Ever since discovering tabletop RPGs in junior high, I’ve been in awe of the amazing powers that dice can have, not only in determining the outcome of the story, but in the actual creation of the story’s world. I’m speaking here largely of random charts and their power to not only inspire, but to create reality on the fly.
In eighth grade, I created a solo dungeon-crawling game consisting of a sheet of graph paper, a fistful of dice, a pencil, and a half-dozen index cards with random charts on them. You enter the dungeon: roll to see if there’s a room or a hallway. If it’s a room, roll for number of exits and roll for contents. Is it is monster? Roll it. A trap? Roll it.
There was a system for combat and damage, of course, but the meat of the game was exploration. Only it wasn’t really exploration, it was creation. The world was created with every roll of the dice.
(During this time, one of my gaming friends made his own exceptionally-random system that perhaps took it a step too far. A classic line that lives to this day is, “You are attacked by a [clatter of dice] snake! It attacks you with its [clatter of dice] hooves!” That sort of old-school gonzo gaming would be a lot of fun today, but I was far too mature for it at the time.)
In college, I ran a year-long campaign of NightLife, which — since the players were running vampires and werewolves and other monsters with an insatiable appetite for disposable NPCs — inspired me to whip up another random table. With ten seconds and a single roll of a handful of dice, I could create a living, breathing person… at least, that person’s general appearance and personality. Before the players turned down that alley, that person didn’t exist — not even as a note on my Game Master’s idea pad. Most of them didn’t survive the encounter (“My, what big teeth you have — oh no!”), but some had such a spark of life that they went on to become allies and recurring NPCs — a spark of life given them, like Frankenstein’s lightning, by the dice.
As I’ve grown older and my gaming time more limited, I find myself using dice to create the world before the game rather than just on the fly. I made a number of charts myself: What’s that magic level? Roll it! The core theology? Roll it! What are the key imports, exports, and trade agreements? Roll, roll, roll!
While I might end up just writing about these worlds rather than actually playing in them, the thrill from eighth grade is still there: I’m creating worlds, people, and stories with nothing more than a pencil, a chart… and a handful of dice.
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