Monday, May 27, 2024

Building Bhakashal – Randomization

I built Bhakashal on a foundation of random rolling. This isn’t a particularly controversial idea, but the scope of the randomization is perhaps something that people might not be familiar with. There are several sources of randomization.

1. Tables

There are tables for spells, magic items, encounter tables, personality types, gods, mounts, weather conditions and many other aspects of the game.

One of the primary goals of this randomization was to allow the referee and players, in tandem, to procedurally generate the game world as they play, rather than detailing every aspect of the game world in advance. The latter is simply impossible, and even the more restricted guideline of detailing only what the referee thinks will be needed, is still fundamentally challenging. One of the truisms of role-playing games is that the players will go to places and do things you didn’t anticipate.

My original reason for using procedural generation was the sheer size of Bhakashal as a city, I looked at the closest equivalent fantasy city in size (The City State of the Invincible Overlord) and the sheer number of entries was formidable. Either you would have a hopelessly large descriptive section (which would be unwieldy) or you would pare down the details to the point that the referee was generating a significant amount of material in play, which defeats the purpose of providing such a descriptive section in the first place.

As I progressed it became clear that procedural generation using tables was the core mechanic for creating the setting. Rather than pre-generating the content, I created weighted tables that allowed on the spot generation of many aspects of the game world.

Note that weighted tables are key here,  e.g., the odds for each option on the table are not equal, they are weighted to reflect their commonality in the game world. Thus, this isn’t complete randomization, it’s randomization within a set of options that are determined by the nature of the game world.

In addition to allowing the referee to present a large game setting without getting overwhelmed by the details, it also gives the game some variety at each individual table. For example, spell casters with spell selections determined by random generation are tactically opaque, e.g., you are unable to predict what spells you enemy casters will have, as spells are randomly determined.

This has a myriad of benefits for game play.

Another benefit of randomized tables is the possibility of solo play. All aspects of character generation, encounter creation, faction interplay, every aspect of the game is driven by weighted random tables, so it is possible to play solo without a referee if desired.

The last benefit to this randomization is spontaneity, not only are the players surprised by what happens, but so too can the referee be surprised by what happens. When running games, it is very easy to fall into patterns that become predictable and unappealing for you and your players. Randomization keeps things fresh.

2. In-Play Randomization

There are two kinds of randomization in-play of interest here, encounter reaction rolls, and general odds rolls for actions. Both require active interpretation of prompts by the referee.

NPC Encounter Reaction Rolls - Bhakashal expands upon the traditional role of the encounter reaction mechanic by extending it to all encounters in the game world, not just those between parties in “parley”. Encounter reaction rolls are a mechanism for resolving NPC and monster actions that allow the referee to use weighted randomization to choose rather than choosing responses themselves.

Bargaining with the merchant for a new sword? Encounter reaction rolls indicate if the merchant will be giving you a hard time. Ask the caravan master to detour the caravan to allow the party to investigate a ruin? Encounter reaction rolls determine if you are left to your own devices.

As a general rule, an encounter reaction roll is made whenever a NPC has to make a decision, there is a conversation going back and forth, and when the conversation leads to the NPC having to decide about something, the roll is made.

Any given conversation will have a roll made, then the conversation takes a new direction based  on the roll, and later in the conversation another roll will be made, until the conversation ends through actions on the part of the participants.

The chief advantage to this system is that the referee is called upon to interpret the result in question, and in doing so will end up filling out some aspect of the game world. My favorite example of this happened when a group of PCs where purchasing mounts, when the reaction roll came from the merchant it was very positive, so he gave them a terrific deal.

However, as a referee I have to interpret that result, why would a merchant give this random group of PCs a good deal? I decided on the spot the merchant had been robbed recently, so he had to move stock in order to make the gold necessary to pay off his debtors and suppliers.

The party asked why they were being given such a deal, the merchant shared the information, and they decided to help the guy out. And that became their first adventure.

In a more “traditional” game the purchasing of mounts could be resolved by email between sessions, or it would be a matter of the referee looking up the price and telling the PC, or perhaps adjusting based on the setting economics. But it would be a passive, simple roll or determination. In Bhakashal, there is an encounter, and an encounter reaction roll shapes the response of NPCs to PC actions. Introducing encounter reaction rolls to our game fundamentally changed the way we played, as it meant that:

a)        predicting outcomes became harder

b)       there was no default  to combat in regular NPC encounters

These things meant that the PCs gathered more information, formed more alliances, and generally looked at NPC interaction differently.


Monster and Animal Encounter Reaction Rolls – Bhakashal also has encounter reaction rolls for monsters. These are based on the premise that monsters and animals will not automatically attack everything they encounter. Monsters and animals are not stupid, they don’t attack large groups unless the have the numbers, they don’t eat everything they encounter, etc. Bhakashal uses a weighted table to determine how animals/monsters react to threats, the weighting does make them tend towards hostility, but it leaves open the possibility of peaceful interaction, or just fleeing the scene, so every encounter isn’t guaranteed to end in violence.

General Odds Rolls for Actions

NPCs have to make decisions all of the time, and there are times when those actions are not immediately spurred on by player actions. So for example, a PC thief is watching a potential mark who is in their home. The home has a strongbox, and the thief is waiting for the mark to move out of the room where the strongbox is located so they can enter and try to steal it’s contents.

How long does the thief have to wait?

This may seem like a trivial decision, but there are profound game play and fairness implications to these sorts of decisions. If you decide that the NPC mark stays put a long time, the odds of the PC being discovered increase. If you make them move sooner, the PC has better odds. Referees make decisions like this all the time, and depending  on how you rule, they can have a strong impact on the game play for the PCs. A referee who routinely makes the mark stay put a long time makes casing and stealing from marks much more challenging, the ref that moves things along fast makes it much easier.

Essentially, any of these decisions impact play outside of the application of the rules, if you make these decisions by fiat, there is room for bias, or at the very least predictability on the referees part. If you randomize these decisions, then there is less room for bias, and greater unpredictability.

Gygax suggests randomizing aspects of play not directly covered by the rules, and Bhakashal embraces this idea enthusiastically. This sort of randomization is also a fecund source for creating the lore and environment of the game world.

Take another example, the PCs were travelling with a caravan, and the caravan came to a section of the route that had rough terrain that would make them vulnerable to attack while passing through. However, the most expedient route around this terrain would delay them by an extra 2 days, the least expedient route would delay by 3 days. What does the caravan do?

This is important as bandits monitor the rough terrain for travellers they can waylay, and the odds of encountering someone (friend or foe) on short detour are greatest. So, there are advantages and disadvantages to both options. At this point I would randomize the choices available:

1 – Take a much longer detour (safest, longest time)

2-3 – Continue through the rough area (most dangerous, fastest)

4-6 – Take shorter detour around the rough area (second most dangerous, second fastest)


The idea here is that the caravan master will want to minimize delays but maximize safety, arriving late is a big problem, arriving without your goods is a bigger problem, so this is reflected in the weighting of the odds, where the third option is the most likely.

Importantly, I narrate these choices to the party before rolling in the open for the results. This gives them the opportunity to suggest other options I may not have considered. For example, say one of the PCs suggests using an illusion to deceive any potential bandits. That is something that the caravan master would not have come up with, so it can be added to the list when suggested.


Once the roll is made, the referee has to interpret the result. So, say we rolled that the caravan master has decided to push through the rough, dangerous area, the referee would have to explain that decision if the PCs confronted the caravan master. That means the referee will have to pull on the threads of the game world to determine why this decision was made. Explaining the results of rolls is almost as much fun as making them. It can be an opportunity for role-play (the caravan master has something to prove to his boss), or an opportunity to drop adventure hooks (the caravan master is becoming reckless as he has debt collectors on his tail and delays let them catch up).


I have adopted this process for all of these sorts of decisions in the game, and it has led to some of the most interesting gaming experiences. I find that one of the biggest challenges of being a referee is making an almost endless stream of decisions about the game that aren’t really outlined in the rules. For years I just picked based on instinct, or went with a default decision to save time and effort. That sort of thing gets dull and predictable really fast, and in doing so breaks immersion in an important way. The game world feels less real if you can call what is going to happen all the time.


Randomization of these in game interstices, the spaces that are not explicitly part of the rules but a significant part of game play, makes the game far more fun, unpredictable and gives it a kind of depth that is hard to emulate.


It also lessens the possibility of the referee being biased against the PCs one way or the other. You have all no doubt played with the referee who always ends up making these sorts of decisions in a way that is harmful to the PCs.

PC - “Are there any ships in the harbor sailing to Monmurg?”

REF  – “No, not today”

PC – “Does the merchant have any young, fast horses in their inventory?”

REF – “I’m afraid not”

PC – “Are there enough branches lying around to start a fire?”

REF– “No, there are not”

Alternately, there is the magical referee, who always seems to answer “yes” to these sorts of questions.

Either referee is doing a disservice to the group, and in many cases may not even be aware of it. And these sorts of decisions make a significant difference to the game play experience. A referee who is constantly ruling against the PCs in these cases creates a game world where the PCs are at a constant disadvantage, luck, skill and planning aside.

Randomization of this kind is not for every referee. You need to be able to list out and assign odds to a small number of options at a moment’s notice. Thing is, I find that many people do this anyway when they are trying to make a decision about what an NPC is about to do.

Bhakashal explodes this process for all to see, then randomizes the results to make it exciting and unpredictable. And even more than all of that, it makes the process fair. By opening it up to the players, and rolling in the open, the players and the referee can see that there is no bias in the result. Any bias that there is can be found in the generation of the list of options, and as the players are given an opportunity to become involved in the process, the bias is at the very least acceptable to all at the table, which is all you can really ask for.

I think that the big advantage for me as a referee is that I find coming up with options and assigning odds to be easy and making choices to be hard. That difficulty is, in part, due to the fact that after decades of running games I became aware how much these sorts of decisions accumulate to shape the direction of play. I don’t want to have that sort of influence at the table, I want to shape the overall options to fit the game world and environment, but I don’t want to determine them completely, as it gives me outsized influence in what happens at the table.

Randomization minimizes this area of referee influence, and makes the game far more independent and immersive. Both the players and the referee get the sense that the game world is independent of them, and thus both more “real” and fairer.  This latter point has been one that my players have told me is important to them. They know I’m not “stacking the deck” and making things either easier or harder on the PCs. Instead, by using weighted tables and weighted odds distribution, the dice combined with the environment determine how hard things will be. The players find this combination to be particularly satisfying, they know when they overcome challenges that they were not coddled or punished, but instead they rose to a challenge and bested it, fair and square.

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