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[#] Random Chance And You
11:04am EDT - 10/20/2008
Except for a few diceless games and freeform RPG's, pretty much every game system we use has an element of random chance. Usually it's dice, occasionally it's cards and I wouldn't be surprised if there was something out there which used "Rock, Paper, Scissors" or something even weirder as its random factor.

Some systems are more random than others, some have their dice system specifically for the sake of more mediocre than extreme results and some are completely chaotic and unpredictable once you embark on a course of action that relies primarily on chance for you to succeed.

But how big a place should random chance have?

Now, let's first establish that generally we AGREE that this random system should be there. It serves as an impartial factor which stops railroading to some extent(unless the DM just plops down situations with 0.00001% survival/success odds), occasionally it helps DM creativity(wild surge tables, encounter tables, crazy critical hit tables) and most importantly it makes sure that there's a chance of failure. Assuming the DM does not fudge all the rolls behind his DM screen, it means that a lot of courses of action can be screwed up.

This adds some tension, you can't always expect to survive when you go charging in headfirst with your sword into the Evil Snake Lord's Temple of a Thousand Fangs(and reasonable dollar bargains). It means that trying to sneak past the guards can be risky as hell. It means you need to plan to ensure that you add a couple more modifiers to what you do, maybe do some things entirely without rolling or skew the odds crazily in your favour.

I think everyone agrees that the presence of random chance AT ALL is a good thing. But how random is too random? And when should you roll?

The easy place here is combat. Everyone agrees that combat should have a random element, it should be somewhat chaotic and unpredictable, there should be chances of nailbiting critical failures, awesome critical successes and generally just some TENSION. If the fight is ENTIRELY sure before you even enter it, then there's no excitement there. If you know you're always going to come out of it unscathed, if you already know how the story is going to end, why bother reading it?

Now, with regards to HOW random combat should be, there tend to be three schools of thought in my experience. Firstly, there's the High Random school: "Combat is chaotic and insane, it's a random clash of arms where anything can happen. It should generally be avoided if you do not have a crazy advantage. It's the wild card, the throw of the dice you resort to when you can't think of anything else or have painted yourself into a corner." Secondly there's the Just As Planned school: "Actions in combat should succeed most of the time, the battle should be easily carried by those who plan well and make sure they get the first strike." And then there's the third, the D&D school: "Doesn't really matter much, does it? Everyone has so much HP that we probably end out near a happy average by the time anyone's whittled anyone else down to a shred."

My personal opinion is that combat should generally not be random, in fact, most of the game should not be random. This rewards planning and means that players are not randomly killed, nor risk the chance of completely random death unless they do something stupid. Speaking of random death, here's a tip for all DM's out there: Anything that can kill the players in one shot should be something they're well warned about and generally should not risk being gibbed by unless they do something monumentally retarded(like challenging a friendly medusa to a staring contest or trying to see if they can run under the foot of a 200-foot giant Iron Golem). It should, as far as possible, never be possible for a player to have his life balancing on a single die(unless he's already been badly hurt). This means: No throwing insta-death, petrification or disentigration attacks at players. Nor should you ever have some unseen danger capable of killing them with one shot leap out of nowhere and just pick one of them off: "The sniper that you had basically no chance of ever noticing kills you with one shot." Or even if they had a chance, putting their chance of survival on TWO random rolls rather than good planning doesn't improve things much. If some enemy CAN kill them in one blow or attack, it should be THEIR choice to engage or enrage it, and if it's not, they should be able to run from it.

If you're one of the DM's that uses random encounters, they're somewhat in this category as well. They're good for surprising the players, good for a bit of challenge and maybe some randomly rolled loot or clues: But there's nothing more annoying than being on the way to Zoldark the Darkguy's lair, then being jumped by a band of goblins who managed to roll critical hits with every die(while your paladin decapitates himself with his vorpal blade on an unlucky 1) and being teabagged by the little cunts after they kill you. Talk about anticlimactic...

That got a bit off track.

Anyway, outside of combat, I generally feel that the odds of success should always be superior in any randomly determined action. Otherwise it easily gets rather discouraging, I mean, why bother trying to plan and being creative if the impact of your good idea, in the end, matters less than that fucking D20 that seems to hate you? This matters doubly for social things, where I advocate no rolls at all. I mean, think about it, conversations and negotiations tend to be where players roleplay the most. Put the most work into what they do. It's where they really reveal who their character is. And, now, while it's not NECESSARY to have deep roleplaying, you can just roll dice, move numbers around, I feel that if you want that, just go play a damn videogame. The people who just go for pure numbers are missing out, they're not playing the game wrong, just missing out on another aspect that can make it fun.

So, when someone has put all of that work into a heartfelt speech, a brilliant argument or some piece of his character's background... Don't just reduce it to a +1 or a +2 on some dice. Return the favour, roleplay the response of the NPC instead. Sometimes if you're really in doubt(the high priest is highly fanatic, but the player really put a lot of work into it and maybe he HAS tugged at a heartstring...), make a secret roll. But reward planning and roleplaying, they're what makes this damn hobby worth more than the jRPG's over on the shelf where you GRIND LOOTZ and play someone with more hair than personality.

However, with all this said, keep in mind that dice are not always just Win/Lose, black and white. Sometimes they determine degree of success as well. So give the player a few modifiers for something cool they're trying to do, and have them roll anyway. If it's the high end of the spectrum, reward them with a flawless result, maybe even a bonus beyond what they expected("You plant the explosives perfectly! Not only does the hidden charge under the unholy altar pulp the high priest, but it also propels all of his ritual jewelry out of the window, landing it on the street right in front of you!"), if they only barely scrape by you can add a few catches, just to make things more interesting, after all, as said, a plan that ALWAYS works out is no fun either, and it's possible to add an unexpected twist without COMPLETELY fucking the players("As well as reducing the high priest to a smear on the wall, the explosives also propel the altar through the 20-foot statue of Hissy the Snake behind him, the stone wall behind it, over your heads and through the tavern wall behind you. The cultists look out through the hole and see you holding the detonator. They look kind of pissed, and those ritual sacrificing knives look damn sharp.").

So I guess the TL;DR of this whole mess is: Too little randomness makes the adventure pointless(they know what's going to happen 90% of the time) and susceptible to DM bias, too much randomness makes the adventure pointless because their actions are kind of meaningless with regards to what actually HAPPENS("You swing your sword and it turns into an angry red dragon. Everyone dies.").

~PurpleXVI

I have loud opinions about polyhedrons.

Comments

1 Issyl
12:03pm UTC - 10/20/2008 [X]
Nice article. I think games with a lot of random chance can be really fun though, especially with the right setting.

Good job though, excellent article, though a little lengthy.


2 PrivatePlatypoda
06:11pm UTC - 10/20/2008 [X]
What about games like Slayers or Exalted, where there's actual social combat instead of social rolls? Or L5R where you can easily quantify rolling dice in the game as the intrigue of the courts conspiring to fuck you because you're X clan in Y period when Z wants to get shit done? Especially in L5R, where until high power levels being a courtier in most clans means you're basically just fucked should it ever come to swords drawan time (and the system and setting actually acknowledge this by giving you the possibility of bodyguards).


3 PurpleXVI
07:36pm UTC - 10/20/2008 [X]
Actual "social combat" is even worse, in my mind. It just means there's MORE rolling to break up the roleplaying.

The L5R thing sounds more like battling through beaurocracy, which is something that's easily dealt with using just numbers and dice unless you're using unusual means to get through the beaurocracy(like threatening clerks, etc.). Because otherwise it's just forms, twisting rules and knowing who's sympathetic.

Also, I dislike the implication that a lack of "numbers and dice"-based social combat/resolution stuff makes characters based on negotiation and so forth weaker. It only does so if your DM is a complete jackass or if you assume that you can negotiate with EVERYTHING. It's entirely reasonable that unless you have demi-god levels of charisma, and even if you do, that some things and people just can't be argued with(so work your way around them in some way, rather than direct combat, if you can't manage that. The DM is an asshole if he ONLY permits combat as a solution.).

The only characters who are fucked are the ones who focus on ONLY ONE THING. If your character can only talk, then of course he's fucked when he meets someone totally unreasonable or insane. If your character can only fight, then he's fucked if he meets a dreadful trap or a near-immortal foe. If all your character can do is carve little soapstone figures, then he's just generally fucked!

Turning the social stuff into numbers just strikes me as just another form of min/maxing, really. Or at least as permitting it. Previously you could always sort of DM Fiat the social min/maxers who insisted that their hax 20 Charisma meant they could convince anyone to do anything, or should be permitted to it, and that all of the other players should worship them.

Now, with an actual stat-based use of social abilities, it's kind of hard to DM-bash it when someone demands that he can use his 22 Charisma to command anything out of an NPC, or SOCIAL COMBAT to hammer them into the ground(worse yet if they use them against other players. That should NEVER, EVER be permitted or even POSSIBLE.).


4 PrivatePlatypoda
10:05pm UTC - 10/20/2008 [X]
L5R is really heavily bureaucracy, so long as you actually stay in the established circles where there will be immediate repercussions for doing something bad to the guy using mean words at you, or what have you. However, the further you get into the boonies and smaller cities and, especially, once you start dealing with otherworldly entities and honorless dogs like ronin the less your words mean. Sure, in the Emerald City everyone knows that the Courtier effectively speaks with the backing of not only his family but the entire clan he belongs to, and any disgrace to that Courtier could spark a war that lasts a thousand years because you just insulted an entire clan of people.

But once you get out into some random peasant town, do you really think the guy who expects you to have him executed really gives a shit if people hate him slightly more if he does kill or otherwise incapacitate you while he gets away? Probably not. And unless you have a bodyguard you're basically screwed, because you're going to be a guy with a pigsticker fighting a guy who, every day, uses his even bigger pigsticker to fight guys actually trained in combat, not guys trained to have a sword in their belt to show they're better than everyone else.

Plus in L5R courtiers get abilities relating to social skills, lore skills, and other social situations (bartering favors, etc) while fightan dudes get skills aimed toward letting them one-shot other trained fighters.


5 PurpleXVI
10:10pm UTC - 10/20/2008 [X]
That honestly sounds like a bit of a bad setting and system, to me. I mean...

In Civilization: WORDS ONLY, FIGHTERS USELESS.

In the Wilderness: SWORDS ONLY, WORDMEN USELESS.

And from your description, both kinds are a bit useless at the other kind of interaction.

But yes, as I said, I can see using numbers for the beaurocratic bullshit like securing an audience with someone or something. But once you're actually negotiating with someone really important and shit, not just battling through his small army of minor clerks and beaurocrats... That should be pure roleplaying.


6 PrivatePlatypoda
02:42am UTC - 10/21/2008 [X]
Fighters aren't useless, per se. There's still lots of use for them. If you have a dude, for instance, who every day of his life since he was like 13 beat demons the size of your house to death with an iron club that was guarding your Courtier, I suspect no one will fuck with his shit. But by the same token, that giant behemoth of a man has made it his point, every day of his life, to perfect not dying at the hands of abominations literally spat from hell into this world. He doesn't have time to practice asking the local mayor very nicely to get horses or whatever. So it's kind of give and take. Both are necessary, but both are equally useless in drastically different environments.

Fighting and arguing with peasants? A Courtier and a Samurai will both do great. But they both also have their own specialized uses outside of telling peasants that if they don't listen they're going to be executed.

Also, really the only social rolls in L5R are like "I'm forging stuff", "I'm lying and want you to believe me", "I'm being totally sincere right now despite the fact that this sounds ridiculous", and "I kidnapped your second born son and probably will execute him if you step by that city". You can really roleplay up to that point, but I honestly think it's pretty fair you have something to arbitrate something that could otherwise devolve into cops and robbers. "I lie and you believe it!" "Nuh uh!" "You totally do."


7 PurpleXVI
03:22am UTC - 10/21/2008 [X]
See? That's exactly my point, the overspecialization leads to another issue that's a personal hatred of mine: "Victory or Death." Which is what happens when a character is so specialized that in any given situation he's either immortal and perfect or dead meat because he's totally useless.

Which makes things boring, because unless the DM wants his players to keel over dead without a chance, the only alternative is a situation they're so specialized for as to remove essentially all challenge.

And again, it's the DM that's a problem if it just turns into that sort of cops-and-robbers crap. Any NPC that the PC's are trying to convince of stuff he should be able to forge a personality for and from that extrapolate whether the NPC would believe a goddamn word of what they're saying.

Of course, if you're talking about player vs player social stuff... Holy balls, never, ever, EVER make that systematic. "Oh, awesome, I roll a 20, that means I basically get to decide what your character thinks."


 

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