Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Out with the Old

It happened like this in the world. Old things lost their grip and dropped away; not always because they were bad things, but sometimes because the new things were more bad, and stronger.
- TH White, The Goshawk

I am a lover of old things. Not all old things, and of course the principle only stretches so far, but I think in general I prefer the tried and tested to the new. I prefer Bach to Jay-Z, test cricket to t20, Shakespeare to Zadie Smith, old-fashioned real ale to fancy ciders and "fursty ferret" style ironically fashionable old-fashioned ale (I write this blog entry drinking a can of Courage Director's), classic cocktails to passion fruit fucking mojitos, classic rock to whatever it is kids listen to nowadays, analogue to digital, karate to MMA, hand-carved wood furniture to stark modernist stuff, gothic architecture to brutalist concrete, etc., etc. It isn't a hard-and-fast tendency by any means - and I have basically no tolerance for fakeness (I don't know about in the US but pseudo-Victoriana is the fashion of choice these days amongst hipster knobheads in Britain) - but it's a certain leaning.

Is my leaning towards old things the reason I like old RPGs? Undoubtedly yes. I like them because they are old. Not necessarily because there is an intrinsic value in oldness (though I do believe that there often is), but simply because I like things that have been around for a long time. I like having a connection with the past and with older ways of doing things. The new, the glossy, the shiny, the sparkly, is not usually all that attractive to me. I find it off-putting and ephemeral. I tend to view it with suspicion and often find its success to be attributable, as TH White did, to simply being more bad, and stronger. Much of the modern RPG industry, if its possible to speak of such a thing at all, strikes me as being that: more bad, and stronger, than what was being played in decades past.

Our preferences tend not to be rational, and I think we kid ourselves if we pretend otherwise, but I also think a rational argument can be made as to why one should prefer old things - which is simply that, if something has been around for a long time, there is probably a reason for it. The onus ought to be on new things to prove their worth: we can take Shakespeare as great simply by dint of him still being considered so important 400 years after his death, whereas modern authors have the burden of proof to demonstrate they aren't passing fads. The world of rock is the same: the latest NME flavour of the month may be a great band but let's wait 30 years or so and see if people are still listening. Of course, nothing of this is set in stone - there are plenty of things that have been around for a long time which are criminally awful (e.g. Bono) and sometimes unutterably terrible things become grandfathered into greatness for no good reason (e.g. Star Wars Episode II: The Clone Wars). And this is contingent on survival: the preference is not for old things at all costs, but for old things which have proved themselves by surviving. But I think there are strong reasons for the following rule of thumb:

Faced with a choice between purchasing or using two cultural artefacts (e.g. books) where one is significantly older than the other, the significantly older one should usually be preferred.

This is why, for instance, I'll rely on BECMI rather than buy D&D 5th edition, and why I'll try to track down the Top Secret RPG before looking for other, newer games. It's not that I'm sure the old things are better, it's that faced with a choice and with limited time, I'll go for the tried and tested. I'll trust that rule of thumb.

(There are other, less prosaic arguments too, of course. I'm thinking here of Burke's metaphor of the flies of the summer, whose lives are meaningless because they are self-contained, without past or future, neither inheriting nor bequeathing but simply living. I'm thinking also of MacIntyre and his 'goods internal to practices'. But I'll leave those for a future entry.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Making as well as Doing

I'm currently reading TH White's book about falconry, The Goshawk. It's a great book. A beautiful, sad, meaningful book. A book that every one of you should read. One of those books which you come across from time to time and think, "How come I've never even heard of this before? Why have I never heard anyone raving about this?"

Anyway, it's full of grist for the RPG mill, but I loved this line, which I think sums up what is fun about this hobby.

"Regarding these arrangements after many hours of scrubbing with a file, one could say to oneself warmly: I have created. Indeed, one of the great beauties of falconry was that one was allowed to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play at Red Indians with them, whatever one's age."

Setting aside the old fashioned phrasing, if you replace the word 'falconry' in that sentence with 'role playing games' I don't think the paragraph would lose anything. The hobby allows you to invent things in the first place, and in the second place to play with them, whatever one's age. It's not just the gaming, it's the way you can say to yourself warmly after drawing a map, drawing up a table, statting out an NPC, "I have created". Like all the best hobbies, it's as much about the process of making as it is of doing. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Arch-Mage Tower Generator and Yoon-Suin Update

Enough with the politics. Here's a table from the Yoon-Suin Gazetteer. This is what's consumed much of my summer: formatting tables like this. About 250 pages of them. I am to all intents and purposes finished, but I need to put the art into its various placeholders. I don't anticipate this will take very long, but I've learned a dark secret during the course of this project, and it's as follows: everything to do with layout is a massive faff, and while that is something you expect, you can never expect the level of faffing around that will be required in practice. So I expect a whole host of unexpected problems to suddenly unearth themselves in the course of this final furlong.


Monday, 15 September 2014

Sorry about the politics, but it's time to talk about Scotland

I think it's bad form to post about politics in a non-political blog, but Patrick did it and anyway, this is a once-every-three-centuries event, so I feel it deserves special comment. If you don't want to read a political rant don't read any further, and rest assured you have until the year 2321 to wait for another.

On Thursday, people living in Scotland are going to vote on whether they want Scotland to be an independent country. I have no idea how this is seen around the world, but I expect that it is largely based on misunderstandings about what Britain is; my perception, from talking to non-British people, is that everyone seems to think that the Scots are some sort of historically-oppressed minority group who were conquered by the English centuries ago and have been chafing under the yoke of London ever since. This is what led a Japanese person to message me earlier to ask why British people are opposed to Scottish independence, when Scotland would be so much better off having "freedom".

As I patiently explained: a) if Scotland has ever been conquered by the English it's through the very roundabout way of the dastardly, perfidious English somehow conniving for their queen to die heirless so a Scottish relative could take the crown; and b) you're surely thinking of the Welsh.

I blame Braveheart.

Scotland and England are essentially equal partners in Britain. Not in terms of population, because England's population is so much bigger, but constitutionally: they are two separate nations with separate crowns which are united in one monarch. They have separate legal systems, separate powers to print currency, and, since 1998, sort-of separate parliaments (Scotland has its own parliament, and there is also parliament in London which is for the whole UK; there is no English parliament of its own). What this means is that the Scottish independence referendum resembles, more than anything else, a divorce. It's two nations which have been bound together for 300 years breaking apart.

Like any good divorce, then, England is going to have to accept the result. You can't force somebody to stay married to you if they don't want to any more. That's not a recipe for happiness. You have to dust yourself down, pick yourself up, and start again. And England will do that. But it's an emotional blow that is going to take a long time to recover from.

I wasn't expecting to feel as emotional about this issue as I do. But as the date draws closer, I get increasingly distraught about it. You see, I'm half-Scottish. My dad is from Glasgow. I've never, ever defined myself as being English. Like a lot of people in this sceptered isle, I would always say that my national identity is British. I consider myself to be a product of the union between the different peoples who call the British Isles home - my English mother's father is of Irish heritage, and my dad's mother was Welsh. My mongrel background is represented in the mongrel nature of the country which I'm from: a muddled but largely successful amalgamation of ethnicities - a family, even. A group of nations who ended up having to share this cold, rainy little island and have learned to do so after many generations. A hard-won and delicately assembled arrangement which has taken centuries to evolve through blood and war.

But if people living in Scotland vote 'yes' on Thursday, what then? A dividing line comes down. From that point on you can no longer be British. You'll have to be Scottish or from "the other bit". I'll have to be Scottish or from the "other bit". My identity is going to have to change. Forget the economic arguments; this is something deeper. The Scottish nationalists are foisting an atavistic, prehistoric decision on me: I'm not going to be allowed to have the positive, forward-looking, civic association of Britishness any more, but only the backwards-looking, crude nationalism of Englishness or Scottishness. Why is this very significant thing so absent from the public debate? Why aren't Alex Salmond and the rest of his cronies being identified as what they are: enemies of progress and utter arseholes to boot?

The beauty of Britishness has always been that it isn't an ethnicity. It's an identity that anyone can have if they live here. That doesn't always work perfectly but it's as close as you get to New World, American- or Australian-style integration in Europe. We don't have the baggage of non-existent ethnic purity. Our union itself embraces diversity because it brings different ethnicities together and makes none of them synonymous with the State, and has done this since its inception. A 'yes' vote on Thursday is going to trash that.

Make no mistake about it. Nationalism is always and forever dark, restrictive, introspective, and mean-spirited. Its nature is division. And Scotland is waltzing into a future of nationalism without even apparently being aware of it - or the fact that it condemns not just itself but the rest of us British people alongside it.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

On Bad DMing

Let's think about bad DMing decisions (while recognising that everybody makes mistakes). Three examples from my own gaming past:

1) I can't remember many of the details about the session, but it was a TSR-published adventure Planescape module and we, the players, had gone through some gate or other into the Grey Waste. The DM described our surroundings as being an endless and featureless plain, but with a couple of demonic winged gargoyle-like beings somewhere in the middle distance. We spent a long time debating what to do. We couldn't return through the gate we'd come to. The plain was featureless. The gargoyle-type beings seemed dangerous. Eventually we decided that since we'd be noticed sooner or later we might as well try to parlay with them. On approaching them, however, they mercilessly attacked us. It then became apparent that they were immune to non-magical weapons - they were abishai of some sort or other. We all died in short order. A bit flabbergasted, one of us asked the DM, "Exactly what were we supposed to do in that situation?" He told us we should have tried to sneak around them. It combined pixel-bitching with rank incoherence - how do you sneak around something in a featureless plain?

2) A d20 Modern game set in a kind of Mad Max world. A firefight broke out with some motorcycle gang in an abandoned town. My character was caught out in the open facing an enemy with a large SMG. It was clear that he was going to die. I was already resigned to the fact and thinking up what my next character would be. The DM rolled 'to hit' behind his screen...and promptly did a very poor impression of disappointment and announced the attacked had fumbled and dropped his weapon. My character had survived. The fudge was childishly obvious. I glanced around the other faces at the table and they glanced at me. None of us mentioned anything, but we all knew: in this campaign, death was going to be impossible. 

3) A cyberpunk-type game, which was short-lived and I think run using some form of GURPS. The PCs had gathered together for a mission in some forest somewhere, raiding a secret radar station or somesuch installation for secret information. There was also a GMPC involved. It turned out that the GMPC was really good at breaking and entry and the rest of us were lacking in necessary skills, so it was agreed that the GMPC would go on the raid and the rest of us would wait. Cue half an hour of waiting around while the GM went through the rigmarole of playing out the entire raid, in his own mind, rolling dice behind his screen and apparently going through the entire event as if an actual PC was doing it, before finally announcing, "He comes back with the information". I think we were all fine with the GMPC doing the mission. But why on earth the GM couldn't have decided the outcome in 10 seconds or with one dice roll, I have no idea.

Good games are all alike; every bad game is bad in its own way. What do these three anecdotes have in common? What unifies them? I have a hard time thinking of a common thread. The first is simply bad communication, or maybe just fuzzy thinking: perhaps the guy concerned really thought he had made it clear it would be somehow possible to sneak round the abishai (he did smoke a lot of weed). The second is clearly a surfeit of niceness: the DM is an incredibly good and honourable person who was certainly trying not to hurt my feelings, but ended up, like most people with good intentions, causing a certain degree of harm. The third I think can be attributed to an overzealous concern with realism or system that you might say is common to players of games like GURPS. The GM wanted to be absolutely sure that the "correct" outcome was reached even though it unreasonably slowed everything down. 

Good DMing is fairly easy to identify. Good communication with the players, enthusiasm, reasonable levels of prep, non-arbitrary decision-making, reasonableness, willingness to listen, imagination. Except insofar as you can simply provide a list of antonyms of characteristics of good DMing, is there an underlying, root cause of the bad? Is there a single thing that we can point to as the ultimate source of malpractice?   

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Ryuutama and the Tiresomeness of New Systems

I've recently heard about a Japanese RPG that had its translation into English launched as a kickstarter. It's called Ryuutama and the unique elements are explained here, but the person who seems to have summarised it most effectively is the OP in this therpgsite post:

In a nutshell, Ryuutama is a Japanese game about traveling that uses old school-ish mechanics. You play common folk (a Farmer, a Herbalist, a Hunter, etc) who at a point in their life feels the necessity to undertake a journey to see the wonders of the world, so its focus is more what you do to survive along the way than fighting monsters (for what I've heard, the combat system is pretty lethal). 
Probably the most interesting and unique aspect is that the GM has his own character with its own special rules. The Ryuujin (Dragon) the GM chooses to play changes the focus of the campaign and how certain rules work (for example, a Black Dragon is about tragedy and betrayal, while a Red Dragon is all about exploring dungeons and fighting monsters). The Ryuujin follows the group from afar, recording their adventures, and may even be able to help the characters from time to time.

Now, there are many elements of the whole endeavour that I find bothersome (the saccharine cutesy pseudo-European Japanese art; the fact that some RPG nerds are doing the translation and I have been doing translation professionally for a long time and I am an awful snob about it; the fact that a lot of it seems aimed at 11-year-olds; the fact that the combat system is based on the Final Fantasy one) but at its core, this seems to be a game focusing on wilderness travel and adventure with interesting twists, which is something I have been wanting, or wanting to make, for a long time. And who am I kidding? I might be a grumpy old skeptic but I may as well own up to thinking that Miyazaki Hayao's Oregon Trail sounds actually rather nice. (And I am fairly sure the rules can be used for scenarios that are altogether different...like Lewis and Clark in Pandemonium or The Rough Guide to the Elemental Plane of Ooze or Let's Explore the Leviathan's Intestinal Tract or A Beginner's Guide to Caving in the Underdark or The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, pt. II.)

However, a genuine problem, I have to confess, is that I think I am just getting too old for learning new systems. I don't have the time, energy, or willpower to even read RPG rulebooks nowadays, let alone actually take the time to learn the system properly. I have about a dozen rulebooks on my bookshelf of which I've read about one page each, because even flicking through them I begin to feel the onset of brain stem death. Which says nothing about the quality of the writing or the way the rules are presented, and everything about the fact that I've reached a stage in my life where I simply can't summon up the effort or concentration to bother figuring out the way a new system works.

It says a lot about Ryuutama that it can seem both incredibly annoying and intrinsically tiresome because it's a new system and I'm lazy, and yet at the same time manage to appeal to me quite strongly. That in itself seems to warrant a purchase, don't you think?

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Dionysian Apocalypse

We tend to think of 'the apocalypse' as a destructive, catastrophic event - a plague, a meteor strike, a nuclear war. Greek myth gives me an idea for a different model: apocalypse via deranged demigod.

"It was on Mount Nysa that Dionysus invented wine, for which he is chiefly celebrated. When he grew to manhood Hera recognized him as Zeus’s son, despite the effeminacy to which his education had reduced him, and drove him mad also. He went wandering all over the world, accompanied by his tutor Silenus and a wild army of Satyrs and Maenads, whose weapons were the ivy-twined staff tipped with a pine-cone, called the thyrsus, and swords and serpents and fear-imposing bullroarers. He sailed to Egypt, bringing the vine with him; and at Pharos King Proteus received him hospitably. Among the Libyans of the Nile Delta, opposite Pharos, were certain Amazon queens whom Dionysus invited to march with him against the Titans and restore King Ammon to the kingdom from which he had been expelled. Dionysus’s defeat of the Titans and restoration of King Ammon was the earliest of his many military successes. 
"He then turned east and made for India. Coming to the Euphrates, he was opposed by the King of Damascus, whom he flayed alive, but built a bridge across the river with ivy and vine; after which a tiger, sent by his father Zeus, helped him across the river Tigris. He reached India, having met with much opposition by the way, and conquered the whole country, which he taught the art of viniculture, also giving it laws and founding great cities. 
"On his return he was opposed by the Amazons, a horde of whom he chased as far as Ephesus. A few took sanctuary in the Temple of Artemis, where their descendants are still living; others fled to Samos, and Dionysus followed them in boats, killing so many that the battlefield is called Panhaema. Near Phloecus some of the elephants which he had brought from India died, and their bones are still pointed out. 
"Next, Dionysus returned to Europe by way of Phrygia, where his grandmother Rhea purified him of the many murders he had committed during his madness, and initiated him into her Mysteries. He then invaded Thrace; but no sooner had his people landed at the mouth of the river Strymon than Lycurgus, King of the Edonians, opposed them savagely with an ox-goad, and captured the entire army, except Dionysus himself, who plunged into the sea and took refuge in Thetis’s grotto. Rhea, vexed by this reverse, helped the prisoners to escape, and drove Lycurgus mad: he struck his own son Dryas dead with an axe, in the belief that he was cutting down a vine. Before recovering his senses he had begun to prune the corpse of its nose and ears, fingers and toes; and the whole land of Thrace grew barren in horror of his crime. When Dionysus, returning from the sea, announced that this barrenness would continue unless Lycurgus were put to death, the Edonians led him to Mount Pangaeum, where wild horses pulled his body apart. 
"Dionysus met with no further opposition in Thrace, but travelled on to his well-beloved Boeotia, where he visited Thebes, and invited the women to join his revels on Mount Cithaeron. Pentheus, King of Thebes, disliking Dionysus’s dissolute appearance, arrested him, together with all his Maenads, but went mad and, instead of shackling Dionysus, shackled a bull. The Maenads escaped again, and went raging out upon the mountain, where they tore calves in pieces. Pentheus attempted to stop them; but, inflamed by wine and religious ecstasy, they rent him limb from limb. His mother Agave led the riot, and it was she who wrenched off his head. 
"At Orchomenus the three daughters of Minyas, by name Alcithoë, Leucippe, and Arsippe, or Aristippe, or Arsinoë, refused to join in the revels, though Dionysus himself invited them, appearing in the form of a girl. He then changed his shape, becoming successively a lion, a bull, and a panther, and drove them insane. Leucippe offered her own son Hippasus as a sacrifice—he had been chosen by lot—and the three sisters, having torn him to pieces and devoured him, skimmed the mountains in a frenzy until at last Hermes changed them into birds, though some say that Dionysus changed them into bats. The murder of Hippasus is annually atoned at Orchomenus, in a feast called Agrionia (‘provocation to savagery’), when the women devotees pretend to seek Dionysus and then, having agreed that he must be away with the Muses, sit in a circle and ask riddles, until the priest of Dionysus rushes from his temple, with a sword, and kills the one whom he catches. 
"When all Boeotia had acknowledged Dionysus’s divinity, he made a tour of the Aegean Islands, spreading joy and terror wherever he went. Arriving at Icaria, he found that his ship was unseaworthy and hired another from certain Tyrrhenian sailors who claimed to be bound for Naxos. But they proved to be pirates and, unaware of godhead, steered for Asia, intending to sell him there as a slave. Dionysus made a vine grow from the deck and enfold the mast, he also turned the oars into serpents, and became a lion himself, filling the vessel with phantom beasts and filling it with sound of flutes, so that the terrified pirates leaped overboard and became dolphins. 
"It was at Naxos that Dionysus met the lovely Ariadne whom Theseus had deserted, and married her without delay. She bore him Oenopion, Thoas, Staphylus, Latromis, Euanthes, and Tauropolus. Later, he placed her bridal chaplet among the stars. 
"From Naxos he came to Argos and punished Perseus, who at fought opposed him and killed many of his followers, by inflicting a madness on the Argive women: they began devouring their own infants; until Perseus hastily admitted his error, and appeased Dionysus by building a temple in his honour. 
"Finally, having established his worship throughout the world Dionysus ascended to Heaven, and now sits at the right hand of Zeus as one of the Twelve Great Ones."
- From "Dionysus's Nature and Deeds", The Greek Myths, Robert Graves 

The Greeks gave themselves a get-out by imagining Dionysus finally ascending to Heaven and leaving them alone. What if he never did? What if he and his cronies spent the rest of eternity roaming from place to place, driving everybody mad, turning them into animals, forcing them to kill and eat their own family members, and only giving them a modicum of relief if they devoted themselves to his worship?

It's not an apocalypse of blasted, barren wasteland, of mutants and zombies, or of Mad-Max style violent nomads racing across permanent deserts. It's an apocalypse of insanity and transmogrification, where you're never sure when Dionysus is going to show up with his satyrs and force you to eat your own grandma or turn you into a dolphin, and where civilization has turned cosmically deranged at the behest of a mad deity and his gang.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Yoon-Suin Sample

I thought I'd post a few pages from Yoon-Suin to show what kind of thing I'm playing around with regarding layout. The first page is a chapter heading; the second is a section of the bestiary; the third is a table from the Yellow City chapter. The picture of the slug-man is by an Australian illustrator called Matthew Adams.

Things may not look exactly centred. That's because I'm formatting it to be used for a POD version so the margins are slightly longer on either the left or right side depending on the page. As you'll see, it's going to be landscape. I prefer it that way.

I selected three pages from the full Word document and simply copied them into a second document to make into picture files, which is why the second and third pages are numbered '2' and '3'. These pages obviously don't come directly after each other. Anyway, hopefully it gives an insight into what the final product is shaping up to look like, and proves that the whole thing isn't a mere figment of my imagination.






Friday, 1 August 2014

Blue East, Black North, White West, Red South

The ancient Chinese had their own system of organising the stars, which revolved around, amongst other things, grouping 28 phases of the moon into 4 sets of 7 according to the compass points. Each set had a symbol - the Azure Dragon of the East, the Black Tortoise of the North, the White Tiger of the West, and the Vermilion Bird of the South.

I don't know much about this, or about ancient Chinese history or culture, but I do think having the points of the compass associated with symbolic beings really fucking cool.

It gets me thinking about a recent conversation on G+ on how dice can communicate four different things - position, number, number of sides, and colour. Roll a fistful of different dice and you get four different variables, or five even if you include how a d8 can 'point' in a direction. Wouldn't it be interesting to have a set of dice of four different colours, each symbolising, say, one of the elements - or, respectively, the blue dragon of the East, the black tortoise of the North, the white tiger of the West, and the red bird of the South?

The way I envisage this working is, there are literally four gargantuan beings in the world, each at an extreme point of the compass. (The world being a big flat disc - duh.) And they each influence the world in different ways. Let's say, for the sake of argument, the blue dragon of the east represents warfare and conflict, the black tortoise of the north represents protection and survival, the white tiger of the west represents trickery and cunning, and the red bird of the south represents beauty and passion.

Any time any player needs to roll a dice, they can pick a colour and explain why it is relevant. Most obviously, if you were rolling to-hit in combat, you'd probably want a blue dice - but you might want a white one if you were backstabbing or ambushing. If you were trying to charm a princess you'd use red - unless you were impressing her with a display of toughness, when you might use black.

Then, if you succeed on the roll, you get a bonus of some kind from the influence of the mighty being. Because as any fool knows, the mighty beings govern everything within the purview that happens here on earth. And they will directly intervene if invoked. But their interventions are capricious; if you fail on the roll, you fail badly.

So, in combat, you roll a blue dice to-hit...and if you hit you do extra damage because the blue dragon of the East guides your blow. But if you miss, you slip or drop your sword because the blue dragon of the East spurns you. If you manage to charm the princess using the red dice you are extremely charming, because the red bird gives you its blessing...but if you fail she not only isn't impressed; she wants you destroyed, because the red bird takes against your hubris. Etc.

If the player in question doesn't want to invoke one of the compass point mighty beings, he just picks a neutral dice. Green or yellow or whatever. And the result stands as it stands.

A half-formed and exhausted thought for a Thursday. What were you expecting - something useful?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Random Tables as Tools to Compress and Communicate Information.

Let's think about random generators. What makes a good one? On A Gaming Podcast About Nothing a few episodes back I made the rather banal observation that while the contents of a table are important, what you really want is interaction between columns. This is obvious to anyone with half a brain.

But let's demonstrate anyway. As said, what follows is probably obvious, but it is also interesting.


The first table gives a bog-standard result. A random encounter with one of 6 possible monsters. The second table is more interesting, because it gives a combination of results through the interaction between columns: 36 possibilities. It's richer. And the third table is richer still: 216 possibilities.

Now, at the most superficial level that provides more variety, which is probably a good thing, all else being equal. Variety is nice. It avoids repetition. But let's drill down a little.

  • The second table communicates information vastly more efficiently than the first, and the third vastly more efficiently than the second. There is simply more stuff concentrated in the table as columns increase. Writing out all 216 possibilities for the third table (orcs near a crevasse in a thick blizzard, orcs near a crevasse in a hail storm, orcs near a crevasse in high wing, orcs near a crevasse in a fog...) would take a long time but also a lot of space. A random table with a number of columns is like a mechanism for compressing data ready to be unpacked through the use of the dice - there is no better tool available to the writer of an RPG product for doing this. 
  • The second and third tables require much less thought on the part of the DM in order to make them interesting. "Orc" requires spur-of the moment creativity. "Orc, abandoned yak herder village" is easier to deal with. "Orc, abandoned yak herder village, in high wind" practically runs itself. The third table lifts the burden of having to come up with interesting things on the spur of the moment. 
  • Paradoxically, while requiring less thought on the part of the DM than the first table, the third also cannot help but make him more creative. "Snow nymph, abandoned yak herder village, third party involvement" can't help but make him come up with a creative solution - why is the snow nymph there and what's the third party? "Frost giant, frozen lake, fog". What's going on there? A frost giant engaging in impromptu ice fishing, invisible to the players because of the mist - with the added danger of possibly falling through the ice. So the table both requires less creative thought, and focuses it. 
Random tables, then, are little packages of concentrated usefulness. They hold compressed information and creative power and release it with great efficiency when called upon to do so by the rolling of dice.