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.


charlesfwh · April 29, 2020 at 1:58 am

👍🏻Good read. Will have to get my gaming parlance right here, it’s amazing how many titles do use a variation of RNG under the hood. One of my all time favourite is Baldurs Gate 2 and always play it ‘active’? As opposed to turn based but still uses a variation of that system. XCOM, as great a game as it is , I do become to attached to my soldiers, curse you editing abilities!

    Naithin · April 29, 2020 at 9:40 am

    Yes, Baldur’s Gate was very RNG under the hood, they still used much the D&D rules under the hood (I know it wasn’t yet fourth edition, I can’t recall now whether it was 3rd or possibly even 2nd ed… Might have been 2nd?? In either case…) It didn’t matter whether you were in the auto-pause mode or not, it still made all the necessary attack roles. :)

    Was a great game though. Not without flaws, but still incredible for its time. :)

Quietschisto · April 29, 2020 at 2:40 am

First of all, we all know what RNG really stands for: Reviews, Narrative, Game design! I think there’s even a website called like that :-)

I think what people dislike about the luck element of games is not the randomness itself, but when it’s realistic. For example, a hit chance of 80 % seems like it should be pretty guaranteed, when in reality there’s almost a 40 % chance of missing one of two shots. And that’s just for hitting, not counting if the enemy gets wounded or killed.

Since video games arguably are about escapism and/or power fantasies, to many people these things seem unfair. That’s why many (if not most) games boost the numbers a whole lot in the players’ favour.

It’s exactly what that “risk management” is about. If you rely on a single thing with an 80 % chance, it’s probably going through, and if not, you really had “bad luck”. But if you come up with a complex plan that needs to go through unimpeded, and each step has an 80 % chance, you’re going to have a bad time…

From my experience, people who understand (or at least come to terms with) that tend to enjoy these games, others find them unfair.

    Naithin · April 29, 2020 at 9:53 am

    Haha, I did actually consider making some pun or play on your RNG in there. Just couldn’t come up with anything that even rose to the level of sympathy-laugh Dad-joke. ;)

    I think it’s fairly well accepted too, that understanding probability / random chance at an instinctual level is something humans as a species is not naturally good at.

    It is instinctive when seeing a shot with 90% chance to assume it simply ‘has’ to succeed. Anything else is perceived as unfair. And so — especially as a newer player, I know for a fact I was guilty of this — you commit to plans on that basis. Make movements on the solid assumption that it ‘has’ to hit.

    And then it doesn’t.

    And you call bullshit. But that shot still had a 1 in 10 chance of missing. When you consider how many shots you’re going to take even in a single mission let alone an entire campaign — some of those ARE going to miss. The better players factor this in and will have back-ups. Committing to taking that shot if it leaves them in a bad position is something only done if the alternatives are worse.

      Quietschisto · April 29, 2020 at 10:08 am

      Dad jokes are the best jokes…they are always appreciated^^

      Another thing: Whenever I comment on your site, and you reply, I don’t get a notification. This only seems to happen on your site, so I don’t think it’s a problem with my settings. Do you have any idea what that could be?

        Naithin · April 29, 2020 at 10:28 am

        Oh yeah, if I could have raised to the level of a Dad joke I would’ve kept it. Hehe.

        On the comment notification thing — no! Weird issue! Finger’s crossed saying this doesn’t make it play up again, but I managed to resolve the issues with Jetpack’s ‘Like’ button not showing up some of the time for some people, so I thought the integrations were all good.

        To be clear on which part the issue is with; you’re talking about in the WordPress toolbar, where the notification button in the top-right will switch to orange and let you know of your general wordpress ecosystem updates, likes, comment likes, etc?

          quietschisto · April 30, 2020 at 4:00 am

          Yes, exactly that. I don’t get notified in the reader (little bell at top right) or in the admin panel (chaning icon, still top right). It’s not that I don’t get a heads-up, but it doesn’t show up at all. With your site, I have to remember the articles I commented on, and regularly check them for replies…

          I do get an email whenever you release a new post, though.

Bhagpuss · April 29, 2020 at 3:04 am

I typed a couple of paragraphs of a comment to Everwake’s post before i realized it was way too complex a subject to get into in a comment. I might post about it but honeslty I have so many ideas for posts right now i can’t afford to back up any further.

A lot of what he said i agree with but I disagree so strongly with the part on the actual rolling of real dice in a tabletop game. Without exaggeration, I have to say that when I played the dice-rolling was the very best part. Everyone bar maybe one person in the group absolutely oved the rolling of the dice. It’s partly the sheer physicality of it but it’s mostly that rush that comes with the anticipation, followed either by elation or despair. It’s a drug hit, basically.

I loved it in 1980s CRPGs, too, when the dice roll would be displayed on screen. I used to play Bard’s Tale just to watch the rolls. Actually, come to think of it, on my Amiga I had a dice rolling program that I just used to roll dice and watch the numbers!

I hugely prefer RNG systems to anything with baked-in predictability. Where I agreed with Everwake most strongly was in the aversion to frustration and randomized systems do need to facilitate progress rather than block it, but good rng generates interesting outcomes in a way i have rarely seen logical puzzle-solving achieve.

    Naithin · April 29, 2020 at 10:01 am

    “…but good rng generates interesting outcomes in a way I have rarely seen logical puzzle-solving achieve.”


    The value of RNG systems can add to games, in particular the ability to generate interesting stories it can generate was one of the (many) potential paths I considered for this post (and one of the ones I still might do at some point).

    If this ends up surfacing to the top of your post topics though, would love to read it.

asmiroth · April 29, 2020 at 7:34 am

I guess it depends on the goal of the RNG. If the end result is that the player thinks rolls are binary (either you win a roll or you lose it) then that’s going to cause some issues. XCOM is based on this, where the roll works, or it does not. RNG doesn’t impact the range of the effect, but if the effect works at all.

Compare this to DND, where combat RNG is about effect ranges. (Skill checks are often binary.) Sure, you can fail a roll, but there are multiple states of success, including critical success.

Watch a video of Phoenix Point if you have time. Their model for RNG is focused entirely on range of effects rather than the absolute success/fail model. It’s also balanced around this range of effects, meaning it is not ultra punishing to “fail” RNG rolls, as compared to XCOM where 1 bad roll means you lose likely lost a soldier.

    Naithin · April 29, 2020 at 10:11 am

    Interestingly, I didn’t like Phoenix Point half as much as I hoped I would. I ended up putting it on the shelf for a while, potentially to be revisited later after it’s had some additional love and attention.

    But otherwise I think you’re right — the factors of RNG that most heavily impact perception of it I think are:
    — The harshness of the impact / the delta in the success and fail states
    — Your ability to affect the outcome

    If the harshness is high and your ability to affect it low… Well; that can quickly become unfun and I would say not exactly great game design.

    Certainly that factor of ‘harshness’ can be very high in a game like XCOM, but I would say that they balance this out with providing options to play around or otherwise mitigate these effects.

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