I’ve been reading Steward Woods’ Eurogames, a book that aims to lay out an overview of the origins, design trends, and culture around German-style board games. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there, but one thing in particular that stands out is the discussion of how different types of games use randomness.
In board games in general, randomness is optional, but people view it as having a certain kind of value, in that it prevents pure skill from being too dominant (so a wider range of people can enjoy the game) and it can add replay value through random variety. There’s a spectrum of randomness, with games of pure skill like chess on one end, and games of pure chance like Chutes & Ladders on the other, and most games living somewhere in the middle. That alone is a stark contrast to RPGs, where with a few exceptions, people tend to regard randomness as simply non-optional.
There are several different things that divide eurogames from tabletop games of other design traditions, but one of the big ones is not the presence of randomness, but rather the ways in which games use randomness. Wargames seek to simulate war, and war is unpredictable. Competent generals do what they can to improve their chances of success, to tilt the die roll in their favor, but the realities are such that it makes sense that there’s a random component to the success or failure of whatever you attempt to do. D&D took up this approach to randomness, where you choose a course of action and then see if it succeeds, presumably from its wargame antecedents, and (partly but not entirely due to D&D’s massive influence), it’s become deeply ingrained in hobby games in the English-speaking world in general, including RPGs, and that in turn has greatly influenced video games. In contrast, by and large eurogames use randomness to determine what options you have in front of you, but don’t leave you to roll the dice to determine if they succeed. In Catan (to pick a well-known example) you roll dice to see what materials the players accrue, but there’s no roll to see if you can successfully build a city. Once you meet the requirements, you can get a city, and that’s that.
Playing RPGs can instill a feeling that a character’s actions are fully real unless there’s a clatter of dice and a random chance of success or failure. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it’s important to recognize it as the arbitrary construct that it is. Looking at RPGs through this lens, I can think of a few RPGs that operate on a more eurogame-like model of randomness, though of course they’re the exception to the rule. Dogs in the Vineyard has you roll dice for your available resources first and then play a sort of poker game with the rolled dice, Hot Guys Making Out has you take turns playing cards and narrate according to the options afforded by your card’s suit and rank, and Restless uses randomness to determine which scene card you will play through and then leaves the rest up to narration and choice. Although it’s not required, I think there is a definite strength in RPG mechanics that have an element of “tangibility,” keying certain things to some physical activity at the game table, whether it’s traditional dice rolling, marking things down on paper, or pulling a Jenga block in a game of Dread.
Randomness always has a chance of screwing you over, and that’s probably the biggest way it can be frustrating. An evening of D&D where you never roll above a 7 on the d20 is a statistical outlier, but it’s nonetheless something that can and does happen, as does the adventure where the critical hits seem to flow freely. D&D compounds this with random damage, so that even if one die decides to be your friend another may feel differently, and further adds the fact that there is a definite double standard for magical and physical actions. It teaches us that non-magical things are simply never allowed to just succeed without a die roll, which is exactly the kind of absolute a game designer should avoid. It also leads to all kinds of odd moments when we try to apply a paradigm of randomness originally invented for simulating historical battles to things like perception and social encounters without a lot of thought given to what purpose they actually serve. Perception checks are a natural idea, but they too often wind up being a tedious gameplay element.
Changing the fundamental purpose of randomness in a game is a pretty big deal, and that’s true of all kinds of games, not just RPGs. Chess would be a very different game if you had to roll to see if you can successfully capture a piece, and Axis & Allies would be very different if you got resources by drawing cards from a Resource Deck but combat was totally non-random. The RPGs I mentioned with more of a eurogame-style approach to randomness provide very different experiences from a typical RPG. For a while I’ve been saying that switching from dice to cards or spending points in an RPG requires rethinking some of the fundamentals, but I think that’s part of a broader principle that there are many ways for a game to utilize randomness (or a lack thereof), and that’s true regardless of the type of randomizer. Dogs in the Vineyard still uses polyhedral dice, but the way it uses them is quite different from your typical RPG.
Ultimately what randomness goes into an RPG needs to be in the service of creating an enjoyable experience, which admittedly is about as vague a criterion as you can get. It might be better to say that randomness needs to create the right kind of unexpected events. One of the greatest strengths of rolling a d20 to see if your D&D character can land a blow is how on a 20 you can have the whole table stand up and cheer.