Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Random Tables: Wide is Better than Tall

Sometimes, you might have the compulsion to create random tables to help spur your creativity or to throw off the cuff surprises at both yourself and the players. Tables are also useful tools for instant content generation.

In my experience, it's tempting to make a table that uses a d20 or d100. Big, long, sprawling tables look impressive, but they're inefficient. Instead, make several short, squat tables that work together to generate a result.

Let's say you want a table to generate the appearance and mannerisms of NPCs in Waterdeep. Here's what you do:

1. Come up with three or four general traits to describe the NPCs. I'm going with race, gender, size, appearance, and disposition.

2. Create a table for each trait. Aim to use d6s, or maybe a d10 if you're inspired.

3. When it's time to use the tables, roll once on each table and combine the results. Voila!

Here are my tables:

1. Human
2. Elf
3. Eladrin
4. Dwarf
5. Halfling
6. Tiefling
7. Half-elf
8. Dragonborn

1. Female
2. Male

1. Thin
2. Tall
3. Short
4. Fat

1. Dirty
2. Well-dressed
3. Travel worn
4. Immaculate

1. Happy
2. Angry
3. Helpful
4. Sullen
5. Grumbler
6. Pessimist
7. Optimist
8. Sarcastic

I built those tables off the top of my head in about 5 minutes. Here's the cool thing - they might not be awesome tables, but they have the potential to generate about 2,000 different NPCs. With a little more work, I could build out a few more categories and fill in the existing tables with more options and more vivid words.

So, sometimes being lazy is more efficient than doing lots of work. You could create 500 different NPCs and stuff them into a table, or pick 26 words and use the mighty, mighty powers of multiplication to turn them into thousands of outcomes.


Kellri said...

I always liked the old Judges Guild tables for exactly this reason. The process of manually rolling through these kinds of broad tables is inspiring, forcing one to consider how each piece fits in the puzzle. As a whole, the table may seem kind of wacky, but more often than not the results yield pretty 'realistic' results.

BTW, if you love those big tables, grab my free CDD#4: Encounters book off my blog ( for more old-school tables than you can shake a glaive-guisarme at.

David Reese said...

Thanks for this great suggestion. I'm prepping for the new season of my campaign, and I just made a table with a d10 race column, a d8 column about attitudes towards the pc's and the menacing organization, a d12 profession column, a d6 appearance column, and a d4 disposition column. I like rolling handfuls of dice.

Great tip!