Idiomdrottning’s homepage

The Good and Bad of Random

The Good

Y’all know I love random tables as a dungeon mastering tool.

Surprise even the Dungeon Master

In the blorb style, the most important role of the dungeon master is to be the keeper of secrets. Your players can help you with rule calls, book keeping, initiative stuff, tracking HP, and so much more, but it’s your job to make sure they don’t know what they haven’t discovered yet, and reveal it to them as their character learns it.

That’s the main reason you even have a DM role at the table instead of playing all coop, going through a dungeon together. One person takes it upon herself to have that map and key and text in front of her, getting spoiled by its secrets, and keeping them from the players and their characters until they’ve turned the appropriate stones and pulled the correct levers.

This is great, this is why we dungeon master, this is awesome, but… there’s also a cost to that. You need a heck of a poker face (there’s a reason why a lot of medical trials are double-blinded), and, for your own sake it can be fun to share in the magic of exploration.

You can keep some of the magic of surprise by not reading future chapters too carefully, and by deciding “ok, this module is in this particular cave, I’ll read it if the players ever go there”, but another way to get this magic is through random tables.

This reason isn’t vital and you can certainly live with out it, I’d even say it’s not worth the effort and drawbacks of randomness on its own. I can’t say the same for the following two reasons, which are reasons why you need randomness:

A little prep goes a long way

Before I learned of random generation, I thought that blorby play was impossible. “Sure, you can prep a dungeon, but what if the characters go the the other way?” The second tier of truth fixes that problem. You can prep vast realms in a few pages.

The push-your-luck factor

A dungeon or wilderness area that doesn’t have a random encounter table is a sorry hollow heap, because with such a table, spending time comes at a cost. You can search through those piles of rubble or you can take an extra short rest or chant those arcane rituals but you risk being eaten by a grue.

This adds agency to every decision.

It’s not that sorry hollow heaps don’t have their place; it’s fine to have “no encounters here” areas. But be careful making such places because they’re also places where the decision space of the game dwindles a lot.

It makes the world come alive

This is the best and most important reason. Without an encounter table, a dungeon is like a dead doll’s house, every resident chained to their chairs. With one, non-player characters and monsters are walking, breathing, shambling things, and there can be something unknown around every corner.

The Bad

Don’t overuse random, or use it inappropriately, because there’s a few costs to it.

Mechanics overhead overload

Whipping out the dice every second comes at a cost to the tension of the game. Sure, there are ways to cut down the amount of rolls associated with encounter checks, but that only goes so far.

There can be such a value in long stretches of moody dialogue between characters, or between characters and an NPC, or when players are interacting with the environment diegetically to solve a puzzle, find a treasure, or avoid a trap. Dice rolls, just like any other symbolic mechanic, can mess that up.

You must write down what you roll

My #boatmode campaign is huge, ambitious, it’s the campaign of my dreams. (Please don’t be intimidated, just go ahead and start small, my DMing started with just the Starter Set.) I have shelves and shelves that’s all “canon” in the game.

One of my former players started running Yoon-Suin for another group, a campaign based on a small li’l book and a lot of tier two truths, it’s full of generators and tables and endless adventure, and at first he was stoked. At the end of it, he was exhausted.

You need to record everything you roll, because players will backtrack and re-explore, and rediscover, and change and mess with everything.

An example of where this can be difficult is in Arden Vul, for example the random graffiti tables.

The stairs leading down from the Great Pyramid (UP-5) are steep and cramped. They descend some 350 and exit into 3-2. The stairs were once flanked with brightly colored frescoes outlining the glories of Thoth. Today the chute-like stairway is blackened with soot, grime, and desecration. Little meaningful is left to decipher, although the GM may offer some tidbits: a flash of gold paint, a blue beak, some broken runes.

What is legible is a variety of graffiti, some informational and some obscene. PCs may find 1-4 instances of graffiti scratched onto each 10’ section of wall. The GM should roll on the following table to determine the nature of the graffiti.

Recording and keeping track of this is a major obstacle and difficulty. I get that logically you’d want some stochasticity and life to dungeon graffiti; some of it refers to specific rival adventuring parties, for example, and you don’t wanna carve the actions of those parties in stone (maybe they die rather than make it to those particular rooms).

Instead, if there had been some pre-rolled graffiti recorded right in the room key, that’d be sooo much easier to run these halls in a way that’s amenable to characters backtracking and referring back to things they’ve seen before. Especially in a maze!

You can some amount of “if they’re alive” caveats or some localized die-rolling (with a check box there in the book page to record). Because this isn’t a tiny leaflet like Yoon-Suin, it’s over a thousand pages of ready-made rooms.

Too much randomness isn’t fun

As I’ve said before:

Expanding randomly as you go hasn’t felt satisfying either, because if everything is randomly rolled as you go along, where’s the agency? South becomes the same as north becomes the same as west because wherever you go, the dice are furnishing for you, so the choice about where to go matters less.


A campaign that’s built on all T2 and T3 truths isn’t as engaging as one that has some solid T1 framework in there (in a cloud, bones of steel)

There’s got to be a “there” there, to paraphrase what the legendary Dungeon Master Gertrude Stein said in 1937.