Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Fickle Fortuna: The Oracular Powers of Dice (Angry DM Part 3)

In the last two posts, I've built up some thoughts in response to The Angry DM's article Angry Rants: Randomness. If you haven't read them, checking them out can provide some more context but they aren't totally necessary for the discussion to follow.

Angry DM Rants: Randomness (An Alternate Take)
Lessons from Mordheim (Angry DM Randomness, Part 2)

As stated in the first of the two articles, the problem The Angry DM faces isn't randomness. It's when the application of randomness feels as though it overturns player agency. At first, it would be easy to argue that the problem is that we don't like randomness of outcome, but that's completely false: after all, if the game were played as "I want to kill the orc." "You swing your sword and kill the orc, now what?" it would be painfully boring.

We want a certain degree of unpredictability in outcome, it's what makes things interesting. It's what makes them role playing games as opposed to simply playing make believe or telling stories. Unpredictability is not enough, however. It must be tempered with the understanding that in some way, the players influenced their fate, either by the choices they made in the fiction, or through mechanics. Even just the idea that I invested specific points into making my character good at something is often times enough to make me feel as though I had some power over the situation.

This is the biggest issue in the example The Angry DM cites. Not only did the players lack agency in designing the characters they were playing, the characters themselves were largely irrelevant to the outcome. A 50% miss chance even if you hit? Who on earth thought that was a good idea? Why not just flip coins to find out who wins? 

I earlier made the argument that the problem was 'doing it wrong,' which directly implies a 'correct' way exists. I'll step up. 

Randomness is done right when it meets two basic criteria:

The first is that the actual probability of a thing should in some way match your expectation of that probability. If my character is a high-level grandmaster blacksmith, I shouldn't have a 50/50 chance of successfully making an axe. I should be able to guestimate probabilities of a thing without actually knowing the mechanics, just on based on my understanding of the fictional reality.

The second criteria goes in hand with the first. As a player, my actions have to matter. If they don't, I immediately check out. If I can't influence what happens, you've made me a placeholder. Why should I actually care about what's happening? The more influence I can have over this probability of outcome, the more willing I am to accept everything going totally badly.

Give the players enough agency, and they will happily accept hanging themselves.

All of the above chiefly speaks to the idea of randomness of outcome. Where the true beauty in randomness shines is through the generation of circumstance

I love random tables. My DMing style for games like AD&D or OSR titles is very heavily dependent on the idea of creating systems for myself that generate circumstances for the players to confront. I set up the sandbox, set up the system, and let them run wild. In practice, this means having lots of random tables.

Dice have a particular kind of oracular power to them. With the right kind of setup, and the right kind of tables, the story can bend in interesting and unpredictable ways all of its own accord. They make the game take on a will and a life of its own. They can shape the parameters of the fiction in ways that no one in the group would have thought of or chosen if they had the opportunity.

This is a major point for me, as I'm kind of a softie as a DM. I don't want to kill my PCs, I want to see them succeed. I want them to do awesome things and feel awesome doing them. This is why things like damage being random are a godsend - if I had to choose damage for the PC? I would feel even worse when they died than I do now. If I carefully scripted every encounter, I would always find myself leaning towards going soft on the party, always making sure everything was just under what they could handle. Worse, if I did kill them off, they would feel their deaths were arbitrary and unfair. It would cause hurt feelings and OOC issues. There is no winning.

Operating from a system that randomly generates content is extremely liberating. The players and I are on the same page, and my role becomes an impartial adjudicator and interpreter of the fiction rather than forced into some adversarial position, and because the results of many of these things are random players are more willing to accept it when things do go badly. As a special bonus, players quickly lose their video-game expectation that everything will be carefully balanced to their ability and become more cautious as a result.

At least for me, however, the greatest benefit of all is that I as the DM get to take part in the excitement of the story. Rather than setting up a careful script and wait for the PCs to figure out how they will act it out, I get to watch the story unfold with them, learning information as it is established.

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