Happy March! Here in the Pacific Northwest we’re sandwiched between bitter winter and the slightly warmer temperatures of spring, but mostly it’s just cold. How lucky we are! Thanks for applauding my super smooth transition—this month we’re talking about luck and luck mechanics in games, which is different from actual luck. I would know, considering I lose every board game I play because I have no actual luck.
Do you like luck mechanics? Why or why not?
Melissa Brinks: Honestly, I don’t pay all that much attention to luck mechanics! I’m vaguely aware that some games I play have them, but “luck” isn’t like… a skill that I can hone, and it’s a comparatively uninteresting trait to me. Fallen London is the game that I interact with most often where luck is a factor. It’s possible that I could up my luck, but why would I fuss around with something as dull as luck when I could be raising my Bizarre or, I don’t know, Shadowy stats? It sounds so much cooler to be Shadowy than to be Lucky. And when it comes to tabletop games, I like to play disasters. I suppose if I made a terrible character with great luck, or a great character with terrible luck, I could convince myself to be interested, but luck itself doesn’t really draw my attention.
Nola Pfau: I suppose it really depends on how they’re implemented and what they’re implemented for. I’m not interested in, say, loot boxes or virtual slot machines. Random drops in MMOs or other games are fine, because they’re not the purpose, you know? I’m there to play the game, and if neat stuff drops at the end, that’s just extra fun.
I find luck mechanics most interesting in certain types of JRPGs, or in TTRPGs. Making references to Final Fantasy VII might as well be a running joke for me at this stage, but that’s a game where luck is one of the stats for the characters, and it’s one that you can alter as the game progresses, via equipment, materia, or consumable items. I find things like that interesting because a) it’s like a constant check during combat apart from the normal stat checks, and b) philosophically, if it’s a quantified number and you can adjust it, is it really luck?
Conversely, TTRPGs have perhaps the most interesting use of luck with the inclusion of dice. I wrote here about how my Dungeons & Dragons character Intari has just the worst rolls—that’s in Roll20, and there recently was an interesting discussion between Brennan Lee Mulligan and Aabria Iyengar about how different platforms deal with randomizing those digital rolls. I particularly liked the revelation that D&D Beyond uses a physics engine, not a number generator, for their dice rolls.
Ennis Bashe: Although I don’t know a lot about luck mechanics in general, my thoughts go to the Wild Magic Sorcerer from D&D, one of the most luck-based classes I’ve ever seen in a tabletop game. For readers who might not be familiar with the subclass, Wild Magic Sorcerers “draw their power from the chaotic magics that created the universe” and have to roll on a Wild Magic Surge table if they roll a 1 on a spell. The results you can get from rolling on the current base table range from quirky-but-useless effects like “Your skin turns blue” to options that could turn the tide of a battle, such as “You gain the ability to teleport.”
I’ve never had the chance to play a Wild Magic sorcerer, but I’ve played with them in my party. From unintentionally turning everyone invisible during a climactic battle, to randomly summoning a herd of unicorns that panicked and stampeded our enemies, they’ve been an amazing source of memorable moments! I’d love to play more TTRPGs that use random tables like that.
Alenka Figa: I have been thinking and thinking about this, and while I am a TTRPG player it wasn’t the luck factor that drew me to games like Pathfinder, it was the story and roleplay aspects. So do I even like the luck aspect?! As a player, I do; it’s exhilarating to take a big risk and anticipate the consequences, especially in a fantasy game where the consequences won’t carry into my real life. I’ve started DMing recently (for teens, at work, imagine me yelling and sweating and stressing out please) and I am struggling with it a bit more! As a DM you gain so much control over the story, but to be a good DM I think you have to learn to relinquish that control to both the dice and your players. So while I like the luck that the dice rolls force us to play with, I’m also trying to challenge myself to let it really hold weight within the story.
On the flip side, how do you feel about games where luck is a factor, but not a mechanic (i.e., not designed)?
Melissa: I wrote this question because I was trying to find examples of luck mechanics (I wasn’t joking about not paying attention to it) and most of what I found was references to Mario Party. I haven’t actually played a lot of Mario Party, and I won’t profess to know anything about how the game’s code functions, but I feel like Mario Party is the poster child for unfairness when it comes to luck, possibly by design—as in, the game is coded to make you fail more often. Maybe that’s true! But I have to confess that I find the idea of a game that is deliberately antagonistic toward you intriguing. It’s a step in a slightly different direction than pure randomness (which, frankly, I also love). But games to me are kinds of stories (even the ones without stories), and the stories I love most are the ones that throw unfairness and injustice and unbeatable odds at their protagonists, so I also love “bad” luck, or unfair luck, or antagonistic game design disguised as randomness.
Nola: I think it’s fun! It keeps things interesting.
Alenka: I’m not sure I totally grasp the difference between luck as a factor versus a mechanic, but I’ve started using luck rolls when I DM (ask them for high or low, and see if I roll above or below a 10 on a D20) and have found that I want to use them a lot; I think they fall under that heading of “factor.” I’m not sure if I can pinpoint why I like them—maybe it’s something about playing with teens and wanting to support their creativity, even though they have really wild ideas that feel impossible to implement (especially while their characters are so low level). But I have just really felt the need for that kind of a pure luck factor: you are doing a thing, it’s a massive risk, and it’s unrelated to any normal game mechanic. Let’s just see if it works out for you and then roll with it, roll with the chaos of the universe!
Which games have the best luck mechanics? How about the worst? Why?
Nola: I mean I think we can agree that casinos have the worst luck mechanics. It’s by design.
Alenka: I was struggling to remember games that have luck mechanics other than TTRPGs, and some random search engine research reminded me of the game Zombie Dice! Pre-pandemic I played this at work with kids and even adults when tabling for the library at festivals. The rules are very simple: you’re a zombie and your goal is to eat brains, so when you roll your dice you want the brain or the footprints, which let you re-roll dice to try to eat more brains. However, if you roll too many shotguns you get killed and it’s zombie fail; you lose all the tasty brains you rolled. Because it’s such a simple game you can see very quickly if someone is the kind of player who will take big risks or who feels burned/superstitious about dice that fail them, and I think that makes it a great ice breaker game. It gives you something to bond over or argue about!
The other mechanic that comes to mind is the skill checks in Disco Elysium. I think whether or not it’s a good mechanic depends on what kind of player you are. Disco Elysium is so wordy and the story is so layered; personally, as an impatient, story-focused person, I found the skill checks frustrating because failing can temporarily lock you out of a path. To me, it felt like it slowed the story down—but I’m a totally passive player, watching my wife helm the controls! I can see how it creates a realistic and even fair sense of frustration, especially because the protagonist of Disco Elysium is so awkward and often inept. Maybe for other types of players, the skill checks help you empathize with him?
Do you like games that involve luck as opposed to skill?
Nola: I don’t think the two are necessarily opposed! I think they’re complementary when implemented well.
Alenka: As someone who is typically pretty bad at games (like seriously, I have spent a lot of time losing games that I play with children, and not for lack of trying to win) I do appreciate games where luck is a big factor! It makes me feel like I have a chance at success. But I also agree with Nola that the two can be complementary, and I think they are in many TTRPGs because of all we’ve discussed above.
Melissa: They can be fun! I think the key for me is that the game has to be enjoyable without being the winner, which is not always the case. I can have fun even if I’m losing—a skill I have cultivated by being the designated loser of every tabletop game. But if a game is quite long and designed to get people out with no way for them to interact afterwards, bad “luck” (I… don’t actually believe in luck, which I probably should have brought up earlier) ceases to be fun. It’s not a compelling story to lose in such a way that there’s no recovering from it. I know I said I was intrigued by antagonistic design earlier, and I am, but there is a difference between a game that is designed to push your buttons by faking bad “luck” through artificial randomness and a game that has no balanced counterpoint to bad rolls. I think that’s why I’m not fussed about rolling poorly in a TTRPG like Dungeons & Dragons—there’s a creativity angle to it, too, and if my character dies because I critically failed six times in a row, at least I have the opportunity to turn that death into a compelling story. If I roll poorly in a board game over and over again and have no balance to that… it’s just unfun for 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.