Conflict resolution, Part 2: Randomness

First, go watch White, Brown, and Pink: The Flavors of Tabletop Game Randomness from GDC 2018. I’ll summarize a few points below, but in far less detail than that video.

In designing games, a degree of uncertainty is essential. – Greg Costikyan, “Uncertainty in Games” (2013)

According to the video, there are 4 main types of uncertainty you encounter in games:

  1. Hidden info: Obscuring a hand of cards
  2. Performance & skill: Most sports
  3. Opponent uncertainty: You don’t know exactly what your opponent will do
  4. Randomization: Dice, spinners, and the like

For RPGs, you tend to see a bit of all 4, though “performance and skill” is often minimized by game systems. It doesn’t matter how good your skill is – the dice roll is all that matters. And this might be a fair representation of the fact that the massively interconnected and, practically speaking, random world we live in tends to wreck the best laid plans. For the system I envision, I’d rather see skill (as both roll-playing skill and strategy) have a stronger effect on the outcome than just flavor, and actually reduce opponent uncertainty. The costs of failure will be clear, and you’ll be able to see the impact coming from a mile away if you fail badly enough.

Let’s talk about randomization. Every time you need to resolve a conflict, you will parse the game state, decide what action to take, and see the results of your actions. In a game, you can explicitly support randomizing the game state by randomizing the starting map or the available items to select (cards in Dominion, tiles in Azul, among many others). Randomizing the input of a player’s actions allows for a high level of strategy and self-determination. Contrast that with result/output randomization: If everything is based on a pure dice roll, it’s down to luck – not strategy or skill – leading to frustration.

Randomness also matters for correlation: As events happen over time, do they say anything about the other? True randomness, aka white noise, is totally unpredictable. This is rolling a 20-sided die to see if you succeed. Each roll has a 1 in 20 chance of hitting a number, and that has no impact on the next roll. This leads to players powergaming and exploiting loophole in, I believe, an attempt to mitigate a system that is completely random.

Interestingly, “white noise” is often a bad UX outside of games. Consider a music player set to shuffle. A true random selection could play the same some 10 times in a row. Instead, a good music player avoids the same song. A great music player gives the option of not even playing the same artist next. Another implementation is red (Brownian) noise: the individual variation from one to the next is small, but random. The range of outcomes in the short term is very predictable, but over time you can have a very high variation.

Most interesting, and according to the video often pleasing to people is pink noise: a high chance of small change with a small chance of big change. It allows players to plan actions with reasonable confidence, but never guarantees success. Rolling multiple dice (taking either the total or the difference), or card distribution.

To catch up, I wanted to design a conflict resolution system that allows for uncertainty without white noise randmization. What games include all four pillars of uncertainty, and pink-noise randomization? Casino games. Poker and blackjack, specifically.