There’s probably not a single player of games out there who hasn’t, at some point, cursed at a die or the amorphous concept of randomness. Leaving our successes and failures up to fate can feel as if it robs us of the ability to play—if we don’t control our actions, then are we really interacting?
The question of randomness is the one we’re exploring in this month’s roundtable! Join us as we pick apart our feelings on random number generators and dice rolls.
Don’t think, just answer: do you like randomness in games or do you prefer lots of predictable structure?
Melissa Brinks: YES. I love randomness.
Emily Durham: I have f e e l i n g s about randomness, especially in tabletop games. But in essence, my answer is a hard NO.
Tia Kalla: No, because too much randomness often turns into “the CPU is a cheating bastard.”
Maddi Butler: I like it in the sense of “this game has a variety of puzzles and encounters.” I want my games to surprise me.
Zainabb Hull: No. Some unpredictability is good to stave off boredom but I generally like to know what kind of game and gaming experience I’m getting myself into.
Okay, now you can think. How can games find a balance between on-rails levels of linearity and chaotic freedom? Do you, as a player, enjoy games at either radical end of the spectrum or in between?
Melissa: Phew, okay, now that I got that I love randomness off my chest—rules are great, aren’t they? I find sandbox games intimidating because I can’t figure out what to do with them. I’m sadly not very good at finding my own fun, whether we’re talking video or tabletop games. I even struggled with something like Fiasco because so much of it is left up to the players; when I have that much creative freedom, I find it tricky to be truly collaborative. It’s like writer brain takes over and I suddenly need to be the puppet master for everything!
I don’t like to be strictly on rails in any type of game, but I do like a sense of purpose and direction. I’m easily overwhelmed if you don’t herd me in one direction or another—I’m the player who has to inspect everything, and I tend to play characters in tabletop games who maybe… aren’t the greatest at following direction unless there’s somebody else to lead them. In video games, I’m easily distracted from the main quest in favor of whatever shiny thing is nearby. A random event that shepherds me back into what I’m supposed to be doing is a big help.
A little randomness, like an enemy in a surprising place or a flubbed dice roll, helps me feel like I’m neither on rails nor like I have so many choices that I can’t actually choose anything. It’s a delicate balance, and in video games it’s pretty easy to see that “randomness” often isn’t actually random. Just give me the illusion that this is a living, breathing world and I’ll let it go.
Emily: Full disclosure, my answers will be made almost exclusively with tabletop board games in mind. For me, it boils down to this: a game either needs to be entirely based on randomness and thus strategically dealt with through probabilities—i.e. poker and other card games—or it needs to leave very little to chance. Freedom in my book comes in the form of strategic planning, the freedom to decide what I want to do and execute those plans when it comes time. It’s choice, but more than that, it’s getting to choose a game plan ahead of time and being free to execute that strategy when the time comes. I want my only real contingency plans to arise as a result of other players’ actions.
Tia: I can’t imagine a tabletop game without randomness. I think it works there because you’re not playing a tabletop to “win,” but to improv a story. Some of the best (read: most hilarious) stories in D&D have come out of natural 1s. But in video games, I get frustrated with too much randomness because it gets in the way of an actual skill challenge. Did you really “win” a game if you just rolled the right number on the die enough times? I definitely lean toward attacks and weapons that have good hit rates over higher attack. On the other hand, I don’t want a game to be completely procedural; I want to be surprised. Randomizers and roguelikes without permadeath, such as Azure Dreams and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon are a nice compromise to me, because I can be continually surprised while also making progress.
Freedom in my book comes in the form of strategic planning, the freedom to decide what I want to do and execute those plans when it comes time.
Maddi: I love both linearity and chaotic freedom. I love big open worlds because I can roam and explore to my heart’s content. I love linear games because of that sweet, sweet narrative. Say what you will about the ending of Kingdom Hearts 3, but I think it did a pretty good job of balancing freedom and linearity—there are always things to explore, but eventually it funnels you back into progressing the narrative. I think the game that did an even better job of this is Horizon Zero Dawn.
I like what Melissa said about randomness giving you a gentle push to get back to the narrative. One specific example of this I can think of is coming across an enemy that’s way too strong after wandering around for a while. As a player it makes me go, “I probably shouldn’t be here yet,” and then I carry on my merry way. I like some challenge in my video games, and I think randomness can add to that challenge in a really positive way. In Final Fantasy XIII, you never really know when an Eidolon will appear, and the randomness of that challenge means you have to do some puzzle-solving to get through the battle. It feels like I’ve earned a victory.
Zainabb: I agree, I love open world games that offer the freedom to explore and find your own adventures (and I love seeing how far I can push a game of D&D or storytelling tabletop games like Gloom) but too much freedom can be overwhelming. Like Melissa, I always want to complete all of the sidequests, and there’s comfort in a relatively linear main quest or narrative; I know I can spend time adventuring and then come back to the main event when I’m ready. I like Maddi’s example of finding enemies that are too strong as an indicator to return to your primary objectives. It provides some constraints without feeling claustrophobic or dull.
Let’s get a little philosophical: can games ever have true randomness?
Melissa: From what I understand, video games really can’t—even random number generators are not truly random because they rely on existing rules and algorithms, and as we all know, dice are all broken and busted. “Random” events in video games, like those that happen as you explore Skyrim, are pulled from an event table much like the ones I use in D&D.
Thinking a little deeper, I feel like the most “random” thing that can happen in a video game are glitches! They’re often not easily replicated, they come as a genuine surprise, and they fundamentally change play. I find glitches fascinating, because they’re usually unintended—I remember the first time I found a glitch in a video game, which resulted in me driving out of bounds into a never-ending desert landscape that didn’t go anywhere and had no features. It’s one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in a game, because I felt like I’d done something taboo!
In tabletop games, dice rolls are responsible for some of my favorite moments, and not just the successes. An accidental natural 20 can result in my character absolutely destroying an attack dog in one hit, for example, forcing her to grapple with what it means to fight something! A failure can be a learning opportunity, such as when a player of the game I DM failed to resist a curse and ended up hacking up her own party witch a machete. These are memorable moments because of randomness—if it had been up to the players to dictate exactly what happened without the influence of randomness, I imagine they’d have gone much differently.
Emily: It depends on your definition of randomness. Some people define it as haphazardness or unpredictability. In other definitions, especially as they relate to probability, it’s considered a measurement of outcome uncertainty. My instinctive answer to this question was no, but in thinking a bit more about it, I think the second definition is valid too. But my definition is unpredictability, and there are just no tabletop games that have enough unpredictability to fit that description.
In video games, I will say that I really like roguelikes, in which levels are procedurally generated so no two playthroughs are exactly the same. That’s probably the game type I can point to that gets closest to “true” randomness. But even roguelikes were programmed, by people, to have a specific set of possibilities available in each generated category. You can always predict with some amount of certainty that in this Shattered Pixel Dungeon run you’ll find a levitation potion in a level with a trap room, and probably encounter a chest or two that are actually Mimics.
Tia: Programming-wise, the only “true” random number generator I know of is Random.org’s generator which uses atmospheric noise to generate its numbers. Everything else is just varying degrees of pseudorandomness—how well it can fool the player and how well the player can manipulate it if it’s known. The casual player might not notice a pattern unless it’s extremely obvious, but savvy or hardcore players who run through a game countless times might pick up on tricks and methodology. For example, if your popular game show only uses 16 patterns for its “random” cursor placement, someone might notice and be able to endlessly manipulate your board…
Analyzing a game’s source code can easily reveal the algorithms for how its random numbers are generated and what value it starts on, but depending on how the random numbers are generated and used, that information might not be useful in real-time play. For example, in the third generation of Pokemon games, a new random number is generated every frame (so 60 times a second), making manipulation very difficult outside of a tool-assisted speedrun. On the other hand, the fifth generation only generates new numbers upon actions, like listening to the cry of Chatot, which means you can listen to its cry a certain number of times to get the desired “randomness”.
Zainabb: I appreciate all of these insights! I don’t think I know enough about maths or programming to have a solid opinion on ‘true’ randomness, but I think games can create a close-enough facsimile of randomness. Ultimately they’re still constructed by people and machines, which places some limits on just how random a game can get, as Emily pointed out. But I think neat concepts like procedurally generated levels or worlds can create a sense of reliable uncertainty, so you can feel like you’re experiencing something entirely original each time you play.
Do you have any examples of randomness done particularly well or particularly poorly? Why do they feel that way?
Emily: I love card games. In terms of tabletop games, cards are the type of game that I like the most in terms of high amounts of randomness. But I have a very hard time enjoying strategy board games where the actions you can take are only revealed after a random element. Games like Stone Age and Kingdom Builder are NOT my cup of tea, for that reason. It’s one thing to be randomly given a set of cards, a la 7 Wonders rounds, and choose what you’re going to do with them, whether it be to go hard into science or military or to focus heavily on your wonders. It’s another thing to rely on rolling a 6 or draw a mountain card in order to successfully complete the next step of your strategy, and then you don’t roll a 6 or draw a mountain for the rest of the game. That’s intensely frustrating for me.
It’s the ‘pathetic fallacy’—I feel like the game itself is spiting me. We have a saying in my friend group: “The RNG (random number generator) chose ME today.”
But I do really like Sagrada and Unearth, both of which rely heavily on randomness. But unlike in Stone Age, Sagrada and Unearth have no pretense saying you need to have a rigid strategy going into the game, and you can deal with bad rolls. It won’t necessarily ruin your whole game to get a green 3 instead of a red 5. I think I just like dice placement games more than I like randomness-based worker placement games because they feel less spiteful. I feel like Sagrada is on my side, where Kingdom Builder is definitively not.
Tia: One of my least favorite RPGs, Dokapon Monster Hunter (not part of the Monster Hunter franchise) has battles that are determined by rock-paper-scissors. What the enemy picks is random, so I’m not really sure how anyone beat this game without savestates. Even one bad pick can get you killed, and on the opposite spectrum, if you pick right every time it’s possible to one-shot every boss in the game. Either way, there’s no skill involved.
In contrast, Monster Hunter Stories (part of the Monster Hunter franchise) uses rock-paper-scissors, but not completely at random. Different monsters lean toward different picks, and bosses have patterns you can learn. Rather than a gamble, it becomes more of a puzzle, which makes the gameplay an actual challenge you can get good at. Even the monster you fight with has preferences as to what types of attacks it uses, allowing you to coordinate with a bit of luck.
Melissa: Emily makes a great point about how randomness can be an awful obstacle when used poorly. I like leaving some things up to chance, but leaving everything up to chance feels unfair. If that’s the case, you’re not really playing anymore, right?
So I like randomness as an addition but not as the foundation. Ultimately, something like D&D is driven by the way you create your character, the actions you choose to take, and your creativity. Dice tell you whether or not you’re successful, but your enjoyment of the game is not contingent on rolling a certain way. I think a good DM will respond to dice rolls creatively, giving you something to work with regardless of failure or success.
As far as video games go, loathe as I am to admit it, Skyrim‘s random events really worked for me. I like things a bit more sophisticated now, but when I first played that game I was really impressed with how my journeys between towns always felt unique; it wasn’t the same enemies popping up, nor was it the same events. Sometimes they’d give you a new quest to tackle or flesh out the world a little more. Eventually you’ll run into the same ones, but it’s incredibly immersive the first time you run into each event, making the world feel real.
Zainabb: I think my favourite experiences with randomness in gaming have been due to other players rather than gameplay itself. Well-designed open-end multiplayer games, like Gloom, D&D, and some MMOs provide enough structure to make you feel like you’re playing a game and achieving goals, but also allow for players to create new possibilities in ways that only humans can do. Even games that are more linear, like Journey, can offer a space for players to do weird and unexpected stuff, which often feels even more enjoyable and precious by subverting the constraints of a game.
Maddi: I didn’t have any initial examples but in the time we’ve been having this roundtable I’ve been watching a little bit of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time. There’s a development mechanic where players can pay a certain amount of money for the characters to invent something. The amount it costs to invent an item changes every time you start inventing, it charges you once per each character attempt, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get the item, so it’s a big gamble every time. While the cost isn’t totally random (paying within a certain range will get you a specific item) it’s random enough that I don’t think I would be able to tolerate it if I wasn’t playing with a guide.
When I play games—especially if it’s a narrative-heavy game—I like to collect as many items as I can. I like playing to as close to 100 percent completion as I can, and randomness, whether it’s in Star Ocean’s invention systems or in something like a loot box would inevitably really frustrate me.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.