Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Can you BECOME a random generator?

When I was being a big hippy playing story games whenever I needed to generate something and there was no point where dice needed to be rolled and no random table, this is what I would do;

I would look off into the middle distance. I would imagine everything about the game world that I could, try to hold as much of it in my mind at once. I would try to hold it uncategorised, the pieces would not be consciously arranged by type or ordered in hierarchies.

I would try to imagine the active elements, all the people and monsters, but also weather systems and plots and nations, in a state of half-completion.

That is, someone in the middle of getting off their horse, one leg slung over, weight shifted, already almost inevitably on their way down. Not frozen in the action in the same way as a photograph would freeze it, but held, not looping through the same thing but with time stilled.

It sounds complicated when you try to put it into words but when you run it through your mind you realise that you can imagine the essence of a movement without it being like a snapshot in your head, or like a repeating gif, you can just recall the nature of the movement itself.

Anyway, that immanence of something being about to happen but no absolute guarantee as to what is how I would try to imagine the active living things.

Sensual aesthetic things are important too. How would the ash-stained snow feel? What does it smell like, how to boots crunch walking through it.

So I would hold this all in my head as intensely as possible and, this is the important part, for as short a time as possible.

As much as I can, in as much depth as I can, absolutely without forcing it to any particular decision. Something will then rise to the surface. it must be two things, it must have the right fit, and it must be unexpected. It must genuinely surprise me. That shock is important.

It’s a kind of a paradoxical thing, the shock and the rightness. You must think 'of course that would happen' but you must also be surprised.

The whole thing shouldn't take more than 5-15 seconds, if it has gone on too long it has probably failed.

Now obviously, looked at rationally this is not a random generator of any kind. Everything there came from inside my head. There was no outside force.

But it _felt_ random. At the moment of creation it was unexpected.

You can't roll dice inside your head, but all dice really do it bounce about in gravity and air. You could argue that if you knew all the physical forces acting on the dice at the moment of the throw then you could calculate the exact result ever time. You could go further and say that if you knew all the circumstances in which the dice were thrown, with a god-like knowledge, then you could still predict the result.

Does a vast number of powerful idea's and potentials colliding in the human mind have more or less potential for a random result than a platonic sold falling through the air?

I would submit that if the dice can genuinely be random then the mind can, in some circumstances, be random as well.


The mind takes in ordered information and all it does is create order. You cannot get randomness from mashing different kinds of order together.

(Maybe you can? The dice analogy again.)

Just because something feels like a surprise that doesn't mean it is one. There are lots of levels operating below your conscious mind and one of them will simply hand you the result it thinks you want.

(Maybe if there are lots of levels and inner factors in the mind, and I bring as many of them into play as possible as quickly as possible, then it gets more random, not less?

If one person works for you in an office and you keep asking them questions the answers will not be random but if a hundred people do and you force them all to leap into unexpected work that is unfamiliar to them without specifying an exact answer and then take the first good result, that must be more random at least.)

The mind creates patterns, it’s impossible for people to generate a bunch of random numbers without there being some pattern to them, that's how codes get broken. If you can't generate simple random numbers what makes you think you can generate more complex structured forms of information and have them be random?

(Numbers are alien to the mind. It is bad at numbers. It is good at complex 3d environments, complex social situations, interesting objects that can be grasped in the hands and highly distinctive living beings. This is the natural programming language of the mind. So using this language will allow you to manipulate and combine much more data than simply using numbers, human processing capacity improves the further from abstract data you get so even though you can’t create a string of purely random numbers your capacity to create a random event, with powerful and energising constraints, in conjunction with the processing capacity of other people who are also doing what their minds are naturally good at, might be much higher.)

I would argue that in the right conditions you can use your mind to generate something at least as random as the throw of a die.

This feels a little similar to ‘can a hippy game like Fiasco be a real game?’

To me, yes. It’s clearly not as gamey as DnD but you can ‘win’ and force others to lose. You can manipulate scenes and endings to produce a non-optimal result for others.

Hippy games can be as hard as you like, depending on how hard you are about character. If you have a combination of empathy and iciness towards your character, if you are willing to look at the imaginary person in your head, imagine them as a whole person and then rigorously enforce the borders and drives of that personality, if the way your little dude feels about something is as absolutely there/not there as a dagger or 50ft of rope, then yes you can make hard gamey decisions with them.

There is a tension there, between all the soft fluffy stuff and the harder stuff, but it feels to me more like an extension of the tension inside RPG’s anyway, rather than a different thing.


  1. I think your right, but your use of the turn "gamey" in opposition to "hippy games" throws me a bit. How would you define "gamey?" It seems like you mean it employs things like dice or maybe crunching of numbers? We refer to a lot of things traditionally as games (from charades to football) that don't employ dice or a randomizer.

    1. Gamey is anythig where you get to the end and you can gloat at someone and be like "Yes! I fucking beat you! Ahahahahaha!" and the easier it is to do that then the more gamey it is.

  2. I think that what you come up with from your brain is always going to be something from your subconscious, and so it will never be truly random but will be informed by your unconscious mind. Dice are more 'purely' random in that the result is entirely extrinsic to you.

    I also think that trying to spontaneously create random results in your mind like you talk about in this post will always result in outcomes that you think are in some way interesting, whereas genuine random results can often be quite boring or weird, forcing you to come up with creative ways to make them good. This is what gives randomness its special powers.

  3. The process you describe here sounds quite like what Professor Barker did in game sessions, although people usually use works like "oracular" for what he did when he came up with an NPC or situation on the spot.

    1. I was thinking of Barker myself. There's a sharp divinatory edge on diceless resolution but I think the notion of randomizing moment-to-moment developments in his otherwise fixed vision of Tekumel may be a little different. Didn't he keep the dice around for that? Or am I setting myself up for surprises?

  4. I would argue that your subconscious mind is extrinsic to "yourself", about as much as dice are.

    There's a trick I use among friends. When we can't decide on something banal ("Thai or italian for lunch?") I assign the outcomes to a coin and flip it. And no matter how neutral or undecided you claimed to be before the flip, when the coin lands, you're secretly pleased with the result. Or maybe suddenly your go "Ok, I knew I said I didn't care and the coin says thai, but I actually really want italian."

    Also, that definition of Gamey in the comments is fantastic, Patrick.