On Reader Mail, Random Generation

Mr. Cole writes:

I'm seeking some major input on a Convention game I plan on running next month. My goal is to run an old school crawl 100% randomly, complete with characters (we're using the LotFP generator on "Save vs Party Kill" website), traps, encounters by dungeon level, and treasure.
I'm hoping to find an effective way to just sit down, roll some dice, and move forward with minimal GM-Side table clutter, and likewise minimal page-flipping to get to the goods. 
So my questions! I'm right now picking and cutting individual pages from your "Tricks" and "Treasures" pdfs, to assemble a GM screen. My hope is to not have to use anything aside from that custom GM screen, a rules reference book, and a monster book. Maybe you know some useful shortcuts and tips from your experience with this subject?
Oh boy.

One of my former players (only former because he moved away from our face to face game by going to a state far to the north) had a fantasy of a complete random campaign generator that takes input and drills it down to whatever level of specificity you need to run a game*. I maintain the same opinion now that I did then.

On-the-fly random generation for a group doesn't work.

I'm saying that as a human being who has played solo Dungeons and Dragons with my wife using Ruins of the Undercity, an excellent book specifically designed to create a certain campaign style setting using random generation. It's fun to do solo, but not for a group of players.

Explicitly the tables in most of my books are designed for preparatory work. This is evidenced by their design. Zak S. of D&D with Porn Stars fame noted that you could take all the room entries and place them in a single d100 table, which makes it more useful for in media res use, because it reduces the dice rolls from two to one.

All hope is not lost!

Part of the problem with random generation is that, well, it's random, and ergo meaningless. This means, that for most players it's unengaging. Unintentionally, wizards of the coast proved this exact point in a video ad in an attempt to be funny.

The inability to obscure what's random (and therefore without meaning) and what's off the top of your head (and therefore not impartial) combines in the course of an entirely randomly generated session to remove agency from the players. 

This isn't true of localized randomness. A random magical item is exciting, as is a random encounter—because the tables themselves aren't random, but meaningful selections from a larger whole, when then adds a sense of discovery for all players (including the Dungeon Master) to the game.

That is the importance of randomness in combat, encounters, personalities and treasure in a game. It turns it from a boardgame, into a method to auger the actual reality of a foreign realm for entertainment. Who knows what will happen? Not even the Dungeon Master! That's a large part of the charm.

How to make In Media Res Random Generation useful

So what do you do?

Generating what's actually down a hallway and what's in each room is very time and attention consuming, removing your ability to play. There are several different pieces of advice and options that I can suggest.
  • Avoid using multi-roll tables. Have tables that are die drop, roll all the dice, or single roll tables for use during play.
    • If you've ever actually generated a "random dungeon" using 1e style generation, it's very time consuming, which is not fun for the players at the table. 
    • Part of what I mean by this is instead of using treasure and taking 14 rolls to generate an art object, try rolling on a table like 50 Interesting Pieces of Treasure, which in one roll, will give you something unique. 
  • If the point in randomness is for you to explore the environment at the same time as the players, you can use the most excellent resource Wizarddawn to randomly generate a hex and then randomly generate all the sites within the hex. (World Adventure, under Basic Dungeons and Dragons is what you are looking for)
  • Otherwise, you should spend your time creating meaningful random tables. What this means is not a table of what's behind that door, but a table of different dungeon modules with a theme that fits together and various options for how the players could interact with the modules as the explore the dungeon. 
    • Design the tables with an eye towards a meaningful unit. Hallway width and door type are not that. Complete descriptions of single rooms may be. A large part of how this plays out is kind of dependent on the real reason you want to try a complete random campaign. 
I hope some of the above suggestions address what you're looking for in randomness from games, and maybe make the convention experience a bit more fun. Feel free to talk with me on G+ about your ideas and let me know how the campaign game goes!

* He, of course, imagined a computer, but that type of randomness was already done, in Elderscrolls Daggerfall and Arena. It's massive, samey and in general, meaningless.

Hack & Slash 
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  1. excellent advic there. I recomend prepping a set of index cards for each potential encounter area with a couple goal areas built in, this can be done randomly ahead of time. instead of rolling just draw a card for a complete encounter. keep some of the goal cards out of the first couple draws and mix them in depending on how much time you have to get the game done. some cards like the goal cards should only come up once . you can even get fancy with a main deck and 2 or 3 ancillary decks that only get drawn from following other cards and options the players take so some thing connect a bit more sensibly (you don't normally have an slaughterhouse next to the princesses bed chamber). for a tournamnet game there should always be a clear goal beyond : let's kick in doors and kill monsters and that should be one of the goal cards with a few references elsewhere in the deck(s).

  2. Wow, what timing. I just put a “random” locale generator for a quick site-based Yoon-Suin crawl on G+, and although I was trying my best not to blatantly court the Quantum Ogre, now you've got me thinking that some of it might fall more under the auspices of the un-table-friendly random you write about above. I’ll be happy to volunteer it as a frog cadaver for dissection, adjudication, and criticism as a potential object-lesson of good versus bad approach.
    I’m very interested in how that line between “meaningful” and “random” is drawn. Do room stocking tables driven by a specific theme or setting err on the side of meaningful? I think I went this route for the most part (“descriptions of single rooms”), but does can this count as meaningful table tailoring without the user giving all entries a glance to gather more thematic insight? Is “roll or choose” better for solving this “fast prep” problem?
    The original intention was to provide a series of tables for quick prep/inspiration for a specific site, but some of that “on-the-fly” stuff crept in at some point. You've definitely given me food for thought when it comes to maintaining an awareness of that line, but I do wonder why some of us can’t seem to shake the obsession with attempting to do both. 

  3. You could generate a random dungeon using the Five Room Model fairly easily, but those are five rooms that aren't necessarily interconnected. The trick to knowing when to use a random table is recognizing how many steps down the road you need to see in order to make the choices meaningful. "What's in the box?" Not so much. How do the critters in this room react to the PCs requires knowing what they think of the monsters in the next room - Bree-Yark anyone? - and in that case you as the DM need to plot two moves ahead.

    And of course plotting moves ahead in this game is like chess. Every extra move adds an exponential amount of work to your considerations.


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