Thursday, May 12, 2022

Table Talk: My Process for Random Tables

Sometimes I am asked about my method for generating all these Random Tables and how they come together, so I have decided to put together a post that attempts to explain how I create these. It is a hurried, haphazard, and peculiarly tailored technique I’m afraid, and most certainly not an optimal workflow, but it seems to work for me, and hopefully there might be a useful or at least interesting tidbit for other Referees within these steps.

Constantly Cultivate Creative Inspiration

For me personally, it shows up in the strangest of places. There is not much by way of tangible advice I can offer that speaks to sparking this part of another’s imagination really, suffice to say that you want to always pay attention to things around you/what you consume. Give a little thought to how you might transform them into something potentially useful in play with a little fussing and finagling. Do not worry if it does not jump out as eminently usable or earth-shatteringly cool right away, sometimes that takes a little work later. Just try to stay a little attenuated to those stimulating seeds😊.

I do not consume a whole lot of Fantasy Fiction or Media these days, but I have always been relentlessly curious about esoteric things and wildly varying topics. I’ll hit a Random Page on Wikipedia (I’ve had this as one of my “launch pages” for ages) and I have been known to digress within the hyperlinks for hours. If I am working on a specific Table, I will even get ideas from stuff I am passively consuming in the background like music or documentaries at times. I try to spend some time in Nature and go for a walk or hike and almost always see something unusual or interesting. Sometimes I will peruse art and illustrations for inspiration or have delightfully thought-provoking conversations with peers that end up spawning ideas. I read books on a variety of subjects ostensibly unrelated to these games. Inspiration comes from other senses as well sometimes so I always try to pay attention to other inputs: Smells, Tastes, Sounds, and Feelings. I will frequently tap into the decades of Play I have under my belt and enshrine the events or situations that occurred during those games, ages ago, in hopes that they might just find a new life at other tables. Quite a bit of it is simply good old-fashioned wool-gathering and daydreaming: ruminating in my spare time on what makes a topic interesting and usable. But since it has a tendency or possibility to come from anywhere at any time this makes the next step so crucial to my process.

Relentlessly Apprehend Ideas

A central tenant I try to follow is to capture the idea somewhere, no matter how minor, silly, or seemingly irrelevant. I nearly always have a notebook accessible that I can scribble in to quickly jot something down that might be related to a current, past, or future table. You might find this easier using a smartphone or note-taking app for this, but I am still relatively analog for this stage all things considered. Sometimes the seconds it takes for me to fire up a smartphone application/wake up the computer and the scads of distractions inherent with those devices is enough to have the idea scarcen and shrink, or even disappear completely. The key for me is to make sure that a potential promising idea does not get lost.

Naturally, some of the best ones still arrive in the few fleeting moments I can’t capture them: Whilst driving, in the Shower, as I drift into Sleep during that lovely liminal and maddeningly hyper-creative Hypnagogia, but if it’s a particularly interesting little jewel, I tend to turn it around in my head a little bit in hopes that it somehow sticks. This works about 2-in-6 😊.

These now impounded bits and pieces are usually far from fully fledged, but at least I won’t lose that tiny spark and hopefully I can get to the next phase swift enough so that my sometimes rushed, often cryptic, and always atrocious handwriting doesn’t still manage to lock them away from my future self.


One of my silly foibles: I’m predominantly left-handed but was taught to use my right as a child. When I write for my own use, it is backwards most of the time by default to prevent smudges and to avoid any inconvenient bindings. My brain is wired weird indeed.

I do place an emphasis on capturing these, because having an idea fail to have the opportunity to germinate by losing it to the ether of interruption and everyday life is sometimes frustrating to me. But I have made peace with the fact that it is bound to happen from time to time. While I know there is a potential entry or two or even more in each of them that can help get a table off my plate, mourning their loss doesn’t help the process. Attrition always happens, and it’s okay. Sometimes a sufficiently inspiring idea might end up resurfacing after all, but if it doesn’t something else will inevitably take its place.

Organize and Embellish a bit During Transfer

Let us get to the meat of the process: Turning this inspiration and haphazardly collected information into Random Tables. It may end up in one of my notebooks, on canary yellow sticky-back notes, index cards, receipts, cocktail napkins, or other bits of analog ephemera, but it cannot live there forever! Perhaps if you are capturing this on a smartphone or with an app, this part might go swifter, because it chiefly entails getting this disparate information into a spreadsheet to flesh it out into an entry.

Spreadsheets are lovely temporary homes for Random Tables. You have so many welcoming little cells, and if you resist the urge to noodle away for hours with formatting and formulae, you can also easily enumerate things like rows and characters. On my computer, I have a few open and always beckoning to me if I’m spending time there (and they do often become a more direct repository for the ideas because of this, despite the inherent distractions associated with sitting at a computer). When I get an idea for a new Table, I name a “tab” or “sheet” with something to identify it. Paste my list of numbers (1-100) and then begin the slapdash process of turning any existing fragments into something a little less terse, but still sufficiently short to fit within the constraints of a cell. I am pretty prolix and long-winded by nature (as you can see from this post), so that’s a tightrope walk sometimes. Save often or have a mechanism in place to prevent lost work. Select a typeface you don’t mind staring at and choose a similar size to what you might end up publishing with for width. I sometimes Zoom In to make this larger and easier to read whilst writing.

For this stage of the workflow, I tend to have a ton of tables going simultaneously. Should I ever grow bored with one, but still wish to continue writing, I can switch to another and add to that after briefly re-familiarizing myself with it (this is where some revision/editing/proofreading might take place, though it is admittedly insufficient for most these Drafts, the new and novel always seems to take precedence once an idea is “done cooking for now”).


A peek at some of the “dev list” of active tables I’m plinking away at currently (I think there are about two dozen tabs all together).
All are in various states of completion, and if I’m struck with a particularly creative mood, they can sometimes all cross the finish line at roughly the same time!

This is a passive process mostly. Expanding the entries from their point of origin happens in fits and starts whenever I feel like it and for as long as it remains fun for me. I remain mindful about how long I am spending with a particular entry and move on if it is not being productive right now. I can always come back to it later after it has marinated for a bit.

Hopefully, the analog fragments give me at least a few entries to “get the creativity ball rolling” on one, so I can ascertain where I stand with the entries. Sometimes a fragment forces me to revisit one I have been neglected or feeling stymied with and produces a handful of additional entries as I return to that topic.

Onward: Toward One Hundred!

One Hundred Entries can seem daunting. Tables that leverage smaller randomizers or consolidating entries on the percentile are far more common from what I have seen. I try not to stress about that too much, they will finish, when they finish 😊. But there are sometimes useful techniques that I employ to reach that magic number.

Optional: Winnowing Tables

Smaller, more focused tables are less daunting and sometimes drive thinking into narrower lanes. Divide your d100 into d20s, or even d10s by general topic. Complete those. Then stitch them together. For example: If I am doing a table about Bears, I might start out with a few smaller tables about the motivations and needs for a living creature: Food, Water, Shelter, Mating/Child rearing, Territorial Concerns, etc. Those fill up significantly faster than having all those blank cells staring back at you when you sit down to write 😊 and thinking of say, twenty interesting situations involving a Bear and Food (hunting, foraging, different tucker, etc.) is not as intimidating for some. A couple quick online searches concerning their Diet can even do the lion’s share of the work for you and you might learn something interesting!

Sometimes I will end up detecting these kinds of patterns while I am fleshing out entries, and if a Table is proving troublesome, re-organizing the information into these smaller categories might help. I can see if there is one that is slightly more neglected than the others, or even break things out further by examining these kinds of relationships. This “re-treading” process occasionally spots an entry lacking a bit of clarity, or even one that might inspire another.


Winnowing Tables in action. These were for the compartmentalization I noticed was occurring on my Shield Spell table as I was working on it.

This works with smaller tables too: Breaking a d20 into five discrete d4 tables is handy and after all, sometimes it is more about metering out that little drop of dopamine when you finish something.

Optional: Constrained Writing:

I like to impose strange challenges or constraints on myself to keep it fun (by my very idiosyncratic definition of “fun”), so sometimes there’s an arbitrary character limit I’m having to hit, or I want to make sure that I’m using all letters in the alphabet to start entries with, or I’m doing even more ridiculous things like making them rhyme, or secreting other little Easter Eggs within the entries. Constraints like these breed creativity for me and take entries into new and exciting directions I may not have hit upon before, but of course, your mileage may vary when it comes to this. I wouldn’t want something like these to stop you from creating your own tables!

It may seem counter-intuitive really: Why would one make this more difficult than it needs to be? I am not quite sure how it works, but it certainly seems to help sometimes. My best guess is that by turning it into an ersatz “game” of sorts, this places me in the same improvisational and more fruitful mindset that I would have during play.

With my Encounter Activities, I ended up doing one a day for over a hundred days (I think I gave myself Weekends off). That was another example of an arbitrary challenge I imposed on myself to get the juices flowing. I cannot say I recommend it though, because it starts making a leisure activity seem like work! But I just wanted to see if it was possible and the results seem popular.

When working within a century of entries, not all will be gold at first glance to me or those who use them. I have made my peace with this. Quantity serves its own purpose sometimes. What may not be as inherently interesting on its own next to other entries sometimes slots perfectly into play later on.

Timeframes:

Some tables take longer than others. If an idea really grabs me, I can usually hammer one out in an hour or so (only seldom in one big chunk though, it is not really something I’ve really bothered to meticulously time like my 20-minute Dungeons). Others languish until that inspiration strikes again, or I see the dev list getting “out of hand” according to my own capricious whims. Life and responsibilities are wont to get in the way as well.

Often, I try to focus as much as possible on tables that I subjectively deem to be the most useful to other Referees these days or ones that are necessary for prep I might need in play sooner rather than later. A conversation with other Referees might lead to a new and intriguing Table idea, and those are always great to place on the pile immediately and sometimes take precedence due to their novelty. Other fun ideas can stay in the spreadsheet for now and since I am nearly always actively attuned to gathering, a stray note or seed might reinvigorate my interest in them for a spell.

One surprising side-effect I have found with working primarily on d100 Tables is that smaller ones go amazingly fast indeed. When I do decide that a d36 might be a better fit for what I am trying to achieve for instance, those tighter focused things really do seem like a cakewalk after all these years of furtling with longer tables.

One Hundred Entries, now what?

It is always those last five or six empty or unfinished entries that balefully glare up at me, so close to the finish-line. I don’t have an easy solution for those sadly, but know that you aren’t the only one who has to face them 😊. When I complete a table, I do a little dance. Though I probably should take the time for a careful proof-reading pass, I’m usually more excited to get it posted so I can move onto the next thing. There is a numbing affect that one’s own words can have on re-reading so any issues seldom jump out immediately I’ve found. I can always update them later if a particularly glaring aggravation in an entry rears its head. I will at least usually attempt to frustrate the Spellchecker on the results and see how the thing looks as it swims in a sea of little red wiggly lines due to my obsession with ten-dollar words and the vagaries of fantastical monster names and such. I usually perform an alphabetical sort here on most tables that do not have weighing or are not leveraging multiple dice in unusual ways. This just helps ensure that I did not inadvertently lean too much on certain words for entry starters.

I could at this stage wrangle things into HTML and post them directly, but I have settled on a preference for sharing these with the world via PDF. Those are easier to print out and stuff in Folders/Binders for me (because at the heart of all of this: Table Creation is most of the prep work I do these days). They also make for more consistency, and easier compilation options down the road.

I have used a variety of different software for this step over the years, from Word Processors which are breathtakingly bad and extremely exasperating when it comes to handling tabular presentation, to more fully fledged Layout programs (Affinity Publisher is my latest flavor if I have the luxury of time to fire it up, I am still quite the novice, but learning is fun. I have access to Microsoft Publisher as well if I am in a huge rush and it is serviceable. You can always do this in other platforms though, I have seen amazing things in Google Slides/Sheets/Docs for instance). I know I will endlessly tweak the formatting of things and wallow in procrastination if I give myself the chance to, so what tends to work best for me is to have a Template that I can just plug the lovingly ameliorated spreadsheet data into.

There is a Landscape and a Vertical one with zebra-striping already present, guaranteed to fit on a single page until the peskily verbose content is added. There are a few Formatting Styles already present, but those sometimes need to be adjusted slightly once I plug in the spreadsheet data.

Once pasted, the Table invariably runs off the next page, even after adjusting font-size down to something smaller, but hopefully not illegibly small. This is where the gist of what passes for “Editing” takes place in my workflow.


Always with the Wrapping, despite my best intentions!

I am having to revise entries that are a bit longer or are wrapping to additional lines without making them completely incomprehensible. Amputating a word here or there (sometimes sadly shedding a particularly perfect adjective... sigh), abbreviating, ampersands/slashes, numeric representations of numbers, contractions, are all tools in my arsenal to trim things down. If that is not enough, I will occasionally tweak the text-spacing ever-so-slightly or I am forced to endure a complete re-write of an especially stubborn entry here. Setting a rigid column width or character constraint during the Spreadsheet step can sometimes help here, but there are always a few entries that are just prone to getting a little fulsome despite my best intentions at the onset 😊.

Side Note: Capitalization

Some have commented that my Capitalization in these entries seems to be a bit of a mess. I am terribly sorry if it offends the Reader’s eye. There is a method to that madness, however. Capitalizing certain nouns is immensely helpful for how I end up utilizing the tables in many ways and exposes possibilities for later expansion and development.

Take these examples from a recent table on Settlement Events:

River and Road are capitalized in number 45 to urge me to Name them: it is a placeholder for a Proper Noun. It tells me to fix them to a particular Place and make them more tangibly impactful. The Merchant in 46 also needs a name and generation (or could serve as a stand in for an NPC met prior, etc.), a Bandit Group deserves a moniker to plunder under and more fleshing out, and the Merchant’s Route should be plopped into a nearby Hex as a distinct “place” (potentially named) as well should this rumor wish to be pursued by the Players. These are helpful reminders to me to tailor these table results to what is currently going on in play if used on-the-fly as well. Eventually, there is always the chance that these Nouns will require indexing somehow or linked with more specific generators (like what I have done in perchance, and in Hex Describe before), so by Capitalizing them, I am making things a little easier to find down the road when the bug bites me to automate them 😊. Think of it a bit like analog hypertext for now: a signifier akin to a footnote that draws attention to a digression opportunity, but without consuming all the valuable real-estate associated with bolding or italicizing an entire word.

Finishing Up

So, I have finally wrangled all those entries into a PDF that does not stretch across pages unless absolutely necessary (some are spreads, and that will probably be fine if I ever get around to really *publishing* them). They may not be winning any beauty contests, but they are serviceable 😊. For me, I prefer the information to be as readily retrievable as possible, so sticking to something more consistent over time helps facilitate this feature.

I export the PDF which I then shove it up to the Cloud where I can embed it into a blog post. At this point I might decide it is necessary to apply a preface (more writing) or go hunting for a suitable image to adorn the post with. I try to add tags/labels to the post to improve findability in the future. Once published, I try to remember to pollinate my various social media platforms with a link to it for those that follow me for this kind of content. Lately, I have been trying to also incorporate the step of updating my Random Table index immediately, so that does not fall too far behind.

That’s the convoluted methodology I’ve been following for my Random Tables nowadays! I do hope there’s at least a little nugget of wisdom or two in this for others who are interested in generating these. Have any tips or tricks that have worked for you? I’d love to hear them of course 😊.

4 comments:

  1. Its really interesting to hear about your process, I have often wondered how you manage to do so many great tables which I am forever saving links to! Your Forest Farragoes pdf hugely helped me prepare for a recent WFRP session where I knew there was a good chance the players would literally go off the track - thank you!!

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  2. This was wonderful. Thank you! I've been reading for years, recently made hearty use of wilderness hexes and vignettes, and have, actually, been specifically curious about your process. Really a gift.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really interesting to read this – thanks for sharing!

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  4. I'm relatively new to the party but I really enjoy your tables and I LOVE this peak behind the curtain into your creative process. I also pull inspiration from everywhere I can find it, including media of all genres and factual nuggets from science and history. Hiking is a powerful idea generator for me as well, as the gentle exercise away from the myriad distractions clears my mind and scenes of nature, whether grand vistas or tiny vignettes, often spark my imagination. (Overland travel and encounters out in the world are always a big part of my games.)

    There is some wonderful advice in this piece and the humility to own your foibles and the confidence to make your process your own is particularly inspiring. Also, I am fascinated by your handwriting. Keep up the great work, we appreciate it!

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