The Draw of Randomness

I think much of the appeal to randomness comes from shallow understanding/efficacy and this rubber duckie analysis. “Interesting things are in the sweet spot where they make enough sense you can form expectations and not so much sense that your expectations are wholly sufficient and the follow-through completely predictable.” The more you understand and can influence a process, the less desirable randomness is unless it is your only chance. The less understanding you have, the more random results fit your understanding while remaining unpredictable. The less control you have, the more random results are likely to be to your benefit (versus where others might push results).

When I was 12 and exploring D&D books, long tables of random values were awesome. It was a draw from a fixed pool of values, so I could have reasonable expectations but never be sure, with wild swings to make unlikely expectations occasionally viable. I had not really grasped that I could take the setting in my hands, as opposed to following what was laid out in the books, so adding randomness was closer to putting things in my control. It at least took it out of someone else’s control. Plus, young men seem bred to throw their fate to chance and hope for the best.

When I play games now, I like known conditions. I understand, plan, master. Rarely can randomness help me, at most foiling reasonable expectations. It is reasonable to have some range of expectation of how much damage your fireball might do; it is not reasonable that the fireball might cause the target to turn into a pink sheep, or whatever else a wild mage or wand of wonder might do.

Chaos is great for people with no long term plans. They have no intentions to foil, they can always insert more chaos if the results are bad, and at worst they can absolve themselves because they had little control over the outcome. Alternately, there is Littlefinger, who starts behind and inserts chaos to create new opportunities to get ahead. The young are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the current order; the old are invested in the current order, know how to get ahead under it, and have something to lose.

Go to a casino and observe who plays what. Some people study odds and think of themselves as masters of their own fate. They play card games with lots of decisions, preferably ones where you play against other people rather than the house. Some people trust to luck, the big win, the quick score. They are at slot machines or the roulette wheel, where the main decision is how quickly to lose your money.

Randomness prevents knowledge, foils plans, counteracts skill. That is a draw to some.

: Zubon

I remember having a work bowling outing, where every third frame had a different requirement like bowling with your off-hand, between your legs, or with your eyes closed. That was the great equalizer between league players and people who hadn’t bowled in 20 years.

2 thoughts on “The Draw of Randomness”

  1. You don’t mention what I consider to be the main attractions of randomness, namely surprise, excitement, awe and, most especially, wonder. It’s not always about getting an advantage without needing to earn it via skill or knowledge – it’s also about standing back slack-jawed in amazement.

    Like everyone who ever GM’d tabletop I once wrote my own set of rules. Suffice to say, the entire basis of the whole system was extensive, unavoidable randomization – nothing could be done with certainty of the outcome, ever. My group played the system for a couple of months and it was well-enough received. People enjoyed the serendipity it fostered and entered into the spirit of the thing.

    It worked as a diversion but even I couldn’t see it working long-term. You do have to have some solid ground. After a while people spent more time trying to wrestle the the world they were living in into some kind of order than they did standing back and watching the fireworks.

    Much though I like comfort gaming, repetition and predictability, given a free choice I’d still always go for a system where the player has a less-than-even chance of predicting the outcome of any action – always providing the system or the GM was capable of ensuring the outcome would be surprising in a non-infuriating way. This is meant to be entertainment, after all.

    1. Yeah, I’m basically saying you’re the problem here. If “the player has a less-than-even chance of predicting the outcome of any action,” the proper reaction is now “awe” or “wonder.” You’re just living in a hell, either of randomness or someone else’s control. In a game where the GM wants that kind of control, randomness is the only respite from someone trying to dictate the whole story. “Standing back and watching the fireworks” is not gaming.

      If the impact of players’ decisions is swamped by other factors, you are not so much playing a game as watching a game happen. You can go read a book at that point. It probably has a better story.

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