Random tables as tools for deep design

A few days ago, Matthew Finch (of Swords & Wizardry) released the Tome of Adventure Design (TOAD; awesome acronym). Of course I bought a copy right away, but I haven’t had a chance to peruse it in detail yet. However, one passage did jump out at me immediately:

I should say up front that these are tables for deep design – in other words, most of them are too long, and contain too many unusual or contradictory entries, for use on the spot at the gaming table. There are already many excellent books of tables for use on the fly; the tables in these books are different. They work best as a tool for preparation beforehand, providing relatively vast creative resources for browsing and gathering, rather than quick-use tables designed to provide broad, fast brushstrokes.

It seems to me that randomness has two direct key functions in old school gaming:

  1. Inject impartial uncertainty into situations that would otherwise be hard to adjudicate (this is common to newer games as well); this function is carried out during game play.
  2. Assist in creativity; this function is usually carried out prior to play.

The first function, when properly employed, also helps create situations which can surprise the referee in addition to the players. This is such a common aspect of table-top RPGs that I don’t think it needs any more discussion.

The second function is newer to me, and also seems to be one of the core OSR referee techniques. I remember playing around with the random dungeon generator in the Gygax DMG, though I’m not sure if it led to any substantive adventure locations. I had the sense, and I think many people still have the sense, that “good” design comes directly from a planner, and that using tables would be somehow cheating. Using tables to design your masterpiece setting would be akin to Dostoevsky using dice and tables to determine the plot of Crime & Punishment (also related: frustrated fantasy novelist syndrome).

This seems to be an almost Hegelian process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, where the thesis and antithesis are random results which at first glance seem contradictory. The reconciliation of this incompatibility is what prompts the creativity.

There are several other good products that I have come across that are based on similar principles:

Leave a Reply