Lucky Dip DM’ing

Gary Gygax was famous for his love of filling books with tables, specifically tables where you would roll a dice (or two) to find an outcome or a prompt.

This summary on Futurama was both brutal but indisputable.

Tables for random encounters, tables for treasure hoards of the recently slain monsters, tables for magic items in the treasure hoards and even tables for sex workers to spend the treasure on. Indeed, long before procedurally generated video games were a trend, Dungeons & Dragons was a game where you could leave huge parts of the story in the hands of the RNG gods through dice rolls.

Notably though, this is not how Gary DM’d. By all reports he rarely looked at the books, never limited himself to the rules and almost never rolled on a table himself – instead relying on preparation and improvisation. Some people will say he included the tables for lesser DMs, or to pad out the books, but realistically he probably figured it was a more engaging way to provide prompts and information than just a plain list.

Today tables for random outcomes continue to be a regular feature in role-playing games, expansions, modules and even comic books about those things. To many the outcomes are so sacrosanct that, even in the privacy of one’s own home and a single player story, bypassing them is a biblical sin.

They’re an inescapable part of the hobby, and many people spend no small amount of time making their own tables for their own campaigns. Now, that includes me, so I’m not about to tell you that they’re inherently bad – but rather that a classic mistake is to rely on them – up there with relying on “a rare roll must always have an extraordinary result”.

Both are symptoms of assigning too much authority to dice, usually out of insecurity about one’s ability to perform their role – so instead outsourcing it to an inanimate object or two.

Why are you here?

Generally speaking the reason why we play games with GMs/DMs/Storytellers/etc is that we want a structured experience that we can appreciate on multiple levels. We don’t want our enemies to have random motivation of revenge, we want a story about how they’re hunting us down because in an early adventure we ruined their plans to become a god.

If you’re taking up one of these roles and not aiming to provide that kind of dramatic structure that requires a human understand to design, then you’re not really doing the role – you’re awkwardly explaining the will of the RNG gods and interpreting signs. This is, in fact, the appeal to many people since it allows them to avoid responsibility when it goes bad – but if you’re not responsible for what the dice do when it’s bad – they’re you’re not responsible when it’s good either.

So, whenever possible you want to avoid situations where the major direction of story hinges on a singular die roll where nobody is really taking any agency. You don’t want the players to be creating the story independently, but you also don’t want them to feel they’re just showing up to dub in some lines over a pre-scripted, rehearsed story.

Above all, you don’t want them to think that they real storyteller is the dice.

Don’t bad rolls make good stories?

No, they do not – good storytellers make good stories. The notion that bad rolls have some responsibility is a combination of survivorship bias and an attempt to put a positive spin on things. In reality they are more often responsible for disheartening combat encounters, outcomes that are deliberately forgotten and time wasted as the party tries to find a new solution after their preferred one is eliminated by an improbable yet real dice roll – to say nothing of the need to start an adventure again due to an bad random encounter.

They are willing to accept the the hazards of the dice, but it loss of items, wounding, insanity, disease, death, as long as the process is exciting. But lo!, every time you throw the “monster die” a wandering nasty is indicated, and the party’s strength is spent trying to fight their way into the area. Spells expended, battered and wounded, the characters trek back to their base. Expectations have been dashed, and probably interest too, by random chance. Rather than spoil such an otherwise enjoyable time, omit the wandering monsters indicated by the die.

Gary Gygax, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Dungeon Master’s Handbook, TSR Inc (1979), Introduction, page 9

Players usually feel obligated to try to spin these things into fun, mostly to help their friends at the table feel like it hasn’t been a complete waste of their time – but if they were the desire outcome then we wouldn’t have structured stories in modules and our planned campaigns, and we wouldn’t have classes built around becoming epic heroes.

The handful of good stories about bad rolls don’t come from the rolls themselves, but the quick thinking and engaged interactions that followed.

Why are the players here?

An oddly common misconception that a lot of GMs have is that they’re supposed to direct the PCs – it’d very odd given that it’s the one thing they’re definitely not there to do – but think about it.

How often have you seen advice on how to GM that insists you’re there to “teach the players” (this always seems to be by punishing their PCs), or decide whether a character should or shouldn’t have a back story, etc? How often do you see people whose (alleged) primary identity is a DM giving out their opinions as facts and often about what kinds of PCs are good/bad/etc?

The reality is the players are there to direct their PCs, including the direction of their characters, etc. The dice are there to ensure that, just like in life, they are never in full control – and the GM is there to provide the other stories around the world for them to engage with and interact with. You already control things that will massive influence their characters, trying to control the rest is kind of unfair and outsourcing it to dice rolls is outright rude.

But aren’t I the boss?

If you are paying your players to show up, or they’re your children, or you otherwise have some sort of external authority over them – sure but weird that this is what you’re doing with your authority. If not, absolutely not and shame on you for thinking so.

The notion that the DM/GM etc sits above the rest of the players and is the one in charge who sets the rules etc is one that comes from the old version of D&D and players who generally have forgotten that at the time the hobby was seen as a variant on tabletop wargames (so the idea of referee and adjudicator made sense) and Gary’s experience running test games… with his own children as the players.

Also while it was specified the DM was the “boss” in early editions, it also always stressed the responsibilities to the players to work with them rather than dictate from on high:

“The DM is the Boss.” The DM decides how these rules will be used in the game. A good DM talks about problems areas with the players and considers reasonable requests by them. … If a player disagrees strongly enough, he or she may quit the game. It is up to the DM to create an adventure the players can enjoy.

Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, D&D: Basic, TSR Inc (1980), DM Instructions, page B60

Role-playing games were also new so there was a general assumption that if you owned a copy of the books you were probably the one who was most into the game, had learned the rules in advance and would be the tutor type role for the “new” players (ie everyone else in the group). Also it was the 70s and it was all brand new to everyone.

Today we have fifty years of experience and information from countless experimental titles we can rely upon, we also have substantial social progress in terms of understanding of consideration for others, personal boundaries and what players can bring to the table if they are free to perform without step by step direction.

So when do I use randomness and tables?

When it make sense to. Oh wait you wanted helpful advice. Well it turns out there’s still a lot of use for random outcomes in role-playing.

Dramatic uncertainty

Everyone loves suspense and uncertainty… when it’s dramatic. The main reason that combat is so complicated and skill dependant in most role-playing games is to create that tension and drama. The important thing to remember, is that drama comes from beats – not outcomes.

Making a player roll to simply decide if they succeed or fail in finding a fence who will buy their recently acquired loot is boring – rolling to find one without tipping off anyone, then introducing themselves with suitable credibility, and then negotiating some sort of payment is story generation and gives the player something to aspire to have their PC do better (or worse) at next time.

And of course there’s the bit Gary pointed out about how your random encounters can sabotage the main event if they’re too nasty.

A flaw of many random encounter tables – be it combat with monster or considering financial decisions with harlots – is they go overboard with the scope of calculatable outcome and not creative opportunities or uncertainty. The inevitable outcome is people start to think of the encounters entirely as a budget concern – how many spells, potions, etc to use. It reduces the game to accounting.

Consider all these low level “random encounters” while travelling to a ruin/dungeon, and how they might be preferable to rolling to see if a higher level generic combat encounter applies:

  • Mischievous goblins trying to sneak in and grab some loot off the foolhardy adventurers before they end up killed and looted by the bigger guys.
  • Kobolds attacking with the intent on “marking” them by drawing blood with sacred arrows, thus making the adventurer’s inevitable death in the dungeon a sacrifice to their dragon god.
  • A squad of bullywugs who announce themselves with a horn blast and demand tribute for safe passage through their swamp – by which they mean all the delicious food the party has on hand.

All of these offer different opportunities for engagement, description and enemies with different goals. The goblins have a strong incentive to avoid conflict, and may seek simply to cause chaos to cover their retreat when caught. The kobolds may never seek to reveal themselves as anything but a rain of arrows that evaporates once everyone in the party has been tagged. The bullywugs may be the least violent, but the most disruptive.

Players expecting a simple combat encounter may think they know what’s going on if arrows start flying, – but aren’t likely to work out the overall goal or the outcomes. Its safe to say nobody is going to guess what’s coming when a bullywug heralds their arrival with a horn blast.

All three offer potential advantages to the party that is savvy and quick enough on their feet – much mores than “Orcs come out of the woods to attack you. Roll for surprise.” or overseeing a total party wipe when a Green Dragon opens with its breath weapon attack.

Messing up routine

Anything gets boring when it becomes routine – even… whatever freaky stuff is trending on Pornhub right now. Mixing it up and adding an element of randomness introduces novelty, engages creativity and creates interesting problems to be solved.

The thing with tables is they make it easy for exponential complication based on how you breakdown your probabilities. This is particularly helpful if you’re concerned that you fall into routines, and that your players have started to adapt to that – particularly when you have social interactions and combat tactics.

Let’s consider two scenarios for mighty paladin, whose player has been playing with the same DM for five years and is a huge algorithm nerd so has naturally slipped into optimized tactics for combat and social interactions alike. A DM could help themselves out a double table where they roll twice on a d6 and combine the results.

RollEnemy AttitudeEnemy Surprise
1Overconfident and aggressive/showyFlanking allies arriving soon
2Cowardly – will try to surrender/fleeMagic substance (fire, darkness, etc) grenade
3Overconfident and defensivePoisoned/diseased weapons
4Deceptive – pretending to be cowardsDeceptive appearances (illusory disguises, etc)
5Confident with 25% more hp/+1 attack1 special manoeuvre (disarm, trip, etc)
6Focused on “optimum” approachHostage/breakable valuable
The general idea is very simple, how the enemy present does not broadcast what surprise is coming or what they are going to be – suddenly you can’t rely on one strategy if you want to get the best result. Mixing it up when it starts to get stale requires only changing an entry or two.

So after resolving a battle with enemies who pretended to be cowards, and stabbed them in the back when they went in to claim that valuable, delicate mirror as reward for letting them “surrender” our paladin is stressed and needs to relax with some casual sex.

RollProspective pick up wants…and they have…
1Someone to spend money on themA jealous suitor prone to interrupting
2Exciting stories of adventureSome (minor) thieving tendencies1They’re minor because you want to make it memorable and induce a little paranoia, not ruin the session or create a whole derail.
3To get to bully someoneA thing for clergy and paladin types
4To be flattered by someoneA lot of stories they want to tell
5Dancing, singing and drinking firstA plot hook/element to share
6Aggressive flirtation and anonymityEmotional baggage to unload
I will not be taking questions on why I would think these traits might belong to strangers in a bar looking for casual sex – unless I supplied alcohol and evidence there are no recording devices.

Suddenly, there is no reliable optimum strategy to either – but there is a lot of potential for creativity, improvising, dramatic risks and being rewarded for actively engaging with the hear and now – rather than just the mathematics.

Inspiration and creative block

Sometimes one of the best uses for tables is to not roll on them, to roll and use a “vibes” approach to that roll or to deviate wildly from whatever was rolled. Consider the classic “loot” tables which are often multi-step, loaded with countless options and are – unlikely the DM, completely oblivious to the make up and status of the party.

They do prevent it from becoming predictable, to the extent that even treasures cannot be trusted (ha ha…. cursed items) – but that also means that a few incidents can make a party over powered, under powered, or make the players feel they have to change their focus and abandon what everyone was enjoying in order to use what the dice have supplied.

Not everything that the party finds should be tailored to them, but treasure is a way that you empower the party and give them the feeling of advancement. So consider you’re trying to work out the contents of a hoard, hitting a creative blank and need to get this side encounter done so you can focus on that villainous exposition you’ve been working on for nine sessions. You have options:

  1. Roll on the tables, ending with a d20 roll on a table of weapons and a 17 gives a khopesh+1, +2 vs elementals (there are no elemental creatures planned in the foreseeable future)
  2. Roll on the tables, ending with a d20 roll on a table of weapons and a 17 – decide that the khopesh doesn’t really make sense – but it’d be cool if there was a battle axe +1, which does 1d4 fire damage and works as a torch.
  3. Roll on the tables, ending with a d20 roll on a table of weapons and a 17 – but consider that the party already has enough weapons, so transfer that 17 over to the potions table and given them a potion of gaseous form so the you can add one of those “small entrance” puzzles they’ve heard of.
  4. Roll on the tables, ending with a d20 roll on a table of weapons and a 17 – but remember that the party has been struggling to due a lack of storage devices and decide that warrants not the item they really want – but one almost as good.
  5. Skim over the tables, not bothering to roll and then when one effect catches their eye – remember that one member is both less equipped than the others, and has really wanted to be able to talk to the mastiff they bought recently – they decide a ring would be boring (and the players have a tendency to look up potential magic items based on descriptions) so make it a broach of animal friendship, depicting a hairless cat on a luxurious cushion.

I also suspect that part of the reason so many writers create endless variety of tables of questionable value (ambient noises, for example) is that just making yourself list through possibilities with no consideration for the immediate usefulness can be a great way to break creative block and spark your imagination.

Inspiring players

One of the hazards of early horror games is that they tend to try to speed-run the feeling of helplessness by simply putting problems on PCs. Disabilities, mental illnesses, etc often with extremely problematic and broad terms such as “madness” or “insanity”. This is a suboptimal for two reasons – the first and most obvious is that its bad to treat these things as a gimick.

The second is that it while the direct application certainly creates the feeling of helplessness – it also diminishes the player’s agency, you know – the reason they showed up to this event. As Gary himself said, they’ll accept all kinds of risks – but only if it feels exciting (ie not having everything dictated like they’re at a book reading).

So, rather than dictate the outcome to them – dictate the stimuli. Be better than famous dead racist H.P. Lovecraft and describe what’s grinding on the mind of the character – then let the player advise how they react to this. It’s not dice roll and then “You are paranoid/delusional/mad/etc…” you roll and provide an inspiring description that could theoretically provoke any of these:

  • “Your mind races as you imagine… no feel… no realize that there are slivers of light that you cannot perceive dancing over your skull.”
  • “Past the edges of your vision, you realize that there is movement of things that will forever beyond your vision – dark slithering beings of incorporeal malice…”
  • “An itch burns inside your brain, deep within it – so deep you were not aware it could go that deep – the sensation brings you to awareness of parts of you that you didn’t know exist… you still don’t know if you believe they could…”

Then turn to the player to decide how their character responds to this internally and externally – then work with them to let them develop how this has changed them. Not only do you avoid any issues of people getting a result they’re not comfortable with, feel uninspired by, etc but as it happens as part of a narrative they’re involved in they’re more likely to remember it, be inspired by it and be more invested in.

Also you get to have tons of fun writing these weird, evocative but impossible descriptions.

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    They’re minor because you want to make it memorable and induce a little paranoia, not ruin the session or create a whole derail.

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