Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Improvisational Cues

Today, I'm focusing mentally on the phrase "improvisational cues." One of the things I like about the Old School Movement (OSM) is its embrace of randomization in almost all aspects of the game. One of the great things about the Golden Age of gaming was its use of tables for everything. Monster encounters. Treasures. Dungeon design.

I would sit and create an adventure a few days before a game session, using those tables. If I was really busy, I would do it at the gaming table. What was great about it was that, being random, the game could take unpredictable turns. I might not think to introduce a dwarf with a cursed map leading to treasure, but the tables would suggest it, and it would take me off in wonderful directions. Because no one knew the map was cursed, and would lead to doom and false treasure.... And if the tables produced something wholly inappropriate, I could just ignore it.

And it seems to me that there's a swing back to that with the whole "sandbox" approach to console games. It's not so much about unpredictability, but about opening things up. About not knowing what's around the next corner. About being able to go anywhere and do anything. Now, unless you have thousands of hours to dedicate to designing your game setting, you can't create this level of detail on the fly without random tables. The designers of Grand Theft Auto have this kind of time; it's what they're getting paid for. The rest of us have to rely on something else. In the old days, that was random tables.

The group made a left instead of a right, and gone someplace you haven't detailed yet? No problem. Your favorite NPC got killed when you expected him to escape? No problem. In contemporary games, we'd be expected to either have already created that undiscovered country already, or somehow fudge things for the NPC to escape. It seems to me most contemporary games would benefit from some random tables. Imagine what Vampire: The Masquerade would be like with a Random Vampire Conflict Table.

What's really great about random tables is that it takes the GM out of his comfort zone. If all he's thinking about is ogres, because the group's in ogre territory in the badlands, and he gets a Xorn on a random table, then he has to think of a rationale that leads in a new direction. Maybe the Xorn is the proxy of a wizard whose made his new home in the badlands, and the Xorn are pushing the ogres out. The few travellers in the region have noticed these "super ogres" clustered around a particular hill. Perhaps the PCs could talk to the ogre chieftain about an alliance.... Hmmm, the campaign takes off in an unexpected, and interesting, direction.

So I love the random table. Which is why I'm thinking about improvisational cues.

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