Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Random Tables: Roll or Choose One

Random tables remain an integral part of roleplaying games, from serving as, one might argue, a cornerstone of the earliest games to more refined and diverse tools in contemporary games: in-game encounter generators, character background devices, even scenario design inspiration.

As a player I’ve enjoyed tables to help enhance character creation, whether it’s background, motivation, or even starting equipment. As a gamemaster I find random tables as good inspiration for keeping the action flowing during a game, creating conflicts for adventure hooks, generating encounters, and otherwise enhancing scenarios I design.

Notable Random Tables

Usually in these surveys I talk about the game form first then provide several iconic examples; yet in this case, it’s probably best to present some of my favorite sources for tables from my gaming experience with notes why they appeal to me, then discuss the form of random table using those to illustrate my points. So here are a number of my favorite sources for roleplaying game random tables that come to mind:

AD&D Dungeon Master Guide: This earliest game rulebook set the precedent for random tables remaining a cornerstone element of many aspects of roleplaying games. Among the many hordes of randomized tables several stand out: the random dungeon generator, treasure tables, the oft-overlooked “dungeon dressing” tables chock full of descriptive setting ideas, and the random monster tables categorized by terrain. It helped established that determining certain, if not many game elements on random tables was the normal paradigm for roleplaying games.

Thieves’ World: One of the earliest and most comprehensive fantasy roleplaying settings was the Thieves’ World boxed set based on the immensely popular fantasy anthologies. The sourcebooks included two sets of tables invaluable for running adventures in the city of Sanctuary and perhaps models for creating one’s own original urban setting: a set of tables to determine businesses according to the city’s different neighborhoods, and a set of tables for randomly generating encounters based on locale and time of day, all wonderfully tailored to reflect the Thieves’ World universe.

Cyberpunk 2020 Lifepath: An outgrowth of the infamous Traveller character generation system, Cyberpunk’s Lifepath system randomly generated genre-relevant pre-adventuring events that affected a character’s life. A series of flowchart-like tables helped determine a character’s origins and personal style, family background, motivations, and significant life events. Like Traveller’s tables, the Lifepath often granted benefits or penalties in game terms, and relied on players to embellish events with specifics and find ways to integrate them into their current character’s stats and personality.

The Dungeon Dozen Blog: A blog that, almost daily, provides a random table using the oft-neglected d12. The table themes and results tend toward the outrageous -- they don’t always work well as random tables to drop into an adventure or setting, but as lists of similarly themed ideas for locations, encounters, and characters. My favorites include the “Before First Level” series, with one table intended for each of the main character classes to help players create viable (if not sometimes unconventional) reasons why they took up adventuring as a particular class. Others provide interesting (sometimes bordering on “gonzo”) ideas for locations, scenario hooks, or encounters, like one of my favorites, “In the Blasted Lands of the Fallen Moon.”

Chronicles of Arax: This solo adventure game pioneers an innovative design for solitaire adventures. Rather than relying on a series of “programmed” entries with choices (“If you defeat the goblins, go to 27; if you run away, go to 12.”), it presents a series of numbered entries from 1 to 20 (much like a random table) without any “if/then” choices in the text. Each turn the player rolls 1D10 and goes to that numbered entry, confronting a challenge, evading a trap, or fighting the inhabitants. On subsequent rolls the player adds +1 to the die roll for each previous turn, increasingly escalating the numbered encounter; if the die roll indicates a encounter already visited, the player moves upward to the next new encounter. Each entry is essentially a random table result, with encounters escalating toward the higher numbers since one adds the number of previous encounters to the subsequent roll until reaching the climax as the final entry. I only have exposure to the scenario included in the free rules, but Crystal Star Games makes additional adventures available at reasonable prices; though I’ll confess an urge to try designing a solo adventure in this format myself, though possibly based on a simple D6 or 2D6 roll.

Certainly other games used random tables to determine game elements, but those above stand out from my own experiences.

Roll or Choose

The tables in sources noted above raise an interesting aspect about random tables: does one religiously stick with a randomized result, or does one “choose” a result best suited as inspiration for a particular character, setting, or situation?

Some tables lean toward randomizing results rather than offering inspiration: the AD&D tables for random encounters and dungeon generation stand out along with the Thieves’ World tables used in generating the city’s businesses and encounters. While these certainly offer some inspiration for gamemasters at a glance, they’re intended more to spontaneously create unexpected encounters. Their importance remains paramount in such activities as solitaire adventures and character creation.

Some tables intended to offer inspiration provide the instruction “roll or choose,” giving players the choice to pick something that works best for them or put their faith in the power of the dice (a stereotypical gamer behavior) and go the completely random route. Those of us stodgy old gamemasters who prefer to plan things out ahead (instead of spontaneously running adventures on the fly) find such tables sources of inspiration in game preparation but can become stymied by unexpected results if used during play.

The Tailored Table

Perhaps the most useful tables remain those with some degree of customization to the game at hand, beyond simple customization for a genre. Those mentioned above for Thieves’ World and Cyberpunk come to mind. These tables include not simply randomized elements relevant to a game’s broad genre -- which might generate inappropriate results for a particular game -- but materials reflecting the specific setting: unique monsters, treasures, cultural references, and personalities.

For instance, in a short Pulp Egypt adventure I designed for a convention, I included a brief “wandering encounters” table to generate some action while the heroes wandered the labyrinthine passageways between subterranean chambers containing an evil cult’s secret temple:

Random Encounters: Roll 1d6 each time the heroes traverse a passageway; a “1” indicates a random encounter resulting in combat, injury, or incarceration (roll 1d6): 1. foot-long carved scarab hieroglyphs decorating the wall animate and attack; 2-3. a wandering “pet” crocodile sniffs out the heroes; 4. a pit trap sends some heroes down a chute to location 5. Cells; 5. a hieroglyphic ward on the walls “freezes” heroes passing through it; 6. two guards patrolling discover the heroes, attack, and raise the alarm.

These helped infuse gameplay with unexpected incidents between planned locations, offering some spontaneity to the game play without completely derailing the adventure with inappropriate results.

Customizing a generalized table to one’s specific campaign or character takes a bit of work, something more easily done in preparation than during play. The Chronicles of Arax solitaire scenario format probably represents the most refined end of this concept, a “random table” so fully customized as a dungeon crawl that the results both provide randomly determined locations and encounters while still leading toward an adventure climax.