element of control over the way the game world interacts with the PCs.
    I know, isn't it great?! An essential component of fun is surprise, and there's nothing like an entire group being surprised by a fun new contribution from some random table.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager
    Random encounters are supposed to be a tool for DMs who would prefer not to spend time preparing encounters. They don't actually offer anything beyond convenience.
    Well, they offer quite a bit beyond convenience. For one, that surprise I mentioned above. For another, an easier way to "sandbox" the game: if the encounters aren't predetermined, I don't as a DM have to nudge the group in one or another narrative direction, I can just let them do whatever and be adequately prepared for whatever they do.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager
    Random encounters make things unpredictable for both the players and DM.
    That is the most fun.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager
    This is some really backwards thinking.

    "D&D should have random encounters, because they actively discourage the DM from being invested in a particular plot!"
    Backwards? Sounds good to me!

    Quote Originally Posted by Dannager
    Randomness is, in a game like D&D, best constructed as a consensual illusion between the DM and the players - an illusion that allows the DM to maintain control of the game world and its impact on the PCs, while giving the players the believable (though often false) impression that the ultimate outcome of their participation in the illusion is not predetermined.
    Why the heck would I want a predetermined outcome that I control in a game? I'm not interested in telling a predetermined narrative with the occasional dice roll.

    Randomness is lots of fun. Control is dull. Embrace the chaos.
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