The Die is Cast: Random Tables for Fun and Profit

Random tables are a big part of the flavor of old-school D&D. Early editions of the game are packed with all manner of charts, tables and sub-tables to determine random results for treasure, wandering monsters and more. Who can forget the Potion Miscibility Table or the Harlot Encounter Table? There’s even a set of tables for randomly creating an entire dungeon! Gary Gygax clearly loved making tables, and I’m finding that it’s still a fun thing to do.

Why would you want to use a randomizer for anything other than task resolution? One good reason: Impromptu tables give the DM an opportunity to be surprised by what’s coming up, just like the players.

Example: At the end of a previous session of my Glantri game, the medium Erwan Roparzh was captured by orcs while the rest of the party fled. I wasn’t sure what would happen to Erwan, but it was important to resolve. Aside from the party’s interest in rescuing him, we’d already determined that as a part of his special ability, his death would unleash a demon. If he died and the demon emerged, that would have a big impact on what resistance the party faced on their return.

So I scribbled up a table:

What happens to Erwan Roparzh? Roll 1d4:

    1: He is killed on the spot. The demon comes forth! 4d6 orcs are killed. Roll 1d4. (1: Troll kills demon. 2: Troll and orcs drive demon into wilderness. 3: Troll is defeated and hides. 4: Troll is killed.)
    2: He is kept prisoner; they are fattening him up for a feast! 50% chance that Gnormok, the goblin trader, leaves the area with Erwan’s spellbook.
    3: He escapes in the confusion. Orcs are dumb!
    4: Gnormok buys him from the orcs and takes him south to be sold as a slave.

I rolled a 1: the ideal result for the party! The orc tribe lost 17 orcs that day and their pet troll was badly burned. This had an enormous affect on play! I also got to be pleasantly surprised; I like it when the party does well, but I don’t like to feel that I’m making it too easy.

The second reason for making up your own tables may be a more important one: Impromptu tables help to keep the DM from getting into a rut.

For instance, if I’m not paying attention, my NPCs tend to be wary and taciturn. So I use the NPC random personality trait charts found in modules B1 and B2. Now, if the roll indicates that a hireling is Cheerful, Talkative (which comes up a lot), Friendly or Trusting, well, now I have to play the NPC that way. The game world feels a little more real, play has more variety to it, and I don’t have to do any pre-planning to break out of my rut.

This may sound like a lot of effort. But you don’t need to write complicated tables or even memorize all the weird charts in the back of the 1e AD&D DMG. Odds are that you already make up your own tables in your head!

For instance, you may roll a die during combat to see who a monster attacks. (“Okay, I’m rolling a d8. Boarface is shouting at the beast to attract it’s attention; it attacks him on a 1-4. Gaël just hit it with a torch, again; it attacks him on a 5-7. And Albrecht the NPC happens to be standing in range, so it attacks him on an 8.”) You haven’t written anything down, but you’re still using an impromptu table!

In last night’s session, when the party entered the ruined town of Mienville in search of loot, I needed to know where Erwan’s demon went after it chewed on the orcs. As per Robin’s Laws, I could have thought deeply about which options were the most interesting, most likely, most surprising, and so forth, and balanced all of the factors to see what would work best for the adventure. But I wanted to be surprised, and I didn’t want to stop the game while I calculated the options. So I rolled a d8 to see which part of the town it had wandered into (1=north, 2=northwest, etc). Quick and easy, and when the PCs didn’t cross paths with the demon, I didn’t feel that I was being soft on them.

That’s a good feeling!


7 Responses to “The Die is Cast: Random Tables for Fun and Profit”

  1. January 22, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks, bro’. That made the game a little clearer for me.

  2. January 22, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    Glad to hear it! What were you unclear about? (You can learn a lot from other peoples’ misconceptions!)

  3. 3 Lord Bodacious
    January 22, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    I’m a big fan of multiple die tables – while this can mean more entries, I like the organic implication of some things being more likely.

    Make 6, 7, or 8, the most neutral, and work out from there with 1 and 12 the best and worst possible outcomes – “roll twice on this table” being a great entry for 12. (Alternately, a wieghted one die table as you’ve described above also works swimmingly)

    On a related note, I’ve been getting a big kick out of Al’s “PC Events” tables lately.


  4. January 22, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    I hope I’m not maligning Tu sais que, but I think that’s comment spam. It links back to a page of jokes in French, some of which babelfish out pretty awesomely: “You know that you included/understood why your brush with teeth had a so odd taste, when you have just surprised your cat exciting itself above.”

    A great post, in any case!

  5. 5 Lord Bodacious
    January 22, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    I was wondering who at the table was most likely to use the “bro'”.

  6. January 22, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Eh, it’s all good.

    Those “PC Events” tables are great! I don’t know that I’d necessarily have a use for them, but they’re super-flavorful. Once you guys get to Hero level, if you want to start rolling on them thar tables, I’m sure we can work them in!

  7. January 25, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    It’d be cool to make a Traveller life-path style character generation procedure for higher-level D&D PCs using the PC Events tables! Maybe the other things you’d acquire other than background and plot hooks would be magic items & equipmment, spells known, and languages, since those are the parts of D&D chargen that’s granular in the same way as Traveler skills. (Although of course you get equipment from Traveller chargen as well.)

    L.B., by “multiple die” you mean tables where if you get a 1 you roll again to see what sub-result you get? I like those too, the OD&D random encounters tables for wilderness (first roll gives type, like lycanthrope or giant) and dungeons (first roll tells you whether it’s a higher- or lower-level denizen than expected) being great examples. It’s easy to come up with six main categories and then generate lots of sub-entries within each of those, whereas I’d find it daunting to come up with the same number of entries if I were just filling out a d100 table.

    Despite my abstract admiration for bell curves, I don’t enjoy making tables where you sum multiple die to get the result. It’s stressful for me to decide “what happens next,” kind of in the same way it’d be stressful to be master & commander of a ship. Using random tables is a relief because I can plot various courses when I design the table, but let myself off the hook when it comes to deciding between them. Somehow having to come up with the extra bit of information a bell curve table requires – not just what might happen, but how likely is it – reintroduces that element of stress. I’d reach for such a table if a PC wanted to do something very unlikely, though; if the chance of success is 2% I don’t want to have to come up with 98 different equally likely but unappealing outcomes!

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