Friday, January 21, 2011

Bring Back The Spice

Randomness and Unpredictability in RPG Characters
Role-Playing Games have greatly refined their mechanics over the years. There has been a noticeable trend towards increasingly well-balanced rules that give the players complete control over what type of characters they make and how those characters end up. This trend, taken to its furthest extent, might help ensure that no player gets an unfairly powerful character, but it also ensures that no character will really have anything all that unique.

Big Daddy
Nowhere has this trend been stronger than in the most popular RPG of all, Dungeons and Dragons. In 2nd edition, there were many campaign worlds that included random tables in character creation. Darksun gave everyone random psionic powers. Birthright did something similar with blood powers. 3rd edition whittled most of these types of thing out. 4th edition put the nail in the coffin by taking away random die rolls for ability scores. 4th edition ensures that everything will be fair by ensuring that everything will be nearly the same.

Gamma World’s Getting There
The recently released Gamma World set does bring back some of chaos. It has a lot of randomness in its character creation and its gameplay. Randomly generated backgrounds, starting equipment, treasure, and mutant powers work together to make a game that is truly bizarre and unpredictable. Unfortunately, Gamma World is intended to be a completely absurd setting. You might be a half-cockroach, half-bird who suddenly grows 2 extra arms while fighting pig men only to have those arms fall off a few seconds later and have a horn grow out of your head. Gamma World is fun and I love it’s absurdity, but I don’t always want to play an absurd game.

Take a Chance
Characters with random stats, random powers, or other random aspects can provide so much more than mere absurdity. These tools can provide characters that have truly special qualities about them. Whether underpowered or overpowered, when you have to roll to see how a character will turn out, what you end up with is something more unique than is ever possible with the perfectly engineered hero. The pendulum has swung too far towards a very bland brand of balance. I would love to see more games bring back a little chaos and lack of control. When you take a chance and roll the dice you don’t always make something perfect, but you do make something memorable.


  1. Remember those AWESOME tables in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guides? WHoa, talk about sparking an imagination. I think in many cases DM's could benefit from a slight dose of randomness too. I mean honestly, does EVERY single piece of equipment we find have to perfectly suit the needs of a memeber of the party? What about those odd ball art piece treasures, or descriptive individual gemstones instead of "a bunch of gems worth 35gp". I'm not saying every DM needs random tables to have good dungeon dressing, but I remember looking over the room lists or character lists and finding something that just inspired me. Or randomly rolling up a sparkling fountain full of crystallized dragon tears and trying to figure out how to come up with a cool story. I think random elements can help push a DM to think outside the box and come up with new ideas they might not think of... and that of course means fun for the players too. Give me a d100 list of things you find in a belt pouch and I'm intrigued!

  2. I agree! Some randomness can be very fun! Among my favorite random tables are (Angie mentioned it) 1d100 things find in a Kender's pouch (from the 1st Edition Dragonlance Adventures) or 1d100 Prostitutes (1st Ed. Dungeon Master's Guide). Wouldn't actually use that one, but looking at odd charts stokes the creative fires.