Thursday, October 28, 2021

In Defense of Randomized Content in RPGs (with bonus 1d20 Random Table for megadungeons)

Just tropping by to leave a little something here on the blog. It's been a busy month, and November will be just as busy (for relevant reasons yet to be disclosed to you, gentle reader). So here's a little something I did for a project that didn't make the cut ... Incidentally it also connects nicely with the last post and further explores my thinking in that regard. The Random Table in the end is just icing.

True randomness, you say?

Many gamers believe that the use of random tables in role-playing games is an old school staple and has no place in newer designs. Let me try and change your mind on this.

First of all: the use of random tables, for instance, to create some encounters or an encounter reaction, is not necessarily as ‘random’ as one would define the word. Let’s see a definition. ‘Randomness’ is, according to the main definition offered by the Oxford Language Dictionary:

‘The quality or state of lacking a pattern or principle of organization; unpredictability.’

Most rpg random tables are a collection of terms (or mechanics) that are considered compatible with the purpose of the random table and therefore will produce results that are within an expected spectrum or range. It’s when random tables start to work in conjunction and use more abstract terms that you’ll get results that are a bit more unpredictable.

So what I’m saying is that a one column table with 20 or even 100 entries doesn’t really qualify as something that produces random results. It’s a start, but not where the true potential lies. Or its reason …

Gimme Danger (the narrative whispered)

Gamemasters have to describe versatile environments and how all of that interacts with the players and the game. Improvising all of that is never advised. A good game will do some of the heavy lifting and some notes and maps along with some moderate documentation will be enough to keep a campaign running, if the improvisation it needs to bring the game to life and connect all the dots is actually up to the task.

Just make it work, right? [source]
So improvisation is where it’s at. The flow of the game, the interface between players, rules and narrative across time. It’s a crucial junction and delivering or not decides between everyone having a good time and destroying the Suspension of Disbelief. It takes tact and rhythm, an idea how the narrative’s past and its future could connect and everything in between. If you are a gifted (or experienced) storyteller, you can get away with a lot before there is any danger of being repetitive or running the narrative into the ground. If not, this is where you’ll struggle, even if the rest works.

Ultimately, we all have our ways and tastes and styles. We are subjective individuals and it’s only human to prefer certain outcomes or stories. However, it makes us lose sight of the possibilities. This is where Random Tables figure into the equation. This is where they shine, because random tables are in that weird space between rules and improvisation.

The best results make no sense on their own

It’s about unpredictability, just like they say in the definition above. Checking if an encounter is friendly by any chance instead of just assuming that they’ll always look for combat will open up every game. And context will always give you some opportunity to make it part of the story. Why is that slime the group just encountered so shyly engaging and not at all aggressive? That’s a story worth some curiosity.

And you can’t plan for it in a meaningful way. Not without cheating (as in: forcing it on the players). However, if you allow it as an option, the best way to give something unexpected a way of occurring is by making it ‘random’ in a way that contradicts what you are going for just enough to expand the narrative by elements you wouldn’t have thought of on the fly without leaving the realm of possible and expected occurrences.

Now, that's a mouthful. Since I had this next part laying around, doing nothing (as I mentioned in the beginning), I'll end this one with an example, for a change. The premisse with this one is that the characters hang out in a city that is on top (or near) a megadungeon of some sort. The idea is to have a number of incidents that will occur on a regular basis, but vary by circumtsances enough to have them recognized as a general theme. It's abstract enough to be that and should easily adapt to every fantasy setting.

Behold (and check out the conclusion at the end):

You have a megadungeon under the city, so once a week you will experience (roll 1d20):
  1. ghosts of adventurers, talking about their past failings.
  2. … strange gasses emanating on random locations.
  3. … underground detonations.
  4. … currency lost all value for now as treasure floods the city.
  5. … weird visitors from another dimension (planescape tourists).
  6. … humanoid tribe occupying a district, seeking asylum and protection from a bigger threat.
  7. … fissures appear, roll additional 1d20 (1 meaning a minor fissure, a 20 toppling houses).
  8. … mobilisation of an adventurer guild for a (1d3) rescue/retaliation/reinforcement mission.
  9. … parade of high level heroes coming back from a dungeon deep-dive.
  10. … a water body (toss coin) in or close to the city drops significantly with lots of gurgling.
  11. … random magic wildfire (1d3: no magic possible/weird side effects/triple effects).
  12. … monster meat is back on the menu! Butchers sell cuts of rare beasts.
  13. … city watch enforces an immediate evacuation of a district, no reasons given.
  14. … magic items show weird but harmless glitches (1d3: sparks/talks nonsense/vibrates).
  15. … underground fight with (random encounter) is carried out to the surface (1d3: neighbourhood joins in/turns into a wild chase/ends up being a slaughter).
  16. … rich and drunk adventurers partying too hard, being annoying.
  17. … exotic funeral, financed by an adventure guild, paid bards constantly sing praise of a dead adventurer all over the place.
  18. … drama between two famous adventurers is the buzz of the town. Bets are taken.
  19. … city prepares for an invasion from below (1 in 6 chance small army (1d100% of the population) of 1d6 combined Random Encounters will make the attempt).
  20. … that the psychosphere in your corner of town shifts to an extreme for a short time (1d3: ecstatic/aggressive/depressed).


Our understanding of what 'random' means in role-playing games, is pretty basic at best, so it should be safe to say that games in general benefit from what they add to a game. Since they mostly stay within the narrative scope of what a given game might allow (and considering misfires are easily navigated, I might add), there are actually no good arguments against using random tables. Not that I can see, anyway (and I've thought a bit about it, too).

As a matter of fact, random tables help game designers in helping gamemasters in bringing their vision to life, and that's just as important. Role-playing games are about telling stories, and in the end it is all about the impulses a game offers to make it what it intents to be. Specific words, ideas or inspirations are all easily enough transported into the game through random tables, and easily enough implemented, since they are part of playing the game and not just an info dump somewhere in the rule book.

What do you guys think? Do you see any reasons to not have random tables as a standard tool in every game? 


Good boy ... [source]


If you are interested in a completely realized game heavily utilizing random tables of all sorts, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3|| (that rpg I published) right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). We will definitely do a sale in November. Stay tuned for that ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here!

Just look at that beauty ...



  1. Since you're talking about random content in rpgs, I'll assume that you're not restricting the discussion to "D&D-ish" type games. In my experience not all games and gaming styles need random generators. Some work fine with them, or without them. I've played games of Classic Traveller where the random encounters and other generators provided by the rules have been used a lot, and well, for very enjoyable games. Other just as enjoyable games of Traveller didn't use them at all. Likewise the game Flashing Blades. In both these cases there have been styles of play that relish the use of the random tables provided in the rules to generate content and encounters, and other styles that get by with ignoring them entirely. However, Call of Cthulhu doesn't have (at least that I've seen) the randomly generated event as a common approach, because it is a quite different games.

    If you look more broadly though, there are products to generate settings and ideas for adventures that can then be run with or without 'random encouters' and such like. So, I could potentially adapt some of these tools to provide inspiration for creating a campaign world, a campaign location (city, town, forest, ruin ...and so on) - and then run it without ever rolling for encounters or such-like.

    So, I think random generation of content has a place, but that place can be quite varied. I think a lot of stuff coming out recently, e.g. spurred on by the popularity of the recent zinequests (but I think it was happening before then), is seeing more interesting and varied approaches to content generation.

    So random content doesn't have to be a set of encounters just whacked onto a game world and game style: they could be left out. But I can see some random content generators helping me create a setting and location details for a Call of Cthulhu game, for example.

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I think we agree that they aren't 'needed', but are beneficial (which is the argument I'm making). That said, I appreciate the nuance you bring to it. It's interesting that you mark it as a 'style of play' that doesn't suit certain games well. I would disagree to call it a 'style', actually, as it is a narrative tool (something like gamified language, if that makes any sense to you). As that, it's more of a technique we can use to tell stories and it can be used universally since it is not as much part of a gaming system as it generally supports storytelling.

      I also don't think CoC is a good example for a game that wouldn't benefit from randomized content, as it is deeply rooted in design choices that originated in OD&D, mainly in the position the Gamemaster has in relation to the players. The trick is to customize it, I guess (and you admit as much). Imagine having a historically correct Random Encounter Table for Paris in the 1890, for instance, or a Alien Reaction Table to enhance the feeling of weirdness that comes from interacting with the Old Ones. Or imagine a randomized narrative generator that mixes Lovecraft's themes and ideas of cosmic horror and gives Gamemasters little "narrative encounters" that resonate as "Lovecraftian" ... I could go on (and you give examples for that as well!). Random Encounters on a WW1 battlefield, Random Horseraces. All the rpgs that have the GM as the the bottle-neck for the evolving narrative, benefit from randomized content. It induces the ideas of the game and setting into the narrative during play. It's a memory short-cut, if you will, to a set of informations the GM cannot have present all the time otherwise. (It gets tricky when players are allowed to enhance the narrative environment beyond what their characters can do, so I'd say that those rpgs have different approaches to structuring stories than the traditional ones. Randomized content might not fit there ...)

      The main problem I see is that most games actually lack solid general advice for gamemasters. I just checked my CoC collection. Lots of fluff and analysis about what a game of CoC should contain, some history, some monsters, some general idea how an adventure is structured, but no word on how stories work or what it needs to tell a story at the table (pacing, interaction, moderation, story arcs, story types, and so on). It is basically a black box. Insert information into GM, magic happens, now you tell stories. There is, however, an art to storytelling. If you explore that aspect of role-playing games, you'll find that those original designs are brillant that way. They didn't necessarily explain why those tools are needed, but by having the GM using them (Encounter Reactions, Random Encounters, Morale, and so on) they taught them to tell more believable stories.

      Anyway, I hope I was able to make my point. I know you are not against it per se, but I guess I don't agree with your reasoning why it might not fit with other games. If you check your rulebooks, you will (more often than not) find the part for the GM missing or at least lackluster. If those games also ditch the basic GM tools from the original design, they end up leaving the GM completely to their own devices. Food for thought at the end: those games published as a direct response to the success of D&D (as was RuneQuest and, consequently, CoC), did they all assume that you'd have to be aware of the original games? If so, what does that mean for the information they leave out as they assume it is already established? What is lost across editions?

      Sorry about the rambling ...

  2. Not a ramble, really. I think we'll have to agree disagree about CoC and its style of play. When I started, I learned how to run Cthulhu games by playing them with people who'd already worked out *their* take on how to do it -- just as I'd learned AD&D 1e. Traveller and RQ2 much less so. Anyway, with CoC, many of the people I gamed with then were happy to get away from D&D and the way it did things. They rejected reaction and encounter tables and morale rules. They did not use them at all, and were glad that they weren't part of the CoC rules. They considered them in fact to be of no value and even old fashioned and antiquated (even then). That certainly wasn't all the CoC players I encountered then, but it wasn't an uncommon reaction. The style of play they went for was quite different from any other game I'd played up until then, and remained different from other games for quite a while. So, I enjoyed some of it, but found other Cthulhu gamers who also like other games where random tools and content generators were appreciated. I do agree though that there is lots of room for random content generators. I think maybe Sine Nomine games are a good example: they cover a range of genres, and they have useful GM tools, including advice and random generators -- just tailored to the expectations for each game.

    1. Thanks for replying! And fair enough, I see where you are coming from now. I still think it is wrong from a design perspective (in as much as what a game can do, and sometimes even should do). As for your argument that it is expected to be different, yeah, I get that. Not even disagreeing. Just saying that it does the DM a disservice in not even attemnpting to replace those tools with something else. The first game doing that properly would be Vampire:tM with its "storytelling" approach, and my bet would be that a good part of the success was teaching DMs of that game how to tell stories in it. It led to a more cohesive experience for players between DMs as the game taught DMs how it want to be played (just lik with D&D, btw). Not saying that CoC isn't successful, it's just that it either needs an experienced DM to work or someone who's able to follow the instructions of an adventure module to get that cohesive experience (basically what I call "railroading the DM" ... and should write a post about). It doesn't as much teach it as expecting that the DM knows how to "summon Lovecraft", and that feels "wrong" to me, from a design perspective, as I said. Hence my stance :)

      Thanks for the exchange, especially since we disagree. It's a great opportunity for others to see different ideas argued. Doesn't happen often enough.

    2. Edit: "the first game doing that properly AGAIN was V:tM ..."

    3. I think that we're better off having the variety of different games we can all learn from, to be honest. Everyone values different things, and there are good games out there that I like for their takes on things, whether it be rules, GM advice, their rendition of a particular setting -- and I like that I can see/read/play/run them. Or read people's reviews and work out for myself if they might be worth it (for me) to try. Wouldn't be quite so easy with just one rules tome, that'd probably be hitting 1000+ pages even if written very concisely.

      Thank you too for the discussion.


Recent developments made it necessary to moderate posts again. Sorry about that, folks.