Friday, 26 August 2011

On Steered Imagination and the Random Generator

As we know, restriction of options is usually a spur to creativity rather than a hindrance. The narrower the scope in which your imagination is allowed to run riot, perversely, the more productive it usually becomes (within reason). An illustration: Give a man a pen and paper and he might spend 6 hours just thinking of something to write about. Give him a pen and paper and say "Write me a story about a murder" and he'll have a finished piece in half the time it took for him to even think of an idea in the first scenario.

Random generators are such a great aid to creativity, I think, because they embody this fundamental truth. They steer imagination and make it more productive. The simplest illustration of this is the random encounter in D&D (much maligned by people who don't actually really think about their gaming). Without random encounters, traditional games become stale and stressful for the DM, who has to spend unproductive and boring hours trying to think up interesting scenarios from the aether to entertain his players and keep the game going. With random encounters, his creativity becomes focused: why are these goblins here, and where have they come from? Bang: Focus. Interest. Post hoc narrative. Story. If he knows his game world reasonably well, he has it made.

This is also why generating random results on a table is enjoyable in its own right, even taken outside of the context of a game. I can't be the only person who feels this way - a peculiar glee in having a big set of d30 tables and just generating results to find out what happens. What is this treasure hoard, what is its history, and who put it here? What is this group of giants doing in this area, what are their names, and what do they own? What spells does this spellbook contain, and who is its original owner? Your imagination is steered, and consequently becomes productive, and the endorphines begin to flow.

Of course, without the ultimate random generators - players - even generating random results becomes boring after a while. Random generators need a game, just as games need random generators. It's a yin-yang thing, or something.


  1. Of course, I'm sure you also recognize some of the reasons why people dislike random tables. First, many of them are not constructed well, and easily produce nonsensical results. Not just results that challenge you to find an explanation, but results that force the plot to veer off-track to find the explanation.

    Second, many GMs never bothered with finding the story hidden in the results. They would just roll on the table and drop in what it said. Random tables ended up associated with bad GMing, and got a bad rep as a result.

  2. I don't view results that force "the plot" to veer off track to be a bug, more of a feature. I like plot as something that emerges during play, exactly thanks to things like random tables.

    But yeah, bad DMs will spoil random results, like they'll spoil anything...

  3. You should never base anything based on only what the people that are bad at a certain craft do.

    Besides, unless you are playing a dice free game a decent % of what you do is based on throwing down 1 or more random number generators and changing the story to fit the numbers they generated.

  4. Like Gygax (might of) said, "A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make."

    And I'll confess I like the sound of rolling dice. It means something is happening something out of the control of the GM as well as the players. Something truly random. That is true magic. Electronic dice rollers are convenient but unsatisfying.

    Perhaps there is something Jungian about blowing on the dice, making your wish and letting the dice fall. It certainly speaks deeply to many players and GMs.

    I love making (semi) random dungeons or encounters. It adds uncertainty and suspense for me the GM as well as for the players. I always try to make it look like every encounter was planned from the start to the players. Keeps them on their toes. That and rolling dice at random and looking surprised or delighted and shuffling things. They all start giving each other looks like kids around a campfire who just heard something beyond the light.

  5. Jason: Well, yes. I was going to say something about how dice are random generators too.

    Rainforest Giant: You don't often hear people talking about what you can do as a DM to unsettle the players, do you? I like the phrase "Are you sure?" Works very well.