Diminishing Returns of Random Fiction

We sit down to play a game that’s designed to introduce random elements of fiction. A couple rolls on a table and we have a smuggling ring, ghosts of the old war, and a questionable inheritance. Great! That’s all good stuff to get our game going. We can work with it.

Now imagine we’re coming to the end of our game. We’ve been playing for hours. The battle lines are drawn, we’ve seen the desires and conflicts of our characters, and it’s all coming to a head. Then we roll again to get some more random ingredients. Suddenly there’s a forgotten treasure? And a long-lost sibling? Uh, where does that fit..?

Here’s my simple maxim:

The later in the game you are, the less useful random fictional ingredients are, until they become a distraction or impediment rather than a benefit.

If you had a game where you rolled or drew random ingredients every scene, you’d start off okay, but I predict you’d see a very clear downward curve until you were were wishing the random stuff would just stop.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise: at the start we have nothing, so when we get random ingredients we build our situation around those seeds. Almost any random ingredient works because we’ve got a blank slate. But the longer we play, the more detail and situation we’ve established. Random elements are less and less likely to fit what we already know. A random roll doesn’t know about the arc our characters have taken or the tensions between them or the nuances of the situation that have emerged.

Conversely, at the end, the people at the table have very good ideas about what fits and what would be appropriate for the story, because we’ve been playing it all this time. The random system doesn’t know what we now know.

Sure we could get lucky. A random element *could* be the perfect unexpected twist to take our story in a surprising direction. But it’s a lot less likely.

a bunch of postscripts

Another flaw of random fictional input is that often the rules aren’t designed to even know what other fictional prompts they have already introduced. The system is not building on past results, just introducing random results every time. If you got “star-crossed lovers” as an early result, and the system *knew* that was now a starting seed and built on that, you might have a better chance. But even then, a random system would not know what the players in the table had focused on and become interested in. Likewise you could narrow the divide by letting players pick from different categories of random fiction (“this romance plot is great, so I’m rolling on the romance table!”), but it’s still a shot in the dark compared to what the players know would fit the story that has emerged.

It’s also much easier to incorporate random themes (love, betrayal, duty) than it is to incorporate specific fiction (a gun, a body, a mysterious wanderer bearing a silver crown) but the same principle applies: random themes get progressively less useful as the game progresses. But it’s a softer curve. Conversely (and quite logically), while random themes are easier to incorporate later on because they are broad and malleable, they are less useful to get the game started because we still have to flesh out what they mean. The flexibility that makes them easier to incorporate at the end makes them weaker to get us going at start.

    Ben Robbins | July 15th, 2017 | game design | show 2 comments