Uncertainty in Games: Randomness

One of the most important uncertainties for role playing games is randomness. That might seem obvious, but randomness is only one of the eleven sources of uncertainties that we’ll talk about in this series.

Randomness plays a key character: fate. It is generally used as an action resolution device, steering the story in one direction or another. The trick here is that it plays an impartial judge on the lives of the characters. If left purely to the players, who are generally rooting for their characters to succeed, the stories that are produced from the game may not have that classic rollercoaster of emotions that really make for memorable experiences. Instead, characters live and die by the unswayable third party of random.

There are two very distinct types of randomness: bias and unbiased. Each has a powerful effect on the style of game that is played. Bias random is where one outcome is simply “better” than another. For example, swinging a sword in combat can either hit or miss. A hit, obviously, is better than a miss. If one character hits, and another misses, but they’ve both spent the same resources (i.e. an action), and randomness was bias towards the character that hit. Unbiased random, on the other hand, is something that adds chaos to both sides of an equation, giving opportunity for either side to “deal with it better”, rather than favoring one outcome or the other.

Bias random is usually shunned in “higher level” circles of game design. If used as an element of uncertainty in say, a strategy game, players can get annoyed that the random is favoring their opponents, regardless of who has the better strategy. Unbias random, on the other hand, is used to introduce variety and replay-ability into a game, making it the preferred choice for those styles of games.

Don’t write off bias random completely though. One of the biggest early inspirations of gaming is gambling. When we as humans let go control of the game and roll a die or spin a wheel, we get a large shot of dopamine as we wait for the outcome. That moment is what RPGs are about. That moment is when we get to know whether our hero lives or dies.

Yes, RPGs are founded on bias random. But it’s also not as biased as you might think. One of the best twists in gaming I think comes from the fact that the mechanics are bias between characters, but not between players. No roll is necessarily good or bad for the players of an RPG. After all, they are there to find out what happens, good or bad. You can’t have a roller coaster without going down sometimes, and that’s exactly what the randomness gives us.

This I think is where RPG combat usually falls short. A big complaint of combat is that it’s completely random, and usually not influenced by strategy all that much. Some games do away with it completely, focusing on character relationships and/or world exploration. Perhaps we need to take a lesson out of the strategy game’s design book, and realize that if combat is presented as a very different kind of game, it also needs different kinds of rules. Perhaps also, however, games need to realize that combat, just like everything in RPGs, is a resolution system best left up to fate.