Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 9, 2012
I thought I’d talk about it a little bit.
I’m a big fan of Go (I even dropped a serious chunk of change on Many Faces of Go – which was well worth it, IMHO). Chess a little less so, but I do enjoy the game (although I suck at it). When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was Mastermind. These are all deterministic games with no artificial randomness. But for me, RPGs have always been joined at the hip with the idea of slinging dice. So I’m very reluctant to go full-on deterministic with them. And Craig, too, is finding some places where gameplay can be expanded with some careful addition of some random (or at least, less predictable) elements.
In somewhat random order, here are some thoughts on randomness in RPGs – particularly computer RPGs:
Asymmetric vs. Perfect Information
In my Artificial Intelligence classes in college, we tended to talk about “perfect knowledge” or “Perfect Information” games – particularly Chess and Go – with respect to AI. Perfect information means all players know the game state and all possible moves. Nobody’s got any cards they are hiding. I *believe* this also means than the results of any move are also known in advance, so all moves must be deterministic, but I may be wrong here. But an otherwise fully deterministic simulation can be made a lot more interesting through asymmetric information. The players don’t know everything. Even in a straightforward RPG, encountering an enemy without fully knowing their powers — and having to play cautiously while figuring out what they’re capable of – is an example of asymmetric information. Ideally, the AI wouldn’t automatically know what your party is capable of, either. I was always suspicious that even the dumb animals in Knights of the Chalice automatically knew who your vulnerable spellcasters were. But even a simpler possibility here – with perfect knowledge of the enemy position and composition – would be to have each player hold three special move cards that the opponent can’t see… whether these were obtained randomly or ‘purchased’ before a combat.
This is another avenue for making a deterministic game less predictable.
Reality is Random
I was stupid and not paying attention when driving a few days ago when making a left turn. I nearly got into an accident. It wasn’t a near miss or anything, but I felt really stupid about it. I have no idea how many left-hand turns I’ve made in my life, but it’s a lot. These are not difficult actions. I don’t go into an intersection expecting a 1% chance of failure when I turn on my left blinker. But even trivial acts go wrong sometimes. And sometimes we get lucky and win the lottery. There are so many complicated factors in play with every action and plan, so many uncontrolled variables, that our human minds effectively have to boil things down to chance. And we have to make plans around chance. We buy insurance. We take risks. We play the odds. We create “Plan B.”
I’ve done a bit of simulated combat with fencing weapons, padded swords, martial arts, paintball, and the like. Enough to know that what seems simple and automatic in practice can become devilishly hard when the heat is on. There are plenty of reports on actual gunfights (and a few eerie videos on YouTube) that illustrate how ‘shootouts’ are amazingly… well, random. Guys who can place high in shooting competitions can’t seem to hit the broadside of a barn at point blank range against a deadly opponent shooting back at them. Real fights are fast, frantic, messy affairs, and gamers would be infuriated with probabilities that mirror reality. Actually, older wargames (and D&D) tried to simulate this by claiming that attacks were an abstraction. In older editions of D&D, your hit chance represented the sum total of a number of attacks made during the course of a round, perhaps the one “good” shot that had a real chance of doing damage.
Simulationists (and I have at least one foot in that camp) tend to enjoy the randomness of real life thrown into our games. Though we also like having enough control over the variables to be able to pick and choose our chances.
It’s Fun to Gamble
I forget the studies involved (it’s been a long time), but it’s been demonstrated that anticipation and excitement over an unpredictable result is much higher than for a predictable one. Putting coins in a slot machine is a lot more fun than buying something from a gumball machine – even though your average return on investment from the gumball machine is higher. Our most memorable moments in our “dice & paper” RPGs often come from moments where we defied the odds – either with a positive or negative result. One of our favorite stories involve a “boss” vampire going down at the beginning of round 1 with a combination of a good initiative roll on the part of the rogue, an Arrow of Undead Slaying, and a bad fortitude save on the part of the vampire. Yes, it ruined my big, high-level boss encounter. Yes, it turned a big climactic fight into almost a joke. But the players LOVED it. So what’s the problem?
Another – negative – result came from a monk in a bad melee who encouraged the spellcaster to launch a fireball on his position. “Don’t worry, I can take it,” he promised. But his enemies, he was sure, could not. After all, he was 80% sure of avoiding all damage from the fireball entirely (improved evasion), and even on failure, would take only half damage, and had a few more hit points than the spell would do *on the average*. Worst case, he could be healed and prevented from dying at -10 hit points once the fireball killed all of his opponents. You can probably guess what happened. The damage was extremely high, and the saving throw roll was extremely low. The monk was reduced to -11 hit points, killing him immediately. The player, fortunately, took it in great humor, rolling up a new character and laughing it off. We all do, now, too. It’s still a running joke. It was one of those great moments in gaming.
And randomized treasure? Seriously, sometimes I think that’s the only reason Diablo ever caught on. Randomness makes a game interesting.
Randomness Facilitates Friendly Competitive Gaming
It’s sort of a given in game design that randomness plays an important role in friendly competitive games. It allows players of unequal skill to play together, and gives all players a chance to write off losses as “bad luck.” On the extremes, you have games like Candyland that are pure luck, allowing children to play with their parents and have an equal chance of winning. By contrast, beating a more skilled player at chess may lead to the suspicion that they deliberately threw the game.
Too Much Randomness (or Lack of Control Over Variables) Irritates the Hell Out of Players
One of the discoveries I made in the making of Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon was that the earlier incarnation of the game system – which relied on bell curves to deliberately be “less random” than your average pen-and-paper RPG – was extremely frustrating due to its randomness. The later version was considerably less random, yet arguably still too dependent upon random numbers in the end. I have a few theories why the level of randomness acceptable in D&D feels less so in an RPG like Frayed Knights, and more plentiful combat is certainly part of many of them.
The risk of failure is fun. Actual failure, considerably less so. Playing in “ironman” mode with permadeath turned on in a game is – for me, at least – at least twice as thrilling as a normal game. But it’s a hundred times more upsetting when you lose. Which way those balance may depend upon the game and you, as a gamer. For most of us, the higher the risk, the more control we want over the variables. When a split-second of poorly timed lag (a certainly undesirable form of randomness) can yield perma-death, we’re not going to be happy.
I thought the drama star system would help offset some of the frustration with “bad luck” – and I believe it did – but as I’m tweaking the system for part 2, I’m working do diminish some of the ‘spread’ a little more.
A Happy Medium
Anyway – I enjoyed Craig’s essay, and it also amused me. He’s slowly getting sucked back into putting more non-deterministic elements in his games. I’m feeling compelled to reduce some of the randomness in some areas of mine (while possibly expanding it other, more interesting areas…) I think it all comes to there being a happy medium in there somewhere. Of course, it varies by game and play-style so it’s hardly universal. Or predictable. You might even say it’s kinda random.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 10 Comments to Read