Controlled randomness as a tool in adventure/character creation

Last night, I was working on the first level of a multi-stage dungeon for an upcoming D&D 5e session I’m running (I’ll be sure to put up the walkthrough after it’s over). I realized I was turning to a tool I’ve often leveraged at other times I create adventures or characters in RPGs: controlled randomness. I thought it may be useful to have a post on this tool for others, and I apologize if this is incredibly obvious to everyone but me.

What is controlled randomness? It is the use of random decisions with a general pre-determined framework to add depth and flavor to a RPG creation. That sounds like a line from an academic article, but I think it gets the definition. In many RPGs there are tables of adventure elements, character backgrounds and the like, in which the player rolls a dice to determine what detail to use. Controlled randomness uses these, but re-rolls as needed to find something that generally fits with the pre-determined framework.

I first systematized this when my old group and I were creating characters for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is a fun character creation process (which I’ve discussed before), and involves detailing the motivations and complications behind the character. I was creating Arkdo, a Duros explorer I’ll discuss in a future Origin Stories post. I rolled for his motivation, didn’t like the result, and re-rolled it. One of the fellow players teased me for doing this, so I explained my reasoning.

As I envisioned him, Arkdo was basically a good guy who ended up on the wrong side of the law because of his ideals. I wasn’t sure how to flesh that out, so I rolled on the tables until something useful came up: dedication to the Jedi. Now, Arkdo wasn’t a Jedi, but he did admire the order and attempted to preserve their memory.

Thanks to controlled randomness, I had a cool backstory for my character. I knew generally what I wanted, but if I had just picked the most obvious motivation I wouldn’t have gone with his dedication to the Jedi. By re-rolling on the table within a pre-set idea, I was able to add more layers to this character.

Another example was my creation of Fonken, a gnome wizard in D&D 5e (this will be another future Origin Stories post). I wanted a LG gnome with a sage background, but beyond that I didn’t have much. D&D 5e includes tables to rolls for different aspects of the character’s background, including bonds, motivations and flaws. For flaw, I rolled something about reacting to a horrible monster’s appearance by trying to study it. With this roll, the character clicked, and I envisioned him as a cross between Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. He was a lot of fun to play, and I even revived an older Fonken for one of my own adventures I created.

This reveals another reason to value controlled randomness: adding flaws. Fonken’s inquisitiveness led him to take unwise risks. This added some complications to my group’s adventures, but overall made things more fun. I’ve talked before about the value of adding flaws to D&D characters, and this is one good way to do it.

Controlled randomness works for adventure creation as well. In The Shadow in the Woods–one of my home-brew adventures–I had a general sense for a dungeon the group would explore. It was the subterranean dwelling of a hag who had summoned a beast from the Shadowfell. But that was it. So I used the encounter and dungeon creation tables in the DMG. I rolled up a castle submerged in a swamp as the setting. This gave me a lot to play with, as the corridors and rooms twisted at odd angles thanks to the castle sinking at an odd angle. I also was able to use this to create a dramatic escape challenge at the end. And I used the random dungeon tables to create a confusing series of passages and rooms that, thanks to my pre-conceived idea, followed the basic form of a multi-level tower connected by oddly-angled corridors.

I used controlled randomness to even greater effect in the dungeon I’m currently finishing (I don’t want to give too many details in case any players read this blog…). In this case, I knew the first level of the dungeon would be the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. I wanted it to feel like part of a ruined structure, so I planned out the corridors and rooms myself. I also came up with a general idea for what each section would be: a cluster of rooms to entertain guests, a cluster for research, machinery, etc. I also had an idea of the combat encounters, traps and hazards the group would face so I placed them accordingly.

This is where controlled randomness came in. For each cluster of rooms, I rolled on the DMG random dungeon tables to determine the specific nature of the room, re-rolling when the result didn’t fit. I also rolled on the table for the rooms’ current states. This added some nice randomness, as I pictured certain rooms crumbling or becoming overgrown with vines, while others were sealed up and lest in a pristine state. The DMG tricks and obstacles tables were also useful; I had a few rooms that would contain some non-combat encounter, and these tables helped me come up with surprising challenges for the players. In this way, controlled randomness gave me a fleshed out dungeon that still felt coherent.

So new players and DMs may find this tool, controlled randomness of use. Come up with a basic idea for a character or dungeon. Then roll on the appropriate table. Re-roll if the result makes no sense with your idea, but push yourself to keep results that are unexpected or complicate your plans. I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this.


The moment it clicks: Getting new players into RPGs

If you met my brother (the middle child of 5 in my family), you wouldn’t think he is into tabletop games. And he never thoughts of himself as someone who likes to game. He thought of me as the intellectual (when we were getting along) or nerdy (when we were fighting) brother, and those games were for people like me. But I finally convinced him to try Settlers of Catan on one family vacation and he loved it. On a later visit, the two of us played over and over, even trying some of the expansions. He loved Munchkin and Dominion just as much when we tried those out.

Even though he loved these tabletop games, pen and paper RPGs seemed a bridge too far for him. Maybe it was the lack of a board to ground the experience. Maybe it was memories of childhood, when our other brother and I would play D&D and exclude our younger siblings. Whatever the reason, he’d just chuckle and shake his head when I asked about trying a RPG. I’ve encountered this attitude among other gamers—they love games like Catan, but just don’t think they would ever like something like D&D.

But one recent Christmas, I finally convinced him and a few other family members to try one out, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Force and Destiny (see my discussion of it here). This game focuses on force sensitive characters learning how to become Jedi. I think part of it was the recognizable Star Wars universe, while the inclusion of a map and character icons in the F&D starter set I owned helped too. I also explained how the rules for this game differ from D&D, and are more inclined to story-telling rather than math (see my recent walkthrough of an adventure from a related Star Wars game for more on this system).

The adventure included in the starter set was pretty basic; the characters had to find a temple and rescue their mentor. My brother and the other players picked their character, and I GM’d. It started out kind of slow, everyone was pretty tentative when I asked the infamous GM question, “so what do you want to do?” But then, suddenly, everything changed.

The characters needed to cross a bridge blocked by a few bandits. As starting characters they were pretty weak, and had already been through a few tough fights. Charging the bridge directly would probably have led to a few of them dying in their fragile state. The party was deliberating an alternate path when my brother looked at his character sheet and saw he had a force power that could lift and move objects.

“So,” he asked me, “could I lift up the bandits and throw them off the bridge?”

“You can try,” I responded. And he did.

He rolled the required dice, got the necessary successes, and both bandits flew off the bridge. The reason why these games were so fun finally clicked for my brother. He started getting really creative with his force powers and other character skills, finding ways to deal with all other obstacles they encountered without resorting to melee combat. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get a D&D or Star Wars group together on his own, but he’d probably be open to playing another session when we get together again.

This is the moment we need to replicate if we want to get more people interested in RPGs like Star Wars: F&D or D&D. They need to realize these games aren’t just people running around pretending to be wizards, or completing complex mathematical calculations (although some games get close to that, as I’ve discussed). They are vehicles for translating creativity into open-ended gameplay. Of course, as I am writing I can see that sentence turning some potential gamers off. So what can we do to help new gamers realize this?

I think the scenario my players encountered in the F&D starter set adventure is one way to do this: a non-obvious puzzle requiring a creative solution. This wasn’t a locked room with various levers that had to be pulled in a certain order; such a puzzle may be fun for some players, but could end up rather tedious for others. But because the players knew they would struggle with a frontal assault on the bridge, it became a puzzle; they were incentivized to be creative.

We can see various versions of this in advice for new GMs. One example is The Angry GM’s guidelines for creating adventures, with an emphasis on “decision points” for characters that requires them to solve problems, and not just kill monsters. Another is the advice in Roleplaying Tip’s discussion of 5-room dungeons.

So when designing introductory adventures, we could be sure to include encounters that are open-ended and disincentive face-to-face combat. What do you think? Do successful intro adventures you’ve run or played as a character include this sort of situation? Have you seen anyone suddenly “get” RPGs through other means?

Thoughts on the role of D&D in Firewatch

[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for Firewatch. While I don’t give away any major plot points, I do discuss elements of the story. If you have not played it yet, and want to go in knowing as little as possible, come back to this post after you’re finished.]

D&D plays a minor but significant role in the excellent PC game Firewatch. It adds depth to a former inhabitant of the game’s environment and provides some emotional heft. Below are some thoughts on what this means and why I first reacted negatively to this aspect of the game, but later came to appreciate its insights.

I’ve been interested in playing Firewatch since it first came out, and finally set aside some time on a business trip to run through it. The game is what some call (often in a pejorative manner) a “walking sim;” the player is basically experiencing a story, with much of the action narrative in nature so there is little in terms of combat, skill tests or risk of failure. Firewatch, though does include some exploration—with the amount of narrative you encounter changing based on how much you explore—and features an incredibly engrossing storyline that had me on the edge of my seat the entire time I was playing.

As the game progresses, the protagonist (Henry) finds several D&D-themed clues—although the game is called “Wizards & Wyverns” in Firewatch—such as a 20-sided die and an adventure map. These belong to a 12-year old boy who had previously resided in the firewatch tower you use as a home base. There is a rather sad story surrounding this, and Delilah—a firewatch supervisor Henry converses with throughout the game—has some sentimental memories of the boy.

The characters’ attitudes towards “Wizards&Wyverns” is rather negative. Henry frequently refers to it as nerdy, with the voice actor nearly scoffing as he discusses what he’s finding. Delilah is less overtly negative, but adopts a patronizing, pitying tone towards the boy’s interest in the game.

This gave me flashbacks to high school, which was less than accepting of people who were interested in things like D&D. The combination of mocking from “cool kids” and patronizing calls to be nice from slightly more gentle “cool kids” were what convinced me to hide my love for D&D (as well as Star Trek and many other “nerdy” pursuits”). I didn’t get back into them until well after college, when I was more comfortable socially.

So at first the depiction of D&D in Firewatch made me mad. It seemed like the game’s creators were using D&D as a signal for someone being lonely and unhappy. All the progress made in the mainstream acceptance of “nerd culture” in the past few years seemed to be undone. Compare this to the treatment of D&D in Netflix’s Stranger Things series; there, it is also a sign of difference, albeit one that indicates the resourcefulness and creativeness of the characters that allows them to succeed.

But that didn’t seem right. Firewatch is entertaining. It is also a game that many would consider art. People who put so much care into these characters and the gorgeous world they inhabit couldn’t have such regressive and dismissive views of creative pursuits like D&D, could they? So, over an hours-long layover at an airport on my trip home, I thought more about Firewatch and came to a different interpretation.

One of the better responses to Firewatch I’ve seen is an excellent piece by Olivia White on Polygon entitled “Firewatch took away our ability to be good people.” The series of events that place Henry in the firewatch tower are driven by his ultimate selfishness, and Delilah’s interactions with Henry and the world are similarly both self-centered and destructive. Unlike many games, the player can’t escape this; no matter what dialogue options you choose, you end up with less than heroic characters.

Much of the little self-awareness the characters—particularly Delilah—have surrounds the 12-year old D&D-loving boy. She regrets not doing more for him, or being unable to properly respond to new information about him that arises during gameplay. While Henry shares less responsibility for the boy’s fate, he too develops a sentimental attachment to his memory.

The things about the boy they mock—particularly his love for D&D—come to take on a touching, innocent quality. We realize the boy was a force for good in the brutal wilderness. Those surrounding the boy realize his goodness, but are unwilling to move beyond themselves enough to support and sustain it. So the things he left behind—like his D20—haunt everyone who encounters them.

This, then, is the true meaning of D&D in Firewatch. It’s not a marker of “nerdiness” meant to elicit sympathy. It’s a symbol of purity and innocence in the midst of darkness—the expression of our creative impulse—that, by its presence, reveals the flaws of the game’s characters.

In Colin Campbell’s review of the game, he said that, while not perfect, it is definitely something people will “want to argue about.” And while I had some issues with the game, the fact that it inspired this meditation on another game I love so much suggests it is definitely worth experiencing.

I’d love to hear what other players of Firewatch think. Am I giving the game designers too much credit? Is there something I missed?

NOTE: This is a different sort of post than I planned for this blog, as it’s more of a think piece based on the use of D&D in a PC game. I’ll be back to more conventional RPG discussions next week, so if this isn’t your thing, bear with me.