Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Randomness Fetishism

I've long argued that an essential feature of old school play is randomness. Embracing the oracular power of dice is something in which I believe quite strongly and have employed to good effect many times in my ongoing campaigns. My feeling remains that we ought not lose sight of the fact that, when we're playing Dungeons & Dragons or Traveller or whatever, we are playing a game and a key feature of any game is uncertainty. No player – and here I include the referee as a player – can wholly determine the outcome of play. There are lots of ways to achieve this, but the most common ones involve randomizers of some sort, dice being popular but cards or chits are also possible.

I've been pleased to see, in recent years, a greater appreciation of randomness and the gameplay elements that can only emerge through its introduction, such as surprise. We play games for many reasons, of course, but I'd wager that one of their chief joys is contending with the unexpected. If we could predict precisely what was going to happen in a game before we sat down to play it, what would be the point? Indeed, much of our entertainment depends on, or at least includes, moments of surprise. It's for this reason that most games (though obviously not all) include random elements. It's also why I bristle somewhat when I hear people refer to roleplaying games as exercises in "collaborative storytelling," unless one is including randomness as an equal collaborator. 

I bring all this up because I've also noticed that random tables and the creation of them have become almost a badge of "old school-ness," to such an extent, in fact, that they seem to be everywhere. Just the other day, for example, I was reading an avowedly old school product and the first thing I noticed was just how many random tables it included – too many, in my opinion. No doubt some of you are wondering how I could say that, given all of the foregoing and it's a fair question, though not one whose answer I can easily articulate. My gut feeling is that, while one should welcome randomness in a game, one shouldn't turn it into an idol. That's why Gary Gygax's scene from Futurama is so amusing: it pokes fun at the notion that one might look to dice rolls to determine one's own mental state.

Now, I love random tables and use them often. Well crafted ones are exceptionally useful tools for any referee. One of my favorite blogs consists of nothing but random tables, many of them intended to be read with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But random tables – and randomness in general – cannot and should not be replacements for imagination and thought. They can be spurs to both, in addition to helping one break out of creative ruts but I sometimes wonder if we who enjoy old school games don't fetishize randomness to the point that we are in danger of becoming caricatures like Gygax's cartoon alter ego. Like other aspects of old school play, such as the emphasis on player skill or the ever-present danger of death, randomness should is only part of the equation – an important one, to be sure, and one I am glad is receiving a fairer hearing these days, but I sometimes worry if it's now over-emphasized, almost to the point of self-parody. 


  1. The Gary Gygax scene reminds of 'The Dice Man' by Luke Reinhart.

  2. In my current game, one of the things that has surprised my players is my employment of random tables; my players are all decidedly "new-schoolers," only one of whom ever played before fifth edition, and they're used to scripted scenarios with set solutions. It blows their minds that I use encounters generated from a table and fleshed out at run-time.

    They also have trouble getting to grips with my asking them what they're checking for traps and how, rather than letting them make a "perception check" for the whole room, but that's another story. :-)

  3. Since my start in 1977 I've become less and less enamored with 'Randomness' with each passing year. I feel like dice rolls are great in that they lend excitement and unpredictability to events that are themselves exciting and unpredictable such as combat or where or not you are able to reprogram the mad AI before it activates its self-destruct protocol.

    When it comes to character creation I find I much prefer the players be able to construct the character they want to play. Likewise, I don't make them roll for things competent people of their profession should logically be able to do or knowledge someone of their background should generally know.

    Sometimes random is interesting but often I find it an exercise in unnecessary tedium.

    1. Interestingly, I've gone the other way; in my younger days, I was a firm believer in letting people "construct the character[s] they want to play," but I've found that tends to lead to powergaming and stale, repetitive characters. Rediscovering random generation was a breath of fresh air for me, and it's been great watching characters emerge from the random rolls rather than springing into being fully-formed as from the head of Zeus.

  4. I think most DMs will sooner or later develop an innate sense of how much randomness benefits their game.

    I'm more personally annoyed by dice fetishism and the proliferation of pretty but unreadable dice, frighteningly sharp-edged metal dice, dice accessories of dubious utility (trays, towers, cups), and cutesy trinkets that normalize superstition (dice "jails").

    They're just RNGs. You don't even need all that many to play. Having 3d6, 1d8, and 1d20 hiding behind the DM screen will do for a whole campaign. The players don't technically need any.

  5. Shouldn't that be 2d6 for a reaction roll? Futurama usually nails the details.

  6. the Dungeon Dozen was a gem, a real gem. I have bought most of his books. I love the frank, unvarnished WEIRDNESS

  7. I can imagine a dystopian world where gamers exclusively use dice rolls to adjudicate every detail of their games... and lives.

  8. I very much agree with your post in general. I have admittedly over the years sometimes used random tables a bit too much myself. I have to (at times) remind myself not to overindulge in the use of them. :-)