There’s a story to Risk and Settlers of Catan and Monopoly but not in the games themselves. Sure, there’s an identifiable setting that makes them more than flat pieces of cardboard — the unconquered world, the geological absurdity that is Catan island, Britain street(?) — and the point of these games is to become emotionally engaged in the constantly shifting cooperation and competition alongside other players. There’s a story of the players meeting up to play the game as well, but that isn’t the story that makes up the games. The story that tabletop games tell can be found in the means of interacting with the game world: the dice.
Each dice roll unfolds a story of a vainglorious tyrant hoisted by his own petard or the scrappy underdog clawing his way from destitution to victory. Engagement with these games’ systems means also engaging with an unfolding, undetermined narrative. There is a sort of Schrodinger’s story in these games, in which that story is determined only after one of a finite set of possibilities is reached. When a dice needs to come up as a two, the roll creates a completely different set of emotions than when it needs to come up five. Likewise, rolling a three when a two is needed feels different than rolling a six. One success feels desperate, whereas the other feels absolute. Engaging with randomness creates a relatable narrative experience. There may be no quantifiable difference between a thee and a six — they’re equally probable successes — but they provoke different reactions. Strategizing around chance is the only method of playing dice games, but it also makes the lead up to every action tense and the resulting triumph or defeat meaningful. Every turn is significant.
Randomness certainly isn’t foreign to video games, particularly after considering the immeasurable influence that Dungeons & Dragons continues to have on the medium, but it feels like it’s dismissed as developers take more control of their material, which is a shame because more than any other medium, games allow for randomness. Dumb chance or unfulfilled omens in a film are labelled plot holes, but unpredictable consequences are natural to games. It’s perfectly acceptable for a video game hero to get by with the help of luck, as players we experienced it so we don’t need a strict explanation for every second of play.
It was in handing over game master rights to my partner for our yearly pilgrimage to the tabletop that I realized that the players and the GM participating in an RPG aren’t playing against one another, nor is the GM the total author of a campaign. Both the players and the GM — or in video game terms, the developer — are competing with the dice. Players must wrestle with the dice to fit the results into their personal stories while GMs must wrestle their stories to fit around the outcomes of the dice. The (often initially frustrating) joy that comes out of a tabletop narrative is working around the unknown.
Consider the Mass Effect series. For all that Bioware talks about crucial choices and consequences, most of the decisions made across the series don’t actually come back, not even as one off in-game emails. For instance, in the second game, there’s a side mission in which Shepard must choose between saving a lunar city or a military base. This choice never amounts to anything more than a thought experiment, but at the time, not knowing what could happen gives the choice meaning. The consequences of the event never return for the third game, but that doesn’t mean that it should have been cut or that it had no impact on play. Not knowing whether or not something might happen made it important. There was pressure placed on the player to prepare for an unknown future. That it never amounted to anything doesn’t dismiss the engagement created with players who couldn’t have predicted that outcome. When a player must strategize against unknown variables, everything takes on a greater importance.
It’s one of the reasons why Expeditions Conquistador — a newly released game that, for a while, looked like it might have been trapped in development hell — works as well as it does. Every thirty steps the player must defend themselves from a dice roll. They have to allocate their resources to improve the odds of positive outcomes and mitigate the chances of negative ones. The player remains constantly engaged with the world because their control of the world is limited to how they are able to prepare for the unknown. There is always hope, and there is always risk. Eventually, every player will be moved out of their comfort zone and every player will depend on luck to give them a break.
Chance gameplay is usually expressed in RPGs, particularly tactical RPGs like Expeditions Conquistador that are structured around unseen equations, but the experience of constant risk can go a long way in other games as well. One of the best features of the woefully overlooked Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams was that it encouraged calculated risks. As a platformer, there are no numbers for an invisible calculator to keep track of. There is just a hit box and obstacles to keep away from it. However, Giana does not give the player a finite number of lives that they must avoid losing. Instead, they have a death counter they must avoid reaching. Because they are scored on the number of retries used over the course of the game, the player cannot just rush foolhardy through each level, but because failure doesn’t mean a loss of progress, the player is free to take the occasional leap of faith and be rewarded or punished for exploring even unlikely possibilities. So much of the game is wondering, “what if I did this…,” then going to find out.
As much as games encourage and reward skill and patience, there is a place for luck. Most of my kills in Gears of War multiplayer disappear in a fog, but I will never forget the time I no-scoped an enemy leader because I sneezed. Nor will I forget a particular friend’s look of anguish when his wife made a lucky trade and cut off his would-be longest road in Catan. For all that game critics tout “player involvement” as games’ validating attribute, there’s something special about the way games use dice to tell stories. After all, society and even the universe itself operate on systems of chance. We should be happy that games are able to use chance to create narrative experiences.