Our destructive love affair with random number generators
You and your companions have been fighting your way through a monster filled cesspool of a dungeon for several hours. Enemies have been slain and good friends have fallen, but you pressed on searching for that Dark Evil Lord who’s been behind all of the name calling that’s got the local village’s jimmies all rustled. Your party finds the evil lord and a massive battle ensues until you and Mr. Evil Face are the only ones left standing. Your wounded team mates are counting on you here – you need to save the day. You raise your sword high in the air, but since this is actually a tabletop game, you need to roll the dice to see if you screw it up, just like you did a few rooms prior where you got your romantic interest most unceremoniously cut in half (nice going). You roll the dice – all you need is a high number and you can be the hero. This is your moment to shine and no evil lord is going stop you! They will sing praises of this day and shower money at – ah dammit it’s a 2.
If you’ve ever been at a table playing a game with people that required you to roll a pair of dice, you know exactly what I’m talking about here. Dice are Random Number Generators (RNG) and are used both in their physical form for tabletops and in a (often abstracted) code form for video games. In any game of dice there’s always those crucial moments where luck completely shafts you, then other times like some horrid mind games in an abusive relationship, it showers you with unexpected glory and riches that you most certainly can (and will) write home about. You see, Lady Luck is a cruel mistress, but she loves you. Really. All of those times she beats you down and spits on you is just her erratic and fun personality, but she’ll make it up to you when you critically obliterate that dragon out of absolutely nowhere. Then everyone will love you, just like she loves you. Now roll the dice you pansy – her words, not mine.
We Hate True Random
We are terrified to tell her, but we hate that mistress Luck. Like, really hate her – take her to a back alley, beat, mug, and leave her for dead. It’s some deep seeded loathing. But why is this? Well aside from the abusive nature of the relationship, we hate true random because it doesn’t actually appear random to us. In fact, we hate true random so much that we often think it’s unfair and it can ruin our experience. To borrow a quote used in Seanmonstar’s article linked above, true randomness can sometimes seem like some serious BS:
A blade spider is at your throat. It hits and you miss. It hits again and you miss again. And again and again, until there’s nothing left of you to hit. You’re dead and there’s a two-ton arachnid gloating over your corpse. Impossible? No. Improbable? Yes. But given enough players and given enough time, the improbable becomes almost certain. It wasn’t that the blade spider was hard, it was just bad luck. How frustrating. It’s enough to make a player want to quit.
If this pattern of one sided failure occurs, we identify it as a pattern and feel like the game is being unfair in how it is weighted against us, when in reality that’s just randomness at work. So how have we dealt with this hate for randomness? Well, we made it the staple of gaming as we know it! …What?!
Assuming Control of the Chaos
Why would we make such an insane move? Well the fact is we don’t love randomness – we love variety. If you’re exploring a dungeon that was randomly generated and you’re seeing all sorts of rooms that are different every time, that’s great. It’s random and it’s variety. If you explore it another time and see the same room repeat 3 times, that’s bad. It’s certainly still random, but it’s not variety. In other words, if you come home from work each day in a week to your mistress Luck making dinner for you, and it’s meatloaf every damn time you’re going to hate meatloaf by the week’s end. She probably did it to spite you anyway, smiling through her teeth like she does.
In order to get the variety we like out of randomness, but not feel like we are being played by it, designers like to try and control the chaos. In tabletop games, the size of the dice you roll, such as six-sided versus twenty-sided, along with the static number modifiers, such as +1 or -3, add constraints to control the random numbers and skew them a particular way. In video games, developers can use this same approach, but they will often implement a “grab bag” where they limit the number of times any particular number can come up in a sequence. Back to our mistress Luck example, you give her a menu of dinners for the week (you picky punk ass) that she can choose from at random, but she can only pick each one once this week. This ensures she can’t pick the same meal twice this particular week. She immediately flashes you a look that could crush cities – you’re fairly certain you’re sleeping on the couch tonight.
Due to the clunkiness of trying to implement a grab bag to dice rolls in tabletop games, this is rarely done. What this mean is that tabletop dice games tend to involve a very heavy randomness mechanic with all of the potential for sprees of BS to wreck your day. While we see these things in video games and get upset, potentially enough to stop playing, when this happens in tabletop gaming it is often a very different effect. While the player that has this happen to them may not be happy in the moment, we actually enjoy these spikes in randomness in tabletops. The reasons for that can be found in the differences between the two mediums.
Tell Me… How Do You Feel?
The tactile feel involved in tabletop gaming is one of the large appeals of the medium. People love touching things. As babies, we grab, pull, and put everything we find in our mouth to munch on. In education or work, we talk about how important it is to have a hands-on experience. To bring it home, our physiology even agrees – when lovers cuddle, it releases chemicals in our bodies that promote closeness and bonding, not that we’d know anything about cuddling with Luck. If she has a heart, it’s colder than Hoth.
Touch is good and tabletop gaming uses this in full force. When we play at the table, we have things like the board, miniatures, tokens, and dice in our hands. This plays a huge role in our enjoyment. When we roll the dice, we get to toss them around in our hands, chuck them with the force we want, and then watch them spitter, sputter, and clunk across the table. We feel as if we have much more control or influence over the results even if it really doesn’t make a difference. That feeling of control combined with the feel-good sensation of holding and rolling the dice allows us to be much more accepting of the results Luck deals us. We feel more involved, and the cocktail of happy-go-lucky chemicals running through our head keeps things peachy.
When RNG is used in video games, it feels very disconnected from us, and that feeling can result in cries of the game being cheap or unfair. We don’t feel like we have any influence over the rolls taking place behind the scenes, and that lack of control is very unsettling. The tactile feel we get from video games has to do with the buttons we press or triggers we pull. The contact we have is related to the action we are doing such as “I press A to jump.” That point of contact is very different from in tabletop gaming where our contact is related to results. To put it another way, in video games, you press a button to do an action and then results occur that are beyond your influence, while in tabletop gaming you declare an action, but roll the dice (aka press the button) to garner results.
Since that’s a bit confusing, let’s go semi-infographic about it for at what point in the action chain that player input comes in.
Tabletop: Action Made -> Player Input (roll) -> Result
Video Games: Player Input (push button) -> Action Made -> Result
It’s a small distinction, but it makes a massive difference in how we feel about it – about what we as a player actually affect.
But What’s at Stake?
The next crucial thing to consider is in the very nature of these types of games. Let’s look at the RPG and how it compares in video games versus tabletops. In video games, failure stops progress. We are well familiar with the Game Over screen which forces you to try again. It’s disheartening, it spits in the face of coherent canon, and when used in a higher dosage than prescribed by a doctor, it produces side effects of mild to extreme frustration. This means that when Lady Luck frowns upon you with the fury of a thousand suns, you are told you failed and must try again, and it rightfully feels like it was something completely beyond your control. This is ridiculous and just not fun.
In tabletop RPGs, failure is another means to progress. In my games, I often remind players that “failure is fun” and a friend of mine loves to say “survival is overrated.” When Lady Luck does her fury-of-a-thousand-suns stare we just met a moment ago, you get to throw on some shades and smile with a bit of class (you fancy person, you) because there is no Game Over. Instead, the failure that crops up furthers the story in new ways that are often times totally unpredictable. In many cases, failure actually turns out to be more fun than success.
This all results from the idea of what’s at stake when you take an action. When the luck you must deal with is merely a part of the story at work and not a hindrance to your progress, it becomes immediately more acceptable and can actually lend great deals of fun to your experience. Playing a tabletop RPG that did not have any sort of dice rolls or randomness to it would be dreadfully boring as all actions would automatically resolve themselves, which denies the opportunity for surprises and denies your suspension of disbelief because a story where no one has unexpected failure isn’t particularly human.
On the flip side, a video game that heavily relies on this randomness feels like you as a player are not even involved, and your progress does not feel like your own. Instead, games look to challenge your mechanical skill, and your potential for failure was already decided when you had to place your cursor on your target and aim at them. You as a player can have input error, which takes away the need for RNG to throw a wrench in your plans.
Now, What Did We Learn?
RNG is a powerful tool and a useful one at that, but it’s crucial for a designer to understand the framework they’re working in. We know that players love variety, and we know that they want their actions to matter. These two factors play out very differently based on the framework you’re working in and the key thing to note in your game is what will result from the use of RNG? What are you trying to accomplish? If the game is meant to be a challenge for the player, you may want to just steer clear entirely from RNG in their actions, but if you’re looking at adaptive story that is always in flux with the players, such as the improvised nature of tabletops, then we can make this work. Through some counseling, copious amounts of behavioral therapy, and maybe a slight acceptance of the inherent masochism involved, this relationship with Lady Luck can work out – I think.