Why is there randomness in games?

This is the root of a lot of questions I get asked, which is why I decided to tackle the topic early on.

That said, I’m not the first designer to tackle this question and won’t be the last. In particular, I think Mark Rosewater, from Magic: the Gathering, has a good article on the topic.

So I’m going to talk a bit about how I think randomness applies specifically to games like Metroplexity and Twilight Heroes.

Randomness Against The Machine
Chess is often held up as an example of a deep, replayable game without randomness.

But what is chess like when facing an opponent that always makes the same responses to the same board states? It’s not necessarily unpleasant, but over multiple games you can break it down, piece by piece and solve it.

You’ve taken a deep, replayable game and turned it into a logic puzzle. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, if you were designing a game to be completed and consumed, it can be a very good design.

But if you’re designing a game to be played against the machine, but still allow multiple playthroughs, you need a way to make its reactions different and unpredictable.

That’s an important reason to include randomness in games like Metroplexity and Twilight Heroes, but I don’t actually think it’s the most important.

Randomness, Archvillain
In the stories we want to tell about ourselves, we’re almost always the good guys. I don’t think that’s a particularly profound insight.

But, since we’re almost always playing the same role, that means the story and the impact of that story are largely defined by the bad guys and the emotions we have tied up with them.

I’m not talking about Midgard or Bind Mender here, but the bad guys in the stories you tell yourself about the game.

In some of those stories, I’m the bad guy for designing some devilish puzzle or nerfing your favorite strategy. In some, it might be a rival player. If I design a villain very well, you might identify enough to strive against them as an individual, which I take as a high compliment.

But how often is randomness itself the vanquished foe in your stories?

Hate is Good?
Because of that, if someone hates how random something is… really hates it from their belly, that’s not something I should take away from them.

I’m as loathe to steal someone’s hated foe from them as I am to take away a proud accomplishment. These things are the pillars of the stories we tell ourselves, how we tally our glorious victories and undeserved defeats.

Now, there’s an important semantic game here. The hatred I’m talking about is an emotion, the stronger the better. It’s the opposite of not caring.

So, if you’re rolling the dice and don’t care what comes up, randomness isn’t doing its job. Just like, if you’re confronted with a choice and don’t have to think about the decision, the choice isn’t doing its job.

The Final Battle
Okay, so you hate randomness. Randomness is your Sauron and you want to throw the RNG into Mount Doom.

For that to be meaningful, you need to have a journey with progress. This isn’t the journey between zones or even advancement through the game’s story, although it can certainly intertwine with those and strengthen both narratives.

I’m talking about the Hero (you) learning new things and growing in power so they can defeat the Villain (randomness). Some of the tools you might need are obvious, like effects that explicitly increase the chance of getting the encounters you want, and others are more subtle, like finding ways to end battles faster so your enemy isn’t as likely to get in a lucky shot.

Not everyone tells that story or has any interest in that fight, but that striving shapes the entire game for a lot of players. And how much striving is appropriate, like with any other challenge, is a question you can really only answer for yourself.

Even at the extremes, it’s possible to enjoy a challenge that can only be approached (never truly overcome). And it’s possible to enjoy something that’s given out with no challenge at all, although whether you’d call that a game is a question for people that care about semantics.

But there’s a reason iconic stories contain the journey and the final battle, with only enough epilogue to reinforce that victory. The struggle drives the story. And once the struggle is over, we move on to a new struggle and a new story.

Picking Up The Pieces
So, what’s the point? What’s the takeaway from all this?

Randomness creates variety, challenge, and story opportunities. But those challenges and stories are at their best when you can influence or struggle against the randomness. Even the variations become more complex and beautiful, revealing the new patterns created by viewing the sea of chance through the filter of your own strategies.

So, love randomness or hate randomness, these games are strongest with a core of randomness tempered by control. In your story, they might be cast as battling against each other, but in the design they’re an alloy that is stronger than either part.


Tags: , ,