Thursday, November 5, 2020

Generate Everything and Die Trying

Part 1: Generate Everything

I have a vision, a dream if you will, of a campaign created fully and exclusively from rolling on random tables. And not just for the obvious stuff— I mean every detail, down to the finest grain of gameworld minutiae. 

I realize that this probably isn’t the most unique of dreams, as I’d put money on the fact that some “blogger” or “forum denizen” must have had a similar notion in the past but let me explain at you why my vision is superior in scale and scope.

The year is 2020. D&D was born into this world in the hoary past of the mid 1970s. After it’s conception, a community of enthusiasts sprung up and the popularity of the game spread. This was in part because of the agency players had to manipulate the game to their taste and create their own material. The internet was wrought upon this earth before then, but was made public in ‘93. As the popularity of the game increased, so too did the ubiquity of the web, and after the Open Game License dropped in the year 2000 entire communities of people from around the (mostly English speaking) world sprung up, dedicated to making and sharing material for D&D. By the mid 2000s there were a decent number of established D&D communities, and as the decade drew to a close brave pilgrims made their way to Blogspot. In the following decade, the OSR blogosphere popped off, G+ rose and tumbled Babylon-like, 5e came out and made D&D popular again, a bunch of other stuff happened (I mean, have you read the news?), and all the while more and more content was being written for the game. 

And what do we all know to be the essential lifeblood of homemade D&D material? What would remain if you distill the swirling nebula of D&D material into the barest, most essential unit? The random table. 

So there are near 50 years worth of random tables being written and dispersed since the hobby began, spanning veritable epochs of cultural drift. Never before has there been this many. 

When I say random tables, I mean as inclusive a definition as possible. Anything with multiple discrete results that you’re supposed to roll on. Doesn’t matter if it’s player-facing or DM-facing. If it’s a numbered list, it’s a table.

Tables for modules, for splats, for supplements. For hacks and spinoffs and homebrew. For posts, for jokes, for fun and for profit, for theorizing and figuring and showing off and shitposting and for actually being useful, or at least a little interesting. Tables for things you would use all the time. Tables you would only use once, ever. Tables for building up the basics of the game world, and tables for stuff to fill it. Tables for new rules that posit conflicting alternatives to the existing rules. Tables that wouldn’t make a lick of sense out of the context that they were created in. Tables scrawled on the backs of receipts and loose paper and lost forever. Grocery lists that are written out to kind of look like a random D&D table if you don’t look at it too hard. 

Tables are everywhere. Completely ubiquitous. You can find 50 different versions of the same kind of table if it’s on a topic that got a lot of traction. New tables, even new kinds of tables, are being created every month and have been for four decades and change. 

And I want to use them all. 

Or at least as many as I can. Let’s be realistic here.  

Here’s the point: This isn’t about using tables for all the campaign decisions that would typically be up to the DM. This is instead about using as many tables as you possibly can while maintaining at least some semblance of internal consistency. Which seems to me like a much bigger undertaking.

Here’s the real point: This is really about having an excuse to finally use all the cool, interesting tables and generators that never quite make it into your game. The things that make you think “that’s cool, maybe I’ll use it down the line,” but then inevitably you never do. There are simply too many good tables out there to use, unless you make some sort of inane concerted effort like what I am proposing.

Part 2: Die Trying

From the vast universe of D&D tables, I’m going to zoom in on a more localized area: the old-school DIY D&D community. It seems like there was an implicit joke among bloggers in the mid ‘10s to see who could come up with the most absurd random table that still had some semblance of utility. I don’t think there was actually a joke. It just seems that way. Because if you load up the blogspot of any big name blogger and check through their archive from, say, 2012-17, you’ll find tables for all kinds of bizarre stuff. All in good fun, but also with some actual utility too. Love it. 

Tables have two functions that everyone intuitively understands: the traditional function, to randomly determine an outcome from a list of possibilities, and the fun zany function, to juice for inspiration and add oddball elements to your game. The first function is largely the domain of tables you’d find in the style of the standard D&D encounter, treasure, and dungeon generation tables. The “classic” D&D table. The latter function is the domain of the independent creator, the blogger, the poster, etc. The Dungeon Dozen and the stuff the Elfmaids and Octopi blog put out are key examples of tables oriented toward the second function.

But being one to blatantly disregard guidelines (as I’m sure you, the reader, are too), it’s not hard for me to imagine the possibilities that could arise from using a table typically suited to one function for another function. That’s part of the fun of it. 

Even though tables present a list of options, their very nature you can only ever select one outcome at a time. That’s why we roll in the first place. But a table as a whole can still stand as a source of inspiration, most directly as a way to get you thinking “Man I want to use this table.” But there are countless other ways a table can inspire you.

In this way, what it means to actually “use” a table gets pretty fuzzy, definitionally speaking. If you find a list of d6 magic swords and give one to an NPC without rolling, did you actually use the table? Or were you just harvesting an entry on a list? 

I’m not here to bullshit you with sophistry, but the upshot is that in addition to the fact that there are essentially countless extant tables, there are also countless ways you can choose to implement a table into your game. I feel like this is the nut of a zen koan waiting to be made. 

Have a bunch of tables lying around but can’t find an excuse to use them? Take a bunch of them and then roll on this other table. 

  1. Roll once on d4+1 tables (or more). Use the results as the basis or theme of the next adventure.

  2. Use 2 or more tables next session. Invent whatever circumstances are required to justify their use, and alter any details as necessary.

  3. Roll on af table and build a monster out of the result. It’s HD is equal to its place on the table. Its intelligence is roughly proportional to the number of words of the result—more words means higher intelligence. One word (or less) means the creature is mindless, whereas a full sentence or two is equivalent to human intelligence. If the result is beneficial/creative/intriguing, the creature is Lawful. If the result is negative/lazy/boring, the creature is Chaotic. If you feel indifferent either way or if the result could fall in either category, the creature is neutral. (If you’re rolling on a random encounter table, just make up a new monster conceptually similar to the original result).

  4. Use a table for something other than its intended purpose next session. 

  5. The next time you need to roll on a table, roll on a random one from your collection. It's up to you to make sense of the result.

  6. Take two tables and swap around some of the results. Use them a few times next time you’re planning an adventure.

  7. Select one table at random. This table is now a book or artifact that several powerful NPCs are desperate to get their hands on. Why?

  8. Turn a table into a sort of meta statement about the nature of imaginative design and proudly show it off to your friends/players/family/coworkers/people on the street.

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