One of the interesting things about RPGs is that they’re crucibles for developing the kind of shotgun brainstorming that non-gamer storyteller/author types have only recently been getting around to formalizing. Things like Rory’s Story Cubes are getting to the scene a good long time after ideas like Whimsy Cards, a deck of randomized plot twists and complications for RPGs that came out in, what, 1987? Yet they work pretty well as RPG randomizers, as Black Vulmea points out. At times it feels like the RPG hobby was ahead of the game a while back.
Wait, back up. Let’s be fair, randomized storytelling is considerably older than RPGs. There’s, y’know, Tarot cards. What is a Tarot reading if not taking a random set of iconographies and assembling a story about a person using them? The human ability to draw connections, even if inventing them, is really on our side here. All we need is the suggestion of something we recognize, and then we try to find a link with the next suggestion.
RPGs, though, made the connections of the random narrative vital to the performance. In one part it’s a matter of just interpreting random rolls: you failed a skill check/attack roll/resistance check or whatever, and now it’s a matter of interpreting what that means within the game’s fiction. Did you wing the guy or just miss him outright? Is the pontiff amused at your clumsy attempts at a dialogue or downright incensed? Every time we invoke a random mechanism we have to draw those connections.
That’s generating immediate ideas out of a very specific context, mind. The arguments over random encounters are more interesting to me right now. At their worst, random encounters make a game make less sense, or they occupy time with things that the players have zero emotional connection with. At their best, they provide ideas — or more often, combinations of ideas — that the GM would be unlikely to think of on his or her own.
The trick is figuring out stuff that is immediately relevant to the context of your game. This often, for some GMs who love this sort of thing, means writing your own tables. Write down every element you can think of, weight the numbers, compile table, go. The more specific you get, the more complicated and elaborate the tables must be. But what if, like me, you’re damned lazy?
Here’s a current trick I’m kicking around. At its very most basic, it involves a stolen motivations table from an online Dragon article about masquerades (a very good one, at that), a personality archetype table from the same article, and my concept of the “major food groups” of influence. And by “food groups” I basically mean social classes in an an appropriate venue. For my D&D game it might look something like:
It might look quite different for a WoD game, with “werewolves” and “spirits” and whatnot substituted on the table. Whoever’s relevant to the game. Anyway. So what I do is I pick or roll an appropriate “food group” of institution. Then I roll again on the “motive” chart, and once more on the “mask/demeanor” chart. So, for example: 2: Martial/Military; 19: Consolation motive; 17: Pig/Boar mask — slovenly or angry.
The hell does that mean? And that’s where the beauty of the human brain’s love of generating links and drawing connections comes in. Immediately it seems like we’re talking about someone trying to console someone over a military loss — a casualty of war, sure. But who is it that’s slovenly or angry? The bereaved? The person trying to console the bereaved? Well, we rolled motive, so that’s the active person involved, so we’re looking at someone who’s kind of piggish and clumsy-tongued attempting to break bad news of a loss.
That right there could be a colorful vignette: a crude, short-tempered soldier trying (and likely failing) to break the news to a comrade’s widow or family. Or maybe he’s angry because he hated the guy but can’t articulate why without being a total asshole. Boom, we have a possible scene appropriate for a fiction.
Now, if we’re looking to turn it into something useable in a game, something for player characters to do? Maybe he was trying to bring some sort of memento home and it got stolen along the way. Enter player characters as a retrieval mechanism. Or if I’m idea-brainstorming for a major intrigue (as I described here), we step up the scale. We’re looking at a commanding officer who was maybe shamed in battle. He’s not trying to console any individual widow or orphan, he’s trying to retain as much face as possible after a defeat. The slovenly/angry mask implies that he’s probably unpopular, so it seems likely the stakes are very high for him. If the PCs decide to aid him, he could sure use that. If they decide to orchestrate his fall, certainly other people will be happy to see that, but he’ll be sure to remember their role in it.
This is the thing I find so fascinating about random chance as an idea generator. It’s not that the best ideas are crafted when you’re writing a table: it’s about the connections you draw by just looking at unrelated things. I could take the above mix, throw in some of the story cubes for added details, or draw a couple of Tarot cards, or even just hit “random page” on any old wiki that comes to mind. Even putting a playlist on shuffle and saying “okay, first three songs that come up, each one contributes and idea.” Random charts or Whimsy Cards specifically designed for an RPG are great tools, and have been all over the place of late — there’s even a site full of them. But anything can work. Anything that puts ideas out there that your brain wants to connect. And because it’s your brain designing the connections, whatever comes out will still be your voice and vision to some extent, even if it’s founded on combinations you wouldn’t have created out of full cloth. Pretty impressive.