Generating Random Gaming Content

Part of developing skills involves constantly assessing your abilities. Among my strengths are abstract though and pattern discovery, and other analytical skills.

Dice
Dice

Not so much among my strengths is quickly inventing detail… without tools to prompt me. My brain insists on making things make sense and be sensible, and I find that limits me a great deal. In order to pull myself out of such ruts, I look to random generators and related tools to stimulate my creativity.

There is a large collection of such tools out there, I’ll list some of the ones I make the most use of.

Random Generator Sites

I usually look to random generator sites first, simply for convenience. They tend to be the least flexible for my purposes because I cannot see, let alone change, the table contents. If they have a generator that does what I want they can provide what I need quickly.

  • Seventh Sanctum is one of the first I learned of. I understand Steven Savage originally created the site to help writers by jogging their creativity using random text generation, and the same tools are imminently usable for role playing games. He’s got a bunch of generators covering a bunch of topics, including many for background and setting material.
  • Mithril & Mages is another random generator site, this one created by Mark Hassman. It too covers a broad range of topics, including a bunch specific to Labyrinth Lord, and name generators based on real-world naming schemes.
  • Abulafia is an absolute trove of random generators, enough that I have never successfully gone through them all. I usually have to pack a lunch because I get so distracted by other stuff I find.

I have been building a list of other random generators, but the three above are usually the first three I check.

Random Generator Books

There are several books of random generators that I use. Because they are printed I can see exactly what the tables are and how they work, and can easily override a roll when needed. At the same time, though, they have a much slower interface (find the table, roll dice, look up table entry, combine to get results… it’s somewhat slower than pushing a button).

  • Tome of Adventure Design by Matt Finch is my weapon of mass construction. He’s provided tables for just about anything I might care to randomize.
  • Toolbox, and later Ultimate Toolbox, both from Alderac Entertainment Group, can both be useful. I find the results tend to be a little more generic because there are fewer combinatorial tables where you roll on several to get the results, and the table entries are often pretty specific. However, that itself can be valuable when I simply need an example of whatever it is I’m rolling for, especially that doesn’t need further expansion.
  • Task Force Games published several books, including Central Casting: Dungeons (dungeon development system) and the Heroes of… series (Heroes of Legend, Heroes of Tomorrow, and Heroes of Today, each about random character in different eras). They do not seem to be available from DriveThruRPG, but you can probably find them via a second-hand book site.

Various gaming books provide other, specific table sets, but really, Tome of Adventure Design is my primary source right now.

Random Generator Software

There is also random generator software available.

  • NBOS provides the aptly-named (and free!) Inspiration Pad Pro, which… huh, I haven’t looked at it in a while. It’s got lots of good stuff.
  • Mythosa sells a popular program called TableSmith for a nominal ($10 USD) registration fee.

I have also written my own command line program that I’ve been building tables for, derived in part from Tome of Adventure Design but expanding beyond that. I have been and will continue incorporating material from Kevin Crawford’s excellent books from Sine Nomine Publishing. After reading the feature list for Inspiration Pad Pro I’m tempted to migrate everything to that application, but since I’m pondering adding the generators to this site I haven’t really given it much thought.

Crowd Sourcing

Not truly a random generator in that there is conscious thought involved, and often several people working together toward consensus… but still a wonderful technique that can take you places you never would have considered on your own.

I post half-baked ideas to Google+ and ask people to help me make sense of them. Sometimes I have an idea that needs polishing, sometimes it’s just something that sounds cool that I want to know more about. If people are interested enough to respond, I’m rarely disappointed in the result.

Closing Comments

Some people are naturally creative and inventive. Others can learn to become so, and I’m working on it myself. In the meantime, with good tools it is possible to ‘satisfactorily emulate’ (read: fake) the results of the inventive mind.

I find the easiest thing to do is churn out a moderately large block of whatever it is I’m interested in, cull to remove nonsensical (and uninteresting; sometimes the crazy stuff just works if it’s interesting, and making it make sense can be a fun challenge) results, then working with them from there. Where possible I find patterns and work backward, thereby building structure out of randomness. Even though I try to make it make sense, because of the randomness in the input I can end up with enough weird to keep it entertaining and not-boring to me.

Inventiveness is like sincerity, in that if you don’t have it, faking it can be enough sometimes.

9 Comments

  1. I have similar problems, but go about solving them in a slightly different way. If I use random generators, it’s just to read them, and pick out things that I like, and then keep them in mind when running a game. My biggest issue isn’t random encounters or NPCs though, or even bar snacks or menswear outlets – just a few of the random generators I’ve seen out there – it’s names.

    The most success I’ve had with getting over this problem was to go into a game with a list of names over three sides of A4. Whenever the PCs met someone who I wasn’t already a fully formed NPC, I picked a name that sounded cool from the list, and wrote down under it who they were and two noteworthy features, one physical, the personality based. This worked wonders for me, and was totally worth the time it took to trawl through s whole bunch of wikis to get a 3 page strong list of background characters taken from Lovecraftian fiction…

    • A good method, shortymonster, and one I’ve used before.

      For that matter, the same method can be used in other ways, building up a collection of ready-to-go whatever-I-needs. I used to have a card box full of encounter notes prepped that I could draw from when called on, and of magic items, and so on. I wish I could find the damn thing.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I am rubbish at names as well, although not so bad now as I used to be. It was amazing how many NPCs were Bob, Fred or Jane:) There a a lot of name generators and also websites, plus baby name books and such like. Making sense of ideas is harder, sometimes random ideas work, sometimes not. And sometimes you don’t discover they don’t until you have written yourself into a corner.

    Another thing to do is corrupt common names – for example Teena instead of Tina, Emmae instead of Emma, or take names from regions. Say all your people from X have Scandinavian names.

    • I usually have regions generally take their names from a particular real-world location, or something suggestive of that location. For instance, ‘Northport’ is basically English — Bob, Fred, and Jane are appropriate there, though Michael, Robert, and John are probably more common. Trollskov was Russian, with Vasily Grigorovich and Boris Dmitrivich.

      I extend that to places and objects as well. In the Fantastic Creations blog festival I hosted about a year ago, Beobachten was a magic sword created by a Germanic (more or less) wizard who bound a dragon into sword form, Palavirea was a wand of fire created in a… Northern European-type area (as I recall; I want to say Finland, but I’m don’t remember precisely), and Kaiho-sha was a magic sword that came into being in a Japanese-style area.

      Google Translate is a remarkably useful tool. I took the descriptive elements of the name of each item and pushed them through Translate until I found something I liked the spelling of, adjusted for pronunciation and Anglicized (more or less), and used that. For instance, I put “the liberator” into Translate and flipped through the languages until I ended up with Japanese, which sounded pretty cool, then modified the backstory to fit. My wife helped me with some of he personal names in the story, molding it around, as I recall, The Revenge of the 47 Ronin (as far as I can tell, an historical event early in 18th-Century Japan).

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