There are two very closely related things to consider here. First is the use of extra elements of random chance in your roleplaying game – we discussed some of the pros, cons, and options of this in the last article. Second is the use of the normal game-system elements of chance. [Definitional moment: the normal game-system elements of chance are those found within the published game system. These are things like ability checks, saving throws, and so on. Extra elements of chance are ones that you add, such as luck rolls, your own random encounter tables, or the drawing of a tarot card. More examples of elements of chance you can add into your game can be found in the last issue.]
On the one hand, it’s important to be fair and respect the outcome of the dice. If your players think of a creative and unexpected way to solve a plot, then it isn’t helping them for you to “cheat” and rule that they fail even though the normal elements of chance say they succeeded. If you constantly adjust the results of things to suit how you want the game to go, the players will almost certainly pick up on it eventually. It will probably make them feel like they can’t affect the game in any way that you don’t allow, which can be pretty disheartening (further discussion on this topic pervades our series of free will articles).
On the other hand there’s a difference between using chance and letting it use you. If you’re going to use extra elements of chance as sources of inspiration, plots, and so on, then you probably want to use them as starting points and nothing more. Don’t produce an encounter that completely ruins the mood of your game just because you rolled a certain number on the dice – muck with it. Change it. Make it suit the mood, further the plot, or advance your theme. If you draw a tarot card and say, “that’s not quite right,” then go with that intuition. Draw another card, reverse the card, or think for a minute and see where that intuition leads you.
But this still leaves us with two sticky questions. How much should you muck with the normal elements of chance? And how much should you make use of extra elements of chance? Most importantly – how do you go about making these decisions?
Everything in moderation
Remember the old adage about the importance of moderation. If there’s no randomness at all, things will probably feel constricted or predictable before too long. If there’s too much randomness, things will likely feel chaotic and arbitrary. All things in moderation – both random chance and the lack of it.
Use extra elements of chance now and then to liven things up, give a sense that anything can happen, or spur you to think of plots you might not otherwise come up with. But don’t use them every thirty seconds – it will distract from the plot (unless you’re very good at integrating the results of luck rolls into the plot). It might also make your players feel like no matter what they do or how clever or careful they are, they’re totally at the mercy of a couple of dice. This can result in a “why bother?” attitude.
When you use extra elements of chance, keep in mind how biased they are. If the tarot deck you’re using is slanted toward dark, dangerous plots then take that into account. If you use it too often you’ll have your players feeling as though they’re screwed every time the deck comes out. On the other hand, if you use it sparingly then you can introduce some interesting tension into the game by bringing the deck out, without making people feel like the entire game is going to be mired in doom that they can’t do anything about. If you use a dice-based luck roll, make sure the results are skewed to be reasonably moderate – not too helpful (you don’t want people feeling like they succeeded at their plots through luck rolls) and not too nasty (you don’t want people to feel like they keep getting defeated simply through luck rolls). It’s probably better for luck rolls to be skewed a little more toward success than failure.
Now and then you might decide that you have to muck with the results of a normal element of chance in order to have the game be fun for your players. Only you can decide when this is the case. If you know your players well enough, you might be certain that allowing a character to die suddenly and in a boring manner just because you happened to roll a critical hit would really make your group unhappy. Thus, you might decide to fudge the result to keep things fun. If you find this happening too often, however, you might consider that you’re doing it unnecessarily. It can really keep your group’s spirits up to now and then see their plans bear unexpectedly good or bad fruit. It can also lead you into plot directions that you might not have thought of otherwise.
Some groups prefer to have everything be completely and utterly true to the results of the normal elements of chance, regardless of the effect on the plot. Others prefer to have the plot go along in a properly dramatic way, regardless of what chance says. My personal recommendation would be to once again do everything in moderation – don’t fudge the normal elements of chance too often, but don’t feel that you can never, ever fudge them either. However, ultimately this is something that only you and your players can truly decide.
Extra elements of chance lend themselves to more fudging than the normal elements of chance, if just because they aren’t already wrapped up in the events of the plot. You pretty much need to do a little mucking about in order to make extra elements of chance fit in with the plot, mood, and so on.
Pay attention to your group
What does your gaming group enjoy? Do they like being surprised? Then make greater use of extra elements of chance. Do they prefer the sure drama that won’t get derailed? Then consider occasionally fudging the normal elements of chance, at least in extreme circumstances of plot derailment.
This one’s a little trickier, however. You need to be able to see the difference between players who feel like their characters are being made to not matter, and players who just can’t handle losing and are blaming the dice. Either way, however, you need to find a way to keep your players comfortable with the game.
Keep in mind that most games already have that normal element of chance provided within the base system. It might be biased to represent characters’ abilities, but it does still introduce an element of randomness that most players won’t balk at. While we discussed in the last issue various reasons why it can be useful or fun to introduce extra elements of chance into your game, sometimes it’s best to stick with what’s already provided. Not all players enjoy an extra element of luck.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t still make use of a few extra tools. For instance, if a player makes an ability check and comes up with a particularly spectacular success or failure, you might take the opportunity to use a tool of chance (like tarot cards or song lyrics) to help you come up with the form that the spectacular result will take.
When it comes to fudging normal elements of chance, again, pay attention to your players. If having the plot play out in the “right” way seems to make them happier, then maybe it’s worthwhile to fudge a result now and then. If they don’t mind having the unexpected happen, however (some players prefer it – it can keep things exciting), then there’s little reason to muck with the way the plot is playing out.
Play to your strengths
Play to your strengths, and be aware of your limitations. It never hurts to give new techniques a try. But if you find that you just can’t integrate the results of extra elements of chance into your storyline, then don’t push it! On the other hand, if you find that pulling a tarot card or rolling some dice at odd points in the game gives you wonderful ideas for where to take the game that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, then by all means continue! If you’re better at planning the plot out in advance, or just find that you need that structure to keep things on track, then stick to that. Don’t force yourself to play with luck rolls just because it sounds neat or because someone like me suggests it.
If you’re capable of occasionally fudging the results of the normal elements of chance in ways that seem to make your players happier, then you might want to continue. If you try it and players notice, object, seem unhappy with the results, or something similar, then you probably shouldn’t keep doing it it. Keep in mind that vague and nebulous concept called game balance – it’s tough to know what effect your decisions will have on game balance. Unless you’re pretty sure you can figure it out ahead of time, you might not want to fudge the results of rolls.
While it’s a good idea to try new things when you’re running a game, it’s also a good idea to know your limitations and do what you’re good at. If you give things a try and they just don’t work out, then it might not be worth continuing with them. Carefully consider what your players want, what you’re good at, and what seems to make the game fun for everyone. It’s hard to lose with that combination.