How to randomize?

Hi amazing community,

It’s been a while since I’ve been on the forum (teaching during Covid AND getting married internationally during this Pandemic has been rough) but now it’s Christmas vacation so I have some breathing space. I ended the school year with playing a short (30 minute) game based on Electric Bastionland. This made me think about randomness and the need for it in game. Is it needed? What is it’s function? Etc…

So I’m trying to write down some thoughts:

  • Randomizing stats creates inequality between player characters. This can be perceived as something by the players. (especially if playing with kids) Now in this case it didn’t, and it was a one-shot so there’s always the chance of rolling up a new one next time. I guess that’s tied in with the lethality of OSR type games. But I’m curious about how much this is just an artifact from old style play that we just use because it’s a roleplaying game. (I know this isn’t a new revelation, but I’m just typing). Some games dropped it, like Fate or RISUS or lot’s of story-type games which derive their joy from the story instead of random emerging gameplay because of randomization.

  • Dice rolling in general is a form of randomization. It makes failing or succeeding at a task largely dependent on luck. Some people like this, some don’t.

In tase cases randomization influences how well you might do with a character. But there are other options!

  • In the game I just played I had some Mad-Libs style “spark tables” for encounters in each node of the mini-adventure. The fact that the kids got to choose things to fill it in proved way more enjoyable for them than rolling well on a stat or succeeding on a roll (even though they also enjoyed that). Even just having something that might alter the encounters you have filled in before can give a theme but an uncertainty about what exactly the adventure will bring which is enjoyable to me as a Conductor/GM/Referee… It gives surprise and wonder for me as well.

  • Electric Bastionland and Into The Odd have randomizes backgrounds/characters which doesn’t include stats all that much but give variations in theme and feel and starter packages.

So my first question for you all is what are your thoughts on randomization and it’s purpose in games?
My second question is what interesting types of randomization do you know of/have you used that don’t just influence stats?


Rickard Elimaa did a recollection on uncertainty here on December the 16th.
And congratulations on your mixed household !


Oh, that’s interesting! Gonna have to re-read it again later though. Thanks for sharing!

I’ve been thinking about dice and randomness a lot lately, especially in the context of player and character actions.

While I do love math rocks, playing BX D&D on Roll20 has meant very little actual rolling and often the outcome is that a capable adventurer fails. As a DM, I’ve been running World of Dungeons a lot, for which I realize that dice rolling serves to interject interesting outcomes instead of simple succeed/failure.

In the last session I ran, we totally eschewed dice rolling and tried out Diceless Dungeons. It has great little guidance for task success based on degree of Prep, character Talent, and Player narration. For combat, it is deceptively simple and I was skeptical at first. A static number of rounds are defined at the outset by the DM as is maximum bonus damage. Each round, everyone narrates their actions and the DM doles out 1 point of damage plus the appropriate bonus damage. The players divide it up appropriately.

We have a high degree of trust at my table. For a group of old guys steeped in OSR and dice rolling, it was the most electrifying RPG experience we’ve had in a long time.


My personal view is that random character stats are exactly what you suppose – a relic of old times. That said, some people like the feeling of “not knowing what you’re going to play”. However, I think there’s probably a better, more equitable way to achieve that than the current “Haha, your character’s highest ability score is 13, good luck.” approach. (And I say this as someone who literally did play a character whose highest ability was 13. I think his lowest was 5. In Constitution. He was entertaining, but nothing about him was improved by his terrible stats).

In terms of randomness “in general” for resolution of tasks, there have been lots of ways of framing it in the past 15 years or so that make it less a case of “Do you look like a buffoon for failing something that you’re supposed to be good at?” and, indeed, which give the players more control over when they succeed or fail. Some people really like this. I am one of them. However, a LOT of people in the hobby are in the hobby BECAUSE of D&D and either prefer the random hand of fate or at least have difficulty adjusting their expectations to exclude it.

I think randomness is best suited to situations when you really have very little to no information about what factors are at work – I did a lot of rolling for faction goals in my Blades in the Dark game, because in most cases, I had very, very little other way of determining how well one faction’s plan to assassinate someone in another faction was going to go.


I want to add an appendix question : “when to randomize ?” That is “At what moment in the process of the characters action does randomness hit ?”
I want to get rid of Fortune in the MIddle and Fortune in the End. I mean, in the Middle of what exactly ? Of IIEE I guess, that is : an answer to a problem that is now faded in the distance of time. It’s good to be able to track history of the hobby with such words, but now, it’s done. The word still hangs on RPG lexicons around the web.

The problem with focusing on IIEE, is that focusing on the process of dice rolling is most of the time a bad idea. In play, you want to focus on the flow of conversation. So what happens if you get all your outcomes as a one block of answer at the end of a lookup and roll process ? What happens is this : at its End, the process stops and someone, usually the GM, has got to come up with something. All the conversation is hanging there, on their face. Easing players into and out of the mechanic with important outcomes is part of the designer’s job as I see it.

For strategic games, other considerations come into play. (

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What you’re talking about is what Keith Burgeon is calling “output randomness” and “input randomness”. This is what I use instead of weird terms “Fortune at the end” and “Fortune in the middle”. Also, letting the player describe the outcome is also a way of affecting the roll after it’s been made, so almost everything in roleplaying games is Fortune in the middle. That’s why I don’t use FitM anymore.

I usually describe the whole structure of “communication with mechanics”, that is happening during a game session, as it’s starting with “intention”. So yeah, Intent, Initiation, Execution, and Effect (explanation), with Execution equals to rolling dice, is a way of doing it.

I usually go Intention -> modification -> roll -> modifications -> Description. It might seem weird that modification comes twice, but it’s mostly in systems where you can spend resources to “change your fate”. What’s important here is that, in order to understand this process, nothing that is happening from Intention up to Description is actually happening in the fiction. The description is what “connects” the the mechanic to the fiction.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Some are describing the action, rather then the intention, and if you’re using mechanics that self-explanatory, like “lock pick”, “sword” or “pushing orch in the river”, that will in some way cancel out the description, rendering it pointless. That’s why some people came up with with teeth, but I say that you don’t need that - you only need to remove the mechanics that describes the actions in themselves. Instead of using Lockpick, use “brute force”, or “tricks in your pocket” and let the player fill in the gaps of how these aspects can be used against a locked door.

I mostly talking about my preferences in how to build a system that forces the participants to communicate in a specific way, but also encourages them to speak up, instead of just rolling plastics and state their mechanical effects.

Another perspective that I go with when designing a system, is that the system should adapting to the players’ actions, instead of them having to adapt to the game mechanics. An example of the difference can be explained through this example: Should being prone give a disadvantage in combat? I say “no”, because I think that being prone instead should be described as being in disadvantage. See the difference? In the former, the fiction affects the mechanics. In the latter, mechanics instead affects fiction. The mechanics adopts to the players (disadvantage is being described as prone), instead of the players having to adopt to the system (being prone gives disadvantage).

Oh, and when it comes to describing when a game master should let the plastics roll, I think the best way is to describe that when it comes to setting a difficulty. Only roll when the difficulty is hard enough, and the game should describe what conditions that counts as being hard, as well as describing when not to roll.


Actually I love randomization for character creation, because it makes me deal with situations I would not choose.

I like stats randomization because I can come up with weak and flawed characters… and oh the satisfaction when I am the last survivor because I played smart and carefully, overcoming my disadvantages.

I like other aspects of character randomization because I tend to play conservatively, and feeling less invested in the character… it makes me more willing to take risks… which makes me learn more about the character, which actually makes me feel more invested in the character. weird eh?

I just totally dread point buying or that moment when I have to come up with a background. I love picking equipment and preparing for the mission though.

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Thank you! This is useful information! I’m not a fan of point-buy either! Just trying to get a feel for why. I like randomization because it’s a bit of a gamble on what you get and I like interpreting the results rather than coming up with something whole cloth as well.

Also, as I’m reworking Keep on the Borderlands and looking at B/X D&D stats mattered way less than they do in modern play anyway! Later editions started making them way more important. Which is interesting. The more important stats become, the less fair the randomization of them seems to be.

It ends up with the question of what the point is of letting people do point buy, since most of the times you are gonna get players with perfectly optimized characters. Why not just let them choose their character-types with already optimized stats and all?

Not so much. What I mean is that the representation that one must be either in one stance or the other implies an image of the brain as a very bulky machine : it doesn’t begin to convince me. That a human experience be as simple as a Y/N, that would be weird.

What you describe is in line with “input randomness” in strategy games : the hand you’re dealt is not the skill you display. The only relation they have is : your success would measure the difference between them IFF there was no “output randomness” involved in your success (like a good score on a decisive roll).

Mastering the system is a thing in xD&D culture. If you don’t engage with the (huge) community to learn the cheat codes and other cultural codes, such as the right builds, you miss on part of the game. Like, say, watching the Big Bowl and talking about it the day after the game, it’s part of the experience. So much so that sometimes, what you do during sessions is secondary : it’s mostly about being together. It’s not simply for xD&D : I’ve played MMORPGs that were actually grind feasts, with the real activity on forums. And many indie games are more discussed than played ! Oh, and : games are not limited to that, community is just a component of the hobby.

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That’s true… in that case it would be better to reason by differences with the optimized template.
A thoughtful warrior or a reckless cleric are worth of statting, as they are different and add something to the story… but documenting the default is not so interesting.

Also, with puny +1/+3 bonuses (implying 5-15% difference on rolls) I always had the feeling that d&d stats were there more for providing character inspiration than anything else.

I like the way Ars Magica did points buy, where you had a few points for skills but the more powerful stuff cost more than you had to start with. You could gain extra points by taking a disadvantage, so anyone starting out as a reasonably powerful character necessarily had a bunch of weird quirks. It gave a very entertaining starting point for playing a character and created some very funny situations in play.

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