Rock-Paper-Scissors? - Alternatives to RNGs for TTRPGs

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

I was trawling around on DrivethruRPG looking at the new games and additions when one jumped out at me called “1 A.D.” made by Neonon. Having a weakness for Classical Mediterranean settings for RPGs, I decided to check it out. Despite the name, it claims to be “A Prehistoric, Post-Ironic RPG.” The title was just a reference to this game being set in the Stone Age. I was still hopeful but discovered that 1 A.D. includes several inaccurate and mildly offensive misconceptions like using charades, gestures, and interjections instead of talking because “language has not been invented yet.”

I was not interested in this game any more, but I did find an unexpected mechanic hidden in this little one-page RPG. It does not use dice, coins, sticks or other random generators to determine action results. Instead, the players use a slightly modified version of Rock-Paper-Scissors against the the GM. The player succeeds if they win the mini-game. 

Most of you are likely well aware of the hand-game Rock-Paper-Scissors and many of its variations. For those of you who are not though, it is a competitive game normally done between two people which uses hand gestures to determine a winner. In the simplest version common to US schoolyards, the players choose between three signs. Each sign ties with itself, defeats one of the others options, and losses to the third.

How Viable is it?

In a random world, this might work. After all there is a 1/3 chance of a win, a loss, or a tie. With ties resulting in a second attempt according to the game rules, this actually means 50/50 odds for success. That might not accurately reflect the likelihood of success, but we can modify this by doing multiple rounds and requiring the player win a certain number of times or having the tie actually count as a “Yes, but” rather than triggering a second round. 1 A.D. actually does modify the basic game by giving the players and “cave master” the option of using a fourth sign known as “Big Rock” once a game. This sign always wins, giving the players the choice an assured victory.

(As an aside, the creator unfortunately they decided to use the “Okay” hand gesture for the Big Rock sign. That hand sign has been taken over by the white supremacy movements in the last several years, so I would certainly not be doing that if I tried this game.)

The Problems

Note that I said earlier “in a random world, this might work.” However, it is incorrect to assume that Rock-Paper-Scissors is a completely randomized game based on luck. While some of us math-rock goblins may think that that we can see patterns or seemingly control the results our dice, we literally control the results of hand games like Rock-Paper-Scissors because we are making the decisions. 

When decisions are being made, biases, even unconscious ones, play a much larger role in the results. While psychology studies show that each result is chosen at close to the 33% as we might expect, anecdotal evidence indicates that amateur Rock-Paper-Scissors players are likely to start with rock because of its perceived strength. Other cultures are likely to have their own biases.

The fact that Rock-Paper-Scissors in 1 A.D. is repetitive makes these patterns even worse. As you play against another person, you are likely to see patterns develop in your opponent's behavior or even discover tells. Studies also suggest players are likely to utilize a rotation strategy, not realizing that sometimes true randomness sometimes means repeating the same sign. This is part of a statistical tendency to switch signs upon a loss and stick with a sign if they win.

However, I think that the biggest problem is the fact that Rock-Paper-Scissors in this context is the inherent competition. If a player has a string of bad luck with a die, they may get frustrated. However, it is directed at an inanimate object that we know deep down is a RNG and can be replaced with another die. However, if you have a string of bad luck against another person or are just not as good at the game as the GM, that frustration could turn into resentment.

This is especially problematic in 1 A.D. since the rules pit all the players directly against the GM, the literal personification for the opposition at the table. It is generally recognized today that game designers should be trying to decrease tension and GM vs. Player antagonism in a TTRPG to encourage cooperative storytelling and good play. The use of Rock-Paper-Scissors is antithetical to that. 

So What is the Takeaway?

Don’t use Rock-Paper-Scissors or other choice-based mini-games to determine random results. Biases, tells, and pattern recognition will break the randomness. The competitive element will also increase perceptions of unfairness for players, spreading bad feelings at the table. There are more effective alternatives if you do not wish to use dice for thematic reasons.


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