Luck in Games

So I’m reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s new book, River of Stars and on page 25 there is this quote,

There were not many such survivors among those who had been at or near the center of power in those days. It had taken skill, tact, an ability to choose friends well, and a great deal of luck.
Luck was always a part of it, one way or another.

And of course, this got me to thinking about gaming (pretty much everything makes me think about gaming). There is not really much luck in games. And I’m not talking about “dice luck,” that means you are rolling well or rolling poorly or whatever. There is very little in the way of luck even in games where there is a high amount of mechanical randomness.

The games we play are constructed stories. It really doesn’t even matter how we shift the balance of narrative control. Luck – as Kay is meaning in the passage above – just doesn’t really exist in our games.

Imagine the scenario… a young diplomat, wandering a space station. He gets lost and is late for his briefing, he begins to panic a little, an alarm goes off… he turns to evacuate and runs into Princess Leia and Han Solo and is forced to evacuate the station with them. Pure luck – good or bad – but now this young diplomat has the attention, for a while at least, of the premiere diplomat of the New Republic. Lucky guy.

But in game this is always… arranged. You know if you meet Princess Leia that the GM put her around that corner. The circumstances might shift things some, the timing might be different, but it’s not like the GM is behind his screen rolling on a random, “Meet Someone” table. Well, I suppose it is possible that a GM might have such a table but I find it less likely than the idea that this encounter was in some way prepared.

This is not an indictment of GMs having prepared encounters – there is certainly nothing wrong with that – games need some level of planning and prep to be worthwhile. Let’s turn the situation around. Let’s set up a situation where you are playing Star Wars using the Houses of the Blooded system (why you would do that, I’m not sure, but it works for the example). In Houses the narrative control is shared by the GM and the players based on success/failure on a die roll and the use of wagers. Let’s say that the player wants to make a roll to determine if they can figure out where they are going and don’t want to be lost anymore. They roll (this is a poor example but I’m getting there) and the player wins. He says, “I find the appropriate passage to get to where I’m going.” The GM says, “Cool, just as you begin heading that way the station alarms start sounding.” The player, who still has a wager to spend says, “I run around the corner and bump right into a fleeing Princess Leia.” In that system, a player could also spend Style points to just “run into” someone as well. So the player has narrative control but they still set themselves up to meet the Princess – it’s not a matter of raw luck. I’m not sure there is any way it ever could be.

Even the randomness of rolling is not really all that “luck-oriented” in a lot of games. Often the dice rolls are weighted in some way by the system to favor the players… in the name of balance or fun. In many games the actual die roll is secondary to the various modifiers to the die. Many games even have a mechanic of some sort, Bennies, plot points, drama points, etc. which allows for players to avoid the effects of the occasional bad roll. In an extreme example – the whole concept of character optimization could be seen through the lens of creating characters in an attempt to remove the influence of the dice on your abilities/concept.

I’m not really lamenting this. It’s just an observation more than anything else – something to think about. I don’t think there is a practical way to create the kind of weird happenstance that can happen in “life.” I mean, luck is kind of an odd concept in itself. Is it luck that I don’t want to deal with someone my roommate is hanging out with so I go driving and have a car wreck that night – when I could have just stayed home? Is it luck that once in college, I just happened to be the store the same night that I run into an ex-girlfriend and spark a new relationship?

All of this is really just pointing me back to the core of what I feel is my philosophy of gaming – that the games we play are stories, collaboratively constructed, inside a social contract built upon a framework of shared assumptions and mechanical rules. Expectation allows us to enter into the RPG environment knowing that the story is not random, not the result of luck, but rather, a shared effort.

And I’m okay with that.

Thanks for reading.


6 responses

  1. Time, and the careful tracking of it, is the only way I know to allow for this level of unplanned, luck-based encounter. It is a lot of work, but the focus on time in simulationsm has at its root the intention to minimize the impact of narrative control and allow for things like happenstance.

    The ship is attacked. Characters respond appropriately. Action is tracked, with attention to time and movement allowing the influence of pure luck. Leia’s path might cross the players’ with no arrangement needed if they happen to put themselves in the right place at the right time.
    The question then becomes one of weighing the benefits of agency and luck, vs the ability to shape the story.

  2. This is a darn fine point.

    I think you are correct – and I think that, as you say, it is a lot of work. In all things – and I think we’d probably agree on this – a balance of shaping the story vs. agency is probably good…

    I’m going to have to think about this idea of time more… when I game I almost always am frustrated with how actions interact with time in the game (meaning concrete actions like, picking a lock) but thinking about tracking time against actions (in the larger, sweep of the story kind of way) might really be (no pun intended) time well spent on my part.


    1. Opting for a shift between accurate time and narratively interesting time is a big one to make in either direction for a GM and a group. The groups I have bonded best with over the years have always hated, “arriving in the nick of time,” or “conveniently hooking up with the plot,” and I am right there with them in that. This made it really hard to learn how to run pulp genre games for me, because I kept butting up against the urge to simulate realistically, versus simulating the genre.

  3. Luck, karma, kismet, fate – they’re all words that we apply retroactively to a situation. And more often than not, a judgement of whether or not the situation was a good thing or a bad thing. As you allude, it might be good, or it might be bad, but that’s only discernible from a sufficient time in the future. That meeting with Leia might go from Good Luck – I’ve got a way off the station – to Bad Luck – We’ve been captured and brought to Lord Vader – back to Good Luck – I got a look at the plans while we were there, and know how to spoil them – and one day to Horrible Luck – If I’d never met Leia, I’d not be in this situation, and I’d not have been shot to death by Boba Fett.

    1. What you say is certainly true – we do tend to judge luck in hindsight. Something to consider about my example though… I’m not speaking of “what happens next” really when I mention meeting Princess Leia. I’m talking about just the serendipity of “I’m a young diplomat and I got a chance to actually adventure with Leia.” It’s the kind of moment that can define a career. What happens next is still up to you… if you blow this chance then of course it is bad luck, right?

      But if you’d actually been in your meeting..? Then you’d just escape with your co-workers and you never meet Leia.

  4. […] I chose Jar Jar because I was thinking about the post by The Rhetorical Gamer regarding luck in games and how it might be represented or harnessed similarly to storytelling in traditional literature […]

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