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.