Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Tables of Possibilities

 That is the exploration that awaits you! Not mapping stars and studying nebula, but charting the unknown possibilities of existence.”

Leonard Nimoy

I love randomized tables in roleplaying games. They offer a quick-reference, thematic list to help define some aspect of a setting. A character’s past experiences. Encounters for a particular environment. Things that go wrong when you roll a critical failure. Some keep it simple, others elaborate with extra information or reference to other tables to determine more details about the results. Most provide a die type to roll to randomly determine results, though one might simply glance down the table and pick something appropriate for the moment. I’m definitely of the “roll or choose” camp, leaving things up to fate when I can’t decide, or choosing something that best reflects where the action or characters are going; though I rely on the dice when using table related to character creation. But tables themselves provide only half the necessary material; gamemasters and players bring their own involvement, perspective, and creativity when enabling table results to add richness to their games.

(I am avoiding the straight-off, non-randomized tables that simply present information: character levels and experience point thresholds; equipment, prices, and encumbrance; lists of feats, advantages/disadvantage, spells. These have their place in the “game” portion of roleplaying games and they can help round out a sense of the setting from a player perspective, but rarely contribute to the deeper character immersion one might experience.)

Many games rely on randomized tables...and thus infuse in gamers a sense that tables are just part and parcel of roleplaying games. My earliest experience with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set offers an example. Along with all the “static” administrative rules tables necessary to play the game (for abilities and classes, movement an encumbrance, saving throws, character and monster attacks, and missile fire ranges) it offers some helpful randomized tables for story elements affecting situations in play. The “Monster Reactions” table (which I elaborated on a while back). The “Wandering Monsters” tables, which serve more as a reference of which monsters might show up (along with their stats) rather than a skewed results table showing which ones are more likely to appear. The various treasure tables offering a menu of worldly character rewards. And the host of small randomized tables in Tom Moldvay’s inspiring “Part 8: Dungeon Master Information” with guides on creating a dungeon. Even the adventure module packed with the D&D Basic boxed set, B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, sports a few tables: abbreviated (sans stats) wandering monster tables; a d20 list of possible non-player character personalities; and the infamous “Rumor Table” (which I discussed earlier). These tables offer broad possibilities affecting an adventure, but in what I might consider an “introductory” roleplaying game product, do a solid job giving new players a sense of the game’s possibilities (particularly Moldvay’s dungeon creation guides, albeit limited to a dungeon-crawl environment).

My early experience with Traveller demonstrated how randomized tables could drive character creation in a kind of proto-lifepath experience. Most of these tables cover only a two-page, digest-sized spread in Book 1 Characters and Combat, but they govern core aspects of a character’s military career: whether they manage to enlist or are drafted; which skills they learn; whether they receive a commission or promotion; whether they manage to reenlist, and, the most infamous aspect of Traveller character creation, whether they survive their term of service. They’re primarily random, influenced only by modifiers related to one’s “characteristics” (defining stats like abilities). Although these provide a basic character “resume” of past military service and skills acquired – elaborated on in the specialized service supplements like Book 4 Mercenary and Book 6 Scouts, filled with more tables detailing specific assignments – they offer little guidance on developing such information into an actual character-focused experience.

These randomized tables present the bare minimum at establishing the game setting. Basic D&D focuses on fantasy elements and dungeon design. Traveller emphasizes the characters’ shared experience as military veterans in a spacefaring empire. They paint their settings with broad brush strokes, perhaps intentionally to encourage gamers to expand the setting (within these parameters) to their own tastes. But some of the best tables keyed in to very specific settings...

Cyberpunk further refined this idea of a lifepath enabling players to randomly (or otherwise) discover background elements to incorporate in their characters well outside the realm of Travellers’ regimented military structure. (I vaguely recall when developing Heroes & Rogues at West End Games we initially considered including a random-table lifepath generator, but set it aside to expand on the various categories contributing to character backgrounds.) The Night City sourcebook also included brief, 10-entry encounter tables for each of the numerous “controlled urban zones” (neighborhoods), each tied into relevant locations and personalities.

Sometimes tables focus directly on characters, like Traveller’s infamous career tables or Cyberpunk 2020 lifepath tables. But tables can also help players gain some sense of the setting and how their characters relate to it, sometimes even with possible hooks like allies, past friends (or enemies), and other elements that flesh out characters and provide possibilities. I’ve praised Chaosium’s Thieves’ World boxed set before. Along with the initial two fiction anthologies on which it was based, it builds a rich urban fantasy setting where characters can find all kinds of trouble. Along with details about specific businesses in each neighborhood the set’s Game Master’s Guide for Sanctuary offers pages of randomized tables to inspire encounters. Random encounter tables give results for each of the city’s main sections, broken down by time (day, evening, night) and major and minor streets. Subsequent tables further detail the results including specific situations and the, people involved. Special neighborhoods – the Maze, Street of Red Lanterns, Bazaar, and Downwind – get their own tables keyed off those area’s particular qualities. Another chapter details a few key businesses in each area, including maps and floor plans, but also includes random tables to determine llikely businesses in each neighborhood. At first glance these might seem like superficial elements; but grounded in the rest of the set’s information about the convergence of cultures, commerce, and influential personalities they establish a rich menu of possibilities to explore.

Tables don’t exist in a vacuum; they enhance an existing setting with details for characters, locations, and other key elements. Some table results affect game mechanics from a player perspective; but a good table fuels the imagination in developing characters and how they operate in the setting. Tables focusing on rules challenge players and gamemasters to transform that information into story elements to add depth to their characters and inspire more rewarding story lines. A well-designed table offers a wealth of possibilities. That’s only half the equation. A gamemaster and players must find in such tables inspiration relevant to their roles at the game table to turn these possibilities into opportunities.

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”

Winston Churchill

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