RNG vs. Player Agency

Luck. Probability. Random Number Generation (RNG). Love it or despise it, it’s been a part of gaming for decades. At its simplest and most extreme form the outcome is decided in entirety by the roll of the (sometimes literal) dice. It would be hard to argue against the fact that under a game model based 100% on RNG robs much of the player agency. There isn’t really anything you, as the player, can do to affect your outcome.

But there exists here a continuum. The other extreme might look like a shooter requiring pixel perfect accuracy where play to play has the exact same enemies, with the exact same enemy placements. Every. Time.

What brought this topic to mind for me today a post by Everwake about XCOM: Chimera Squad, likening it to the 5th edition D&D of XCOM. … That might be an analogy which requires a little more explanation. I highly recommend checking out his post on the matter, but the short of it is that 5th Edition D&D brings a focus on player agency to its game rules and character designs. D&D might not be the first thing to come to mind in a discussion around ‘limited player agency’ — but Everwake is right. Particularly in combat; it was roll well or go home (or at least end turn).

XCOM Chimera Squad: About to execute a breach

When I first read Everwake’s post; I envisioned having more of a debate with this post. But as you might’ve noticed — so far we agree. As I was first reading his post earlier in the day, I found myself nodding along to the D&D anecdote. Where I started to put on a frowny-face (the thoughtful kind though!) was about here:

Someone usually pitches a fit when I say it, but the original 1990s X-COM games, and even the 2012 remake, were really just dice rolling simulators in the guise of strategy games. I’m not pretending that there weren’t meaningful decisions being made, but the lack of knowable information combined with the heavy randomness meant that player agency was never as important as the games put on.

Everwake (2020), X-COM: Chimera Squad and Fake Difficulty – A Game That Finally Does It Right (Everwake’s Internet Adventures)

I had to think about whether this was truly a leap too far or whether my own biases were making me want to discount this statement. I couldn’t really speak to the 1990’s X-COM games, I’ve never played them. But the 2012 rebooted series? Well, those are amongst my favourite games.

I’m not really sure there is a lot of ‘debate’ to be had here though. Everwake acknowledges (right in that quote, and again in his reply-comment) that there are still meaningful decisions to be made, and a skill-base to grow.

And I’m not going to try sit here and tell you there isn’t a lot of RNG to an XCOM game. Heck; even if you’ve never played one — it’s almost a certainty you’ve heard, in some shape or form, about the infamous missed 90% shots.

But I suppose if there was an argument to be made here — it is that RNG can co-exist with good and engaging game design. It is possible to have transparent information, skill based play AND an element of probability based play all together. And further — I would argue that XCOM (the rebooted 2012 games, at least) — achieves this.

XCOM 2: First mission. I ran my squad into a pretty bad position to get this shot… But in my defense… I was in a hurry.

I had to boot up the game to actually make 100% sure I wasn’t misremembering or that it wasn’t mods adding some of the information base I had in mind. But no, it’s there in vanilla. The main to-hit chance and damage range I knew to be there — the parts I had in mind as possibly being missing though were the crit chance, target preview and breakdown of the reasons for your hit-chance.

The target preview actually isn’t on display in this screenshot; but essentially when you’re planning your move it will indicate what the firing situation from the proposed location looks like. Red for anything you could feasibly shoot. Yellow for anything you would be flanking (highly useful information!) and grey for something you know is there but couldn’t shoot from that position.

The name of the game then becomes assessing the risk of your tactical options. Is leaving full cover for a 10% increased hit to chance worth it? If you miss — or otherwise fail to kill your target — what does that situation look like? Do you have a back-up in range to lob a grenade, fire a rocket or otherwise use another skill to save your assaulting unit? If not… Is that 10% chance really worth it? ;)

And the fact that XCOM gives you tools in the form of equipment and skills to mitigate the effects of RNG working against you is certainly a big part of, what I think, makes the whole package sing.

If you watch any of the highly skilled players, those capable of consistently beating the game on the highest of difficulties (i.e., very much not me), you’ll find that they talk about risk management. Perhaps not in those terms — but they will have plans upon plans. They’ll not over commit their units. Where most of us mere mortals are playing checkers; they’re playing chess. And there is without a doubt a high degree of both strategic and tactical decision making going on.

Annnd I think I’ll wrap this up here. Honestly: I’m surprised I found a landing point for this post. I had too many different potential directions in mind. Hah.

Some of them might even make for a post another time! :)

This is both the fun adventure and the downside of discovery writing instead of outlining first. ;) Not to say you couldn’t discovery write a first draft and then heavily edit… Wait… I was ending this post. Right. Bye! ;)

This was a post for Blapril 2020, the annual blogging event (albeit usually as Blaugust), brought forward to help bring a sense of community during the challenging time of COVID-19. Blaugust is an event aiming to welcome new blogger blood into the fold and revitalise those who’ve been at it a little longer.

The Blaugust Discord is still available to join in, year round!


Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments