Weighted Random Number Generators and Narrative

By now, I expect everyone who reads this has seen the recent XKCD, and read the hover text:

(For the record: the hover text says “Also, all financial analysis. And, more directly, D&D.”)

What do we make of this? There’s a lot of (I think fruitless) argument one could have back and forth over whether and how this applies. I think it’s pretty clear that it does apply, and that it isn’t a bad thing. We like narratives, and we like random things, and we like coupling them.

But what this really puts in my head is that many RPGs have something more than this: they have systems that couple not just the fiction to the RNG, but also couple the weights of the RNG to the fiction. And this, exactly, is why rightward-pointing arrows are that cool and worth talking about.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of L.A. Noire, which is a fantastic game. The most important part of the game is not the action sequences, not even the snooping for clues, but the interviews and interrogation. But sometimes it’s pretty clear how the conversations have a directed acyclic graph underlying them. Of course, there’s really no other option when coding an interactive scene in a video game, and it’s a good model. But what’s really exciting in a tabletop RPG is that, essentially, that graph is dynamically updated with each change you make in fiction, in response to every moment of creative insight and contribution you as a participant have.

These are awesome games, and I am so happy to be living in a time when they are exploding with diversity.

Now, there’s one thing in particular about them that’s hard to deal with, and that’ll be my next post. They take, quite frankly, a lot of energy, and the knowledge of and fear of that energy can provide a barrier to play. I won’t write more about this now, but I will say thanks to Alex P. for putting the question of how to deal with that in my head. I’m working on some ideas.