Random luck affects us all the time. Just last week, the sewer line backed up in my house. As it happened, a local plumbing company dropped off a coupon the next day, fixing our headache at a very reasonable cost. Conversely, several years ago, my brother called me to announce that my first niece was due to be born any minute. I ran out to my car – only to find one tire completely flattened.
Neither of these situations had anything to do with my skills, talents, or experience; they were simply random factors that made a situation easier or more difficult. This contrasts with difficulty factors in RPGs, where we often set a difficulty based on the situation at hand and then leave it at that. Sometimes, we may build in ‘triggers’ (e.g. It’s normally an average difficulty to bluff past the temple guardian, but if the PCs are obviously armed then it becomes a very difficult roll), but we hardly ever randomly shift the difficulty.
In regards to fairness, this makes sense. The players aren’t going to take too kindly to the GM seemingly making up difficulties on a whim, or turning what was an easy task into a difficult one later. It smacks of GM fiat actively frustrating the PC’s actions. On the other hand, seemingly difficult tasks that turn out to be easy smacks of the GM ‘going easy’ on the PCs and making challenges seem less important.
Still, there is a certain amount of realism in having random factors modify situations. Consider a PC trying to infiltrate an office building. Through careful observation, she’s noted that there are two receptionists. One is very nervous and ‘by the book;’ the other is more laid back and easy to bluff. Obviously, the second receptionist is the one that the PC wants to bluff past.
But what if that second receptionist just got chewed out by his superior for not following the rules a couple hours before the PC speaks to him? Obviously, that easy Bluff check just got more difficult. Or what if that receptionist called in sick and someone from a different department had to fill in? The easy Bluff check just got even easier. Neither case had anything to do with the PC’s skill or approach.
While pondering this dilemma one evening I happened to think about my Fudge dice. I bought them for a FATE game I never got around to running and they’ve been collecting dust on my shelf ever since. For those of you unfamiliar with Fudge dice, each die has six sides. Two sides have a ‘+,’ two sides have a ‘-,’ and two sides are left blank.
I realised that I could use a fudge die to emulate random chance. By rolling one die just before a skill check is made, I can determine whether to adjust the difficulty up (+) or down (-) a step simply by reading the die and interpreting the result. There is an equal chance of the task being easier, harder, or unchanged. If I want to skew towards unchanged, I can simply roll 2 fudge dice and only count doubles of ‘+’s or ‘-‘s; this lowers the chance of a changed difficulty to about 22% of the time.
Obviously, you don’t need to use Fudge dice; you could get a similar result to two Fudge dice by rolling an 8-sided die and counting ‘1’ as ‘-‘ and ‘8’ as ‘+.’ That said I think a Fudge die provides a great visual cue and makes it easier for players to tell when fate is against them.
This is my idea for random factors, how about you? Do you have a similar system? Would you use one? What pros and cons do you see with a random difficulty factors?