Using Fortune: Random Chance in Roleplaying Games

Chance is a part of most roleplaying games (RPGs). It’s what makes it possible for a young fighter to strike a miraculous and heroic blow against a more powerful adversary. It’s what ratchets up the tension when you try to perform an action – it isn’t a matter of trying to guess whether the game master (GM) will allow the action to succeed, it’s a matter of truly not knowing whether it will work. Chance adds to the excitement and trepidation you feel. It keeps things surprising. Chance also, however, lays waste to the best-laid plans of GM and character, and that isn’t always appreciated.

Any time you roll dice you’re making use of chance. If you use tarot cards or other cards as a mechanic, you’re making use of chance. If you flip a coin you’re using chance. In most games chance is used to determine whether or not the actions of the player characters (PCs) and the non-player characters (NPCs) succeed. It’s used to determine the outcomes of contests. In some games it’s used to determine pretty much everything, right down to what classes your character took in college and what his sister looks like. (Okay, I might be exaggerating slightly. But only slightly.)

How random is random?

This depends on your game. Most systems are weighted to represent the idea that your character has a greater or lesser chance of performing certain actions. If he’s really good at hacking into computers, he might have a 90% chance of succeeding. Certain other things can affect this chance. For example, if the computer is running lots of security software then the chance of success might go down to 60%.

This alteration of a character’s chance of success is often represented by raising or lowering (modifying) the “difficulty” or “target number” of the roll of the dice, by changing the number or type of dice you roll, or by altering the outcome of your roll. This is where simple conflict resolution systems come in handy – if the system is simple, then you can have a pretty good idea of what effect any modifiers will have.

This means that you start out with at least a reasonable idea of how likely you are to succeed at an action. It can be argued that this is little different than being able to guess at a GM’s decision, but I believe there is an important difference. Most games allow for at least loose gradations of success and failure. Usually there’s some guideline for spectacular success and spectacular failure. I’ve seen plenty of game scenes where someone has a great chance of success yet fails in a spectacular manner, or a small chance of success yet succeeds fantastically. This can spark game directions that are unexpected and interesting, and often pushes GMs to come up with neat things that they might not have thought of otherwise. Of course, it can also completely derail things.

How else can you use it?

You can make your game as random as you want, and there are various randomizers you can make use of.

  1. One familiar example would be the random monster encounter table (or random encounter table), where you roll dice and check a list to figure out what sort of odd encounter your party has. Too often this is exactly what it sounds like – random, and I don’t mean that in a good way. There seems to be no point to it, it doesn’t add to the game in any way (except in the number of experience points that everyone gets), and no one particularly cares about it.

    Instead, don’t feel constricted to run a random encounter as soon as you roll for it. Use it to further the plot in some way, to enhance the atmosphere, or to otherwise make the game more interesting. You can do this by only taking the result of your roll as a starting point, considering what you want to accomplish with the encounter, and then altering, mucking with, and adding to the encounter until it achieves your goal.

  2. Sometimes you just aren’t sure how an NPC would react to a situation, or you aren’t sure how an event would play out, and there’s no obvious determining factor to use. You could roll a die, determining first which results will produce which outcome. Or you could pull a tarot card (or something similar). This allows you to creatively interpret the tarot card. This has a couple of advantages over dice: it gives you more material to work with if you’re having trouble coming up with something. And because it requires interpretation, it’s often easy to adapt to the plot or situation going on in game.

    A similar option here is to make greater use of the very system you have in front of you. Make creative use of PC and NPC ability checks to determine how things will play out.

  3. Keep various bits of background material (like NPC write-ups, location write-ups, monsters, item write-ups) in a form that you can easily randomize. An example of this would be putting item write-ups on index cards so that you can easily pull one out at random. Or keeping a numbered list of NPCs so that you can roll dice to pick one. This allows you to easily pick something at random when you need some inspiration for a plot, or need to solve a dilemma. For example, your party just captured a treasure chest that you expected to give them in three weeks, so you hadn’t decided what was inside of it yet. Grab an item or two at random and throw them in.
  4. Keep notes on any possible future plots you’ve been playing with on index cards. Keep some of our instant plots hooks from from past issues (or some of your own) on index cards. That way, if your party short-circuits your plots and you have nothing to give them, you can pick another plot to throw at them.
  5. Sometimes you just want the feeling that the unexpected can happen, and you have a hard time “planning” the unexpected. Once your players become familiar with your GMing style you might find that you become predictable to them. Try having your players make some sort of luck roll now and then – this pushes you to improvise something unexpected. If they do well, have something interesting and good happen to them. If they do poorly, have something interesting and bad happen to them. Try to weight this roll toward good or neutral things happening if you plan to make frequent use of it, or your players might get a bit discouraged.

What’s good and bad about chance?

As pointed out earlier, chance lends excitement and uncertainty to a game. It helps to keep players on the edge of their seat. It’s just like watching a good thriller – if you know what’s going to come next, it’s much less exciting. This makes chance a very useful tool in the GM’s kit.

On the other hand, chance also derails plots. A character tries something a GM wasn’t expecting, and even though it has only a tiny chance of succeeding, it does. The GM has no idea what to do next. Or one of those random monster encounters happens; it was supposed to be a momentary diversion, but chance results in a PC’s death in a rather anticlimactic manner.

If random chance is used for too many things, then players tend to feel that their characters’ abilities have no effect on the game. Remember that chance is weighted in most systems – if a character is good at gardening, then he has a higher chance than his neighbor of coaxing a rare flower into bloom. If you substitute the luck roll mentioned in #5 above for what should be a skill roll, then the players will start to feel like their carefully-constructed characters don’t matter.

If you throw too many random events into a game it can make things feel disorganized unless you’re particularly good at working them into the plot. It can also make the players feel like their characters live and die completely at the whim of chance, which can be discouraging. If you throw in too many random events, it can also interfere with your plots.

However, some GMs do a great job of using chance as inspiration. Some GMs can take that unexpected critical success and turn it into a very interesting plot that they never would have thought of on their own. If you find that you have trouble coming up with new and interesting ways to structure plots, or if you find that you’re becoming too predictable, chance is one way to stir things up.

It’s hard to say whether the use of chance during character creation is a good or bad thing – this really depends on your gaming group. Some people have trouble getting into a character that doesn’t inspire them, which means that chance can leave them playing something not particularly fun. Others have trouble coming up with new and interesting characters, and are benefitted by the use of chance in the character creation process.

Diceless alternatives

There are diceless alternatives that make use of chance (such as the use of card interpretation to resolve events), and ones that don’t (such as the GM simply deciding what seems reasonable). Whether one of these systems works for your group almost entirely depends on your group!

Some GMs have a lot of trouble keeping people’s skills and weaknesses in mind and adequately taking them into account when interpreting a card or working out the solution to an event. Weighted chance systems are designed to take these things into account for you.

Some GMs have trouble working in the unexpected successes and failures, and players might feel that those unexpected results are the GM’s doing rather than their character’s. If a player is unhappy about the result of an action, he might be unhappy with the GM rather than the dice, which isn’t a good thing for your gaming group.

Some groups, however, find that diceless systems work wonderfully for them. These systems allow them to have their dramatic story without worry that a really funky roll of the dice will completely throw everything off. You don’t have to worry about characters dying pointlessly in boring ways just because the dice say it should happen.

The alternatives

As you can see, there are many good and bad ways to make use of chance. It can inspire you or totally throw you off. If you aren’t used to making use of it but want a way to make your rulings less predictable, carefully try one or two methods of using chance. Go slowly, however, and back off on anything that makes your gaming group uncomfortable.

Now there’s one other, very large issue when it comes to chance. Some people believe that you must completely abide by the results of chance — it isn’t fair to the players otherwise. If you muck with the results of die rolls behind your GM’s screen then you’re effectively cheating. Others believe that mucking with the results of chance is the only way to keep things fun and on track. There are some very strong opinions out there on this matter, and understandably so! In the next article we’ll talk about the various sides of this issue, things to keep in mind when deciding what to do for your gaming group, and ways to decide just how much chance you should use in your game.

Posted in Gaming

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