About Randomness in Role-Playing Games

Posted on August 26, 2011


When randomness in role-playing games is discussed, it usually means analysis of specific dice-mechanics. And since most rpg’s employ dice, it is a useful pursuit to try to understand the interplay of the mechanics and how they affect role-playing. But dice are not the only source of randomness, nor are the usual substitutions for them – cards or such.

In fact, there are four types of randomness in role-playing games:

  1. Stochastic
  2. Performative
  3. Social
  4. Semiotic

Dice and cards go in the first category of stochastic randomness, meaning randomness created by non-deterministic processes. The exact definition is unimportant, in this context it refers mostly to dice and related objects. Most games employ these mechanics, because they create uncertainty and thrill. Dice are usually outside the domain of the game master, and so even if the game includes one, s/he can enjoy the uncertainty created by these mechanics. Stochastic randomness can be analysed using probability.

Performative randomness is the one most familiar from sports. In rpg’s it is mostly used in live-action role-playing. Performative randomness is best portrayed by the question: Can you succeed in it this time? Even world-class athletes don’t always succeed perfectly, and this gap between optimal performance and actual performance creates the uncertainty discussed here, performative randomness. Performative randomness is created by the uncertainty of human actors in performing constantly at their peak. An example that used performative randomness in table-top role-playing is Stalker, a Finnish science-fiction role-playing game. It has a system where the game master estimates the probability of success based on the capabilities of the character and the description/strategy of the player. The latter part could be seen as performative, with better player performance rewarded by the system. Some forms of reward mechanics in table-top rpg’s can also be seen as being part of this category: people don’t constantly play at their peak ability (or effort), so rewarding what is considered good play (whatever this is to the players involved) measures performance.

Role-playing games are a social activity and this social interactions creates social randomness. Even games with no stochastic randomness can be quite unpredictable in practice when there are several human players involved. Examples include Nobilis, which is one of the most unpredictable games I have played, yet having no dice or other forms of stochastic randomness. The characters played are very potent forces in the world, so the choices made by the players affect others in great measures. (Don’t like that mountain? Throw it away. The concept of racism offends you? Obliterate it.) In any game with more than one player, there is social randomness created by the players’ interaction. This is one of the greatest sources of fun in rpg’s.

Semiotic randomness is theoretically very interesting, yet most games do away with it, and players try to eliminate it from their games. It is created by the uncertainty of interpretation. A statement about the game can be usually interpreted in several different ways. Players use the context the figure out what was meant by some statement, but this is not always perfect. Different interpretations persist until they come into clash, and they are negotiated so that the game can continue. For example, someone may state that the way to another place in the game  is long. What that means is ambivalent, but possibly obvious from the context. If it simply means that the way is too long to travel then it is irrelevant how long it actually is. But if at some point it suddenly becomes necessary to travel that journey it must be decided just how long the way is.

Because semiotic randomness is so rare, it is interesting when it is actually employed as a game mechanic. The jeepform game No Sign of Alex uses “different perspectives, truth, misunderstandings, (mis)interpretations, mis- and disrememberings” to create interesting play. There are not set truths to figure out. Instead, the game focuses on how things are remembered, and since the past is created in-game, how things are interpreted. No Sign of Alex is a rare example; using semiotic randomness in games is hard. But it can still be a tool to create interesting play.

Posted in: role-playing, theory