Getting Lucky: The Element of Luck in RPGs

It’s St. Patrick’s Day! Time for a green beer, a shamrock-shaped cookie, some delicious Irish noms (I’ll take pasties instead of the corned beef, thanks!), and of course, pinches if you’re not wearing green! Admittedly, there’s a whole lot more to the holiday, but for those of us without Irish heritage, it’s mostly a day of fun and pretending we have the luck o’ the Irish.

Luck. It’s a funny intangible thing. We always wish we had more of the good kind and less of the bad kind. Good luck gets the praise for something awesome happening, while bad luck gets cursed for anything that goes wrong. Who hasn’t picked up a penny found on the sidewalk, hoping for good luck for the rest of the day, all the while avoiding walking under the ladder propped up on that same sidewalk? Most people believe in the element of luck in our lives, at least a little bit.

So what about in your RPG? What role does luck play?

Isn’t It ALL About Luck?

Clearly, there’s already a huge element of luck in playing RPGs. Much of your fate is determined by the roll of the dice; if the dice are coming up in your favor, it’s your lucky night! If you can’t roll worth a damn all night long, man, what crappy luck.

But that’s your good or bad luck. What about your character?

If it hasn’t already come up in play, what attitude is there toward luck in your game world? Do most people believe in it, or do they think it’s bunk? Does your character believe in luck, maybe even to the point of carrying a lucky charm? If you’re a player, ask these questions. If you’re a GM and haven’t considered it yet, take a few minutes to sketch out the answers for your setting.

They’re Always After Me Lucky Charms!

OK, you’ve considered luck in your game. Now what? Is the presence or absence of luck really something big enough to build a story arc on?

Probably not. But that’s not to say it can’t be a fun little side element. For example:

  • Something the characters have always considered an omen of good luck, such as picking up a head’s-up copper piece on the ground, is actually thought to bring bad luck in the land they’re currently in. Unaware of local superstition, one of the PCs finds a copper and picks it up, eliciting gasps and warding signs from the locals who witness it. Suddenly nothing is going the party’s way: they can’t find a room at an inn, they get pickpocketed, they can’t find the contact they were supposed to meet in town, etc. Is it really bad luck, or are the locals just making things difficult because of their beliefs?
  • The lucky charm a PC has been faithfully carrying for years (whether he really believed in it or not) goes missing. Things start going very poorly for that PC. Was there really something to that rabbit’s foot? Can it be found or replaced? Or is something else at play, and the missing rabbit’s foot is just a coincidence?
  • The party comes into possession of a minor magic item that brings them a touch of good luck in some way: it gives them a little insight to the outcome of an action, or gives them a second chance to succeed on minor tasks (i.e. a second roll on a skill check). While the item’s effects are far from groundbreaking or game-changing, it may help the PCs in enough sticky situations that they feel like they’ve found the Holy Grail. (Note: such magic items exist in a number of 3PP products for various games – or you can just create your own!)

Screw Lucky Pennies – I Want The Pot of Gold!

Want to give luck a bigger role in a session or two of your campaign? Here are a couple of ideas.

  • Most pantheons have a deity of luck, or at least one with luck in its portfolio. It’s common even for the most devout followers of other gods to whisper a prayer to the god of luck when they could use a little good fortune. Perhaps the god hears the prayer of one in your party, and even appears before the party in his avatar form. He’ll grant your wish for luck, but there’s a price…
  • For every bit of good luck that happens, somewhere in the world an equal amount of bad luck must occur. The balance has been maintained for all of time, as far as anyone knows, and no one ever gives it a second thought. Lately, instead of the balancing bit of luck occurring who-knows-where to who-knows-who, it’s happening in very close proximity. The rogue is lucky enough to avoid the poisoned needle trap in the lock she’s picking, but as soon as they’re through the door, the cleric has the bad luck to step on the only trapped tile in the whole room and receives a powerful electric shock. What’s happened to the balance? Can the party find out what’s going on and restore things to how they used to be?

Go Ahead, Wish On That Falling Star

If you’ve never given much consideration to luck in your game world, take the time to ponder it. It doesn’t have to play a big role in your setting, but it may provide enough inspiration for a little character development at the very least, or for even a cool side story. And anything that can add a little something to the game is worth a four-leaf clover any day.

Do your characters have any superstitions about good/bad luck? Has luck played an important role in your game?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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