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Stories within Systems: Why Randomness Matters

November 24th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Design

This post is mostly thinking out loud. So please fill the comments with your own insights.

Though the idea Chick Parabola predated Tom Chick’s eloquent discussion of early in Three Moves Ahead history, the core idea speaks to a hardcore understanding of what strategy games are all about. Like chess or Go or Little Wars, strategy gaming is about mastery.

To refresh, Tom describes his strategy game parabola like this. A strategy game is about learning and mastering a system. If a game ceases being enjoyable once the system is comprehended – i.e., if the game can no longer surprise or challenge us from within the rules of the system as players understand them, then the game will have limited longevity or appeal.

In his own words:

Commonly, there’s this curve where I enjoy a game, and then I master the system, and then – unless it’s got a good AI – I lose all interest because I realize that mastering the system is where the challenge ends. Once I reach that point, the game is dead for me, and I hate that! That’s when the game should really start to take off.

It’s not the Candyland problem, where the player outgrows the game; it’s more an issue of a game being unable to introduce enough variety in situations and circumstances to force the player to adjust his/her planning. If the same strategy always works in a strategy game, then the game reveals itself as little more than a delayed puzzle – almost certainly unintentional on the part of the developers, but math is a stubborn thing.

Increasingly, many video game genres have taken the narrative approach to design. Simon Parkin’s controversial review of Uncharted 3 at Eurogamer addressed the very relevant problem of trying to fit the illusion of an open world into a game that is intended to be a plot driven cinematic experience where most of the surprises are scripted. This is natural as games become more an intimately shared experience where we want to know that people in our community understand what we have seen and can get the emotional pull.


Personally, there is nothing more boring than someone telling me about a crazy thing they saw or did in a game that will be virtually indentical to the experience of 85% of everyone who plays the game. Unless it is a rare treasure like Bioshock or Portal that have narrative pull even after you know the ‘twist’, then talking about an amazing thing you saw in Dragon Age or seeing giants catapult you into the sky in Skyrim are just things that everyone will see and are usually of little import. (Does anyone besides Lara Crigger still talk about Dragon Age 2?)

This is where systems and stories collide and, to my mind, make strategy gaming a weird place.

By all accounts, Memoir 44 is a shallow strategy game. There is some strategy, to be sure. You have objectives and limited actions. The choices you make in what units to activate and which cards to play are certainly strategic and can, every now and then, mean the difference between victory and defeat. It’s an intro level semi-serious board game that has the randomness a lot of intro boardgamers bring from their experiences in other games during their youth.

This is where the “story generating mechanism” comes in, and where games like Crusader Kings, Civilization, and sports managment strategy games like Out of the Park Baseball come in. Each of these games is a system, and a system that can be mastered and even cheated a bit once you master how inheritance or research or owner expectations work. Understanding the formula is the key to most gaming, and especially strategy gaming, because too much randomness in a system interferes with what we see – as strategy gamers – see as free will in our games. Actions have expected consequences.

But you need some randomness, and this is how strategy games build story. The 30 million dollar contract that fails in OOTP because the guy gets fat and lazy. The ambitious vassal that goes on a killing spree and decimates your court before you have the power to stop him/her. The goodie hut that gives you the extra unit you need to eliminate Montezuma in the opening moves. All random, to an extent, but all the sort of thing that aids in the construction of a strategy/war world that you can invest in.

The randomness has to work, however, within a system of expectations. Randomness that is entirely under the hood is not a game at all. Memoir 44 and Last Night on Earth are very random in their results, but most people understand the probabilities on a six sided die and can work that randomness into their stories. Then, however, the story becomes less about the game and then about how you were screwed on the dice. If you fail a combat check because there are many variables, clearly laid out, and the results don’t go your way from a combination of factors (or rolling a lot of critical misses) then that can be built into an in game narrative about a heroic enemy unit that wouldn’t cede ground.

I think that the lack of randomness is one reason that I have so little time for RTS story based campaigns. The story is there, and it is possible to have your own stories within other people’s stories; that is how D&D works after all – an arch-narrative that the party can engage with. This is also, ideallly, how the Elder Scrolls games work. But in strategy games, especially RTS games, the story is there for you to follow and the game part becomes all-system. There are no unpredictable opponents or random events that let you claim that your success was based on thinking of an original strategy that happened to work. And besides, everyone has the same story – when strategy gamers talk about a campaing scenario (if they do at all), its in terms of how to win it, or maybe about the “one good mission” in a sea of overthought 1-2-3 Objective counts.

But then we come to multiplayer games and board games, and that’s where randomness needs to be reined in more. If your game is best played as a multiplayer game, like most modern RTSes, then you want to keep the game as one of skill. It’s one thing to be playing Civ and be forced to face a horde of barbarian invaders, but another to have that event erupt in the middle of a closely fought multiplayer game. If it is a cooperative game like Pandemic or Arkham Horror where the players work together to defeat a system, then mroe randomness is fine. But if it is a game where the players are demonstrating their skill to each other, a truly great victory will ideally be about where the minds meet, and not about who got screwed on an artillery strike because the dice hate me.

Stories within systems aren’t quite a Goldilocks problem, where you are looking for a design solution that is “just right”, since I think that you can figure a lot of this stuff out in early gameplay reports by listening to how a team is talking about their game sessions and what kinds of stories they are telling, if at all.

Is this important? I think so. Games are a social medium, now, and people like talking about what they saw and experienced. If it is a shared moment, like the end of Bioshock or the never-ending dwarf caverns in Dragon Age: Origins, then that builds one type of community – one more akin to fans of a movie or TV show (“I love the part when…”). Strategy games, and a few other genres, are more about the types of conversations you share with friends you know well (“A crazy thing happened to me the other day…”).

Over the last week or so, I’ve been telling some of my close friends about things I saw in the Crusader Kings 2 preview build. The responses have been welcoming, and all from people who know very little about the game beyond what they’ve read. “Is that really in the game?” “I would be laughing the whole time.” “I can’t buy it because I have work to do, and this would stop it..” And none of the events have been entirely ridiculous – my kingdom was saved from a crappy heir by syphilis, the Portuguese inheritance of France has led to the Holy Roman Emperor-ship and prevented my planned expansion in Spain, divorcing a Byzantine princess just after she had converted to Catholicism was mean but necessary.

Unless I am just an awesome storyteller, all of the randomness that was inherent in the mechancis allowed these stories to transpire, giving me the hook to hold the attention of friends differently unversed in either strategy games, medieval history or both.

I can’t reduce this to a systematic explanation like Tom and his eponymous parabola. Feel free to help.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Bruce

    How can a review be “allegedly controversial?”. Things are controversial because they cause controversy, not because someone accuses them of it.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Damn it, Bruce. Stop being right. Edited.

  • Dan Kline

    Interesting post. Not sure I understand correctly. Randomness creates to better stories? Yet mastery-driven games like those in the strategy market need as little randomness as possible… what’s the next step? Is it there are no stories in Go but lots in Poker? How could designers actively fix that? Is there a version of Go with randomness that would have better stories?

    I put forward that the “reflective storytelling” you’re describing here is prompted by the feeling of surprise, which can also come from other things (AI being an obvious example, but also other players, new content, and other players).

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Yeah, surprise is what I am going for I guess and you need some element of randomness in order for that to happen in a single player game. I would argue that if we accept that strategy games are systems, but that – at least single player strategy games – only remain as compelling as the stories and experiences we can tell about them, then you need to accept that random occurrences that feel inherent or true to the system are not only valuable but necessary.

    Yes, multiplayer games are different because players can more easily adjust and respond to your own pressures and thereby introduce surprise into a system you know well. I am not sure new content does much once it has been introduced; leveling up and unlocking new powers works in the RPG paradigm since most of the time you are playing through the story once or these are things you can build towards or anticipate. In a strategy game, I’m not sure.

    What’s next? No idea. As I said, I’m thinking out loud and getting these ideas out there because my commenters are smarter than I am. A lot of this came out of discussions I’ve had over the last week with a lot of people.

  • Ed

    Hey Troy, This is currently a (secondary) obsession of mine too. Really useful to see it all spelled out like this, in addition to the Memoir 44 discussion in the podcast.

    Another genre that seems to enter into this space is the random “coffee break” adventure game: Weird Worlds Return to Infinite Space and Flotilla are the main ones I can think of.

    Bookmarking for later digestion. Thanks!

  • Dave

    I think the conflict that’s felt between randomness and determinism is most bitterly felt when each aspect of the system is kept in totally separate rooms; if you can’t mitigate the results of a randomized sub-system through clever maneuvering then how is this strategy game different from Russian roulette?

    The surprising turns of an ai- or human-driven player usually arise out of a fairly fuzzy reasoning process, and are often the only randomized elements you need in a competitive game (like Go), and are I think much less likely to engender the feeling that you’ve been cheated as much as other randomized game events.

    But since these games are really about experiential narratives I don’t think there’s any great way of smoothing out the experience to remove the bitterness (as you might do in a AAA FPS), because stories without the occasional dark chapter aren’t that interesting, and unlike purely scripted action games we shouldn’t try guaranteeing inevitable player victory.

    I think the best thing we can do going forward is to try empowering the player with as many tools as possible for overcoming the will of the game, so that the dialogue between players and their games are not so one-directional and occur on fairly even ground. Of course this requires more humanistic ai and dynamical game scenarios (death to the traditional rts campaign!), and more transparent or intuitive systems in which these wills may do battle.

  • Andrew Doull

    “Unless I am just an awesome storyteller” – I’d argue that all humans are pretty awesome storytellers, based on how we can draw together random events with weak correlation into a compelling water cooler tale.

    PS: Couple of typos you might want to tidy up (mroe, mechancis).

  • Duncan

    I find that when I reach the top of the chick parabola is normally the moment I have fully learned a games language, & the moment when i find out whether or not it has anything worthwhile to say.

    This doesn’t have to be a literal ‘moral’ narrative conclusion, its equally valid for it to be the moment that a game’s supposition about how the world works all come together and start to make sense. Either way the meaning should become evident to me when I have fully mastered the game’s mechanics.
    This can be a great thing when done well. Equally however it can lead to a huge drop off in interest when I find the game states its case, then doesn’t give any means of testing it or doesn’t really have anything to say at all.

    I’d argue Troy that the ‘stories’ those you seem to be primarily interested aren’t really the story of the game at all.
    They are in a way, a stories about a stories.

    The examples you give of telling others about “ when my kingdom was saved from a crappy heir by syphilis,“ etc feel very close to parables to me. They each tell the listener very succinctly about the language the game uses to talks to you, how it speaks to a player about its wider narrative and the leaps of insight it pushes them towards.
    The game will produce literally hundreds of random events but it’s you who picks up the ‘interesting’ ones.

    I feel whether or not those event are interesting is not a function of their randomness, its a result of how well they reflect either the language the game uses to tells its story or the ideas behind the story itself.

    A great story can stand up to repetition, and a great storyteller can make a old tale seem new.

    Apologies if i seem unclear. I don’t have you talent for letters, and it darn late here.

  • ShadowTiger

    I have been thinking about Randomness in a pure state, such as my recent blog post http://www.shadowtiger.com/website/d3randomness.html

    In that piece I try to argue that you don’t have to ever use complete randomness, you can always tweak the numbers by cheating for the player behind the scenes or mixing in some garaunteed results. For example instead of doing 1d6 damage to an enemy in combat, do 6 + 1d6 damage. Now you won’t have that situation where you really need to kill a unit and you roll a 1 and do almost nothing. An example of cheating for a player is if they roll a 1 on a d6 three times in a row, make the next roll at least a 4 to make up for it. It changes the statistical outcome but makes the player happy (as long as they never find out!).

    I think that your general focus though is how to create a narrative using randomly generated interactions with the game. The key is to take mechanics that rely entirely on randomness and introduce decisions for the player to make.

    In the Total War series, you can build assassins which have some % chance to kill an enemy officer or general. This mechanic is entirely random, if you fail your die roll you either lose your assassin and build another one, try again next turn, or reload the game.

    Now imagine a system where you get to surround your officers with retainers, npcs that give special bonuses. Maybe there is a body guard which will dive in front of you and take an arrow for you in combat. Maybe there is a spymaster which will post sentries and keep an eye our for you at night. Maybe you can infiltrate an enemy city and find the identity of one of their agents (thus preventing a mole or double agent).

    On the attacker side, maybe you can choose what kind of assassination to attempt. If the enemy general is a drunkard, you can try to poison his alcohol. If the general is very secluded and only talks to his closest friends, maybe the only way to kill him is an exorbitant bribe. Maybe instead of just choosing an option from a list you have to hire a poisoner from a nearby town or negotiate the bribe through a neutral third party.

    This takes a simple mechanic tacked on to the game and fleshes it out into a strategic mini-game. I think the key is that if you are adding a simple die roll to the game with a bit of lore wrapped around it, maybe its better to leave it out. If you can’t devote the time and energy to make it work well you can distract the player from the meat of the game.

    I think that in terms of stories and social behavior, this would improve things as well.

    What is a cooler story:
    “hey I randomly found this magical sword that dropped from a goldfish”
    — OR —
    “I discovered this recipe for a magical sword that required components from 3 randomly generated dungeons that each had unique monsters. I had to try out different combinations of equipment and abilities in in order to defeat them and claim my prize.”

    Sadly I think the first story would get more page hits, but the second is surely more compelling gameplay.

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    Regarding random vs. scripted, it sounds like the balance you’re looking for is chaos, where many weighted random factors lead to a somewhat predictable pattern. This approximates life, where you can’t necessarily control what happens to you, but you can stack the odds in your favor (or against you) by adopting an overall strategy. It’s still possible for someone with a good strategy to fail, but it’s more likely they’ll succeed.

  • Ginger Yellow

    But then we come to multiplayer games and board games, and that’s where randomness needs to be reined in more. If your game is best played as a multiplayer game, like most modern RTSes, then you want to keep the game as one of skill. It’s one thing to be playing Civ and be forced to face a horde of barbarian invaders, but another to have that event erupt in the middle of a closely fought multiplayer game.

    While this is true in a general sense, limited/constrained randomness can add spice to a multiplayer game. It’s one of the main reasons why I prefer Company of Heroes to Starcraft. The combat in the latter feels sterile to me – the units might as well be entries in a spreadsheet – whereas in CoH the randomness inherent to the combats system helps create a narrative around the battle – a particularly skillful sniper kills everything with his first shot, or a plucky tank commander escapes by the skin of his teeth when an AT round bounces off the hull. It can be frustrating at times – especially when it’s stupid randomness like units diving out of cover – but it keeps the game fresh after hundreds and thousands of skirmishes.

  • Colm

    If you want a game where punishing dice and brilliant multiplayer somehow work together look no further than Blood Bowl. It IS difficult to make get both happily married in game design, but it’s amazing when it does. Maybe the key is to let good strategy make bad luck less important (but never irrelevant)?

  • Procyon Lotor

    IMHO, randomness is hugely important in a single-player turn-based strategy game. I’ve never been more bored than when playing Civ IV and realizing in the early game that I’d clinched a victory. Contrast that with Galactic Civilizations, which had these amazing semi-random macro-events that would upset the balance of the game in an instant. Civ IV told blah stories. GalCiv told AMAZING stories. (Actually, I love Civ IV. But the predictability of that game was a major problem)

    But I wonder how much of this really boils down to personal preference. I’ve never been a man to reload a save because I didn’t get the right dice roll. So I probably have a propensity to enjoy games that kick me in the nut$ when I least expect it. If you are a reloader and a striver , on the other hand, you probably despise randomness. I remember listening to the 3MA episode when Rob was discussing Panzer Corps, and his frustration at his inability to achieve major victories in the Polish scenarios. He’s a striver, and probably a reloader. Myself, I just played through Panzer Corps, taking the results that I earned. I found it to be a much more enjoyable experience than Rob apparently did. There, the different experiences and different levels of enjoyment were really factors of our personal play-styles, and not an indictment of the randomness or lack thereof in the game.

  • Owen

    I know the differences you are talking about between SC(2) and CoH, but I would have to disagree that the lack of randomness in SC leads to sterile fights. Ask anyone interested in SC what their favorite professional match is and I’m sure you will hear lots of different stories, mostly pertaining to insane feats of micromanagement, luck or overall strategic superiority.

    In CoH I would say that the randomness is there to ‘simulate’ what professional SC players achieve with skill. Such as the tank barely escaping example, or a smaller force defeating a much larger force (through player skill rather than randomness.)

    Like the article said, both have their place, but in a contest of skills, I take the SC approach every time.

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