Reviews and Ramblings
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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.").