Unpredictable Results

"What do you mean, 'it breaks reality?'"
"I mean you turn it on, and reality breaks."
— The Skeletor Show

The notion of unpredictable results has long been an easy source of intrigue on television. Its most common form is the exotic technology or mysterious mythical artifact. Often the in-character source of a Deus ex Machina.

Sometimes a source for drama, where the sudden, unexpected result can either give the heroes something to fight and/or resolve, or save their hides. Othertimes, used for comedy; "either it will cause peace and happiness throughout the land, or plunge us all into complete pain and fear. We're not sure."

Essentially, the opposite of Functional Magic. Random Effect Spell and Randomized Damage Attack is a subtrope.

Examples:

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    Comics 
  • Red kryptonite has unpredictable effects on Superman which last for forty-eight hours and are never repeated. As the essay The Well Tempered Plot Device puts it, this means the writer can try on any daft idea they like with no effect to the comic's continuity.

    Film 
  • Galaxy Quest has the Omega-13, a device created in a Cliffhanger two-part episode of the eponymous Show Within a Show which was never resolved, meaning its function was never revealed until a bunch of aliens re-created it (It Makes Sense in Context... sort of). Its results are successfully predicted near the end, but only as one theory among many; nobody knows for sure what it will do until it's activated.

    Literature 
  • In John and Dave and the Temple of X'al'naa'thuthuthu, the sequel to John Dies at the End, the Furgun embodies this trope. Technically it does whatever the user wants it to do, but getting the result right is finicky. It's as likely to enlarge things as it is to turn them into mashed potatoes, blow them up or give them beards. When the narrator tries to defend himself with it, the mental image of an old painting of Jesus flips into his mind, so the painting pops out of nowhere and starts shooting lasers out of its eyes. When he has an urgent, urgent case of Kill It with Fire, he does all he can to imagine flames as he pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. Then there's a streak of light in the sky...
  • Collapsing a hypergate in The Lost Fleet can cause an explosion anywhere between "tactical nuke" and "supernova".
  • Both the Awesome and the Impractical side of Penny's superpower in Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain. On the awesome side, Penny can work in any theme or tech type, where most mad scientists are restricted to one general field (lasers, biotech, clockwork, candy, etc). She's even duplicated the tech of both the Conquerors and the Puppeteers, two of the most feared alien races in this setting (and mortal enemies). But on the Impractical side, Penny has only limited control over what her power builds, and can't repair or duplicate her work. In short, if Penny asks her power for a weapon, she might get a pneumatic cannon, a nuclear-powered laser, a mind-control cat, a soda knife, or almost anything else, and she has no good way to tell what.

    Live Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer, episode "Earshot", where Buffy is stung by a demon and learns only that she will gain an "aspect of the demon", which could be anything (it turns out to be telepathy).
  • Alias was particularly ambitious with this trope, basing an entire arc around exotic "we don't know what it's for" technology.
  • The neurotransmitter Promicin, in The 4400 is described as unpredictable — somebody injected with it will either gain a superpower or drop dead, and there is no way of predicting what that will be. When Shawn and Burkhoff start researching a way to predict whether someone will survive or not, Jordan Collier asks them to stop, as it will end up turning the world into those who have powers and those who know they will never get them. He prefers the more unpredictable way, as it just requires "one generation of sacrifice" and then the world can move on.
  • In Lost's season 4 finale, moving the island is said to be "both dangerous and unpredictable" (partly to explain why it wasn't done before.) We know it resulted in transporting Ben to Tunisia ten months into the future, but we have no idea where or when the island is. Eventually we find out it was sent skipping through time randomly across thousands of years. Kind of. Because we definitely saw it disappear to the Oceanic Six, but only the Losties (and not the Others) were moving in time on the Island. It's complicated basically.
  • A Disclaimer on Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide is "Your Results May Vary".

    Pinball 
  • Theoretically, the "Player's Choice" reward in No Good Gofers allows the player to choose a reward from a spinning wheel. In reality, the choices are shuffled so quickly that it's nearly impossible to consistently get the same award.

    Radio 
  • The Heart of Gold's improbability drive in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy works by producing a near-infinite number of unpredictable results and then "picking" the desired one (usually going from Point A to Point B) and sticking with it. Of course, the temporary side effects of engaging it (such as turning into a penguin or generating sperm whales) aren't exactly pleasant. At one point this is invoked by activating the Improbability Drive without specifying any desired result at all, on the theory that since Our Heroes are about to be killed by oncoming missiles, any outcome at all is preferable. It works, as the missiles are transformed into a bowl of petunias and a very confused whale, which is very bad for the petunias and whale, but very good for Our Heroes.

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television: Change just one line of a sufficiently complex piece of code without fully understanding what it does, e.g.: "Segmentation Fault. Core Dumped."
  • In C/C++ the language standard allows for "undefined behavior" for some operations (e.g. accessing an array beyond its bounds), leading to the "nasal demons" joke.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • The Wand of Wonder (the Rod of Wonder in later editions)— a magic item whose effect is randomly determined from a table of 50 or so possibilities each time it's activated. Possible effects range from shooting fireballs to turning a random combatant into a rhinoceros, and a popular pasttime on the game's official forums is coming up with new and even more bizarre effects for the item.
    • Wild magic in 2E could have similarly unpredictable effects.
    • An even more powerful but similar item is the Deck Of Many Things, where any card you draw can have really good (you gain a powerful magic item, a fine warhorse, or a small castle) or REALLY BAD effects (you lose all your money, your good reputation, YOUR SOUL...). It's been nicknamed "Total Party Kill in a can" for good reasons.
    • Previous versions of D&D had a LOT of utterly random effects, usually as dungeon features. The module "In Search Of The Unknown" had a set of magic pools whose effects when drunk changed with every sip.
    • Unpredictable results are a core part of D&D, as well as many other roleplaying systems. Wandering monsters, random encounters, loot, many spell effects and curses, and much more are all often determined by dice rolls and tables. Many supplements are little more than a bit of flavour text followed by pages and pages of encounter and effects tables.
  • Enter the Mists of Ravenloft without a Vistani guide, and you could find yourself wandering for any amount of time, from minutes to months or (rarely) even decades. Likewise, you could end up in some other dread domain, come right back to where you started from, be dropped off on your world of origin (if you're an outlander and your DM is merciful), or even get deposited on a completely different D&D campaign world from your own.
    • And while you're wandering around in there, you could encounter literally anything along the way.
  • Exposure to Chaos in Warhammer yields unpredictable mutations, which in extreme cases can turn the character into a mindless gibbering Chaos Spawn.
  • Warhammer 40,000: Anything connected to the Warp or Ork technology. Represented ingame by psykers suffering "perils of the warp" attacks and more esoteric Orky wargear having its own tables of random effects. Ork psykers are beyond random, rolling just to see what completely-unpredictable power they get... every turn. Each new version of the Ork book adds new ones - from the return of the Shokk Attack Gun (which has a Strength you roll for and occasionally does things like explode or teleport the Big Mek into its target), to the Lootas getting random numbers of shots, to the invention of the Bubble Chukka (produces a spray of bubbles which range from S1 AP 1 to S6 AP 6 based on a die roll).
    • 40k roleplay games (Dark Heresy and consorts) have a table of varied psychic phenomena, one of which may or may not happen when a psychic power is cast. The worst of the lot are the "perils of the warp", which are just as varied.
  • Beware if you play as a Necromancer in Ironclaw; if you try to cast a spell, and you roll at least three 6's, you'll get hit with a magical backlash that does totally random (but always negative) things. In fact, the official rulebook encourages DMs to get as creative as they could with what happens.
  • Magic is like this in GURPS. When it fails it does so in extremely random ways. There are at least six different official tables of backlash effects ranging from "Black Magic" (which results in Body Horror) all the way to Cosmic Humor (which causes reality to mock you in the most painful way it can).
  • Any casting in FATAL, with possible miscast effects including "caster thinks he's a cat" (funny), "caster becomes a serial rapist" (not funny, but apparently intended to be), "caster gets raped by gay ogres" (Dude, Not Funny!) and "accidentally casts F.A.T.A.L." (a wonderful chance to play a different game).
  • The various shipboard items used to fight The Awful Green Things From Outer Space might injure them, cause them to grow, or do nothing at all, completely at random. However, any specific item continues to have consistent results once it's been used.
  • Red mana in Magic: The Gathering is the color of randomness, chaos and unpredictability. Most of the time that appears in the form of cards that happen to interact like that; for example, creatures attacking the turn they come into play and changing the targets of other effects are both red abilities, and both result in unpredictable game states, especially for your opponents. Some effects, though, genuinely require players to randomize things, such as by flipping a coin or rolling a dice. In its most extreme form, the card Scrambleverse will assign every card in play to a new controller chosen at random.

    Toys 
  • BIONICLE's Unobtainium, Energized Protodermis either transforms all that comes into contact with it into whatever its destiny calls for, or simply destroys it. This goes for everything, from objects to living beings. Then, there are the Reconstitute at Random Kanoka Disks, which transform their target into who-knows-what, Teleportation disks, which teleport the targets to random locations, and the Mask of Summoning, which summons random creatures whom the mask's user unfortunately has no control over.

    Video Games 
  • The Lab Ray in Neopets, which can add stats, take them away, change species, or even change gender.
  • The Pokémon attack Metronome, which allows a 'Mon that knows it to perform almost ANY attack at random.
    • There's also the slightly-more-controlled Assist/Cat's Paw, which randomly uses a move from one of your teammates' movesets.
  • In Dungeon Crawl one can worship the god Xom, who can do essentially anything to you on a whim, good or bad. The probability of getting a good effect is raised by how amusing Xom finds you at the moment- and the easiest way of amusing him is by doing things that have random and potentially disastrous outcomes, like drinking unidentified potions.
  • The Wand of Wonder from Baldur's Gate strikes whoever its pointed at with a random effect.
  • Who could forget the Wabbajack? A magical staff from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that turns a creature into a random creature.
  • ADOM has magical pools which can be drunk from for random effects, from being cursed, to being turned invisible, to gaining a wish.
  • There are a lot of cards in Hearthstone with extremely unpredictable random effects. Many of them generally benefit the user, such as gaining a cheaper copy of almost any minion (Unstable Portal) or any spell (Nexus-Champion Saraad) in the entire gamenote . More extreme examples can end up backfiring on the user, such as Gelbin Mekkatorque, who summons a random invention that either do positive or negative things to any character, or Yogg-Saron, who casts a completely random spell on a completely random target for each spell the player had used previously. There's a sizeable Broken Base over whether this is fun or utterly infuriating.
  • The Funky Bomb in Scorched Earth is a very randomised weapon. When it hits, it fires out shots of its own in random directions. It might take out five opponents, it might only take out the one it landed near, it might do nothing, or if you're exceptionally unlucky, it might even end up taking you out.

    Webcomics 
  • A major arc of the webcomic It's Walky! centers around this. The Head Alien uses a machine to stop time in Canada (Citing his reason as, "I figured, who the heck would notice? Damn if I wasn't right...") in order to trap a demigodly alien known as 'The Cheese'. However, overuse of the time-stopping device creates unpredictable results, such as reversing the gender of everybody in the vicinity, giving somebody a Funny Afro, or turning him into a Pirate...
  • In the webcomic Tales of the Questor, Quentyn's magic sword, Wildcard, could go from unstoppable to useless with every attack due to the unique way it was first charged (A night of drunken spellcasting by Quentyn and his friends).
  • Roughly 50% of Riff's inventions in Sluggy Freelance work like this. The Dimensional Flux Agitator has a particularly spotty record.
  • The shield of wonder from Goblins, which has a massively varied number of random effects when struck.

    Web Original 
  • SCP-914, AKA "The Clockworks" is entirely based on this, as is SCP-261, a profoundly unpredictable vending machine.

    Western Animation 
  • In an episode of Pinky and the Brain, The Brain warns Pinky never to use more than one drop of his shrinking serum, because "it would cause a reaction on the molecular level that is completely unpredictable"; the reaction turns out to be turning people into huge yodeling clog dancers.
  • The Allspark and the key it empowered in Transformers Animated, which apparently has a mind of its own.


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