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March 8th, 2013

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09:59 am - Randomness in RPGs
Via a Story Games thread, I happened across a talk from Gen Con 2012 with James Ernest and Jason Morningstar. Ernest's notes are online, as is a mp3 of the seminar. Part of Ernest's point is here:

Randomness in game design can be broken down into three general categories relating to game design: Cosmetic, biased, and fair randomness.

“Cosmetic” randomness has no bearing on the strategy or outcome of the game. An example
would be a change in background color, or the difference (in poker) between a heart and a

“Biased” randomness gives resources unfairly to one player over another; this includes most random events in most games.

“Fair” randomness is the rarest type, and the hardest to master. It challenges players to think
strategically in a randomized environment, but does not arbitrarily favor one player over
another. For example, allocating different but equally valuable resources based on a die roll, or randomizing the starting setup in chess.

It is possible to have random elements in a game that fall somewhere in between these categories, but in those cases the multiple aspects of the individual mechanic can still be viewed through this filter.

Some examples:

Cosmetic: We don’t talk a lot about Cosmetic Randomness, but its purpose is to provide variability without any impact on the game mechanics. It’s easier and more prevalent in computer games.

Biased: This is the easiest form of randomness to introduce, and the most common. Here are some

* A slot machine spin. Some spins are good, some are bad. In a slot tournament, whoever gets the
luckier spins will win the tournament.
* A roll in Settlers. This gives resources to some players, and nothing to other players.
* A movement roll in Monopoly. This can land the player on a good or bad spot.
* This-or-Nothing rolls, all over the world.

Fair: This is harder to engineer. Fair randomness should have a meaningful impact on the flow of the game without favoring one player over another. A strictly fair random event favors no one while slightly less fair events might only favor a certain player by a small margin. Some examples:

* A random setup in Chess (Chess 960)
* Random starting layout in Settlers of Catan
* This-or-That rolls (get Resource A or Resource B)

Beyond Success-vs-Failure

One way I agree is that there is a place for "this-or-that" rolls, or similar shuffling randomization. Rolls in play for RPGs tend to reduce down to only success-vs-failure rolls, possibly with degree, whereas randomness could potentially be in much more variety. Some examples from RPGs:

* Random encounter tables from old D&D, along with randomized treasure
* Drawing Whimsy Cards in Ars Magica, or the themed tarot deck of Everway, where each card has a meaning.
* Access to playset elements in Fiasco

These can definitely add interest to a game, and should be considered more. Random encounter tables have been out of fashion for a while - though they are coming back with the Old School Renaissance.

On the other hand, many things are technically this-or-that but not really all that different from this-or-nothing randomness. For example, in the card game gin, you always get a card - and high cards aren't better than low cards. However, you can still get lucky in the draw. Likewise, in Ars Magica, you could get lucky by getting a Whimsy Card that helps you do exactly what you want to - or you could get a Whimsy Card that gives you something irrelevant to your situation.

What is Fair?

Ernest's use of the term "fair" is out of whack with most people's usage - and often what they are looking for in a social game. In everyday English, a game of chance is considered fair if all of the players have an equal chance of success. However, he calls this "biased" and not "fair". I think this comes from the point of view that a game of pure skill is more "fair" than a game of chance. However, many people enjoy games of chance.

In tabletop RPGs, I think that random rolls of varying interest are used to create a type of social fairness by giving all the players a chance to shine. In many games, unusual random results give spotlight time - especially if they are distinguished as "critical" by the system, but to some degree even if they aren't. Suppose Shelly comes in to play and RPG, and she's had a rough day and isn't at her best. She isn't popping with great ideas. Still, she rolls a critical result at a good time, and she gets her moment in the spotlight. Her friends high-five her for doing well. This was unfair in Ernest's usage because that Shelly got the result when others didn't, but it was fair because everyone gets equal odds for lucky results like these.

Now suppose that the only results were this-or-that rolls where every result is equally interesting. As the saying goes, everyone being special to some degree means that no one is. If she can't get a lucky roll, then Shelly will still get to do things on her turn, but her turn doesn't stand out in any way. She doesn't get the social spotlight of rolling ++++ on a crucial FATE roll. This is fair in a game theory sense that her results depend on her personal performance, but in a social sense we often consider things fair if they spread stuff around regardless of skill.

Outside of RPGs, many games deliberately have less strategic fairness. Games like Fluxx or Talisman are not very strategic, but they are engaging to beginners for exactly this reason.

Reducing Randomness

So randomness can lead to a socialist sort of fairness, where everyone gets a chance to shine even if they aren't particularly savvy, charismatic, or otherwise skillful.

Suppose we do want to reduce the effect of randomness, though. There are a lot of ways to do this, and changing to this-or-that rolls is a good way but far from the only one. Some options include:

* Reducing the range of the dice. Greg Porter's CORPS RPG is a notable example of a game with low randomness. You could do similar in FATE by only rolling 2 or 3 Fudge dice instead of 4.

* Introducing a bell curve, or sharpening the curve. You could play a d20 based game by instead rolling three d20s, and taking the middle result.

* Drawing from a small deck of results. Unlike dice, card decks mean that if you get a streak of high cards, you are more likely to get low cards after that.

* Increasing the number of rolls made. If everything rides on a single high-stakes roll (like D&D's "save or die"), then the effect of randomness is high. If someone has to fail several rolls in a row to die, then that is less random because multiple rolls are likely to average out.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2013 06:20 pm (UTC)
Why do you post awesome stuff when I don't have the brainpower to process it?

[User Picture]
Date:March 8th, 2013 06:42 pm (UTC)
It kind of seems like the difference between capitalist and socialist concepts of fairness. In a pure capitalist model, you have "fairness" or "equity" if you have equality of opportunity: Everyone is free to engage in any transactions they can arrange by mutual consent, and the ones who find more ways to arrange mutually beneficial or desirable transactions end up richer, and what's the problem with that? In a pure socialist model, you have "fairness" or "equality" if you have equality of outcomes: Everyone gets exactly the same, no matter what they do or what transactions they engage in, with no profit and no loss. (And of course there are the intermediate models like Rawlsian "justice as fairness.")

I think this may be the opposite of what you're describing as "a socialist sort of fairness," actually. The situation where people gain rewards, not because they worked hard or invested a lot or were creative, but because they happened to be lucky, seems in fact to be one of the things that particularly offend socialists about market economies. At a more rarified level, there's the whole philosophical argument about "moral luck"—especially the extreme form that says that since your character was the product of your genes, your upbringing, your society, and so on, you merit no praise for having a good character and performing good actions, and no blame for the reverse.

My own experience is that the real dynamic of an rpg, at least, is that it's supposed to be fun for everyone; and with my players, the big reward is camera time and the chance to earn applause from the other players—without that it's not fun. That leads to something like what you are calling "fairness," but I'm not sure what dice mechanics has to do with it. Actually, I tend to find that players often get the biggest chance to shine after a critical failure, and the second biggest after a critical success—either of which outshines ordinary success. But critical failure and critical success tend to add up to a constant in games that have both, usually.
[User Picture]
Date:March 9th, 2013 06:04 pm (UTC)
I enjoy "this or that" randomness in character generation, and the examples of the random tables of monsters and treasure are fun, also. But the Everway cards are terrible, in my experience: the worst of diceless "because the GM says so so there" plus diced "because the dice say so so there". Vaguely interpreted randomness that only one party gets to access that affects all parties... Nah.

Chance to shine from randomness is a good thing about randomness, but there are cutoffs where the amount of rolling per payout makes it not worthwhile. FATE is beyond the cutoff, IMO... Tons of rolls, very rarely interesting. Reducing the amount of randomness possible generally pushes a system over these limits, to where dicelss would be more fun.

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