Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Randomization and Role Play

There are many different ways to drive your TTRPG, as DM, or as a group, there needs to be some way to generate the ideas and events that populate your game world. Pure imagination can do the trick, if you are a particularly creative person and a decent improvisor you can sit at the table and make it up as you go along. I’ve done this myself, pure improvisation at the table can be invigorating and unpredictable.


Even the best referees get stuck, and sometimes it is nice for the game mechanics themselves to produce results for you. Also, and this is a less popular argument, it is HARD to continually come up with refreshing and new ideas for your game. This is particularly the case when you are playing for an extended period of time. Drop in games and one-shot’s aside, extended campaigns can suffer from a few problems in this area:

1. The DM gets stuck, for whatever reason they hit a wall and can’t figure out where to go
2. The DM has plenty of ideas, but they tend to be the same or similar after a while, so the players can predict what’s going to happen and find it boring

I find that both of these have been issues for me in the past. I’m a storyteller by nature, I like to tell stories and use stories to drive conversation and share ideas, I’m naturally curious too, it’s hardwired. However, storytellers don’t always make the best DM’s, as we have a tendency to bulldoze the game. It isn’t always conscious, and it isn’t generally malicious, it’s just the way we are wired. I suspect my arc in the game was similar to that of many others. 

When I started playing we were all about “BTB”, doing it by the book, and my level of interference in the game was minimal. I didn’t ever mess with dice rolls, I didn’t alter anything on the fly, it was “play it as it lands” and that was that.

Then, over time, that changed. We would be in a fight that was dragging out and I would reduce HP or fudge rolls to end things faster. One player had a bad run of luck and I would tweak the rolls so they would survive or thrive. I wanted “optimized” NPCs to present the greatest challenge to the players so I would pick the spells and items for all my NPCs. The party was having a bad run of luck so I would monkey with the treasure hoard to give them items that were tailored to them, etc.

I see discussions of this on Twitter all the time now. One thread will sing the praises of averaging HP for monsters to “speed things up”, another will bemoan that monster fights are too predictable and boring. Another will discuss adjusting things on the fly to “serve the story”, but others will complain about the fact that the PCs seem invincible.

The root problem is that monkeying around with things puts a lot of pressure on the DM, they have to become the master storyteller, the burden is on THEM to determine when to intervene, when to fudge the dice, when to save the PC, when to let them die. I find it surprising how often collaborative “story” oriented DM’s advocate for messing with the game results to help improve the game experience for individual players. There is nothing less collaborative than a DM arbitrarily and without consultation changing things to “help out” a player.

Even more strangely, I see people advocating for fudging dice rolls and changing results in such a way as to mimic the randomization of dice rolls, essentially: DON’T RESOLVE THIS WITH DICE, BUT MAKE IT LOOK LIKE YOU HAVE!


There are different ways to deal with these issues, no one wants a repetitive game, no one wants a game where the DM is constantly getting stuck for ideas. 

Fortunately, 1e has a solution for this that works and works well. 

Bounded randomness, dice + tables can help solve these issues. 1e is lousy with tables for almost everything you can imagine. These tables are not COMPLETELY random, they are structured to deliver a certain range of possible results, thus the “bounded” randomness. 

However, they do randomize results within those bounds, and that’s the key to solving these problems.

Randomization takes the decision out of your hands, there are a number of game relevant reasons why this is important. One, you already have a metric ton of influence on the game, other than the PCs you run EVERYTHING, so it is important to introduce a few points in the game that are not within your purview. 

Two, dice can add some fairness to a process that can be somewhat arbitrary, when you roll a die it decides for you with a random process, that’s about as fair as a decision can be.

However, in addition to helping you build your game world, and inserting fairness into the adjudication process, dice also provide inspiration and variety.

Which leads us to the topic of this post, RRTEI, or Roll Randomly and Then Explain It.

RRTEI is a simple principle, roll randomly to determine results, and then explain those results in the context of your game. 

There are a few important elements to this. First, unless you have a compelling reason not to, the idea is to use the result you roll. In short, if you are willing to roll on the tables you are putting your faith in how they were constructed, you don’t change the result of a roll like that.

Second, this will lead, very deliberately, to unbalanced play, monsters won’t always be “defeatable”, magic items won’t always be level appropriate. Sometimes things will be easier than you expect as well, if you roll for monster HP sometimes you get a monster with very few HP, and the fight is easier than you expect. 

Third, RRTEI is an explicitly NARRATIVE tool, it is the process of interpreting the result of a game mechanical dice roll in a way that “fits” the story of your campaign. You are forced to, as a referee, determine HOW that +5 holy avenger ended up in the treasure hoard of the bridge troll, rather than ensure that only “level appropriate” magic items are there.

At the heart of 1st edition and most old school games is this crucial narrative tool, one that generates new ideas for your game that you have to contextualize for your players. Remember this when people suggest that old school D&D is not a good fit for a “story focused” group. 

An example is worthwhile.

The party in my home game was on their way to an abandoned temple in the desert. Now, the tendency is often to “hand wave” the trip to get there, after all, the abandoned temple IS the adventure, so why bother with random encounter rolls at all, just start at the temple.

I rolled for wandering monsters on the way through the desert to the temple, on the last roll, as they were approaching the temple, they pinged for a random encounter. I rolled on the table and obtained a blue dragon. 

Right away I”m “derailing” the story here, as the story was them going to the temple, not getting tangled up in an encounter in the desert that has no immediate benefit to them. But RRTEI suggests that the encounter was to be used, so away we went.

I rolled for surprise and determined that no one had surprise, that too had to be interpreted, in this case I decided that the party, who had tethered their camels to trees and were looking for an entrance to the temple, were a short distance away when the dragon arrived, and it landed near the camels and started to dine. 

The party was trying to determine what to do, 1e dragons can destroy a mid level party with one breath weapon shot, they knew they were likely to lose a member or two if they engaged, but they were afraid to flee as they might get picked off from a distance.

Since there was no suprise, I was ready to roll initiative, but the party Paladin, with high charisma, decided to parley. He walked out from behind the sand dunes and spoke to the dragon. 

When two parties engage in parley in 1e you roll an encounter reaction roll. I rolled “enthusiastically friendly” and it stopped me in my tracks.

Why would a random, evil blue dragon be “enthusiastically friendly” with a group of tomb robbing adventurers that she could easily destroy and devour? 

Notice the chain here, random roll for encounters produces the blue dragon, something “above their pay grade”, random roll determines surprise for the party so they have the choice of how to start the encounter. Random roll determines that the dragon reacts well to the party.

Now I have to make it all make sense. Fortunately for me I’m decent at improvisation, so I decided that the dragon had wanted to enter the deserted tomb, but was concerned that a preponderance of undead would be too much of a risk. This party of adventurers thus presented her with the perfect opportunity.

There was some excellent RP for the next while, the dragon made it clear she could kill any member of the party pretty much instantly, but that it was interested in an alliance with the party as it “couldn’t fit” in the temple, it could get them in though. 

So it proposed a bargain, enter the temple, keep all the magic items, but give the dragon all the gold. The party decided to go along with it, rather than risking a direct fight, and hoped they could find something in the temple to give them an advantage against the dragon.

The campaign journal for this encounter is here if you want to see how this spun out:

The dragon used its breath weapon to blast open the doors to the temple and the party went in, things got crazy from there. 

Now I want to stress one thing, NONE of this would have happened without RRTEI. I have routinely hand waived random encounters before, and I didn’t always use parley and encounter reaction rules. I do now though, as they can produce this sort of thing. At the end of the adventure the dragon left the party after they honored their end of the bargain, and became a recurring character in the game, who showed up a few more times. 

I find that using randomization where it is built into 1e (random encounters, morale, encounter reactions, treasure tables, spell tables, etc.) is generative in this way, it produces results that are not always balanced or level appropriate, but interpreting these results for the game is a huge source of inspiration and exciting play. 

I think there is a place for game play driven by DM fiat or by negotiated group consensus, but similarly I would say there is a place for game play driven by bounded randomness. It challenges your expectations, gives you ideas would would not normally have, and can give the game a feeling of greater immersion as it will push you out of your comfort zone and break your patterns. Patterns of DM decision making can kill immersion, as players “see” the game they are playing rather than losing themselves in it.

I use randomization with tables for pretty much everything, magic item generation for treasure tables, randomized spell lists for NPCs and PCs, randomization of attacks for monsters against PCs and randomization of targets when firing into melee, rolled HP for monsters and NPCs, encounter reaction rolls and morale, etc, etc, etc. 

You can also mimic existing tables and create new ones of your own. Once you have a sense of how these things work you will find that adding tables to your game is fairly easy, you can even pinch them from other games. There are websites like the Dungeon Dozen that produce endless charts of d12 results for anything you can imagine. 

If you are “stuck”, if you find that you have trouble improvising, if your game is getting too “predictable”, you might want to embrace RRTEI to move things along.

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