The third and last part of this series is going to be a bit shorter than the others. It’s about in-game uses of random chance. These are elements of chance that exist inside the game universe, yet have an actual effect on the plot or its outcome.
A few examples
#1. Tarot decks read by in-game characters. You know, the stereotypical gypsy girl or old woman with a ratty deck of cards. (Just for once make it a nice young man in a suit with a brand-new deck instead, okay?) I’m not talking about cases where you just tell the players which cards are drawn – I’m talking about using a real tarot deck to represent an in-game one, actually drawing cards, and letting it affect the outcome of the plot.
Alternatives to a tarot deck, if you feel uncomfortable using one, or your parents, spouse, or whatever won’t let you keep one: rune stones, I Ching, and normal card decks (you can find books on interpreting them all much as tarot cards are interpreted). Heck, there’s even a book out there (called “Cafe Nation” by Sandra Mizumoto Posey) that provides complex divination processes using coffee beans or coffee stirrers! Whenever I talk about tarot cards in this article, my hints can be generalized to any of these forms of divination.
#2. The traditional deck-of-many-things, where you draw a card from a magical deck of cards and see what happens – do you get money? A wish? Something else entirely? (This, of course, is an old D&D-ism. Not all cards were particularly plot-affecting, but it still counts.)
#3. An in-game game of chance – like a game of poker that you allow your players to play out.
#4. Any kind of plot that requires a gamble – a roll of the dice, a flip of the coin, high card wins, or whatever.
When is this a good or a bad thing?
Sometimes letting chance take control can really irritate your players. Obviously every group is going to be a little different. In my experience, however, there are certain sorts of gambles that are more likely to irritate players than others, and certain types that will be received better. Well-used, gambles can heighten the tension of a game in new and interesting ways, leading to an intense night of gaming. Poorly used, gambles can heighten the tension of a game in stressful and depressing ways.
Don’t let the entire crux of the plot come down to a flip of the coin
That is, unless it’s an awfully minor plot that people won’t mind losing, and that is played more for humor value than for any sort of emotional import. Instead, you’ll want to do one of several things:
- You could make the influence of the gamble be a small one. If the player character (PC) wins the coin toss, then the party gets a little extra help with their plot – not enough to solve the plot for them, nor enough to make a crucial difference, but enough to make things easier.
- The gamble should never determine outright the ultimate outcome of the plot – it can have an effect, and it can affect the details leading up to the conclusion of the plot, but the party should not win or lose based on the outcome of a simple gamble. Remember that it’s an influence, not an outcome.
- The gamble could instead be a choice between not-necessarily-equal options rather than a simple win/lose. A coin flip could determine which helpful artifact the party ends up with, instead of whether they get one at all.
- Alternatively, the gamble could appear to resolve a plot, but instead it turns out to be the plot hook for the “real” plot. For example, a poker game causes a character to lose something valuable, thus leading to the plot wherein he has to get it back. Or the flip of a coin causes a character to be condemned to death, leading to the plot where he has to escape from captivity before his execution is to be carried out. (Be careful with this one–if your players don’t realize it’s leading to something they could get upset.)
Make sure you know what you’re getting into
Think through the outcomes of the gamble ahead of time. Have a general idea of what will happen if various possible outcomes come about.
Here’s a tip – if you’re using something complex then simplify it. If you’re using a tarot deck, you don’t have to think about how each separate card could affect the plot. Instead, divide the deck up into Major Arcana (archetype cards like the Fool or the Tower), court cards (kings, queens, etc.), and the four suits. Have a general feel for what each group means to your plot. Who would the kings represent? What aspect of the plot does the suit of wands represent? What does it mean if many Major Arcana show up in a reading? Then you can use the individual interpretations of the cards to pin down specifics during the game.
Be flexible and be willing to improvise
Chance in the form of a tarot deck (or a regular deck of cards, runestones, or any other divination device) feels less like losing at the whim of a coin because the results are interpreted into the game rather than shoved in wholesale. They also tend to be less binary: the results are more complex than a simple win/lose scenario. If you feel capable of adapting the outcome of the cards to your plots, and if you don’t mind adapting your plots to the cards that fall, give it a try. It’s a more flexible form of chance that allows you to improvise your way out of any “bad” spots. A couple of hints:
If you aren’t sure how to get started, then practice on your own time. Consider a plot. Pull out a deck. Draw cards and practice applying them to your game.
Remember to apply the cards to how the plot will play out, or how it is set up, rather than to to the conclusion. Again, don’t let your players feel like they’re winning or losing a plot at the whim of a card. Use the cards to:
- Suggest courses of action,
- Give hints as to who could help the party,
- Point the way toward clues, or
- Help the party interpret clues that have already been given to them.
Prepare in advance
Have a list of pieces of information with you that you might work into a fortune-teller’s reading or other gamble. Keep a list of hints you can interpret or drop, people you can point the party at, and so on. It makes it easier to actually pull off an in-game card reading that makes sense.
Alternatively, some fortune tellers use only a subset of the cards at hand. For instance, they might use only the 22 Major Arcana, and/or they might consider only upright meanings (not reversed). That’s a short enough list that you could probably write up a more specific cheat sheet for what the cards will mean in advance.
If you don’t want to write up a cheat sheet that covers all of the possibilities of your divination method, that’s okay too. Instead, write up a list of the major possibilities for how you see the plot playingout, independent of the method of divination. This way you can make sure that the available options are ones your players will enjoy, and you can then use your element of chance to choose your way through the options.
Use weighted chance
If you want to use a gamble as a plot device or other means of affecting the plot, make it a weighted gamble. This can be done in one of three ways:
- Weight the gamble toward the players winning. I don’t mean making it a sure thing – just make it more likely than not. Figure out the odds involved in your gamble ahead of time and make sure the players have a decent chance at winning it. [We’re back to that age-old paradox: players tend to be happier if they have a greater chance of winning than not, but often become very unhappy if winning is a sure thing. There are good psychological reasons for this, but we won’t digress into them here…]
- Allow player skill to have an effect on the outcome. For instance, if you know one or two of your players are a bit better at poker than you are, then you could use a poker game as your gamble.
- Allow character skill to have an effect on the outcome. If an in-game deck of tarot cards has a mystical power such that the layout of cards actually affects the in-game universe rather than simply reflecting it, then a character skilled at sleight-of-hand might be able to affect an outcome by stacking the deck of cards or otherwise “cheating.”
Not all of these options will work for everyone, and you might well find that your players are just fine with things that I’ve recommended against. This should give you a place to start, however, and you can fine-tune things for your own gaming group as you go. Remember, before all else fails – ask your players what they think!