Friday, June 27, 2008

Random Good

At this point, any rational person has stopped reading, but I’m going to continue anyway. It was never my intention that a simple trade system would become central to my world’s design, but once I got going I began to see how it functionally defined a great deal.

All of what I’m describing here is invisible in my world. My players see an equipment list—that’s it. They get pieces of treasure, they ask me what they can sell them for, I give them an answer. They see no tired figures, no ground out complicated tables, nothing along those lines. It takes up no more time in the campaign than a regular equipment table would.

Except — when recently one of my players acquired title to a few hundred square miles of Transylvania, it took me about twenty minutes to figure out down to the last copper how much income the land earned…and how much of what raw materials were present.

But I don’t think others will buy the concept; we don’t see the game through the same eyes. I don’t design adventures, I don’t write up scripts for NPCs to read to parties (I make them up in my head on the spur of the moment), I don’t waste hours drawing dungeon maps (easier to simply produce one on the spot) and I don’t try to produce a story climax with a guaranteed big payoff. My players wander like will o’wisps, going off on larks or digging in and piling their cash into fortifications as they wish. Each player has three different characters they run (henchmen of the main character), so that they can play episodes surrounding their lands or go off plundering as they desire. I’m ready to run whatever particular campaign they want, on the spur of the moment, because the deeper groundwork is laid.

I know what a hobgoblin lair or a dragon lair will look like, in my head, so why draw them out? I put traps in as necessary, though they’re fairly rare, which makes it easier to catch a party by surprise. I only have to have the trap in mind fifteen minutes ahead of the party, and I’m creative enough I can usually think of something that takes advantage of the local color without being the same tired old thing.

See, I just don’t see the problem with random that the books all seem to rail against. Random encounters are boring, I’m told. I don’t get it. While the fundamental design of my world is rational to intense levels, on the surface it is played out to be as irrational as possible. Reality is not about every facet of an environment conveniently focused on one goal. It’s so much more fun to throw in additional conditions which have nothing whatsoever to do with the goal. That’s what random is all about. Fucking with parties.

I’m told that this bothers parties, annoys them, frustrates them. Uh huh. Yeah. What exactly is wrong with that? If they’re trying to enter the city which is under siege, and avoiding the orc armies planted around the city walls, with their foraging groups combing the back country for food, what is wrong with throwing in a completely neutral roper who is annoyed with all the ongoing activity, who beats the party down a few hit points just before a squadron of haruchai fly overhead on hippogriffs, whom the party is able to slaughter in time to get undercover and avoid the thunderstorm which is rolling through by ducking into a cave, where they find a party of fifty gypsies hiding out, who are not too keen on letting the party leave because they’re worried about being found, so that the party must reassure them or bribe them or slaughter them, in the last case finding a blessed sword whose paladin owner from Kursk has been seeking obsessively and has been unable to find because the gypsies had a continuous spell going to hide it, which the party couldn’t possibly know about and who is about to jump up in his bed four hundred miles away when his henchmen rushes in to say the sword is found—none of which has anything to do with the reasons for the party actually wanting to enter into the city, but will come up later at the most inopportune moment when the party is trying to get some minor minister to allow their ship out of the harbor in another adventure ten runnings hence.

Random equals boring? In whose world?

I love throwing this shit together on a regular basis, rewarding the party when it manages to deal with a mess intelligently or bravely, bringing as much brunt to bear when they screw up. I don’t see it in terms of “hooks” or “payoffs”…but in terms of one great miasma of interlocking motivations held by dozens of local factions striving for their personal piece of the pie. There is no villain, there is no good guy…there are only hundreds of squalling, scrambling contestants elbowing each other out of the way for the glory or the loot.

Sure, there are moments when a party manages to do something significant: reuniting a daughter with her supernatural father or getting one of their own out of a small corner of hell…but these things are fixed moments that occur because the party decided to pursue that purpose as opposed to some other. It must be this way if the party is to have any decision of their own destiny.

Random, in fact, equals freedom. Because established, formulated adventure design demands that the party plays the actors in the DMs production. I hate that sort of D&D. I hate that it has become the only sort out there.

So if I do seem a little mundane, talking about 19,000 references in an encyclopedia compared to production totals out of an industrial yearbook, don’t confuse that thinking with the way things happen during my sessions. Things do not always fit together in linear fashion.


  1. Very interesting blog (rant? explanation?) were you put into words how I think RPG's should work. Nothing is linear, hundreds of competing interests, and even if you're not directly competing, who should X help Y without some direct or indirect payoff, 'same alignments' be damned.

    Mind you, I think it means we're unofficially Chaotic, which as far as I can tell, means we don't think things have to make sense.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thank you for the comment. I have one small point:

    Life seems like it's chaos...but is it? I don't just mean within the DM's intentions...but in the actual world in which the D&D world is played.

    Are those dice really random? How can you know?

  3. Happening upon this site is like browsing the mind of an old wizard, his works pieced together in neat, bound books. Within, lined in the straightest columns the understandings of some elevate purpose, details harking to an older truth that remains tantalizingly accessible in modern times, even as his study remains a forest of stacked parchments, half-finished strokes, vestiges of mottled ideas to sunder nations, to establish kings - with eyes to see and hands to build, inspiration rekindled, despite those moving forms: instead of records, controllers; instead of engaged interaction, probes to update the programmed protuberances of a deterministic AI. If such discipline yields even the tiniest improvement in my design, I count my self - and my players - fortunate beyond measure. I have glimpsed the inside keen of a Dungeon Master, from my tiny post in the suburban outlands, to trace with a needle the composition of every rutting star.


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