Thursday, May 07, 2009

Randomness and the Black Swan in RPGS(Part 2)

In the last two entries of this series I discussed the role of randomness in RPG task resolution mechanics. I also demonstrated the current shift toward increasingly deterministic resolution systems in electronic RPGs, and I explained why I felt this was a bad thing. Now it is time to don the mantle of chaos once again and discuss the other major set of RPG systems influenced by randomness, content generation systems. I will also introduce a couple of conceptual tools which may prove useful in my analysis.

In most P&P RPGs, randomness exerts its influence from the very beginning, at character creation. Anyone who has played any edition of Dungeons and Dragons is familiar with summing the results of 3 6-sided dice to determine a character's ability scores like strength, intelligence, etc. Hit points for both players and monsters are also determined by rolling dice. These are all simple ways in which randomness feeds into the content generation systems of RPGs. Simple randomness ensures that all orcs aren't exactly the same. The inclusion of this type of randomness also means that one player's 3rd level fighter may be more powerful than another player's. However, the greater the number of attributes with randomly determined parameters, the more likely most characters will trend towards average overall and the more likely most characters will excel in some area.

Random character generation was one of the first random elements of P&P RPGs to be removed from electronic RPGs. Aside from licensed D&D games and roguelikes, few electronic RPGs still have random elements in their character generation systems. In many electronic RPGs there isn't even such a thing as character generation. This is entirely logical for story-based games and games without much in the way of randomized content generation. But, when the challenges to be met aren't predetermined, why shouldn't an RPG utilize randomness from the very beginning to vary the game experience?

But when most people think of random content generation, they think of randomly generated environments, encounters, and rewards. All of these elements were present in D&D in the 1970s. In general, every encounter area was expected to have an associated wandering monster table. The DM made periodic wandering monster checks, and if one occurred, the appropriate table was consulted. This allowed the DM to generate encounters on the fly while the party was travelling long distances or camping. Wandering monster checks could also be used to punish players for making foolish decisions like making a lot of noise in a dungeon. The AD&D Dungeon Masters' Guide included encounter tables for all types of wilderness terrain and dungeon levels. There were also tables to generate treasure on the fly for these and other encounters. Each monster type had an associated treasure type with an associated set of tables for randomly determining what treasure a monster of that type might have in its possession. There was a very slight chance that even a weak creature could have a powerful magical item.

With the release of the AD&D Dungeon Masters' Guide in 1978, random content generation was taken to the next level with the inclusion of a complete system for randomly generating dungeons. Level layouts, environmental details, tricks, traps, treasure, and enemy encounters could all be generated on the fly by the DM. The inclusion of such a system says volumes about the way at least some players played P&P RPGs. It is also some indication that, at least for some players, the mechanics of D&D were fun in and of themselves.

Of course, it should be mentioned that the Dungeon Master's Guide explicitly states that the content generation charts contained therein are not to be taken as Law. The DM can freely ignore any result he feels will unbalance the game or which he simply doesn't like. However, potentially unbalancing random events are ameliorated somewhat by the flexibility of a game played between humans. If the players suffer a stroke of bad luck and encounter a high level wandering monster they have a practically infinite number of options available to them, limited only by their creativity. They can scatter in all directions, they can describe in detail their attempts to hide or escape, etc. The DM can then reward quick thinking and good ideas. Contrast this with early electronic RPGS where the only option besides fighting was selecting RUN from a battle menu and it is easy to see why the range of random encounters might have been restricted.

Now I would like to introduce two concepts: content generation variance and player input variance, hereafter referred to as CGV and PIV. CGV is a measure for the range of output possible by the content generation system given a fixed set of parameters. CGV is easy to quantify in a video game because it is essentially an algorithmic function with specified parameters. PIV is harder to quantify because it always involves human input. Sometimes, such as with menu systems, the human input is very restricted, but many modern RPGs are much more open ended than that. In addition, PIV is also a result of the way in which human input is processed and translated into game actions. PIV takes into account randomness within the game's task resolution systems(see Part 1 for more details), for instance. So, PIV is defined as the range of results from all possible player actions in a given game situation. PIV will remain a fuzzy concept, but will suffice for our purposes. A P&P RPG played between humans will be considered as having maximum values for both CGV and PIV.

Next time I will continue the discussion of CGV and PIV. I will discuss how they relate to one another and how they have changed over the years in RPGs.

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