Thursday, March 3, 2011

OSR Philosophy: In Praise of Randomization

The other day, Carter over on The Lands of Ara put up an awesome list of the OSR posts that he found most influential.  As a relatively new blogger, I hadn't read all of them previously, and that much concentrated awesome in one place caused me to instantaneously level up.  (I'm now a Maven!)

One topic that I didn't see touched on is randomization and old style D&D.  Here's a thesis:

Dice... use them.
My fun as Dungeon Master increases proportionately to the amount of randomization I can work into each game session, because the story emerges from the actions of the players - and not from the DM's plot.

When I'm the dungeon master, I'm not the author, story teller, narrator, or cruise director.  I've played plenty of new school games, and am very familiar with guiding a group of characters by the nose through a carefully planned story, leading them from scene to scene.  Been there, done that.

One of my favorite things about returning to old school gaming is allowing the story to emerge from the actions of the  players instead of plotting it out.  The two prototypical old school adventure types - the hex crawl and the mega dungeon - both emphasize the importance of player agency over DM story.

I've cobbled together bits and pieces of a setting that are held together by duct tape; it's based on Greyhawk, with some hex crawl maps, a bunch of adventure sites seeded on the hex maps, and a few home bases.  I generate random weather, plan out some things that are happening in the larger world, but the actual contents of each game session are up to the players and their decisions.

That's where the big love for randomization enters the picture. If the players are going to wander the wilderness or the mega dungeon, many of the encounters will be generated randomly by wandering monster tables.  Every single random roll is a chance for the DM to improvise something interesting on the spot.  In a recent game, a wandering encounter with a frost giant led to an exciting pitched battle, a search for the giant's lair, and a long cold climb up to the giant's mountain top castle to explore it's lair.  A random treasure map in the giant's hoard led to a dragon's lair in a nearby mountain range where the dragon was guarding a magic sword.  (The players passed on that opportunity, but it was out there for them).

Random encounters aren't speed bumps, they're opportunities for awesomeness.

I recommend randomizing everything.  When the encounter reaction rolls are random, the DM has to improvise.  Keep the morale rules random, so the DM (or the players) don't know when monsters will flee or fight to the death.  Roll characters 3d6 in order, and let the story emerge later.  Random treasure turns every hoard into a bag of surprises.

Seriously, what's the worst thing that happens with random treasure - too much treasure is given out, or an item is found that's too powerful?  When I hear "weak characters have found an item that is too powerful for them", what I really hear is that every thief, assassin, or amoral wizard around is going to be gunning for the item.  How awesome is that?  Complications are FUN.

Sitting down to play can be just as fresh, unmapped and unknown for the DM as for the players - that is a powerful draw for old school gaming, and something overlooked by the Adventure Pathers.  A degree of swing in the results is fun.  Note how the decrease of randomization in modern games parallels the increase of balance and the emphasis on pre-planned, scripted encounters in gaming.  The latest incarnations have gotten rid of wandering monsters, treasure, the whole thing.  "Ability score attributes through point buy".  Enough said.

At one point, Zak over on D&D with Porn Stars was discussing types of random tables - inspirational tables that help you plan the game ahead of time, and tables that help you run the game with the players present.  He called those "Fast Tables".  That's what I'm talking about here, Fast Tables, the kind of tables that help you build the adventure on the fly and run an improvisational D&D game.

One thing the OSR seems to be lacking is a consolidated place for hosting and organizing all the random tables that are generated by bloggers.  I use the DMG, the Moldvay Basic and Cook expert books, Kellri's CDD Encounters Reference, Dominion Events from the Companion set, and all the "PC Events" from Al's Beyond the Black Gate.   Maybe we need a wiki just for aggregating the hundreds of random tables in the community?


  1. I'm definitely with you on this. Particularly, I think that dungeons, apart from "special" encounters, should be filled randomly rather than "logically".

    And we definitely need a "Master Index of OSR Random Tables" somewhere.

  2. This is a project I'm beginning to tackle, but I want the "Master List" to be dynamic, where the OSR community can always contribute new entries, keeping the tables dynamic and alive. A mobile "roller" app married to this community-driven resource would be a killer app!

  3. This is a rather timely post for me:

  4. I've been recently thinking about what separated old school gaming, and I think this is it. That you have a set world where stuff happens whether you do anything or not, so if you do something and change it, you're making a difference. Even if it isn't world changing. If the plot has been set to change the world, you're not actually making a difference anymore. So I think you're right on about the random tables, I don't agree with rolling stats 3d6 in order. That only works if like OD&D they didn't actually matter much, but as editions moved on, the stats mattered more and more, so either you need to make sure that stats are just fluff, while the majority of mechanical ability comes from race and class selection, or you need to have something other than roll 3d6.

  5. Your idea about a group wiki/shared doc sounds like a good one. I've started a Google doc in which I simply copy and paste all the monsters that bloggers post, but I'm not as exact, methodical or encompassing as many out there (no names). One big reason I've not pushed it out to the public realm is concern for copyright. I'm not sure who is taking ideas from what. Also, many who create their own monsters don't include permissions (I'm guilty of this myself). I look forward to your further thoughts.

  6. Thanks for the shout-out; you are right that I didn't really focus on randomization, which is indeed a key part of OSR gaming. As a big fan of random tables myself, I LOVE your idea of a group wiki on the topic -- keep us posted!

  7. Beedo, that is a fantastic idea. Unfortunately for me, I tend to fall on the chaotic side of the organizational skills chart so I won't be able to participate. But of course I'm ready to reap the benefits of someone else's blood, sweat and tears ;).

  8. Inspired by love of random tables, I present: