Random Tables in RPGs

Musing this afternoon on @benlaurence1’s older blog post “Pleasures of the OSR: Secrecy and Discovery“. The thing I like about this play style (and I like many!) is precisely the surprise of what happens when random tables drive play.

Making sense of these seemingly unrelated bits of ephemera (random encounters, generated NPCs, found objects) means I’m discovering the world along with my players. That’s more fun for me than parceling out secrets – although of course I enjoy those as well, just to a limited extent. As an example, in my current Mothership campaign, I have the broadest possible sense of what the metaplot is: why these things are happening and what the future holds for civilization. But I don’t have much of an idea of the “map” between here and there, and even less about what will happen in the next session or next arc.

Crystal blue polyhedral dice on a reflective surface
Photo by Erica Li on Unsplash

The best example I can think of is the use of a random table to determine what the PCs find when they search a body. Sometimes it tells us very little about the world, though perhaps about the NPC who once held the item (e.g. “lipstick”). Other times, it can shift the narrative fairly considerably (e.g. “spy codebook” – who are they spying for? what kinds of messages?). Those things are unknown to me until we roll the dice at the table. It feels like divination: cast the runestones and interpret them according to what we know of the will of the gods!

That’s not to say that everything is chaotic: I pick and choose tables and other source material depending on how well they reflect my vision for the world and the tone of the adventure we’re playing. To generate one of the factions in that campaign, I used a random cult generator until it gave me something that almost fit. Then I made a small tweak to fit the world a little better.

Personally, I don’t enjoy the style of GMing in which I have a whole host of detailed secrets, and the players must guess exactly the right path of inquiry to discover them. The tables encode the world as we’re going to discover it, and combining that with Apocalypse World-style collaboration where it makes sense (asking the player of a character to tell me about their culture) means that we have plenty of shared authorial roles.

Like Ben wrote, this isn’t prescriptive at all: some folks like full troupe-style play where no one person has a larger role in determining the narrative than anyone else. Others like games with a heavily authorial GM who’s created a detailed world for their players to wander about in. Most of us like different things at different times anyway. Certainly I like collaborate “story games” as well!

But for some games, I love me some procedural generation.

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