Confession time: for the first six sessions I ran of Torchbearer, I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the random tables! Or rather, I wasn’t sure how much I enjoyed them, how much they really added to the play experience. I won’t mention the Aggling-hay Able-tay, I think others have talked about it enough, but let’s not leave out the camp events tables, town events tables (entering and leaving), loot tables, and such. Don’t get me wrong - I had fun rolling on them. It brought me back a decade to my first experience with D&D (not the Holy First Edition, but still - drawing up maps on graph paper and rolling randomly for loot was definitely a part of the fun!), so I enjoyed it, but it was mostly a nostalgia-type enjoyment. I wasn’t sure it added to the game; in fact, I think I half-suspected it might even be kind of a bad thing, a guilty pleasure. After all, bad dice rolls meant that players could wind up with no loot save what the GM had placed beforehand! No fun, right?
Last night, I had a conversion, a real road-to-Damascus moment. I had two, actually! I don’t know if it’s standard operating procedure or not, but when I started this campaign I really couldn’t help myself, and I wound up drawing enough maps and creating enough adventures that I’m two “up” - I have two more dungeons created that I won’t need for at least another week. So when the characters left the Religious Bastion and I rolled “unlikely and unreliable would-be adventurers looking to add to their crew,” I used the opportunity to foreshadow an upcoming dungeon. And, taking the advice I got in my “phases and travel between towns” thread to heart, when the adventurers started to haggle with those guys just outside the city gates, I quietly went into the Adventure Phase - and what a short and mad phase it was! They bantered, they argued, then the magician (in response to a jeer about his magical skills) cast Mystic Porter to lift a dwarf…and failed. I’m a big fan of the “your magic works - too well” twist, so a giant Mystic Porter lifted the whole gang up twenty or so feet into the air! Did I mention that this was right in front of the gate, in full view of the guards, in a city where casting a spell upon another person is punishable by death? Unable to release his spell, the magician looked frantically to his friends for help, so they started grabbing whatever relatively soft things they could to try to break a 20-foot fall. It was hilarious. In the end, thanks to a single Leaving Town Events roll, I got a 4-turn Adventure Phase (complete with The Grind!) that let me foreshadow a future dungeon, introduce new enemies for that dungeon, and make the magician a wanted man in the Religious Bastion. Holy hell! All that from a single roll on a random table!
When they finally made it to the Busy Crossroads town which was their intended destination, geared back up (fresh rations spoiled on the journey, don’t’cha know ;)), recovered from some conditions earned by the Mystic Porter Incident, and set out, I rolled again on the Leaving Town Events table…and got the “Enemy shows up, well-equipped and with a motley crew, and departs ahead of you” result. Perfect! I’d been looking for a way to introduce the thief’s enemy. They tailed him, tried to set up an ambush and got ambushed themselves…and went straight for a kill conflict! It was tense - they’d had little opportunity to prepare for this, so it was much more up in the air than the three other kill conflicts they’d been in. In the end, they managed it with a minor compromise, so everyone was Exhausted and Injured, and the thief got some closure by avenging herself on the man who murdered her family. And thanks to the loot table result (lint!), we - all of us - discovered that he died broke, having ultimately profited nothing from his dastardly ways. Great roleplaying grist for sure, and it even managed to tie in to her new Belief (“My crew is the family I never had; I’ll watch out for them”). Couldn’t have planned it better myself!
I’ve always enjoyed the improvisational aspect of GMing. Tables are good for that. But last night, I think I discovered something new about random tables. Torchbearer is a game of exploration and discovery - the players play to interact with and discover the fictional world. Random tables allow the GM some moments of discovery, too - and they add details for the players to discover that weren’t orchestrated by the GM. Last night, it felt a little bit like the world itself had a say in all these crazy adventures. It was a really cool feeling.
So consider me a convert! I’m now a believer in the RNG.
Edit: Postscript: The most amusing part, to me, was that we played an entire session of Torchbearer without actually getting to a dungeon! I had honestly thought that wasn’t possible, or at least intended, but that’s how it shook out. They need some money!