I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Random Quantum Ogre

Just a brief aside in a long series of posts about the subject (start here). I keep coming back to this subject. It has been discussed extensively, but it is of pivotal importance to RPGs IMO.
Let's imagine a gaming scenario where the group must search a series of woods looking for the MacGuffin - Woods A, B, and C.  The MacGuffin could be in any of the woods.  Pick a wood, pick any wood!  It could be the classic Shell Game in D&D!

One DM - we'll call him Scripto-DM - scripts the content for all 3 woods in advance, and locks the MacGuffin into Wood B.  The other DM - Improv-DM - makes a detailed encounter with an Ogre, and keeps that game content unassigned.  Regardless of which woods the players choose first, he'd like the party to have the opportunity to encounter the ogre.  The MacGuffin will be somewhere else.

Most folks will say that Scripto-DM has enabled player agency and free choice; Improv-DM is setting up a railroad.  Let's first take a closer look at Improv-DM.

When the party boldly announces they will head out to Wood C first, looking for the MacGuffin, they run into Improv-DM's (supposedly excellent) Ogre encounter.  He reasons that he could have improvised the woods with random encounter tables, but instead developed an encounter in advance.  By deciding at game time that the MacGuffin is not in Wood C, and the Ogre is there instead, has he *actually* violated player agency?  Player will or choice has not been thwarted.  They wanted to go to the woods, and Lo! - they are in the woods.  And yet objectively he has preordained a game result.

Now, think of random encounter tables. They are fun, IMO.

Roll 1d20. If  you get a 17 the result is an... ogre.

If you have a single encounter table for Woods A, B, and C, and roll a 17, this is nearly the same as plotting an encounter in advance. The random ogre is almost a quantum ogre.

Think of it this way: it would be easier to "roll" for weather for say, one week, in advance. Same could be said for random encounters. Nothing wrong with rolling them beforehand. And if you get an ogre, the PCs get an ogre, no matter where they go (except, of course, if they decide to leave the woods).

Now the random ogre is undistinguishable from the quantum ogre.

Can you tell the two apart? I am not sure I can.

And I'm also not sure if this is always bad.

Planning "the party will meet an ogre tomorrow regardless of what they do" feels forced and rail-roady. But it is easy to see how the PCs didn't lose all agency - they can decide to hide, make a fire, go through a bridge, or into an abandoned cabin to rest for the day, and each choice will alter the conditions of the encounter.

It happened in one of my Curse of Strahd games (which has some encounters that happen "when you feel appropriate", which I disliked). For some reason I can't quite remember, a nearby skeleton would reanimate at midnight or something. I thought that would be a cool encounter. But the PCs decided to lock themselves into a tower.

So the skeleton came knocking.

They never opened the door. Nothing happened. They found the bones near the door the next morning.

It was a creepy, it was fun.

Maybe there is something to this.

No conclusions for this one. Maybe I'm a bit tired today. Just a few random thoughts, and I hope we can discuss some of these ideas in the comments.

Recommended reading:


  1. I'm not sure that either of these examples is a quantum ogre. As a GM, I think you're entitled to plan an encounter for the next day, wherever the players may go. Because the world doesn't exist outside of you and the content you prepare the world. I can't simulate every location in the world that isn't in the scene. The ogre only becomes quantum when it nullifies player choice.

    Thus, if my players are in a mountain valley and I plan an ogre encounter for the next day (or randomly roll one) that is legit.

    If my players choose leave the valley and they are attacked by an ogre it's still legit. (They could be pursued, there could be ogres in both places)

    If my players know that there is an ogre den in the valley and they choose to leave the valley to escape the ogre, it then becomes questionable to place an ogre in front of them. Presenting the same ogre encounter would definitely be quantum BS. The difference between this and the above is that the players made an informed choice to go away from the ogre.

    A couple caveats: I would first figure out where they are going after the valley and generate that place. I would also figure out whether there is a chance they had been spotted and followed by the original ogre. If game mechanics dictated it (tracking/stealth/random encounter) it still might be legit to use the ogre but I presenting based on GM fiat after they went the other direction seems bullshit.

    1. You make some good points.

      Well, here is the thing: the bits I quoted in the beginning are from the posts that defined the quantum ogre in the first place. So, the "you encounter the ogre anywhere you go" is the very definition of quantum ogre.

      I do agree that you can't simulate every location in the world - it would be ideal, but impossible. And that it might be cool if you just plan next day's encounter no matter what the PCs.

      I'm still trying to wrap my head around this stuff, because I find it interesting. In practice, I think having a chart of "here is what happens for the next 30 days in the woods" for weather and encounters would be very useful.

      I think my next post will be about setting events in space and time. You cannot do both - you can say either "the room finds the PC after three days" or "the ogre is always in his lair", but not "the PCs will find the ogre in his lair in three days no matter where they go" because THAT would deny player agency.

    2. Yes, you definitely have it right. It's a good point that randomness can sometimes resemble arbitrariness, but I think your example about how a skeleton, which might have been deployed by a more capricious DM to only one end (a spooky yet forgettable fight) was instead adapted to the situation for a different end (a spooky event that characterized the environment at least as well.)

  2. This was first pointed out to me in 1980. I’m not sure if it was in my first attempt at DM-ing, or discussing DM-ing with a bunch of us new to A&D1e. One of the players strongly objected to the philosophy of an encounter that happened no matter what choices the party made. Lessons I took from this:
    - the illusion of what is happening is important
    - discussing ‘how the sausage is made’ is a potentially a dangerous thing to do with consumers (i.e. players). Talking with other [often quite opinionated] DM’s is also dangerous, but there is more often likely to be sympathy and respect for your position from a fellow DM, especially if you’ve had a bit more experience.
    - Beginners can be great sources of learning when they look at things, and comment on them, with fresh eyes. Just because you’ve been doing it for 4 weeks, 4 months or …40 years doesn’t mean you know everything and you’re always right.