(This was originally posted at Ongoing Worlds. And yes, it’s a Seventh Sanctum column that’s not an update. A trend? We’ll see!)
Look Back In Randomness . . .
In 1999 at a gathering of anime and Mystery Science Theater Fans, I commented how some anime attacks sounded randomly generated by computer. Suddenly it struck me that it would be easy to write a program to do that, as I’d written code to do superhero names and names in the vein of Elfquest characters. A few notes later I had enough ideas to try and I made an Anime Power Generator.
Then I began thinking of other options. And more random generators emerged. Then I put them on my web site. Then they took over the website.
Then what is known today as Seventh Sanctum was born. Eventually it encompassed over 150 generators. I just kept making these things for 14 years.
So in 2013 I realized that perhaps I had to update the years old design, and go modern. Fortunately Bootstrap provided me the framework I needed, and I proudly updated it in a mobile, adaptable, and honestly easier to read and simpler design.
This is when Dave contacted me. He and I knew each other from when I interviewed him at MuseHack. He noted that I had many random generators for people to use in writing, art, and of course RPGs. But what is the role of randomizers in RPGs anyway?
I’d never thought of it. I just sort of assumed it was obvious or instinctive.
Dave had challenged me, in short, to put into words what was rarely expressed. I was up for the challenge – frankly I wanted to see my own thoughts in more solid form.
So, you run an RPG or play one, or are starting one. How can randomness help you in something that’s so often the result of planning, phrasing, and writing? Many, many ways . . .
Why Does Randomness Work For Creativity?
So, why do we even use randomness to stimulate our creativity in the first place?
We’re always experiencing this. We flip a coin, name a character from random names from the phonebook, go to an online generator, or use dice and a table from a rules book. Yes, it works, but why?
It’s actually a bit of trickery. Of the good kind.
Human minds are things of associations, we’re creatures of connections, and we work mightily (and often unconsciously) to make sense of things, to make meaning. We can look at a weather-worn stone and see the figure of an ancient warrior, associate two words and conceive of a novel, or turn a non-sequeteur into a band name. Our imagination is constantly filling in the blanks.
Randomizing is really a way to provide something for us to fill in the blanks with – and because it comes right out of the blue (or the dice, or the coin flip) we start filling in the blanks unconsciously and automatically. Before any of our critical abilities kick in, we’re already dreaming. Ideas are fully formed before we even realize what we’re doing.
From these dreams can come amazing things.
If I throw out a few words – “wizard” “alcoholic” and “fireball” your mind starts working. A drunken wizard blowing up his fellow adventurers? A disgraced conjurer who regrets a booze-fueled incident? A mighty sorcerer who needs to power his magic with constant drink? A few words can trigger a lot of creativity.
That’s why randomness work. Your mind does it automatically and it’s hard to stop it even if you wanted to.
Now when it comes to games . . .
Randomness in RPGS
RPGs are curious things. They’re the result of planning, inspiration, and in the case of many games, dice rolls or card draws. We use randomness, but mostly on a small scale to resolve a sword hit or see what set of predetermined events happen. In some cases, say in a straight up written-RPG the randomness of that level may be unneeded.
In fact, being a person that likes well-done RPGs I dislike randomness when good storytelling can do it. It may add a random factor, but can often be distracting from larger themes. However there are definite times for it, times I indeed recommend it . . .
To Get Going: Randomness can serve you well when a game needs to get going and you don’t have a world, characters, etc. You can use randomness to get inspiration, go around creative dry zones, or get ideas when you’re out of them. If you’ve ever had one of those “let’s have an RPG” inspirations followed by ” . .. but about what?” then you know what I mean.
Suggestion: To start a world off? Write down all the traits your game should have on cards, scramble them, and then draw 2-3 and write down what they inspire. Do this several times and pick one of the results you and your group like the most.
To Shake Yourself Loose: Sometimes an RPG is going great and then you as the Game Master or a player suddenly run out of ideas, or are creatively dried up. This is a good time to use a random generator, card draw, etc. to get your ideas going.
Suggestion: To get around a block in an existing world, write down several plot options or occurrences on cards. Draw two and ask what would happen if they happened together. This fusing of ideas will really jar your imagination loose.
To Fill In The Blanks: Do you really want to come up with ten henchpersons? The jewelry in the royal collection? Six worlds? Sure you may have time or want to, but sometimes you need a set of traits and have to slap them together. This is when dice rolls, coin flips, and computerized randomizers can aid you – and your ever-active imagination may turn these into more noteworthy ideas.
Suggestion: If there’s stuff you have to keep coming up with for a game, make tables where you can quickly roll up suggestions with dice. Create henchmen with a list of six fears, six goals, six preferred weapons, and six appearances, and then you have cannon fodder for game after game!
To Add Spice: Now and then you want a little something extra, or your players do. A little extra plot, some surprises, a side story. Something more on top of the main plot. If you’re not up for coming up with these, then randomize them. It saves you time, and you and the players can fill in the blanks.
Suggestion: If you want to have interesting side stories or extras, down good subplots and complicators on cards or in a table. Randomly choose one subplot and one complicator and you’re good to go!
To Move Fast: Some of these suggestions above can also be done right away to get a story going, create new stories, or do a little “side quest” when not everyone can game. Randomness – and the inspiration that follows – can quickly let you get on your feet game-wise.
Suggestion: Store cards, randomized tables, useful resources, etc. so you can whip up new game elements on the fly. Who knows, you might even share them among friends!
Randomization And Its Power
Randomization has a definite place in RPGs. It can start us out, keep us going, and even refresh us.
Best of all, it adds the constant element of surprise. When you have the random elements even the GM can be surprised – and the surprises are almost always fun. The games stay fresh, the seventieth henchmen is still interesting, and random plots add unexpected spice to the main story. There’s always a surprise.
Games at best are explorations and expressions of what we do, think, dream, and want to experience. A little unpredictability makes them that much more alive.
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at http://www.stevensavage.com/.