This is Faith in Play #53: Synchronicity, for April 2022.
On the Christian Gamers Guild discussion board, Michael Garcia raised a familiar question with a new twist: how do you bring the hand of God into a role playing game without going over the top? In a game like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ magic is already powerful and miracles don’t really impress, but is there a way to bring acts of God into the game that does not involve corporeal manifestations, referee fiat, or Deus ex machina?
I immediately recalled a quote from Albert Einstein. No, not the one about dice. The one that reads
Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
And thus it struck me that coincidence, what Carl Jung dubbed Synchronicity, might be a way to achieve that.
The first problem was using it in a way that would avoid referee fiat and Deus ex machina, and that became the first issue in our discussion. The other problem lay in how to use it such that it would seem like it might be divine intervention rather than poor scenario design. That is, if help happens to arrive at the critical moment, how do the players recognize that this wasn’t something written into the scenario, that when they got to this point help would arrive?
I proposed a randomized system with a few parameters.
- First, I thought there should be a two-level target for the roll, one for a minor coincidence and the other for a major coincidence. The referee would have to decide what constitutes a minor or major coincidence under the circumstances, which is a rather subjective decision, but that’s a normal part of being a referee.
- Second, there would be adjustments to the roll based on in-game character factors. Characters on a divine quest or working for a divine purpose would be bonused; those whose recent conduct might be questioned by their deity would be penalized. Other factors could be included as the referee assesses them.
- Third, and this one is tricky, the players (not the characters) get to call for the roll, but they don’t get to know whether it was successful. Further, they can call for it on behalf of any character in the game, but they can only get one successful coincidence within a pre-determined period (whether a chapter of the story or a single game session). Obviously part of the trick is that they don’t know whether, for example, that wandering healer that arrived to assist them was a remarkable coincidence or part of the referee’s original scenario. Thus they would never know whether they had used up their chance at divine intervention or whether they could call for the roll again.
One of our group members objected that he didn’t like using dice, because they are random. That raised the perennial mechanics issue of whether dice actually are random–the Christian Gamers Guild’s slogan, drawn from Proverbs, says they are not, that God controls them. However, they are certainly perceived to be random, and that is a valid objection. On the other hand, having the referee decide that now is a good time for divine intervention makes it seem much more like referee fiat. I proposed instead using a deck of cards, something like Monopoly‘s Chance or Community Chest, with one card a minor intervention and another a major one. That way the act of God would be inevitable but still unpredictable. It was also proposed that there could be a setback card, a bad outcome coincidence.
One problem with cards was that there was no obvious way to bonus the chance of drawing the good one. Someone suggested that the good cards get moved closer to the top of the deck, but that would involve stacking the deck. Two other options would include
- increasing the number of cards drawn at each interval, and
- ignoring the setback card if it is drawn, replacing it in the deck at random.
These seemed to be good options.
An alternative dicing method was proposed, drawn from another game system, by which characters are individually granted a number of six-sided dice, and when it is appropriate to roll for divine coincidence these are all rolled and the number of dice to roll “6” is counted, perhaps two resulting in a minor coincidence and three a major one. Characters whose recent conduct is commendable could be granted additional dice. This is still dicing for the answer, but it’s a different approach. Added to this, it was suggested that a system of “exploding dice” be used. The theory was all characters who were believers could roll one die, and there would be some who because of status (e.g., clerics) or conduct (e.g., significant acts of charity) would be permitted to roll two dice, but every six rolled not only counted toward a success but also gave the character another die to roll. Thus even those with only one die had a slim chance at two or even three successes.
Yet these were all fortune mechanics, and as mentioned some did not like the notion that divine intervention would be based on something random. The proposed alternative was a drama mechanic, in essence that the referee simply decide when it was appropriate for there to be a divine intervention. Although most of us are not entirely uncomfortable with the notion that sometimes we have to make decisions about what God says and does in our games, this becomes referee fiat and deus ex machina, that is, when the party is in trouble the referee intervenes, or doesn’t, determining the outcome of the game. While a good illusionist referee can pull that off, a lot of players don’t like it.
Realizing that this gave us a fortune option we didn’t really like and a drama option we didn’t like, I thought about whether it was possible to propose a karma option. Karma mechanics in essence say that we compare scores, determining whether one score is higher than another, or higher than a specific target. I pondered this for a while, and thought it might be workable for the referee to keep a secret track on each of the characters–something sort of already inherent in the fortune mechanic in relation to adjustments to the roll–with positives and negatives along the way, and when a character’s score exceeded a certain number that character becomes eligible for a “coincidence”, at such time when the referee believes it would be particularly needed or useful.
The downside is this smacks of works-earned grace. God doesn’t intervene in our lives because we’re particularly good or pious or whatever; He intervenes because He loves us.
I realized I’m chasing something impossible here. My thought was that synchronicity, the occurrence of highly unlikely coincidences that advance the work of the deity, could be brought into the game world as a way of hinting at the divine. The thing about synchronicity, though, is that it is fundamentally about events which occur without identifiable cause. This just happened, and it was good and exactly what we needed at that moment, and thank God that it did. The problem is no matter how I try to bring it into a game, once I’ve codified how it works it actually does have an identifiable cause–the roll of the dice, the draw of the cards, the decision of the referee, the accumulation of points. I probably can’t set up a mechanic for the occurrence of coincidence and have it remain coincidental. The only way for synchronicity to find its way into the game is for God Himself to do something that impacts play.
I’m not saying that trivializes acts of God; our group slogan, from Proverbs, suggests that God is involved in our games to the degree that He controls the roll of the dice at least.
What that does for me, at least, is push me toward some kind of fortune mechanic: in essence, the only way I can bring synchronicity into the game is by actually giving God room to intervene. Otherwise, whatever mechanic I use fails to be an uncaused coincidence.
As always, the notion of bringing divine intervention into play is vexing. None of us were completely happy with any of these ideas. On the other hand, there is merit to introducing acts of God in the form of coincidence into play. The issue ultimately is how to do that.