Randomness and “What Happens”

September 8, 2011

So I was thinking about the chorus of “play to find out what happens” that Vincent describes at one of his PAX panels.

Traditionally, the “what happens” emerges from a number of places, but a couple of the major ones are:

  • what the players choose to do (the biggest one, no question); and
  • what the dice say about their attempts to do things (which often leads to yet more interesting choices).

And I realized one of the things I really like about fortune-less games is that the interesting part of determining “what happens” has nothing to do with the dice, which in less awesome situations can become a crutch that provides tension to otherwise uninteresting “choices” or narrative moments.

Even in games like Apocalypse World, I’ve occasionally seen GMs (including myself, though less and less, I hope) reaching for the dice — especially “Act Under Fire,” which can be a catch-all move — when they think there should be mechanical tension but are unsure or too tired to set up the necessary narrative leverage to create a potent situation with an interesting choice.

Sure, in fortuneless games, you can still do cheap shock revelations and set up other lame choices that aren’t really choices (“Are you willing to kill… YOUR OWN FAMILY MEMBER!” “Choose between your own safety and that of the one you love!”). But there’s no dice to fall back on or help you spice up otherwise lame situations, which I find forces me to be better and think smarter about how I run games. It forces me to be a better GM and player, basically, where other kinds of games make it easier for me to fall on bad habits or otherwise mess things up.

In a game with dice, a relatively straightforward situation — “You’re fighting a dude for no reason!” — can be vaguely compelling just due to the uncertainty of how things will go down, but in a game without dice — just the interaction of player choices — you’re forced to try harder than that. Yes, good games that have fortune mechanics push you in that direction too, but sometimes I just want to be thrown into the ocean (without a life jacket) so I can really learn to swim.

6 Responses to “Randomness and “What Happens””

  1. skrir Says:

    Hey, followed your link here from the anyway.post.

    That’s an interesting point. Thinking about it that way while playing would also be an effective way to determine whether you should be reaching for the dice at all in any given situation.

    Do you have any examples of fortuneless games, like the ones you talk about here? I’d like to chek it out.

    – Kristian

  2. Zac Says:

    My first attempt at MCing for Apocalypse World didn’t quite feel right, and there was definitely an element of “random dude fight!” going on.
    2nd attempt is tomorrow afternoon, with 2 folks who’re brand new to RPGs.
    I, uh, mention this ’cause I’ll be thinking about this exact subject – how do we create tension and interesting conflict in play?


    • My suggestion: re-read the MC chapter between every one of your first few sessions of running AW. It really does tell you what to do, but it’s hard to remember to do it all, especially in the beginning, so you’ll find yourself falling back on old habits. Just try to pick a few things to really nail each session and then do you best on the rest.

      My suggestions for really critical things to hit in early sessions:

      * say what the fiction demands
      * ask the PCs questions
      * name NPCs and make them real (w/ motives & actions)
      * make maps like crazy
      * create PC-NPC-PC triangles
      * make sure your hard moves are actually hard

      Also, remember to make them roll session moves first thing (fortunes, wealth, moonlighting, etc.). Those are great for kicking off a session.

      • Zac Says:

        Thanks! I just had a good phone conversation with my friend Nick; we talked about your response here. I think the big thing is going to be making sure the Threat is present and concrete; that’ll help adversity and hardness kind of naturally arise, ’cause it’s got more of an angle to work with.


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