Probability is a bunch of bullshit. I’m sure that, in the broad pools of data and the sort of large swath approach of the various social sciences and anything that else that makes use of statistical analysis, probability is a much more reliable reference for how things will play out most of the time. When it comes to dice rolling and the sorts of things that happen as a result of dice rolling, it really does seem like the dice are trying to tell a story or that the incredibly unlikely thing happens way more often than not. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve created various tables for random outcomes, done my prep work on the ones that are statistically most-likely, and then told myself that the Infinitesimal option I added for what amounts to shits and giggles is not something I need to prepare for, only for my players to immediately roll that exact one thing during our next session.
The latest example happened yesterday, during the campaign I’ve been calling The Forgotten (the one that used to be my weekly Sunday game and is now being scheduled as we can fit it in, every two or three-ish weeks). There’s this magic item call a “bag of beans” that contains a relatively small number (3d4, to be precise) of magic beans that , when planted, can have a random effect. The magic item in it’s official Dungeons and Dragons listing has a table of random effects, including everything from healing or harming mushrooms to monster attacks to the spontaneous spawning of a dungeon, complete with monsters and treasure. Since I found this item shortly after I started running 5th Edition and wanted to include it in my games but wasn’t willing to violate my self-rule of not adding items to the game just to cause chaos, I’ve had to wait for it to show up as part of randomly generated treasure or a thematically appropriate place. While I’ve been waiting, as I do with all ideas I love but have to sit on for a while, I’ve spent time tweaking it and making adjustments so it goes from a cool idea to an amazing one.
What this involved, this time, was a new table of random effects, effectively tripling the amount of things that could happen when a player planted one of the magic beans. I used the cool ones from the original table and created a bunch of other fun effects to help round out the chaotic energy of the bag of beans. Since I love the chaos and having a wrench thrown into the works of my own plans more than pretty much anything else that can happen at the table, I created one result on the table that had the possibility to create the ultimate chaos. If the player rolled a 1 on their d100 roll as they planted and watered the bean, that bean and every other bean in the bag would represent a draw of 1d4 cards from the Deck of Many Things (which is a famous and potentially horrible but also potentially amazing magic item in the D&D universe). Now, I’ve got an alternate option in parentheses on the table in case that option would either really fuck up the game it in which it appears in a way that isn’t fun or my players aren’t the sort to find the potentially game altering magic of the Deck of Many Things a fun diversion. But this particular bag of beans showed up in place that was locked away from time, the multiverse, and most of the potentially bad effects, so I had a set of rules in place for how it would be limited or reduced in power in case this exact scenario came up.
What made this whole event so diverting, fun, and chaotic, was that almost every single roll of a d4 came up as a four. The bag of beans that could have had three to twelve beans in it, wound up with twelve beans in it. Most of the time, after the party realized the entire bag of beans was actually draws from the Deck of Many Things, they got either three or four cards from each bean. Each of the players got a thematically appropriate draw of cards that altered them in incredible ways that I wound up reducing based on their subsequent decisions (there’s a time loop and reset mechanic, which undid some of what they gained), but which will still have a lasting impact on the game. Two players got the ability to alter a single event in history. One used this ability to radically alter the universe in a way I’m super excited to explore and the other used it to undo one of the biggest mistakes his character made that was already having a profound and lasting impact on the world by delivering a certain magic technology into a the hands of a group that would have certainly used it for evil.
One of the players drew a card twice that made the domain they were in, a time and space locked prison for an evil being trying to unmake the world with a horrible ritual, take extreme notice of the party, ramping them up in the “Tier” system I created by two steps, which normally wouldn’t have happened until they’d spent a long time in the domain or come incredibly close to breaking free of it. Almost everyone got cards that leveled them up. The person who drew the card that made the world notice them twice, also drew a card that gave them a knight servant twice. We opted to ignore the second draw, since two such servants was a bit much and not really going to be fun, but it was amazing the number of double-draws we had. Until, of course, you consider just how many cards were drawn in total from this twenty-two card deck. It’s still pretty incredibly and unlikely, though, given that we also didn’t draw every single card.
A lot of tabletop games are filled with examples of the unlikely playing out before the group’s eyes, and that makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that each roll of the dice has a 1-in-whatever chance of happening each time you roll it. Sure, the odds of a specific chain of numbers on a d20 is super low, but it happens more often than you’d think since it’s really just, for example three 1-in-20 chances linked together will always result in a 1-in-8000 result. Since there were 8000 possible combinations of numbers you could get, any result is a 1-in-8000 result, which means any combo of them is just as likely as any other. I mean, even bigger chances can result in weird successes. I did a lottery for a down-time thing and my players had a 1-in-5,000,000(ish) chance of winning the lottery after everything was all said and done, and one of them won it with a single draw. And then another one won it the following downtime with fifty draws, while also getting a both a 42069 AND a 69420 in said draws. It was boggling and hilarious.
All of which goes to show that I should always be prepared for the weird bullshit to happen and I should never tell myself that the weird, unlikely thing won’t happen. Sure, it only took me ten-ish minutes to prepare what I needed, but it took me way more time than that to mentally accept where the evening was going. This one roll turned an evening of mild chaos with weighty plans for plot into a chaotic night of hilarity, unlikelihood, and the only half-joking knowledge that one of our group might have a small gambling addiction.