I am a longtime fan of Games Workshop's Blood Bowl, an American football-inspired miniatures game set in the Warhammer universe. In the game, each player controls a team made-up of characters from a fantasy race, such as dwarves, orcs, elves and humans, among myriad others. Gameplay is turn-based, and the object is to get the ball into the opponent's endzone, thereby earning a touchdown and scoring 1 point. Each team has sixteen turns, and at the end the team with the most points wins.
The game is almost entirely dice-driven: if you want to do anything other than move a player through empty space, you're going to have to roll dice and deal with the outcome. The rolls are affected by your player's various statistics, skills, and proximity to hostile players. Most of these rolls use standard six-sided dice, with a set of special "block dice" to use when players hit each other. The game is in fact extremely violent: it's not uncommon for a player to die during the match, and some players bring a variety of weapons with them onto the field. The secret to being a successful Blood Bowl coach is knowing how to weight all these random factors in your favor, and when to take risks. Nothing is ever guaranteed, of course, and you have to accept that when you sit down to play.
This mix of randomness and violence leads to a game characterized by tactics and mayhem. Indeed, one of the game's great appeal is its hilariously juvenile world that has been built-up over 25 years. It is both a wonderful satire of modern sport culture and downright funny in its own right. Just mentioning "Blood Bowl" to someone in the know always elicits a smile. This point is especially important: that the game is often fun because it is so chaotic and unpredictable, and most Blood Bowl players I know have one or two great stories about how the dice saved, or ruined, the day.
Luckily for us fans of the game, in 2010 a new digital version came out on multiple platforms. Digital Blood Bowl dates back to the mid 1990's: I mostly learned the game playing an MS-DOS version. Recently I've been playing the PSP version, leading a team of Wood Elves through the campaign mode (and kicking quite a bit of ass, if I do say so myself). Playing this way has lead me to think a lot about the social nature of play, and to realize that how I interpret randomness in a game is heavily context-based. To illustrate this, I offer the following anecdote:
Early in the campaign, there was a moment when the ball was mid-field, stuck in a mess of players and not moving anywhere easily. It was the AI's turn, and while it is not particularly good, it managed to break a hole in my line. One of their players ran through the opening towards my endzone, and blitzed one of the linemen I had left behind for safety. The block die came up "both down," both players failed their armor rolls, and both rolled a 12 on the injury table. Yes, really.
In layman's terms: one of their players got into my backfield and hit one of my players so hard that they both died on the spot.
In some sense, this should have been an epic moment. I'd never seen this particular combination of results. Had I been playing at a table with a friend, this moment would have immediately become legend. We would have laughed and cursed for a good twenty minutes before resuming the game, and we would tell the tale to our friends and fellow Blood Bowl-ers for years. Songs would be song for the brave Dwarf so desperate to hit an Elf that he killed himself in the process. It would have been a truly amazing moment.
But, staring into a small screen by myself, all I could think was, "well, I can't afford to replace that guy," and all I could do was quit out and restart the game with an air of annoyance.
There are two reasons for this.
The first has to do with pace and feedback. Had this event happened in a tabletop game, there would have been a lot of suspense and tension around the dice rolls. Seeing the "both down" result, watching each player fail their armor checks, seeing the first player die, thinking and laughing about how great it would be if the other died, and then watching in amazement as those last two dice come up 6. Describing it now, I wish I could have seen it play-out that way. However, the PSP handles these rolls automatically, and displays a continuous text-based log of all the dice rolls and their results. Practically speaking, this event, which would have taken 2 or 3 minutes in a real game (which includes time to talk about what's happening and hope for a dramatic outcome), was over in 3 seconds.
The second has to do with our relationship to randomness. As humans, we never quite rid ourselves of the belief that we can somehow intentionally influence random outcomes. Every child who plays games believes that he or she has some degree of skill with respect to rolling dice or drawing cards, and as we grow-up we never quite shake that belief. In my gaming groups I'm a notorious roller of 1s. Whether or not I roll badly more often than anyone else I don't actually know, but we all share that belief anyway. In some ways these ideas are superstitious, but with dice there is also the knowledge that we did, in fact, make that happen. There is always the knowledge that if I threw the die a little harder, or maybe in a different direction, a different result may have occurred. The result may have been more-or-less random, but it's still my fault that the randomness went that way.
Playing such a game on a computer, however, removes all of these factors. Randomness was just random, and I really had nothing to do with it. Add in the fact that there is room for error in software - the constant suspicion of a bug somewhere - and the randomness becomes less exciting and more suspect: you start to wonder if bad luck is a bad bug, even though you know it's probably just luck.
In these respects, then, randomness in a game is very human. We find it fun because of our complex relationship to the way we generate these random values, and much of the fun comes in sharing that with other people. Computers dehumanize randomness, and games such as Blood Bowl, which rely heavily on dice, do not translate well into digital media. The Blood Bowl experience is simply better with another person across the table, not across the network.
I enjoy rolling dice on the table: their tactile nature, the sounds, the tension, and my own implication in the result. A random number function removes all of these elements, and leaves me wondering if I can trust it.