Randomness 3

Today’s almost over! Somewhere between some graphic design work and some programming, I almost forgot to write a post for today!

So I’ve talked about different methods of randomness, here and here, and gone over some of their strengths and weaknesses. But we come back to the ‘why’ of random. Why would you want to use randomness in a game?

Like I mentioned in my first post on the topic; randomness can influence the feeling of your game a lot, and games can be ultimately measured on a scale between ‘random’ and ‘deterministic’; whether it’s luck or the player that control the game’s outcome. Very rarely is any game truly random, but there are a number of purely deterministic ones. Determining where on this scale your game lies is a vital decision in the design process.

So why do we use random, and more importantly — where?

Macro Action
In some games, action is abstracted, like in strategy games where the player controls things on a very large scale. In these games we often have what I call Macro action, where the player can do something which is representative of a lot of separate actions, all together. Take for example in the Settlers of Catan; the game randomly generates resources for the players based on a roll of the dice; due to the predictability of dice, they allow some territories to generate resources more often than others.

So what is actually happening? Well, we know that acquiring natural resources depends on a number of factors; how plentiful the resource is, how easy it is to acquire, how many workers are acquiring it, and so on. The game simplifies all of these factors in to a single trait; a rating between 1 and 5 which represents the ‘richness’ of the territory, and which corresponds to a value that can be rolled by two six sided dice (2-6 and 8-12, with 7 being a special case).

Settlers could have included mechanics for distributing workers and other ‘controllable’ factors, eliminating dice from the game, but at the expense of producing a more complicated game which would be deterministic, though probably not as fun or streamlined. Additionally, by making these things random, it creates an environment where the players are able to predict the game’s flow, but cannot rely on it perfectly.

This type of simplification can be used to represent things that we cannot control, like the actions and productiveness of a workforce. As you (as a player) are not the whole workforce, their actions are outside of your control. However, they have a certain amount of consistency which we can predict, meaning we can rely on them to perform a given way most of the time.

Uncontrollable Elements
Another thing we may put to randomness are Uncontrollable Elements; things which no player controls. Movement for monsters in Munchkin Quest is a good example; each room has colored exits and a die with colored faces is rolled. If the color is on the tile and the monsters can move in that direction, they do. The monsters aren’t unpredictable, but they are uncontrollable. This allows them to act independently of the players, without requiring a new agent to control them.

Risky Business
We can’t always rely on people to perform perfectly every time, or even the same every time. Sometimes people are capable of the impossible, if only now and again. Randomness is very commonly used to simulate the chance of of success and failure in any given action. Role Playing Games are generally prone to this.

Dungeons and Dragons has the player roll a die, add a measurement of their ability to the die and compare that to a ‘difficulty’ — higher is success, lower is failure, with top and bottom values (1 and 20, in this case) representing potential for failure or success despite the difficulty. The Storyteller system used in the World of Darkness games has the player roll a number of dice equal to their measurement of ability; each die is compared to a difficulty value — the more dice that beat that value, the better the success. Sometimes zeroes may be rerolled for extra success, and 1s cancel out other successful dice.

Both systems allow for players to succeed or fail, influenced by their personal measurements of ability. Adjustments can be made based on the difficulty of what’s being attempted. Both allow some provision for players to attempt the ‘impossible’, and to fail the ‘guaranteed’, making everything a little risky. It’s accounting for miscalculations, cockiness, luck, and all the other little elements that can go right or wrong when you do anything.

Randomness is great when you want to make something new and only partially predictable. Munchkin Quest and Last Night on Earth both generate the game map with cards; some computer games like Nethack generate far more complicated maps. Dungeon Crawl generates maps, as well as items. Left 4 Dead generates enemy and items placements.

Randomness isn’t always about unpredictability, but can also be used to create elements from a similar pattern that aren’t quite the same. In that way, we use random to create variation, rather than something new or unpredictable.
There’s of course, other applications for randomness, but I’m pretty sure this covers all the major uses. And hopefully this makes for a fairly solid over view of the basics of randomness in games! I’ll revisit the topic further in the future with more specific applications, most certainly.


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