Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Chaos is your friend!

I am interested in the Occult. Many people assume that my interest in the Occult is basically my ticket to damnation. (It's not. My deviant sexual practices are my ticket to damnation,thank you very much.)

Actually, my interest in the Occult is more academic than anything. But I must admit that I am fascinated with the things people believe and why they believe in them. It's a field of endless study and many mysteries. (FrEx: What is it in a person's make-up that makes them want to handle poisonous snakes as a way of showing their devotion? Suppose you did something bad earlier in the week, do you get bit? And if not, what does THAT mean?)

As a result of this exploration of the occult, I am occasionally asked whether or not I believe in magick. My official answer: I don't know.

I'm not waffling. I've seen some weird things that I couldn't explain. I'm also an avid reader of books about scam, cons, and tricks of the "Occultist" trade by persons such as Harry Anderson and James Randi. I am both a skeptic and an explorer. O.K. Maybe I am waffling. I just don't know. I have a sneaking suspicion that the truth about the invisible world lies somewhere in between wild eyed crystal wavers and cynical empiricists.

Take divination for example. It is one of the most widely used form of magickal practice. It predates written word and seems so deeply rooted in our basic human psyche that it will probably never be rooted out. I don't know if divination works on the magickal level. But I do believe that people manipulate probabilities unconsciously.

Everybody knows at least one person who thinks he's fairly lucky.Odds are good that he is. Every person also knows at least one person who believes they have the worst luck in the world. As like as not, they do.With this idea in mind it's not too far of a leap to suggest that people innately juggle their own destiny without really being aware of it.

Gaming has always had an element of randomness in it. Life throws curves you know. Sometime the simplest things go horribly wrong and other times the most mind crackingly difficult things succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Harnessing the power of Chaos can be one of the most useful and potent tools in the GM's arsenal/toybox. So lets take a look at some of the more common and useful methods that we can use.


Gygax kind of fucked us from the start. Real warfare has an element of chaos in it, so with that reasoning it was easy to see that it would be necessary to have some sort of randomizing factor. One cannibalized box of Yahtzee later, D&D was born and the world would never be the same.

Dice are simultaneously the most customizable form of divination and yet also the most limited. Unless you've got some serious Qabbala numerology under your belt, A 6 always just means a 6. Numbers for the most part are not interpretive and as such, have to be assigned meanings.

This of course is where tables and mechanics come in. Dice are infinitely customizable in terms of what those numbers can mean but the meanings generally have to be worked out ahead of time. You can't just throw the dice with no idea in mind and see what it turns up. In this way, dice are perhaps the purest form of Chaos creation. Interpretation doesn't enter into the equation at all.

Granted, if I've got the time I can come up with interesting tables for situations that I know my players will encounter but that's really the limit of how customizable dice are in terms of the random element they create.


This is an ancient form of Chinese divination, I have no idea how it works. It just seems to. The randomizing element is usually flipping coins that go to make up a figure of 8 lines some broken and some not. The user then locates that figure (called a "Tri-gram") in a book. (The I-Ching or book of changes) once you've located the pertinent tri-gram it has a divinatory meaning. This meaning is almost always somehow relevant to any situation or asked question. The only problem is figuring out the interpretation, which is usually some inscrutable Chinese mystical shit.

If you can groove on that, then the I-Ching is for you. It's incredibly flexible. Sometimes useful when you're stuck for an idea but always useful when you have to make a choice of some sort. Programs exist that automate this process considerably and considering that the Book of Changes is fairly dense, I recommend this option.

Magic 8 Ball

This is the best idea that I ever cribbed. A guy I know ran an entire game using nothing more than a Magic 8 Ball. Unlike, other forms of divination which rely on potentials and possibilities, the Magic 8 ball deals only in Yes,No, Maybe, and Ask again later.

This has come in handy more times than I care to think about. Players will ask me questions that will catch me flat-footed ("Hey! Is there a mailbox nearby?") When this happens, I turn to the Magic 8 Ball. It always seems to know what's best for the story.


Cartomancy is one of the oldest arts in the world and it's use as a randomizing element is still in vigorous use in many games (Like Deadlands and Castle Falkenstein.) I have used Tarot both as a GM ( to find out which way a plot was going, to find new possibilities and to do basic readings for main characters) and as a player (for many of the same reasons)

One time, at band camp...No... Sorry, it was a Larp. I read the cards mid-way through and came up with a workable plan that ended up saving the day.( It predicted a hard compromise that because of the forewarning we were actually able to make.)

It can work a couple of ways. If you accept the premise that people subconsciously manipulate probabilities, and you look at the Major Arcana as psychological archetypes (to borrow Jung's term) then you can see Tarot reading as a form of subconscious dowsing. Face it. The back of your brain often knows more about what's really going on than the front.

Tarot can also be read tactically. Take a basic problem and use the cards as a way to break out of limited intellectual models and see problems in a new light.

Tarot is very flexible. All it demands is a bit of mental flexibility and the willingness to actually sit down and learn the cards so that you're not looking in the book every ten seconds. As with the I-Ching there are programs you can run on your computer but unlike the I-Ching, the Tarot is far more flexible than most programs allow and is fairly portable.

Heck, if nothing else, you can do readings for people at a couple of bucks a throw when you run out of cash at the Con.

Reading player entrails

Well. O.K. This is maybe not a real good idea, but I've come real close on occasion. Put down some plastic tarp first. You'll thank me later.

Sono Finito


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