Tabletop RPGs and Understanding Chaotic Probability

The gamemaster screen for the excellent Mörk Borg

Chaos Theory is often misunderstood by those who have never actually looked at it to be the simple triumph of randomness over order. It is in fact the natural replication of order, but in an imperfect and ever-evolving way whose specifics are unpredictable but its patterns recognizable. Outlier events dominate when they occur, but are rare. Nothing is certain but patterns exist. A humanities equivalent might be ‘History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’

It has become increasingly apparent to me that explaining the deficiencies in how dominant ideologies of the present day process events needs a simple and readily accessible analogue for the general populace. Sure, my habit of blaming the extreme and (supposedly) opposite wings of monotheism and postmodernism for being the partners of maintaining an obsolete neoliberal order in our present age of global stupidity and breakdown is something I maintain is correct, but its also inaccessible to many. To get why I have this opinion requires an explanation of historical events and materialist philosophy that most people would not be interested in, if they even have the time for it. People know something is wrong, and they know that most of the people hired to explain these concerns away are lying to them or out of touch. They also know that many of the people proposing alternatives are very intense and extreme. Thoughtful but not formally educated people generally find the extremism of wingnut rhetoric and the hollow rear guard denials of unhinged centrism equally alienating. Surely, there is no panacea for our problems. Likewise, we clearly have to start looking further afield than the presently acceptable and ascribed solutions. Absolutism and relativism both are failures when taken to be universal principles. Abraham and Derrida both have much to answer for in their own special ways. Philosophy, politics, even the ways people communicate are hobbled. As do those with money and power who patroned them for their own ends. Probability, not certainty is the most important thing that must be accounted for by anyone who wishes to have a sensible opinion.

So how do you introduce the idea of a pragmatic probability to a general audience? By talking about real life places where it applies. Where both chance and skill interact together to create a situation where preparing and improving oneself is rewarded, but always under the knowledge that the roll of the die or the shuffle of the cards has final say. You can improve your odds always, but you cannot achieve certainty even a you do so. This can be analogized in many ways. Gambling, sculpture, game theory, the study of active volcanoes, traditional wargaming, your grandma playing Bejeweled. The way it should be talked about is determined by the nature of your own audience as well as what you know best on your own terms.

For me that is tabletop role playing games. At least, outside of geopolitics. But once again, more people are likely to be familiar with the former than the latter-especially when it comes to the fundamentals of practice. These are games where someone sets up a story and other players go through it not unlike a multiplayer computer game, but with the final determinator being not a software program but the actual game master, a human as capable of dynamic response as the players are.

I was introduced to tabletop RPGs as a kid in the mid-90s with Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Call of Cthulhu. By my early teens around Y2K I was already running Call of Cthulhu games as a ‘Keeper’, better known as a Dungeon Master (from DnD terminology) and henceforth referred to as a Game Master to include all potential games. I have played, and most often ran, games ever since in a variety of systems. Call of Cthulhu remaining my constant favorite with many others jockeying for my affection right below it. I tend to prefer more tone and story driven games to ‘crunchy’ rules-heavy ones, but as my Edinburgh-based former Pathfinder team can attest, I am also capable of running the more war-gamey ones as well. But even with my less complex preferences, it is important to me to run a game where dice rolls and chance play a major part so that the experiences transcends mere interactive storytelling and predictability.

Dice go beyond just pass/fail and enter into a new realm where there are multiple kinds of successes and failures and varieties of responses. The non-mathematical storytelling element that responds to roll results allows both the game master and the player to think far more creatively than any computer game could allow. At the same time, the random element means that no one is fully in control. What emerges from this interaction between fate and human input is something neither entirely determined nor entirely free. One in which dice might doom the best prepared players and spare the most incompetent, but only as outlier events. You can never achieve certainty, but you can increase your odds through smart builds and smart play. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. Over time, the proportion of players who play wisely (as well as creatively) will be the ones more rewarded. Not only in enjoyment of the game, but in material benefits to their character in the game-world.

Even games where the players are pretty much guaranteed to be doomed the longer they play, such as Mörk Borg or Call of Cthulhu, this can serve as a kind of death analogy. We are all going to die one day so why try to maximize performance? Well, because you make gains along the way anyway-at least for a time. You’ll think back on your story of how you got there as you die, most likely. Its not about the destination but the people you met along the way. Sure, the knowledge gained in Call of Cthulhu will drive your character stark raving mad, but it is still knowledge. And knowledge can be many things from power, to a greater appreciation of the arts, to a lessening of the fear of failure. Having a character that survived long enough in that famously lethal game to become a stark raving mad and phobia-riddled savant of occult lore with an impressive library of forbidden tomes is one of my greatest accomplishments as a player.

But for most people who don’t share my pseudo-tantric black metal world view this might not be so effective. That is fine, as most tabletop rpgs aren’t like the examples above. In traditional fantasy or science fiction games one gains power and riches the longer they survive and keep adventuring. From the many Old School Renaissance games up through present day DnD Fifth Edition (the best and most accessible DnD version hence its surging popularity right now), there is enough danger and reversal to keep you on the your toes but the rewards are worth the attempt by any standard. Perhaps most interestingly, there also exists a variety of games between these poles that do a good job modeling both the power fantasy element of traditionally popular games with the more morally ambiguous and complication-riddled side of the darker ones. Here I am thinking about Werewolf: The Apocalypse (and other World of Darkness settings), Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, and The Dying Earth RPG. These are games that specifically work into the gameplay immense ups and downs to create a roller coaster of experiences where the character is always growing, but not necessarily in a linear fashion or through constant victory.

The Conan game, in a great nod to its source material, actually has specific mechanics for both incentivizing winning gold and fame and also having to use these acquired resources to recover mental and physical health through debauchery and carousing. If you want to keep gaining stats you have to keep adventuring, but if you want to keep adventuring you have to recover through squandering your ill-gotten gains. On top of this is the momentum/doom system where successes lead to more die for rolls and failures compound into more counter-die for the game master to use against the players. The players and game master end up trading literal dice to increase their probabilities in rolls they want to fudge up, turning near misses to near hits (or vice versa). Fate can be played with, but only temporarily as somewhere down the line ones accumulated dice-karma will come back for them. The Dying Earth RPG takes an even more direct approach, with all rolls being based around six sided die with 1 being an critical fail and six being a stunning success, greatly increasing the odds of a ridiculous outcome in any direction. The game is built specifically so that epic failure is as entertaining and almost as desirable as epic success. The GM rewards players who play into their extreme results with a sense of panache with experience points, regardless of if those results are a failure or a success.

Even traditional games on the ends of the tone spectrum have variants that fudge the line. DnD has the Planescape and Dark Sun settings to create a darker and more surreal or survivalistic tone to its normally high fantasy system. Call of Cthulhu has Pulp Cthulhu, which adds an bit of Indiana Jones style punching out cultists and traveling the world for treasure to the staples of madness and unspeakable horrors lurking under the surface. Interwar dungeon delving with a cosmic horror tone.

The fact is that tabletop gaming still does what its more popular computer based descendants cannot do in both randomness and in player input. (There is one possible almost-exception to this rule, however). Anyone who has played-and especially ran-these games enough knows no plan for a module, be it the module itself from the game master or the player’s tactics at tackling it, ever survives fully intact upon contact with the random elements. But at the same time, a well designed module or player tactical plan is going to work far more often than a poorly thought out approach. Much like navigating life, politics, the sciences, metaphysics, the stock market, or even the overall span of societies, tabletop rpgs show in a clearly communicable way to a general audience the interplay of forces both outside and within a person’s control and how those come together to create a probability-dominated world where nothing ever turns out as you plan it. This unpredictability is part of the intrinsic nature of the game and usually makes perfect sense of even outlier events in hindsight. Dice results may disappoint or elate you, but they don’t lie. And how you respond to those stark numbers rolled out on the table can be everything. There is always an excuse for failure at something challenging, but never one for not being prepared as much as possible before the challenge roll.

The Glorious Subversion of Tabletop Roleplaying

Players handbook - small

As you probably know, Stranger Things is quite the thing these days. For once, a popular trend I can thoroughly get behind to boot. I haven’t indulged in any television commentary since what is probably my largest entry, on Deep Space 9, as very little TV is interesting to me or overlaps with topics worth going into detail over if it is. But I really don’t want to go into detail about Stranger Things in particular so much as use its reflection of one of my hobbies and the greater societal reaction-at least initially-to that hobby.

The shows seasons, so far, depict a time before I was born (even if the second season is only months away) and yet still so accurately depict the tabletop roleplaying middle schooler world which I was part of over a decade later. Before the internet was fast enough to reliably have all forms of entertainment on command in a convenient package, the tabletop roleplaying game served the multiplayer needs of those seeking dynamic, impromptu role playing experiences with friends. Of course, it still does, and its popularity if anything seems to have grown in time even with the greater convenience and sophistication of the electronic forms of gaming in the role-playing field. In addition to the obvious bonus of it being better to set mood and tone in person, it also seems like the tabletop can provide a greater level of authenticity and a break from so many of our indoor entertainments.

It wasn’t always so. In the mid-80s time that Stranger Things depicts roleplaying games, especially Dungeons and Dragons, was new and innovative. While recruiting agencies for child actors quickly saw the advantage of a dynamic rules-based system for innovation, on the spot problem solving, and basic tactics in teamwork, numerous hypochondriac parents saw a terrifying moral panic. DnD and other games were linked to Satanism, suicide, and criminal behavior-without a shred of evidence-in a first round of cultural wars waged perpetually throughout American history by the recurring trend of willful know-nothings of American conservatism. This was in congruence, of course, with the famous pursuit of out of touch politicians (chief among them the Gores) against heavy metal and hip hop as well. But while that campaign is rightly infamous in history for its ridiculousness and naivete, many people forget about the even more hysterical movement against roleplaying games in general.

There was a certain extra emphasis, in the time, of the danger of DnD and similar games that went outside just the casserole-quaffing church ladies and easily sensationalized news-manipulated suburban parents. It was a more general phenomenon, sucking in the apolitical and the ostensibly progressive as well. Keep in mind that the 80s was the decade where Baby Boomers first started becoming one of the more politically powerful constituencies, which in turn mean a lot of ageing ex-hippies. In other words, many people who thought the ideal youth was ‘peace and love mannnnnnn’ had to confront that subcultures existed where children fantasized about becoming characters they invented, going underground (or wherever) armed to the teeth to slay scary monsters. Nevermind that this had been a significant part of both children’s literature and mythology since probably prehistory, an imagination used for something other than relentless positivity by children older than was normally considered acceptable to ‘play pretend’ was a dangerous imagination.

But games like DnD did more than become a creepy new fad to fuss over for navel-gazing parents. They challenged the entire world view of what was fast becoming the new dominant political culture of the times: neoliberalism. Whereas the 80s and 90s would be about rampant individualism, faith in market forces, and the belief that society was running forward to a new and glorious cosmopolitan and global future, many fantasy settings show a world filled with crumbling ruins of civilizations and technologies too numerous to speak of which all in the end collapsed. The treasures of the past are the only way to circumvent a rigid class system or regional poverty, and require skill and the facing of danger to unearth. Rotten monsters crawl in formerly glorious ruins either as all that remains of past civilizations or perhaps simply the first scavengers to arrive at the charnel house. In such a world, only teamwork, group solidarity, and risk taking can possibly succeed for those not born with a silver spoon in their mouths. Ibn Khaldun would be proud.

Spoiler Alert: it turns out this was a more realistic vision of the future than the one pushed by that era’s political and cultural elite. Perhaps this was the reason that it struck so many as a heretical and threatening activity, at least on a subconscious level. After all, policy makers had the ability to see that less money was being spent on public infrastructure, and that crime was spiking to record breaking levels. What they lacked was the ability to see that perhaps it was they who had more responsibility for that state of affairs than some kids seeking to escape the first stages of Hellworld currently then being fashioned by their elders. After all, a world filled with monsters the luck of the dice and some smart character building can slay is a world far more filled with hope than our own for many people.

So, why don’t we sell the line that RPG’s are a recruiting tool for critical thinkers and those to challenge the status quo? I mean, younger generations are far less into individualism and capitalism than anyone previous since the Great Depression, and now people are used to the cyber realm having all sorts of things but largely confined to slactivism. After all, groups of young people, meeting in ‘meat space’ in shadowy locations to learn communal action against the odds—all while a show that popularizes the idea that adults and authority figures are either clueless or malignant and it’s up to the youth to take action is popular-could be once again labeled as a threatening thing. And if it was so…its coolness factor would increase exponentially like an album with an explicit content label and the inevitable reaction from the perpetually out of touch would be at least hilarious, if not further engaging to recruitment for those opposed to them.

As Dustin said in Season 2’s finale: ‘If one member of the party is danger, the whole party acts’ (from memory, not exact quote). And as the newest member of the party, Max, showed, you have to earn your place by fighting for the community and showing your outsider status…but once you do…

And we can always hope that on a future season of Stranger Things, Jerry Fallwell or Tipper Gore is the monster.

Death Dealer WEB

The Death Dealer, because