Advice on randomizing the game


The trend in GMing since the early 90's has been to plan complex storylines and prepare for anything your players can throw at you at the table. This has also been my modus operandi.

But I'm interested in bring the game back to it's more "primitive", "game-y" roots. As GM/DM/Referee, I'm looking for more ways to randomize my game and increase my own improvization, so that even I will not have any idea where the game is going when we gather at the game table.

Yet, at the same time, I don't want the game to be so random that it collapses into farce.

I'm looking for suggestions on how to add randomness to the game without losing all control of it.

For example, one idea I had was to produce a deck of NPC cards. These are pre-generated NPCs with some background details and motivations, but no established point of entry into my game world. Then, whenever a PC enters a public space or starts a conversation with an NPC, I draw from the deck. Depending on who I draw, it may alter the course of the game or have no immediate impact. The point is that I am no longer leading on the players.

Ideally, I'd like to expand this concept to create random dungeons, locations, and events, but ones that still make some logical sense. I'd love to have a random chart that determines things like weather conditions, but takes into account the seasons and the environment.

I want to bring dice back to the game in a big way. I'd even like to reveal my matrix to the players, so they know that I am leaving things up to fate.

Does anyone run games like this? Does anyone have any advice? I'm I crazy?

I like your idea for an NPC deck.

One thing you might want to try to track down is a book called Toolbox that AEG put out for 3.0 D&D. It's one book full of such random charts...right down to pocket contents or book titles. It's not very version specific, so you could use it in any game (except for the encounter stats on some of the charts).

And no, I don't think you're crazy. I don't like that much randomness personally, but it sounds like you're going to put enough checks and balances in place to make sure it doesn't turn out too weird or, well, random.

This website
has a bunch of neat random thingie tables for just about everything you
can imagine, I'd check it out. Let me know if you find a better weather chart,
the one in D&D is so quarter-assed. Good-luck!

You know, you might have just influenced me to try this out myself. A note on the random NPC deck: make sure that when you draw an NPC, he/she stays out of the deck and in the same place, for consistency, excepting traveling NPCs, which can pop up just about anywhere, for some flavor. What I'd do is create a very loose overarching storyline, basically what's going on in the world around the PCs. And then let them fiddle with all that as they please. Have a good idea of the world and what you can do with it in most any place, but again with a loose feel for on the go improvisation. I'd try to stick to a playground feel, where the players are limited, basically by character choice, to a certain area for ease of preparation. Update various places based on what the characters do and make sure the consequences you enact are realistic. That's the most important thing - keep a strong, realistic grip on consequences and use those primarily to fuel the story. Make it clear to the players that nothing happens until they make it happen. I'd also recommend an episodic feel, basing the consequences and subsequent events on previous sessions.

That's all I've got. I'm new at this too! And, just so you know, I will be stealing your NPC deck idea (another thought on that-organize it by region, with the traveler's in all of the above)

Toolbox turned out to be a top-knotch book, and I rarely buy published material. I've already run two improvised sessions based on the book. Both sessions were wonky, but fun. The players all knew I was winging it, and they appreciated the effort.

They were, possibly, the best sessions I've run in recent times. It was very much a cliched situation with stereotypical characters, but that was somehow part of the appeal. The only troublesome part was trying to keep track of all the elements in the middle of the session. If I incorporate my laptop at the game table, I'll have an easier time keeping track.

I, also, am a laptop-at-the-table GM. Adobe Acrobat, a little program (free!) called KeyNote, and digital copies of your PCs chacter sheets is a good start.

So, mr.NPC, any tips from your first session? Things not to do?


Not really. Both sessions were with different (and small) groups. Both were experiments.

The first was a standard Inn scene. I used the Toolbox book to define the entire Inn. It eventually turned into a stolen loot recovery story, which abruptly ended with a TPK. (The NPCs had a habit of rolling 20s while the PCs had a habit of rolling 1s. Shit happens!)

The second session started at the mouth of a dungeon. The PCs were looking for an artifact (randomly created) and the dungeon was randomly spiced up. I pre-rolled for the dungeon denizens and limited it to 3 "monsters" which I then improvised a relationship for so that the dungeon would have something resembling a sensible ecology. The session was called after 3 hours because we all had responsibilities to tend to.

I played fast and loose with the rules since I was running the sessions with casual gamers.

Battlemats, dungeon tiles and minis definitely helped me keep track of the elements since I didn't have proper notes.

I tend to be a character-oriented GM, so, I can usually turn an "evening at the inn" into an exciting night of gaming. I find that my players will always assume the worst intentions for every NPC, and I play into those fears.

Actually, that leads me to a question. How do you stop a PC-to-NPC conversation when it's becoming a waste of time? I don't know how many times I've tried to bring closure to these conversations only to find my players become more suspicious of the NPC. Should every NPC have an adventure hook in him/her?

Actually, that leads me to a question. How do you stop a PC-to-NPC conversation when it's becoming a waste of time? I don't know how many times I've tried to bring closure to these conversations only to find my players become more suspicious of the NPC.

The way I do it is by stepping outside the conversation and going to a 3rd-person narrative perspective, like this:

"Well, anyway, you spend a while chatting with X. They have plenty of interesting stories to tell, but nothing that seems of immediate relevance to your current goals."

Yeah, what LG said.

Also, it can be useful to have real life intervene. You mentioned that your second session was called on account of other responsibilities, so it shouldn't be too outside your players scope to understand that that happens to NPCs too. Many of these can turn in to adventures in their own right since you have snoopy players (I do too). Taking your tavern conversations as examples;

1) an angry wife comes in berating the NPC for spending all his time talking to drifters and ne'erdowells. She seems to have a particular dislike for adventurers.
-it's then that one PC recognizes her as a tavern maid from two years and twelve towns ago. He passed alot of Charisma rolls that night, and never looked back when he left while she slept. Now what was her name again? Has she noticed him sitting there trying to place a name to her face?

2) the law comes in to arrest him for failing to appear in court (for whatever charge you think the NPC might be guilty of)
-it's then that one (or all!) of the PCs are recognized for some past crime. Petty or not, the interest on the fines has added up to more money than they currently have. Getting put in the drunk tank with the NPC allows them to continue their beloved conversation, except now he blames them for his being caught and turns the other cell mates against them. Maybe they get a chance to escape during the ensuing fight?

3) the bartender cuts him off for having an unpaid tab and spending too much time mooching off his regulars (tavern keepers like PCs money, though not necessarily what they do to furniture in brawls)
-to prove his point during the ensuing arguement, the barkeep pulls out his big huge dusty book he keeps track of unpaid tabs in and shows the man. Lo and behold, someone with the exact same name as one of the PCs also has a VERY large unpaid tab, and a note attached saying not to serve them and call the watch. "Hey, wait a with the feather in your hat...what did you say your name was again?" (this works well on anyone that likes to say their name often...barbarians, bards, paladins) It doesn't matter that it isn't the PC, the barkeep is new here and has already been threatened with being fired once. He doesn't remember every customer, and especially not tabs from before he worked here. No, I'm sorry but the manager isn't in till Tuesday. No matter how big (or convincing) the PC is, this guy isn't going to get fired over it. He has a wife and 8 kids to feed etc. etc. etc.

4) the NPC gets bored with having his time wasted and says so
-let the PCs have their fun with this one. Make it so he really *is* up to something. Otherwise, they'll eventually stop paying attention to your red herrings.

All of these play well into your randomized and freeform style. They also have the dual advantage of taking the attention off the NPC that is wasting *your* time as the GM and puts it onto someone else; someone that can provide some excitement, even if it isn't attached to the main plot.

Really, no matter what you do, it sounds like the PCs will think it's some kind of plot or lie. That's okay too. An entire evenings session can be spent stalking the NPC to discover his true nefarious goals, only to discover he was only running errands before going to work drunk. If he works the late shift at the graveyard, this could be pretty exciting; though it may also end in frustration when they attack him, kill him, and then find out he was the mayors brother. Getting banned from town, or chased out with torches and pitchforks, is a great turn of events considering they thought they were playing the heros and protecting the town from this heinous individual.

If all else fails, step out of character and ask them, "if everyone who cuts a conversation off is up to something...where did you all go last week after we had to stop our session early?"

Feel lucky though; some GMs can't get their PCs to talk to NPCs at all after they've asked directions to the mill/mine/cave/temple/cursed bakery.

(a cautionary note on Toolbox. I had it by my side while running for years when I used the d20 system. It can make things stale very fast if used overmuch. The name lists get used up fast, the Tavern names are only really half good to begin with, and after a couple years *all* the lists will start to fall flat for you. I always liked it more as a planning aid first and foremost, for picking thngs that really didn't matter much anyways. I think I can count the times that I actually rolled on any of the charts whilst running a session on one hand.)