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Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Chaos theory was a flavor of the day in physics about 20 years ago. It dovetailed into Complexity and was later replaced with the interdimensional strings as the flavor of the day and the music of the spheres will likely be next to appear to us yet again.

Chaos theory is very beautiful in its conceptualization, almost mystical, that's why Michael Crichton used it in his novel about the dinosaurs. It is definitely mind-blowing, but not mystical, if you understand the basic components of the Chaos Theory. Initially, Chaos theory grew out of hard sciences, Physics, Hydrodynamics, Meteorology, but eventually found its way to softer sciences, such as psychology and sociology. It hasn't been as effective in social sciences, but that is because we don't have the Mathematics or computational power to describe human or social behavior. I have a historic example of Chaos Theory in action, it has nothing to do with the D&D, and I might put it here, based on the feedback that I get from the readers. Chaos Theory has also come in handy when it comes to analysis of disasters and major accidents - airplane crashes, nuclear meltdowns, etc. We are going to see how the Chaos Theory can spice the D&D adventure writing. First, some definitions.

Order is the sand castle you build, entropy is the wave, that smashes it. This is similar to LAW vs CHAOS in D&D, which are defined in the context of the social order, and have moral connotations, Chaos being equivalent to Evil in some D&D games.

A complex system is assumed, a population of a single specie in ecology, a storm system, a commercial jet plane enroute to a destination, a weather system. Also a mind of a single individual, a classroom, a platoon can also be assumed. In D&D, we can assume a Dungeon (which has ecological balance, which the players can disrupt, a Kingdom, a Thieves' Guild, King's Court, warring sides in conflict, and political factions can all be considered systems.

An Attractor is a value, a number or a set of numbers, which the system is striving to reach. In human terms, a river flows to the sea, a hurricane is traveling in a certain direction out to sea or away from it. A human being can be on a self-destructive oath with drugs, a thief - bound for gallows, a knight - bound for glory. These are all attractors and in a sandbox campaign, this is the PULL, that to which the players can strive - treasure, power, victory, experience levels, etc.

A Repeller is the opposite of the Attractor, it is something that people a running from. A population of animals might be avoiding famine, a person can be running from poverty, a group of survivors can be running from the old life, that they lost. A Wizard might be running from the experiences that he or she had as an apprentice.

This is the key and the best known part of the Chaos Theory. These are the non linear outcomes, to which the system is striving. Mathematically, the system goals can be at two places at the same time, that is because the mathematical function describing Strange Attractors are Fractals, which are the equations of the Chaos Theory, which describe patters in the random and the destructive events. What are strange attractors in human terms? It is the result of an explosive event or an incident, which utterly destroys the system, and brings about total chaos. An Outcome of a bombing or a disaster. In human terms, Strange attractor is the action of an individual assigning meaning and acting upon it. You see a picture or a situation, and you might make nothing of it. Another person might see the same situation, and because of their totality of training, ability, and experience might see something profound in it, or they might be insane and the same meaningless situation can trigger a breakdown in them. In terms of planes, trains, and historic events, a Strange attractor is the result of a catastrophic failure. In terms of D&D, either the player characters or their nemeses are Strange Attractors, depending whether players are trying to destroy Ancient Evil or protect a community from Ancient Evil being unleashed.

The classic definition is that the flutter of the butterfly's wins in China will cause a hurricane in New England down the road. This is NOT Synchronicity, or the acausal connection, Jung's bridge to the mystical, this is an obscure cause of huge outcomes. A horse getting the stone in its shoe, that cause it to throw the general, who then dies and the battle is lost. In terms of D&D, these are the actions of he players, who beat the huge big guys. The Ring Bearer destroying Mordor. This is highly uncommon in real life, an airplane cleaner leaved the Peto Tube (an opening for the altimeter sensor) covered with scotch tape, and the plane crashes into the mountain side, but is the norm in literature and in story-telling.

In order for the Buttlerfly Effect to do its magic, the system has to be vulnerable. Water is safe to swim in, but from the height of 10000 feet, it seems like a solid mass, and if you fall into water from 10000 feet, it will kill you just as surely as the ground will. Space Shuttle Columbia gains a chink in its ceramic armor, and it is vulnerable to hot gases destroying it during the re-entry. In psychical environment, there has to be potential for explosive decompression, starvation, disease, flood or other such calamity that will destroy the system. In social and in literary, and in gaming terms, there has to be danger and tension, where things going wrong can have catastrophic consequences. One mistake, and thieves are caught, if the enemy attacks, the outpost will surely be destroyed, if the King dies, the Queen's loyal guards will be decimated by their enemies.

This is the single most useful analytical tool that came out of the Chaos Theory. Bifurcation is the splitting of the pathways in the development of events. After irreversible incident X, things are going A, and if the incident did not happen, things would have went B, but now, B can never happen and things will never be the same again. Plane was flying to A, but was hijacked to B, and now the passengers' lives will never be the same again. You go into a room, kill the monster, take the treasure. This is not a bifurcation, because this can happen again and again and again. You have a fight with your significant other. You fight every day, week, full moon, the relationship continues. No bifurcation. You say the magic words and this turns into a relationship ending fight. It's over. Things will never be the same again. BIFURCATION. In D&D terms, you kill a bunch of goblins rolled from a random encounter table, No Bifurcation, they can appear again, and gain or loss of 1d6 Goblins armed with spears will not change the course of the adventure. Players capture the Goblin King, when the DM was not planning for it, and they do it early in the game. Now the Goblin defenses are bereft of leadership. They are weaker. Players get the added recognition from the much higher level NPC's as a result of their distinguished captive. Game changer. BIFURCATION. In the real world, the more bifurcations the system has, the greater the chances of a collapse or catastrophic failure. Picture bifurcation as pieces of fuselage getting ripped off the plane expanding the initially tiny puncture during the explosive decompression. A complex system will have a whole bunch of non-irreversible events, modulated through various positive and negative feedback loops, which grants the system stability and capacity for complex systemic behavior, but the BIFURCATION DIAGRAM will be a single line. Presence of many bifurcations trumpets an unstable system on the brink of collapse, but in the game world, many bifurcations mean a fast developing story. A BIFURCATION SYSTEM is especially  useful tool for injecting story development into a genuine sandbox.


  1. Okay, this post is just fun to read. I love it!

    I think that people have to understand the Chaos Theory some what. They don't need to know the terms, but if they want to up their DM game, you best try to plan for it, because it is the entire reason why we are playing. A writer can write an amazing story, but as soon as you allow different minds a chance to play the protagonists, you are introducing a factor which can break down that amazing story within a few hours. Some Dungeon Masters think that they are in charge, but they aren't, once a senerio begins, it's outcome becomes uncertain, not just because of the dice, but because of how different people processes the information given to them.

    It doesn't matter if you are playing a story type game, or a sandbox, Chaos is going to happen, if you know what it is, you can nurture it, incompetent DM's strive to kill it, and it can be killed but at the expense of the enjoyment and surprises which the game wants to achieve.

    The problem with not knowing that it is there leads to gaps and holes. If you don't plan for a catastrophic success going to either the players or your NPCs you can have the game crash on you before you've had a chance. Sometimes we give to many clues or make things too obvious, a villain that we thought was hidden is quickly discovered and slain before you are ready to quit playing for the night, leaving you with nothing to do, which sucks.

  2. In the immortal words of George Orwell, you can't commit a thought crime if you don't know the words. You misconstrued the effect of Chaos Theory on adventure design - We are not using Chaos Theory to write spectacular stories for player characters to punch holes in, we use Chaos Theory to create spectacular disasters of epic proportions to human scale, terrifying, because the players are in the middle of it.

    I don't think that it is easy to crash my adventures. There is a lot going on, and if they do, we can role play celebratory feasts and baronial politics. Let me give you an example. I started with a ecologically designed dungeon that had 5 levels and 12 areas. The Dungeon had an unfinished robber baron's stronghold that was taken over by a Necromancer, who was driven out, colonized by a band of Ghouls led by a messianic leader, and invaded by a band of about 200 Goblin slavers, who raided the town. The players did a lot to repel the raid and were asked to rescue the prisoners. There is a Goblin leadership, consisting of the Goblin King, his Chief Priest, the leader of his Hobgoblin bodyguards, a Slave Master, leader of the Goblin skirmishers and laborers, working to fortify parts of the mega-dungeon under Goblin control to keep the Ghouls and other monsters out, and a leader of the band of the heavily armored Goblin phalanx that deals with Ghouls and other powerful undead. Unexpected capture of the Goblin King and the killing of the Priest and the leader of the Boduguard (players couodn't figure out he was a chieftan also) did not end the game, but the Goblin response changed. The military leaders were working to block off the exits for the players and were working towards a Total Party Kill. Bereft of the military leaders, the rest of the Goblin Chiefs, pursued a defensive strategy of defending their area from the players, while the Ghoul Killers went out to find and attack the players, and again almost succeeded in killing off all the players, because the players allowed them to form into a phalanx and march on them. But that wasn't the end of the game or all there was to it. Players' Mission was to rescue prisoners, but two prisoners ran off voluntarily into the Dungeon and did not want to be rescued. One was a 15 year old sociopathic witch, a serpent whisperer, who befriended some 5th level intelligent giant serpents. A boy ran off with a Ghoul Child ( a child of the union between a Ghoul and a living human, who gave his father a messianic complex). Players had to do some tap dancing while convincing the Witch to go back home under the watchful eye of the overwhelming force, and blew it with the other kid, by trying to catch him and kill his friend. The Baron tricked players into raiding a looted dungeon, and the players missed the one hidden treasure. They did, however, find Necromancer's vivisection knives, which could fetch a good amount of money, but will stain the players with Necromancy if they aren't careful, and they weren't. So, the richness of the tapestry and the depth of my game keep it from crashing.

  3. The craziest story that I ever heard was about my Father-in-law. A friend of mine was playing for the first time and my Father-in-law was DMing, she instantly got suspicious of his arch-villain who was pretending to be a nice guy and she slit his throat 10 minutes into the game that he had spent all week writing. He got so mad he refused to let her play anymore LOL This was the old days, way back when there were only a handful of DMs that knew what they were doing.

    I had the same thing happen to me many years later, and it crashed the game, I wasn't flexible enough to just change things up a little. What really irritates me is when a game ends before an objective is met, then on the next game day, everyone comes back, meet the objective and I couldn't accurately prep the session because I didn't know what happened, so we either have a bs session or play cards. I think I've come up with a way to stop that from happening, but that doesn't mean that I am ever going to be less annoyed by it.

  4. I am sorry that this happened to your Father-in-Law. I could say that he wasn't writing a sandbox, that he was writing a linear adventure for his players, but that won't reveal anything. Instead, I will ask you: What are the consequences of slitting someone's throat at your local McDonald's restaurant? What would be consequences of killing someone on a village street 800 years ago? Your Father in Law did not think things through, which would have saved the game.

    Is the bad guy pretending to be nice in towm? Authorities would consider killing him a murder, not to mention tye bad guy's friends and henchmen. You just need discipline to think things through. Give your NPC and your adventure some social context. It helps to have sociological imagination. But if you just follow through logically, holes in the story will be plugged with consequences, like with a self-sealing fuel tank on a fighter plane of yore.