The Fell Gard Codices

On Randomness

May 27th, 2011

As I mentioned in the Question-and-Answer page, I’m creating The Fell Gard Codices with the help of random dice rolls. In fact, random factors define the story on a fundamental level, shaping the layout of the dungeon, its contents, and even any combat and adventure scenes that occur. I can imagine that this raises a host of questions for people. How can I as a writer know how the story will develop? What happens if something completely unplanned-for happens?

Well, I can’t know how the story will develop. And I’m hoping unplanned-for things happen. That’s really what I’m after; I want something that’ll challenge me, that’ll push me to write the story in ways I might not otherwise try. I’m well ahead in the story at this point, and so far it seems to me to be working out quite well. I’ll talk about my philosophical approach to randomness, and the serial nature of the Fell Gard project, in a later post; for the moment I want to try to describe how the process actually works.

What happens, in general, is this: I start by making a number of dice rolls, and consulting various charts; based on these, I develop a map of (part of) the dungeon on graph paper. There’s a certain amount of scope for individual creativity involved here, but on the whole this is the part the dice control the most. When I roll up a room, it’s time for another series of rolls, to determine what, if anything, the room contains. I have a little bit more freedom here; I’ve created tables that have entries like, for example, “scrawled writing” — but what the writing says, exactly, I can decide. At this point I’m also working out how the residents of the different rooms interact; who’s hiding out, who’s patrolling the corridors, who’s going around scrawling writing on the walls, and so forth.

While I’m working on an area of the dungeon, I’m generally thinking about what’ll happen when my characters encounter it. What sort of order makes sense; how encounters can be staged and set in sequence so as to generate the best story. These things also come into play when working out the internal logic of the dungeon. Typically, what happens is that the dungeon seems to shape itself into definable sections, areas with multiple rooms and complex interconnections but relatively few corridors leading to other such areas. By the time I’ve created such a section, I usually know who the main inhabitants are, how they’re going to react to the main characters, and so on.

Then comes the planning of the story, working out the details of the interactions of the characters. Sometimes that involves combat, which I settle by rolling dice. And that occasionally sends the story in a direction I didn’t expect, which, as I say, is what I’m looking for.

In general, it’s surprising how organic the process has been so far. I’ve found that if I get stuck somewhere, the answer is to keep rolling dice; sooner or later I generate a room or set of rooms that helps me structure a plot that makes sense to me and, I hope, is interesting to others. I’ve been surprised many times already, for the most part pleasantly so.

The funny thing, in fact, is that the random process creates a weird sense of interacting with a consciousness. It’s as if the dice know what they’re doing. On one level I’m well aware that this is a subjective illusion; but I understand now how oracular symbol-systems, the I Ching or tarot or what-have-you, can seem to have a will of their own. When you introduce enough variables into the system you’re consulting, it comes to seem as if the system is trying to tell you something.

Personally, I think it’s healthy. I think that sense of communication, of collaboration, is a sign that the process is working. It’s me registering the dungeon as a functioning place, and formulating the story that explains the place.

Or so it seems. I won’t know for sure until I start posting the stories.

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