Garry Newman recently wrote about the procedural created maps in Rust, his multiplayer survival game. He mentions how the random generation creates a boring experience; there is a lack of discovery and the algorithms and remade chunks start feeling familiar even as it is rearranged.
I think this really solidified my opinion on randomly created content in pen and paper games as well. Randomly created locations for games are boring.
I’ve often picked up interesting looking games and found its a book filled out with encounters and location details on any given number-d-number charts. No matter how interesting the encounter or locations on display its always incredibly disappointing.
For one a book of random encounters creates almost as much work for me GMing as creating my own content. The author might have done the hard work of deciding what monsters, terrain and what have you is in any given space, but I have to figure out how to make the PCs journey through the environment is satisfying, coherent, and naturally teaches them what is going on.
When I play games I love learning the setting and getting a sense of the challenges in the scenario. If the dungeon is taking us to a challenging fight with a fire demon I want the game through the GM to be teaching us that.
We can figure out how to use anti-fire potions when we had to go through the lava trap room. We learn that spells creating ice and water might or might nor hurt the fire creatures in the dungeon. And all the while we also get a better idea of our characters, their powers and how to work as a team.
That sense of building disappears when the next room is a 1d20 on a chart. We might have only fought zombies so far but a high number and now we have to figure out what to do with gargoyles.
As a GM I would prefer a book with encyclopedic entries on monsters and locations more like Petty Gods. I can read the book as I want, scanning through it without having to figure out the complex random generation system. During a game if a player suddenly asks what sort of statuettes are around or what minor gods they might offer a quick prayer to I can pull up the PDF and open to any random page.
Sense of Discovery
Some might argue that the random creation creates a sense of discovery. But like Garry mentions in his blog the procedural generation either creates a sense of bland sameness as it must rely on similar elements jammed together in scrambled orientations, or it destroys any sense of cohesion.
Even with a “themed” chart of the same type a random chart can quickly rob an area of sense and actual discovery. A chart that generates random lava themed castle rooms might teach players they are in a castle with lava in it, they still will never be able to predict that the hot kitchen will be behind the back door of the dining hall when there’s just the same chance its a bathroom or a lava pit.
Discovery really isn’t the need to find whatever new thing is coming, but instead a sense of finding new things in a predictable manner. As usual the Angry GM has written all that needs to be said on this matter.
Predictable discovery isn’t only about flagging hidden treasure though. Every video game about exploration worth its salt in recent years has done the same thing, put important locations on the horizon and then let you get there. Dark Souls, Minecraft, Witcher III, they all show you the cool thing on the horizon and you can literally walk/sail/ride/fly there.
If you’re players come to a mountain pass into a new area and look out over a plain filled with interesting looking woods, towers, and towns and as they descend every location is rolled on a chart how can they ever pick a meaningful direction to travel. “Heading towards that ice tower” becomes walk aimlessly through the fields chart, the forest chart, and the ice tower chart. The GM can’t build up to the moment they arrive, or authentically give that sense of the game opening up.
The Place for Charts
Of course random generation isn’t useless. When its used in place of smart location or encounter design it is. But sometimes it can work.
A lot of OSR games have made random charts work, but mostly because OSR games rely on a sense of weirdness and novelty to keep the quirky grimy edge they always strive for.
But randomly generated locations can work to create a sense of senselessness. In Fields of Carcosa: The Iceberg I have included an area where as the PCs move through it the next locations are made randomly. The area is meant to feel like they’re moving, shifting and can never be charted.
Random charts can help build a thematically consistent world. The header image is from a short lived Mongoose Traveller campaign. The galaxy generating rules in Traveller create the background to create a more complex world. The system takes away the boring part of creating the infinite worlds players might visit. Instead of having to decide every atmosphere and tech level of each planet the game does it for you and you can focus on the characters, story and events that will take the PCs through space.
Of course using Traveller’s galaxy building the GM has to acknowledge just how much work it still takes. The system is confusing and it takes work to remember each and every combination and adjustment. At the end you might realize you don’t have any systems with the right tech level for something you wanted in the game, or there are systems just floating unreachable in space. The GM still has to do most of the work, the game just puts a framework in place to get the basic parts out of the way.
The other place for charts is in gambling. And by that I don’t just mean when the players want to hit the slots. Some mechanics can create a sense of reward for player effort through a simple gambling mechanic. Stardew Valley uses this for most of its industries. Fishing, mining, and foraging all use a random chance to generate a feeling of potential reward. By using better gear and other perks you increase your ability to get those rewards.
I’ve borrowed the sense of potential reward in Fields of Carcosa by including fishing zones. The players can use better rods and bait to catch fish.
Random treasure doesn’t work for this since the players only effort is in finding the objects. They have no way of improving their chance to find better treasure without out of game meta powers.
A lot of video games that including scavenging under cut their resources by having them randomly generated. Why can the PC get a power that increases their gold found by 5%? The player hasn’t done anything to increase this chance. It makes no sense that the PCs abilities affects the outside world.
Overall there are things that make exploration fun in games. A sense of discovery and artistry and progression that randomly generated areas simply doesn’t bring to the table.
The best randomly generated RPG content has to be especially connected. Last Gasp and Vornheim both use interconnected city building to build moody and weird places with randomness.
Otherwise so many game books using randomly generated content feel like they are half full of half baked encounters and half filled with bandages to make it have any sense of coherence. If a game wants to do my work for me, I’d prefer an author to put as much work into the path through the game as the content instead of resorting to 1d100 charts.