“Cutting down the role of chance” is one of the more overlooked of my 10 Points for the MMORPG Revolution, so I will tackle it first.
The first step towards cutting down the role of chance is to understand the role of chance. Randomness is a root preconception that players have in MMORPGs, and, to seasoned RPG players, it seems absolutely necessary. In actuality, this assumption need not hold. In this post, I will review the roles of chance and why we want to reduce its role in upcoming MMORPGs. In a later post I will offer suggestions as to how to cut down the role of chance in specific instances of each of these roles.
(As a thought experiment, I encourage you to think about how you’d design an MMORPG that does not use a random number generator. We’ll see if our ideas match up when I get to the second part of this discussion later on.)
Here are the three roles chance plays in MMORPGs. (If you can think of more, please comment! I want to make this article as complete as possible without getting overly concrete and nitpicky.)
Random Numbers Simulate Character Ability
In role playing games of all kinds, random numbers are used to determine the outcome of events because they can resolve actions independently of player skill. If a character needs to roll a 15 or more on a 20-sided die to successfully perform an action, that character has less skill than the character who can roll a 10 or more and succeed. No level of player planning can overcome his characters limitations without some luck—this is appropriate, because ability gating and character growth are important, fundamental parts of RPGs.
Random Numbers Model Unforeseen Factors
Random numbers model the effects of actions that are outside of our scope of observation. In real life, we notice events that seem to occur randomly, but this is just a symptom of our subjective viewpoint. Because we don’t see the causes of certain events, we assume that they’re random. Under further analysis, we find that human-level events have complex cause-and-effect relationships that, if followed prior to the “random” event, make the event an obvious effect. As individuals, we can perceive so few of these strands of cause-and-effect that it is impossible to get our heads around most of the complex activities that we are subject to in a given day. Hence, the idea of "randomness" or "chance" in human-level interactions and one of the roles that chance plays in RPG systems.
Random Numbers Provide Variety
Random Numbers are used in generating loot and monster spawns and can be used for determining the behavior of enemies (if there are multiple equally viable AI strategies). This randomness provides variety in the game world and is partially responsible for how addictive loot-heavy games are, Diablo II especially.
Entire dungeons can be generated on the fly using random numbers. Diablo II did this, but there are more interesting procedurally generated maps in roguelike games. Much replayability in roguelikes is due to the ever-different dungeons and maps that present the play with a seemingly endless number of interesting tactical situations and fiendishly difficult dungeon levels.
There’s a lot of work done in procedurally generated content, as well. Most of this stuff is rather technical, but goes to show that there are a lot of people working on effective ways to use random numbers to generate content in games.
Motivation For Reducing the Role of Chance
Why do we want to get rid of as many random number-determined actions as possible? With few exceptions this mechanic has been the core of RPGs for as long as RPGs have existed.
If we want to give the player the ability to change the world and affect other characters in meaningful ways, we need to make decision-making the central process. We need to allow decision-making to determine the outcome of events, not chance. If we provide the player with appropriate information about the decision they are going to make, there’s no reason to build into the game a chance of that decision failing outright due to a bad die roll (something that’s completely out of any player’s hands). I’m not suggesting that we remove failure from MMOs, but instead that we remove unavoidable failure from individual player’s actions.
In a system that allows player success to the best decision-makers, players can easily see what they have done wrong and accept their losses as lessons for the future. If the dice screw you, you’re going to be upset at the game—nothing is learned. If you plan poorly or make a bad decision, you can identify that without the obscuring power of dice rolls and make intelligent decisions using that input in the future, leading to player skill and player learning being the most important facets of the game, not time invested and luck.