Randomization - It’s Not What you Think!
After seeing a number of tweets on monster HP and such, I think it’s time for a discussion of randomization. From what I can see there are a lot of people who see randomization as a waste of time, something that slows down the game when the ref, or the ref and the players in collaboration, could just assign something rather than rolling for it.
I see and understand the concern, we all have limited time to play, and the ref already has a ton of responsibilities, so why randomize a lot of things? Randomization has costs, but it also brings rich rewards to the gaming table.
I walk the walk on this particular issue, in my game I randomize:
1. Initiative (individual)
2. Monster HP/Player HP
3. Encounter Reaction/Morale
4. Random encounters
5. Target selection
6. Missile fire into melee
7. NPC/monster decision making
8. Treasure generation
9. Spell distribution
10. Situational modifiers
1. Initiative (individual)
I see a lot of people essentially saying that randomization in initiative is a waste of time.
I think this is a mistake. The single greatest time waster at the table is player indecision, hands down. I have played TTRPGs of various stripes for years, and invariably there is one player (or more) that will be waiting for their turn for however long it takes all the other players to take theirs, and when you get to them… they still don’t have a clue what they will be doing. There are players who have been playing the same PC for years who still have to ask the ref how long it takes to cast their spell, or if it has a saving throw.
I randomize initiative and use individual initiative as it adds a layer of uncertainty to combat. Probably the single most common complaint I hear about combat is that it is “boring”, and people seem to assume that simplifying it will solve the problem as they think that crunch is the issue. However, when combat is exciting it doesn’t matter if it takes time.
Using randomized individual initiative means the combat order changes every round, as there are modifiers it doesn’t change completely, but it does vary. I’ve ran games with group initiative and they can be exceptionally “swingy”, where one group gets the initiative and has multiple attacks before the other side can even respond. It’s essentially converting initiative to surprise, and it can make combat either super easy or super hard. Both are unappealing.
2. Monster HP/Player HP
This is another big one. I roll randomly for monster HP, generally on the spot when the monster is first hit in battle. When the players are used to monsters with average HP they get to know very quickly what to expect when they meet certain monsters. There is an advantage to this, it rewards experience to some degree, but it also creates predictability and boredom. Players become overconfident and monsters lose some of the excitement that comes from NOT KNOWING HOW STRONG THEY ARE.
It also contributes to the “slog” of fighting, when you take the average HP you cut out the cases where the monsters have less than average HP, cases where the fight would have ended much sooner. One of the reasons why ref’s have to “hand wave” encounters and end them by fiat prematurely is that taking the average means that there will be no low HP monsters in the mix, and combat will last longer. I see these sorts of complaints regularly, “combat lasts too long”, stated by refs who use average monster HP to “save time”.
I also have the players roll for HP, which is probably pretty common, but I have heard people suggest that players should either get minimum HP or HP kickers or whatever. Again, I get the temptation, there is nothing quite as challenging as rolling a 1hp first level fighter. Ouch. But rolling for HP means that you will have variation in the party, some PCs will have a lot, some not as many, and play will have to be altered to take this into account. I once rolled up a 1 hp illusionist, I kept him alive through EXTREMELY DILIGENT PLAY. I had to be careful, as I didn’t have a huge bag of HP to save me. It was extremely fun to play.
3. Encounter reaction/Morale - I see endless discussion of how D&D is a “hack and slash” game, and how it encourages violence. One of the reasons for this is that the reaction of opponents, and their response to violence, is chosen by the ref, and often falls into the trap of the NPC/monster being violent by default, and fighting to the death every time. 1e AD&D has encounter reaction rolls to mitigate the former, and morale to mitigate the latter.
Both are rolls, so they have a random element, making them somewhat unpredictable, but not completely random. Encounter reaction rolls are a boon to the game as they make it such that not every encounter is violent, and they force the ref to improvise to explain the results. This can produce a ton of inspiration in game. Morale rolls are great as the end some fights earlier on, so a “fight to the death” isn’t the default.
4. Random Encounters - I see this sort of advice all the time: “Avoid random encounters as they deviate the party from their goals and increase the possibility of later encounters being too hard.” The idea seems to be that randomization messes up the balance of things and takes too much time away from game play, it is a “distraction”.
But this misses the true value of randomization. Randomization makes things unpredictable. My players can’t know how many random encounters they will have from point a to point b, so they can’t control for that. They have to adapt to circumstances. Not only that, but random encounters place a COST on taking your time.
How many times have I heard this sort of complaint: “My players wander around and waste time”, “they don’t know what to do”, “they can make up their minds”, etc, etc. There is no “rush” to play D&D, but “analysis paralysis” is real, and if you don’t use random encounters there is often no cost to doing nothing at all.
Think as well of the problem of your players complaining that things are “too easy”. One of the reasons that PCs often have it too easy (how many complaints have I see that, for example, 5e is too easy on the PCs) is that they face their challenges fresh with full HP and full abilities. One of the advantages of random encounters is that they drain resources and HP, so when they get to the encounters of interest they aren’t always at peak power.
Random encounters also add to the lethality of the game, and if you want to make your D&D exciting nothing gives it a shot in the arm as fast as death. In 1e AD&D random encounter tables are not “balanced”, you can meet things way beyond your pay scale on a random encounter table, so the players learn to be wary and not fight everything that walks, swims or flies. Unpredictability plus resource consumption keeps the game challenging.
5. Target selection - Unless there are obvious reasons to do otherwise (e.g. the PC wizard has cast fireball), I have my NPCs/Monsters random target PCs in combat. I sometimes choose targets based on the PCs which have done the most damage in combat (e.g. the monsters note that the shiny knight has killed the most of them so far), but otherwise I roll randomly. This simulates to some degree the “fog of war” that comes from a chaotic melee. But it also removes the possibility that I will unfairly (consciously or unconsciously) target one PC more than others. And it keeps them on their toes, they don’t expect that they will be “safe” because there are “obvious” targets in their group. And it keeps fights a bit more unpredictable.
6. Missile fire into melee - I have been doing this for years and it really helps to add to your tactical game. Firing an arrow into a chaotic melee is a dangerous thing to do, so I randomize targets when missile fire into melee misses its intended target. What this does is add a cost to firing into a mixed group, friendy fire, and thus gets the PCs to coordinate a bit more when fighting. And of course it works both ways, so sometimes an NPC will take out an ally rather than one of the party members. This also adds to the uncertainty of combat.
7. NPC/monster decision making - NPCs/monsters often have multiple actions available to them. There is a STRONG tendency as a ref to optimize their decision making, as the ref you know the party’s capabilities, so it’s not hard to pick the “best” tactic. Conversely, as the ref you can also pick the worst option if you so choose, and make the encounter “easier”.
The problem with both of these options is that it puts a burden on the ref to ensure that they don’t fall into patterns, and they don’t make the game too predictable. I find it much easier to roll randomly at least some of the time to choose between NPC/Monster actions, so both the players and the ref have some uncertainty.
It also adds excitement to the game as sometimes the PCs are outmatched because the NPC/Monster makes a good choice, but sometimes they get a break in combat as well because the NPC/Monster makes a sub-optimal choice.
But the real value is uncertainty, if you KNOW that the dragon will always lead with a breath weapon then the dragon becomes predictable, and in some cases much easier to fight as you can anticipate and plan for their actions. Randomizing amongst actions for monsters/NPCs with multiple attack options means everyone, from ref to players, will have a degree of uncertainty.
8. Treasure generation - Oh my do people get excited about this. I roll for treasure ON THE SPOT in my games. So if the PCs find a lair neither they nor I know what is coming. Again, some people dislike this as you can generate a magic item that is VERY powerful. What they forget is that you can also roll ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for treasure from a fight that was very difficult.
There are a few advantages to this. First, players learn that fighting everything is not a good idea. If you don’t know that there will be loot at the end of every fight, you start to question whether or not fighting everything is worth it (Pro tip - it ain’t). It also adds a bit of wonder back into getting magic items. When you “tailor” items to the PCs, and you give out planned treasure, it can get both predictable and it can drop you out of the immersion a bit. I look at treasure listings for parties and quite often see a pattern, everyone has a magical weapon, everyone has healing magic, everyone has protective magic, etc.
Not only is this kind of dull, but it blunts one of the benefits of class membership. In AD&D magic items are rolled from random tables, but these tables are weighted so certain items come up more often. Choosing magic items means that you lose this distribution, and the distribution of magic items represents a class advantage for certain classes. Magic-users in 1e, for example, get an advantage from the dearth of scrolls and potions on the list. Fighters get advantages from the frequency of magic weapons and armor, etc.
The game can also get out of hand with respect to magic items if you assign them all the time. In short, many tend to assign too much magic treasure when it is done manually. Then you hear the complaints about the game being “too easy”.
Another benefit, is that you can end up with interesting, unusual items being given to PCs that would not normally get them. When you assign magic items you often end up giving out items you *think* that the PCs need, or that you *think* are “cool” for those PCs. But it’s the unplanned stuff that frequently ends up being the most interesting. Case in point I rolled up a pair of boots of levitation for treasure. I never would have picked them as there was no character in particular that they seemed to be a “best fit” for. They ended up going to the party paladin. Now, if I had been told to PICK a magic item for a paladin, these would not have come to mind.
But it ends up that he LOVED these boots, they became a part of the character, his tactics, his mobility, even his personality to some degree. These sorts of synergies are completely unpredictable, but they can really work well, and create unique, fun moments at the table.
Finally, there is always the possibility of getting a powerful magic item at low levels. Contrary to what people think, this ADDS A TON OF FUN to a game! Suddenly your low level group has something WAY beyond their pay scale, so there are NPCs galore who will now be interested in the group. This can create adventure hooks, it can feed into faction play, and it can become an important part of the game.
9. Spell distribution - Another area where people often lose the plot in conversations about gaming is the idea of random spell allocation. I embraced this early on and it is, IMO, one of the best decisions I ever made. As anyone who has ref’d for a while will tell you, MOST, not all, but most players will, if given the choice, take similar spells.
So I randomize it all. When a PC picks a patron/trainer I roll randomly to see what spells they have, and when the PC gets each of their “level up” free spells from their patron they have to ask the patron for a particular spell from this list. And of course they have to roll their “to know” percentage, and if they fail this random roll then they can’t memorize that particular spell.
I also roll randomly for spells in treasure hoards. This is a HUGE thing, as AD&D 1st edition has a mechanic for lower level casters casting higher level spells, so they can actually add a lot to the game. Of course, there is a chance of miscasting or harmful failure, so it isn’t a slam dunk, but given the prevalence of scrolls on the spell table, this is an important route to spell acquisition for low level casters.
Also, since the roll is both for the number of spells and the level of those spells, a single scroll can be a motherlode for a low level caster. And of course, since you have the option of casting that spell before you are high enough level to scribe it into your book, you have a resource management challenge of delicious proportions. If you assign spells, and level appropriate spells, you miss out on this whole aspect of the game.
But the most important aspect of random spell allocation and the use of “to know” rolls to randomize which spells are memorizable or not is that it makes every magic-user a bit more unique. One of the biggest problems I see with pregen casters is that they quite frequently look the same, most of them take the same spells because they are chosen, not randomly rolled. Because my players know I roll for these things, magic-users in my game have tactical opacity, my players can’t know for sure what they will be facing, and this makes them more cautious, perhaps that 1st level magic-user has a high level scroll spell. Of course, their odds of casting it might not be high, but if there is a chance…
Randomization of spell distribution is the single largest contributor to the fact that magic-users in my game are unique and exciting as allies and opponents. I’ll never go back.
10. Situational modifiers - when something happens in game and there is no rule for it (or I can’t remember the rule!) I assign odds and randomize the outcome. Usually giving a range of options from really bad to really good.
So the PC thief attempting a climb walls on the north wall of a building falls from the wall to the grass below, and I roll a d10:
1-2 the guards on the south wall don’t hear the fall
3-4 the guards on the south wall hear the fall but choose to ignore it
5-6 the guards on the south wall hear the fall and one moves slowly to check it out
7-8 the guards on the south wall hear the fall and both move slowly to check it out
9-10 the guards on the south wall hear the fall, one runs to it, the other calls to the guards inside
I could have just said, “the guards hear you fall and come running”, and that would have been fine, but I find that if I don’t randomize these things I tend to respond the same way most times. So the guards always come running when a noise is made. In some cases I roll to see if the guards are gambling, or sleeping, or whatever. This means that sometimes you fail a roll but things don’t go completely south, or you get something that adds an additional wrinkle that requires some creativity.
Randomization does a few things for your game:
a) It makes encounters less predictable for the players
b) its inspirational, sometimes the dice come up with something you wouldn’t
c) its challenging, making a random result work at the table can force you out of your comfort zone
d) it makes the game less predictable for the ref as well
e) it adds some variety to characters and NPCs
I think for me that the biggest issue is predictability. Not being able to predict what will happen in SOME cases will make the game more rewarding, as it keeps it fresh, and forces the players to be adaptive, not passive, and keeps them challenged. It also brings out the best in the referee, figuring out how to interpret and integrate random rolls is endless improvisational fodder.
It also contributes to making violence VERY VERY dangerous. I like games where violence is VERY VERY dangerous, because in those games resorting to violence too much will work out badly for you, particularly when a meaningful part of the violence is governed by random rolls which the PC cannot control.
It does require trusting that the ref and players can work out whatever comes up, and it means that sometimes the players will get borked by the dice. That’s the nature of randomization, but it also deals with so many of the regular problems I see mentioned about the game, such as overpowered PCs, boring combat, excessive magic items, etc.