Competition has been a part of human civilization since the earliest days of man. Whether struggling over food, wrestling for ruling power, or just participating in an entertainment spectacle, “games” in the classical sense have almost always involved other people. So when it comes to player uncertainty, the roots are deep.
You cannot possible know what another person will do; what choices they make in a game. This is a factor of uncertainty that exists, to some degree, in all multi-player games. From chess to Pandemic, the other players are an unknown, uncontrollable factor in your gaming experience. You can guess, and indeed the better you predict what others do the more likely it is you’ll succeed in your goals, but even the most predictable player can sometimes surprise you. This is something that few AI systems accomplish with any degree of depth (as of this writing… the future is soon!), making human players an ultimate source of uncertainty.
In tabletop RPGs, other players bring the world around your character to life. Everyone from the GM to the most shy PC participate in building a setting and a story that would not be possible without the imagination of everyone at the table. There’s no replacement (again… yet) for this level of uncertainty. That’s not to say that you can’t run a solo RPG and not have fun, but there’s definitely something missing there, yeah?
Player uncertainty is often what makes a game’s core tick, and tabletop RPGs are no exception. While it doesn’t have as big of an impact on how the players interact with the mechanics of the game, it provides dimensional doors to all of the other uncertainties that we will explore in this series.
A mysterious side note: Co-op board games fall a little short in this category, and this is likely the reason that I find most of them a little dull. Often, player interaction and uncertainty is negated by “the puzzle” being solvable in terms of there being a “best move”. This is why “quarterbacking” is such a huge problem - most co-op board games are a glorified solo game. RPGs, on the other hand, are much better set up to have each player making unique choices.