Randomization and Tactical Opacity in Dungeons and Dragons
One of the awesome things about D&D right now is that so many people are playing it. I think back over the years to all of those times that I got blank stares from people if I mentioned that I played D&D. Some people thought it was a weird, fetishy thing (“Dungeon master, that sounds kinky!”), others (like my parents) thought it was devil worship in sheep’s clothing. Others assumed it was some weird cult of unwashed nerds.
One of the interesting things about being in the hobby for decades is watching the same topics and concerns emerge from the current D&D community that I have seen in my game spaces for years. It’s not that there isn’t anything new under the sun, it’s just that playing the same game means you often come up with the same problems and bottlenecks.
One of them, particularly as the game continues in popularity, is familiarity and challenge. The more people who play, the more people who watch play streams, the more you hear about other people’s games, and the harder it gets to surprise and challenge your players.
There are some tried and true solutions to this, one is to come up with homebrew content, which I HIGHLY recommend. However, some people find this challenging, and prefer to use published content. Another solution is purchasing content from outside of WOC and the major publishers. There are a lot of independent creators making content, not new games, but materials for existing games, or material you can easily convert to existing games. I highly recommend this as well. There is also a lot of old non-WOC content that is just as good as it ever was.
In addition, one tried and true method for shaking things up is “reskinning” monsters. If your players are bored of ogres then use ogre stats for a wildly different monster, or conversely take a regular ogre and give it different abilities. 1e AD&D does this with Ogre Magi, take a group that has only encountered ogres and give them a group of Ogre Magi and watch how shocked they will be.
Another option is to change the fantasy vibe to something different. For example, replace the standard Tolkien PC races with other humanoid races and your campaign will take on a very different flavor. You can play with anything. D&D is flexible enough that you can play sword and sorcery, high magic, ray guns and rapiers, you name it. Nothing gets the players out of their comfort zone in a fantasy game faster than having someone shoot at you with a rifle.
And of course trying other games is a great way to keep things from being too predictable. Right now I am running two AD&D campaigns, and a Stars Without Number game for my sci-fi fix, the mechanical differences and the setting differences are helping to shake my players out of their “I’ve seen that before” rut.
These are all great ways to shake things up, and all are recommended.
Today I want to highlight a different way to keep things fresh and fun at your table: tactical opacity and randomization.
Tactical Opacity, Randomization and Excitement at the Table
Tactical opacity is the characteristic of a game where the players can’t be sure what they are going to be facing. It’s easier to understand by looking at its opposite, tactical clarity.
Take your bog-standard wizard in a fantasy game, chances are they will have some variation on magic missile, “eldrich blast”, that sort of thing. Invisibility is insanely popular, sleep. Fly is as well. That opponent is tactically clear to some degree.
Also, many players want to optimize their PCs to some degree, who wants to be the one wizard who doesn’t have fireball? I’ve seen people suggest that not having fireball, magic missile, etc. means that the wizard player is being shortchanged at the table, and thus is being treated unfairly. As a result of all this DM’s, in order to ensure that the players are “challenged” at the table, optimize their opponents to match their player’s optimization.
The problem with optimization, however, is that it produces similarity and predictability. Some degree of predictability is good, the game world shouldn’t be entirely random. Too much, however, is a problem. Optimization also contributes to the tendency to have a game that is dominated by combat. If both the players and the DM have optimized their PCs/NPCs/Monsters, then there is a natural tendency to want to exercise those optimizations. Why spend hours meticulously planning the magic item/skill/spell sets of your opponents if you don’t have the PCs fight them at all?
Another issue is the tendency to craft your encounters so every PC has a “chance to shine”, its a nice sentiment, and it’s important to have all the players engaged with the game, but it also tends to contribute to predictability. There will always be a lock or a trap so the party thief gets to use their find remove traps roll, that sort of thing.
Here are some methods you can use to keep your game from becoming too predictable.
A. Lack of Balance
One of the most pernicious contributors to predictability is “game balance”. One of the reasons I prefer 1e AD&D is that it very clearly and specifically does not do this. The game is NOT balanced, it is possible to encounter things that are beyond your pay scale from level 1 onwards.
I see this sort of thing on Twitter all the time. Players become accustomed to the idea that they should be able to defeat anything they encounter, and this makes things predictable and dull. Nothing surprises them more than encountering something more powerful than them in the game. Not only does it produce a wonderful feeling of dread, and get them refocused on the game, but it is genuinely unpredictable. Spontaneity of this kind really makes the game world come alive, and it keeps your players guessing. That’s the sweet spot you want to hit.
The converse of this is true as well, occasionally hitting up the party with a challenge that is below their pay scale is a good idea too. These are heroes, adventurers of great renown, sometimes they will be able to walk all over their enemies, and get to be the big dog for a while. This is good, anything that disconnects the challenge from being specifically tied to the party helps to make things less predictable and more fun.
B. Don’t plan encounters for the party
This is a big one, and a view that diverges from much of the advice I’ve seen about the game. It is ENORMOUSLY tempting to set up your game world by looking at the party’s makeup, their powers and abilities, their backstories, and to craft the game world around them. And they are the heroes after all, so why not?
The problem is that this sort of thing can become quite predictable after a while, because it becomes obvious. I make it a point to design all of my game world without the PCs in mind at all, I treat it as an independent entity, filled with NPCs and monsters who have no knowledge of the party and their goals. The game world responds to what they do, but it is not designed for them.
What you lose in “connection” to the PC’s you gain in unpredictability, since the makeup of the party doesn’t drive the encounter design, the players can’t figure out the encounter design by looking at their party structure and abilities. This sort of tactical opacity helps to make the game more challenging and fun.
C. Read more
There is a good chance that your players have seen many of the same movies as you, and read many of the same fantasy books. So one way to surprise them and challenge them is to read as much as you can find, so you can be inspired by things they haven’t heard before. I’m a voracious reader for this reason, ANYTHING can inspire me in my game. And this means going beyond fantasy fiction to reading other genres and sources. I read sci-fi, westerns, horror, non-genre fiction, comic books, mythology, you name it.
The more you read the greater the chance you will be able to put something in your game that your players won’t see coming.
D. Vary NPC/Monster motivations
If I had a dime for every opponent that had the same motivation I would have a lot of money. An example is useful here. I once had a NPC wizard that the party was hunting down. When they found him his apprentice took out the party and brought them, bound and beaten, before the wizard. Rather than having them all killed outright because the wizard was fearful of their threat, or a caricature in cruelty, I decided to do something different.
This wizard had been dwelling in the jungle, reading old magical texts from the long dead libraries found in a ruined city of sorcerers. I decided that he was lonely, years spent reading these old tomes had cut him off from human contact for so long that he missed conversation, news of the outside world, that sort of thing
So he made a bargain with the PCs, there were evil factions in the city working against the wizard, he had no time to deal with them as his research was so important, so in exchange for their lives he asked that they slay these evil monsters who opposed him. They decided to take the deal and later they would deal with the wizard.
However, I RP’d him as genuninely interested in the PCs. He asked questions, he took time to get advice and discuss issues with the PCs, he offered help to one of the PCs who had lost his ability to spell cast (long story), he slowly began to trust them more as the adventure continued. He became an ally and even a friend to the party. They genuinely liked the guy, and worked to help him.
I cannot overstate how much fun this was, and how fresh it was for the players. They were used to moustache twirling, “bwah ha ha ha” villains who would eat babies and kill innocent puppies. Sure, it’s fun to take out someone eeevvvillll, but it does get predictable after a while.
Eventually they discovered that he was doing some bad stuff behind their backs, so they betrayed him. Thing is, they were genuinely upset by the fact he had hidden things from him, and genuinely conflicted as they kind of liked him. This was so unlike any villain they had encountered before as they were used to caricatures. They still talk about that run to this day, it helped me to understand that changing motivations was a great way to shake things up.
E. Randomize everything Well, maybe not EVERYTHING, but randomization is the heart of my approach to keeping things interesting. It’s also a core design feature of 1e.
For example, with monsters I use random encounter tables, that’s an obvious one, but I also make sure to use other sources of randomization for monsters. For example, when I roll an entry on a wandering monster table I will use the “number appearing” in the monster listing, not just pick the number of monsters that appear. This is a surprisingly important one, as many DMs just have one monster show up, but the monster listings were built with the assumption that most encounters with those monsters will be with the listed “number appearing”. Just to make the point, if you have an encounter with a dragon all of the non-unique chromatic dragons have a number appearing of 1-4, so on average 2.5 appearing. So *most* encounters with dragons should be with more than one. Keep this in mind when people make comments about how powerful given monsters are. The game design assumes the number appearing should be as listed.
Also, with monsters I roll HP. This is another thing that is regularly ignored if I am to believe what people post and claim online. Rolling for HP means that some monsters will be tougher than expected, some weaker, but more importantly that the *PC’s can’t tell*. This is what tactical opacity brings to the table, you lose the ability to easily predict outcomes. This brings a host of advantages, it makes things less predictable, it keeps it exciting for the players, and reduces “power creep”. I see no end of DM’s saying that they end battles early or fudge the dice when things become tedious in battle, but many of these same DM’s always take the average or max HP for monsters.
I also roll randomly for ALL magic items in treasure hoards, which can produce interesting results. Sometimes this produces results that the players don’t want, other times it produces something a lot more powerful than the players expect to find. Oddly it helps to make the treasure seem more authentic, if you find what you expect to find, or find magic items “keyed” to the level of your party, the world loses some immersion and seems more contrived. I also roll for treasure on the spot, in front of the players, so it produces a lot of excitement at the table. Randomization of magic items means that the PC’s opponents can also have powerful items, or unexpected ones. Tactical opacity is gained there as well.
A third and important area of randomization for me is spells. Nothing reduces the variety and unpredictability of your game than PCs choosing spells, or for that matter NPCs having their spells chosen. Picking spells means you can pretty much guess which spells most wizards will have. Randomization of spells (for PC’s, NPC’s and in treasure hoards) means that you can’t easily predict what you will be facing in combat when you meet a NPC wizard. Particularly if the DM uses the “to know” percentages for spells (something in 1e).
I cannot overstate the importance of this sort of thing for making the game interesting and fresh. Not only does it mean that it is harder to predict what your opponent will do (tactical opacity), but it inspires your players and you (through NPCs) to be creative with the spells you have. I have seen hundreds of complaints over the years that magic in D&D is “stale” or “boring”, but I virtually guarantee that the vast majority of those complaints come from games where spells are not randomized. Of course it’s boring when you have the same spells used all the time.
Sleep is a classic example of this. I’ve watched as players LOSE THEIR MINDS if they don’t get sleep as a first level spell. 1e is NOT balanced, so certain spells are significantly more powerful than others. However, these are often the same players who complain that the system is boring or lacks flavor. As a side note, I’ve seen many complaints about early edition D&D magic lacking flavor, but many people also claim they don’t use material components in their spells. If you shear the game of it’s details it becomes more homogeneous and boring.
And it’s important to realize that tables are not COMPLETELY randomized in AD&D, they are constructed to favor certain results, they provide bounded randomness. So for example, the treasure tables are weighted to produce more temporary magic, magic weapons and magic armor. So potions, scrolls, rods/staves/wands, armor and weapons come up the most often. If you look at the treasure type tables in the back of the Monster Manual they also produce magic items on average less than 50% of the time. So if you pick rather than roll for treasure and magic items you can start to get predictable and there is a real possibility of overpowering the game.
This brings up an important game design point. Many, if not most, of the complaints I see about early edition D&D occur in the context of people who DON’T use the randomization baked into the game. For example, they hack chargen character ability score methods, they assign spells, they don’t use “to know” rolls, they assign magic items and give out average HPs (or max HP for low level PCs), etc, etc.
The game was designed with the expectation that you would use randomization for these things. Spells are an easy example, spells are NOT balanced, e.g. at every level some spells are far more useful/powerful than others. So if you don’t randomize them in some way then the game has the tendency to become overpowered very fast. Same thing with magic items, if you don’t randomize them and instead treat the treasure tables as a personal shopping experience, is it any surprise that D&D becomes “high magic”?
The intention of the game as designed is that the DM can choose magic items, monsters and spells or they can use the tables. Either is “BtB” in 1e AD&D. However, I think that randomization works best, for two reasons. One, if you don’t randomize these things you can end up with overpowered or underpowered games, something that seems to be a problem for many people. Two, if you don’t randomize things your game can become very predictable, and thus less interesting to your players and to you.
Randomization of the game produces tactical opacity, facing unpredictable monsters in unpredictable numbers with unpredictable HP, facing NPC casters with unpredictable spells and magic items, these things mean that your PC’s are forced to think on their feet, and just as importantly consider whether or not they should be messing with everyone they meet. Is it any wonder that in games where players can be assured of balance and spells and that items are predictable, that groups turn into hack and slash cyphers and complain of the “grind” of combat?
Combat in my game is ALWAYS exciting, as they are always to some degree unpredictable, sometimes opponents are less than what you expected, sometimes more. Opponent spell casters are formidable and feared as you can’t know what you will be facing. Players pay more attention to what spells they take and what tactics they use in combat.
The longer I play the more I become convinced that many of the issues that I see floating around about D&D in any edition are based on the tendency to assign rather than randomize, HP, magic items, spells, monsters, etc. This impacts both power creep, the tendency of D&D to become Monty Haul / very high magic, and to it becoming routine and stale. It also leads to the worse of excesses, the tendency to want to give all PCs access to everything. It isn’t a coincidence I think, that older edition games were stricter in their delineation of powers and abilities between classes, newer editions allow cross pollination of skills and abilities amongst classes more easily. If all characters of a given class become similar, it is more likely you will want to expand a class's ability pool.
The last and perhaps for me the most important aspect of randomization and tactical opacity is that it is a catalyst for creativity at the table. This is really just the principle of RRTEI, Roll Randomly Then Explain It. Take a quick example, a while back I was planning an encounter where the party would meet a shaman along the river. I used the tables in the DMG and I rolled his magic items, one was a scroll of three spells, one of which was reincarnation. I was going to change it to a combat spell as the party had been ambushed recently, so I figured they would start a fight. It was also a 6th level spell in possession of a 4th level magic-user, it was pretty powerful. I could have picked something lower level and more “realistic”.
I ultimately decided to stick to my own rules and keep the spell. The party met and befriended the shaman, and at one point they got into a conversation about why he was there on his own. He was a shaman, shamen are normally part of communities. So I had to figure that out, why was this shaman living alone by the river? I immediately thought of the scroll, this shaman was a 4th level MU, so he had a 40% chance of failure and 25% chance of reverse/harmful effect.
I decided he had left his community as he knew the risks of the scroll, and he was being pressured to use it by members of his community, when people died. So he left, protecting them from afar.
That’s role playing gold, instant flavor and campaign depth, all by explaining a random dice roll.
So first of all, rolling gives you these kernels that can be grown into game flava.
The shaman and the party adventured together for a short time before he left to return to his home. Jump to two months later (8 sessions) and one of the PCs died. They spent a week returning to the shaman’s riverside home. They asked for him to use the spell on their dead colleague.
It was like I won the lottery.
“I have always wondered why Rudra put this scroll in my path so long ago, it has caused such trouble, but now I see it was for this, we didn’t meet by coincidence, he guided you to me so I would do this for you.”
Boom. Players love it when it connects this way.
The PC magic user who died (had his head bit off by another PC who was transformed into a hydra by a curse), came back as a black bear.
That’s what randomization gets you, role playing flava and tactical opacity, all in one.