God Plays Dice: Random Tables, Procedural Generation, and Storytelling

Writers have their own methods. There are meticulous writers, like Nabakov, who wrote novels one index card at a time, with a meticulous attention to detail; there are more free-form writers, like Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road on one scroll of paper inside of three weeks; and, naturally, there are those in the middle. There’s another axis entirely, though: giving up some level of authorial control, and leaving it all up to pure, dumb luck. It’s a much narrower spectrum, of course: if you leave a story completely up to chance, you’re going to get an incomprehensible mess. But, if you let go just a little bit, you might get something far more satisfying—like The Man in the High Castle.

In an interview with the magazine Vertex in 1974,  Philip K. Dick explained his method of using the I Ching, a divination tool that uses random numbers to generate a fortune, in writing his novel:

VERTEX: Do you use the I Ching as a plotting device in your work?

DICK: Once. I used it in The Man in the High Castle because a number of characters used it. In each case when they asked a question, I threw the coins and wrote the hexagram lines they got. That governed the direction of the book. Like in the end when Juliana Frink is deciding whether or not to tell Hawthorne Abensen that he is the target of assassins, the answer indicated that she should. Now if it had said not to tell him, I would have had her not go there. But I would not do that in any other book.

It’s just a small detail—The characters use the I Ching, and instead of picking the results himself to direct the story intentionally, Dick let the dice (or coins, rather) fall where they may, and let that pick his direction. Turns out it works well for games, too.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My (Random) Generation

Procedural generation is a process almost as old as video games themselves, for a very simple reason: necessity.

The hardware limitations of early computers were oppressively small, and programs could routinely push a machine to its absolute limits. Of course there are bleeding-edge games nowadays that push systems so hard they’re used as benchmarking tools, and developers spend a lot of time optimizing their games to run better, but imagine if even the smallest indie game constantly ran up against a hard wall of how much memory or storage any computer had available to it.

With procedural generation, that problem can be cleverly avoided. If you want to make a dungeon crawl video game, you don’t need to design a huge number of maps. You can create an algorithm that will take random inputs and use them to create the maps. Like Philip K. Dick writing The Man in the High Castle, it’s still a constrained randomness. The program can’t vomit up terrain and features at random for every space; instead, it has to follow rules. “The map can only be so large, and is composed of connected rooms. A room is an enclosed space. Rooms cannot overlap. Each room must have at least one doorway to an adjacent room. All rooms must be adjacent to other rooms…” and so on. As a result, the game can feature far more maps, and the developer saves space and time in development.

Of course, procedural generation didn’t go away when computers rapidly improved, nor was it kept in reserve just as a means of making programs more efficient. It’s stuck around, and even become a feature to be advertised. The reason for that, too, is simple: it increases the replayability of a game, and gives each player a unique experience. Well, more or less, but that’s up to the game developers. When done well, I should say, it vastly extends the life of a game by giving the players a whole heck of a lot more to explore.

The Die is Cast

In the same way that video games used random generation, so too can tabletop RPGs. But, before continuing, it might be worthwhile to examine different types of random generation in tabletop RPGs, because one in particular is dead obvious.

I’ll defer to the wisdom of Geoffrey Engelstein on this one. In episode 34 of his podcast, Ludology, he categorized randomness in games in two ways: output randomness and input randomness.

Output randomness means that the results of an action are randomized. Examples about in RPGs: Your character first decides to attack, and then must roll the dice to see if they hit. If the attack hits, roll dice to see how much damage it does.

Input randomness means that the set-up of a situation is random, before you as a player make any decisions. Think laying out random tiles for a game of Catan, or dealing out hands of cards; or, for an even more pertinent example, dealing “tarokka” cards to read a fortune in The Curse of Strahd.

In The Curse of Strahd, the players encounter a fortune teller early on. The results of that fortune-telling determine several key elements of the adventure to follow. Like Philip K. Dick consulting the I Ching, it sacrifices a bit of Dungeon Master control in service of directing a story. Like video games, it provides a unique experience to the players, and possibly even a replayable one. While no group is going to run the adventure twice with the same characters, they might return to it years down the line; or play and run the game, enjoying it both times; or play with multiple groups, and still get to be surprised at how things turn out.

The same goes for efficiency. A game can cram in a lot of information into a random table, even if it doesn’t seem that way. To stick to Dungeons & Dragons, each character background between five and six random tables. In around a page, there are literally thousands of possible combinations for each background! But I wouldn’t even say this is the end result of the random generation—it’s just another seed. It goes through another process, in the mind of the player, to transform it into something fleshed out. I’ve had fun with people just making characters like this in other systems that support it, like Beyond the Wall and Shadow of the Demon Lord, and not just because they yielded chaotic messes. It’s a genuinely fun puzzle to take suggestions and make them work.

Or you could just pick and choose what you want. No one’s going to stop you, nor should they if it’s what makes you happier. My point, in the end, is to just consider letting go of complete control. Not a lot, just loosen your grip a tiny bit. You might be surprised by the results.

…I mean you will be, that’s the whole point of the thing. But I think you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. I don’t know, just roll and find out, it’s an RPG after all.

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