Drama, Fortune, Karma, and…?

January 4, 2009

I was realizing today that, with Jeep, leading with the fiction, and structured freeform finally emerging as non-resolution oriented design and play styles, the resolution-based vocabulary we inherited from Jonathan Tweet doesn’t really suffice anymore for talking about the basis for making decisions during play.

Specifically, in Everway, Tweet suggests that there are three kinds of resolution:

DRAMA: Based on what would be the most interesting thing to have happen.
FORTUNE: Rolling dice, drawing cards, using other randomizers.
KARMA: Comparing different things, such as numbers or traits.

What would you call the ritual negotiation of Polaris or Mist-Robed Gate? It doesn’t seem to be any of these. I might be tempted to call it, um, PROCESS, as in, you follow a series of directions and thereby arrive at the result. That would allow it to cover other practices that don’t necessary take the form of inter-player negotiation, such as the monsters in Mwaantaangaand (which take the form of descriptors that color play for a set number of turns).

However, since Tweet’s terms are specifically about resolution, at some point they just stop being the most helpful way of thinking about play that doesn’t revolve around resolution. Even Mwaantaangaand’s monsters aren’t resolved as much as endured and trying to describe that kind of thing in Tweet-like terms is not completely satisfying. It’s going to take a paradigm shift in theory in order to effectively begin describing these newer styles of design and play, but, unfortunately, I’m not really sure that’s happening yet, at least anywhere that I can see. I don’t even remember the Nordic con books really getting into the guts of how situations are structured and developed through play.

Anybody got a better read on this?

20 Responses to “Drama, Fortune, Karma, and…?”

  1. Brand Robins Says:

    I think that with many games you can break down the process, moment by moment, to be one of Tweets things. Like, Polaris is often negotiated Drama resolution (rather than the GM centric drama resolution of Everway), but has some moments when it goes to Fortune (when you can’t agree and roll the dice, frex).

    However, any single one of those moments is not going to give you the whole vision of what it is the game is doing. The way the interplay, and say, the subtle variations of different types of drama resolution (GM centric vs GM-full vs player centric, ect), make it a much more complex process.

    So while you can look at things in the moment to moment and still probably make it work, I think its more an Aristotalian logic chopping exercise of trying to name things in a system that doesn’t fully cover them.

    Also, much as the three modes are very good hermeneutic tools, I’ve often thought that they get used too generally. Like, they’re good broad categories and work well to explain Everway, but they may not be as detailed or all inclusive as everyone would like them to be. (Like the recent discussions about how Bangs are a tool for Sorcerer, not necessarily a general tool for all games.)

  2. Paul Tevis Says:

    Polaris, Mist-Robed Gate, and the Jeep stuff I’ve played all seem pretty Drama-driven to me. What about them doesn’t slot them into that mold for you?

  3. Brand: Maybe that’s more what I’m trying to say? That these terms aren’t helpful in thinking about how this kind of play works? Just because they’re all Drama doesn’t mean that freeform-influenced play styles function the same way. Ritual negotiation mechanics are very different from Jeep which is very different from Harry Potter fandom, etc. I’m honestly, not sure, though (on second thought), if they’re any more different than the Fortune mechanics in D&D, Dogs, and 1001 Nights.

    Paul: I guess I can see an argument for them all being various kinds of Drama, but they seem to strain that for me. In my mind, Drama is about considering what’s already happened in the fiction and how you might want it to develop. But when you start consulting mechanisms that exist outside the fiction and may not have any relation to it or narrative development, it starts getting weird. Maybe that’s just a way of approaching Drama that I hadn’t considered before.

    Is it Drama resolution if the game just says, “The group should decide X,” allowing the normal social processes of the players to resolve things? It doesn’t seem so to me.

  4. Paul Tevis Says:

    I do tend to lump “fiat” and Drama together, since by-and-large Drama is the way I make those types of decisions in story games.

    When you said this, “In my mind, Drama is about considering what’s already happened in the fiction and how you might want it to develop,” I nodded by head. Because in Polaris and Mist-Robed Gate, that’s how I decide which of the options available to me to pursue. Is what we’ve negotiated satisfying enough that I should respond “And that was how it happened” or do I need to come back with “But only if…” to get what Drama demands?

  5. Hmm, I can totally see that. Dramatic considerations do seem to play into all existing ritual negotiation systems that I know of. Even things like “pick a player to go first” often comes down to who claims to have a really great idea for getting play started, which is a Drama-influenced decision. Still, you can imagine situations, right, where decisions might be made on the social level instead of the Drama level?

    For example, Geiger Counter has these instructions to frame scenes around PCs that have not been in scenes recently. Is that better for the narrative? Sometimes, sure, but not always. It does make the game more functional, socially, in most cases, allowing everyone to have their turn in the spotlight.

  6. Paul Tevis Says:

    “Still, you can imagine situations, right, where decisions might be made on the social level instead of the Drama level?”

    Absolutely. I’ve seen this in playtests of Penny where the Traveler asks for input not from the person who has given her the best material so far, but from the person who needs pennies the most.

    Many half-formed thoughts are stuck in my head now.

  7. Brand Robins Says:


    That’s the other thing about “resolution” right there….

    Okay, so once upon a time Ron was talking about Sorcerer and how it is you know, without GM fiat, if an ambulance would be available to help a dying PC.

    Says he: “hat’s the key concept, I think, that keeps judgments about “is intensive care available” away from GM fiat. That question should not be answered by whether the GM suddenly invents a team of paramedics who dash in from off-screen; it should instead be answered by checking around all the details and circumstances of that particular location in the setting. Given all that, is intensive care available? That question can usually be answered without controversy.”

    Now, the question is, is that resolution? In some ways the answer is clearly yes. There was a question (or a possible question, many of these things don’t ever actually get asked at the gaming table, they simply get answered by assumption, default, or preemptively) and it got answered. That’s a resolution, right?

    But… it isn’t the “resolution system” that most folks talk about when they talk about Sorcerer. Its something different, happening in tandem with the fortune based resolution system of Sorcerer.

    So when we’re talking about resolution, system, lumpley system, and drama… where are we actually talking about? Is resolution only at the moment where we have conflict, or is it a more subtle and ongoing process?

    (Which, btw, is one of the problems I’ve had with Houses of the Blooded.)

  8. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Paul: Looking forward to whatever thoughts eventually emerge.

    Brand: That Ron quote is both a bit lead-with-the-fictiony and a bit Sim-y, which is fascinating. “Does it make sense that medical care would be available?” You could either reference ‘realism’ or already established bits of the fiction, there.

    Also, you’re totally spot-on about resolution happening constantly, but that’s not what people usually mean by ‘resolution.’ The Forge Glossary definition aligns with the more general sense, as I recall. It’s like “Resolution is how things are established, in order, within the fiction. See IIEE.” It’s like the verb form of Loopily Poopily ‘system.’

  9. Marshall Burns Says:

    A few things…

    1) Anytime that there’s a range of possibilities collapsed into one reality, I call that resolution. So, the idea of a game not centered around resolution is absurd to me. So what is it that people usually mean by it?

    2) It should be noted that the Big Model usage of “Drama” differs from the original usage in Everway.

    3) It’s ALL Process.

    Take my game The Rustbelt, which I will fall back to because it’s the system I’m most familiar with. You roll a die, add that to a score, compare it to a target number or opposing roll+score. If you’ve got enough, you’re good; if you don’t, you have to pay for the rest of it, or take your failure and like it. So ultimately it comes down to the decision to, as the game puts it, Push or Give.

    So, that’s what, Fortune + Karma + Drama, right?

    For my money, it is. Also for my money, it illustrates why DFK is worthless. What is useful is thinking of this:

    1) EFFECT: What possible realities can be created in the SIS?

    2) EFFECTIVENESS: What determines my ability to control or sway which potential reality comes true?

    3) PROCESS: How do I set things up so that the proper (i.e. intended by me, the designer) range of Effects is possible, with Effectiveness having the proper influence on which comes true?

    4) EXPRESSION: In what terms do I express the above? Numbers, pools of dice, just words, what? The key thing here is that the mode of Expression is chosen *for its impact on all of the above*. I don’t use dice pools because “I like dice pools,” nor straight negotiation because “I like negotiation”; whatever I use, I use it because it’s the right thing for this particular design.

    So, let’s go back to The Rustbelt. I wanted characters to be just folks, so, there had to be hard limits to what they can accomplish. But, if they’re willing to hurt themselves or lose something important in the process, I wanted them to be able to surpass those limits. And I wanted circumstances and positioning to have an impact on things, too.

    So what I did was give all the characters some attributes, scored 0 to 10, based on the qualities which I decided to considered effective in the fiction: Tough, Savvy, Grizzled, Slick, Cagey, Personable, Thorough, & Uncanny. You use whichever is appropriate to your action, and add a d10. You may get extra d10s awarded based on the circumstances; but you take only the best single result. So there’s a hard limit to your ability; if you’re Tough for 1, then you can’t beat someone who is Tough for 10 in a fistfight, because your max is 11, and his minimum is 11.

    Then, for the surpassing that limit, you can “buy” the points you need to succeed by taking on some sort of compromising effect. Maybe it’s an injury, or you lose something or some time, or maybe it just chips away at a buffer you have to protect you from really bad stuff. But how to determine what exactly the Price is for Pushing in a given instance? The GM offers two or three potential Prices, and the player chooses one. The player can suggest, but the GM can veto. In other words, you negotiate for it, and the GM has the stick.

    (And there’s another cool thing, in how dice don’t resolve conflicts, people do. Sometimes, I’m like, “Get in the car,” and you’re like, “No,” and so I pull a gun and I’m like, “Get in the car,” and now you have to decide if you’re willing to risk getting shot, which is horrible when it happens, or if maybe you’ll just get in the car. If you choose to get in the car, then we just resolved a conflict without dice or fiat.)

    This is all a tad on the fiddly side, but it’s good because it’s *exactly* what this game needed. Effect, Effectiveness, Process, and Expression are all in gear to produce the intended experience.

    And all of this was just an excuse for me to say something that I don’t like. I don’t like how there’s some folks who think that games “without resolution” or “without mechanics,” by which they mean without numbers and dice, are somehow more highly evolved or innovative than games with numbers and/or dice. That line of thought is ridiculous. You use whatever is appropriate to your game.

  10. Linnaeus Says:

    Just glad to help 😀

  11. brandrobins Says:


    The Forge definition says “Establishing fictional events into the time-sequence of the Shared Imaginary Space. Includes DFK, IIEE, and narration, among other things. A necessary feature of System.”

    Which kinda straddles the line between the two forms, right? I mean, you could say “oh well it says narration and other things and is about establishing fictional events” so it clearly is talking about anything that happens that effects the game — which is nearly everything. OTOH, the emphasis on IIEE and DFK (which are moments of conflict type resolution, in general) is more about the more limited definition.

    I think the less limited definition, the one where resolution is an ongoing process that happens anytime there are interactions with the fiction (or sometimes even when there aren’t, for games that structure interactions between players outside of fictional constraints) is pretty much necessary for a lot of the freeform, structured freeform, and post-immersion work.

    Like, one of the problems Mo has always had with many Forge and Forge-diaspora games is the emphasis on conflict resolution as a mechanical structure that happens in the moment. To her its often felt disconnected from the rest of the game, arbitrary, and with way too much emphasis on the short-term, apparent (rather than actual) moment of conflict.

    For her, resolution happens through interaction and exchange in an ongoing system of connection and status, with socially understood currency systems making a large part of mediating disagreements. So when she’d talk about ‘resolution’ she’d be talking about things like ‘remember three games ago how we said that Jerzom really did still love Kika, and we did that roll of his Compassion and then two games ago we blah, and this session we said X and Y, and I gave you Z without contest, well all of that seems to mean that now A and B should happen.’

    Which lead to all sorts of confusion. Especially, say, in the context of push and pull.

  12. Jonathan Walton Says:

    Marshall: What I’ve been meaning by games “less focused on resolution” (they still have resolution, sure, but it’s not the central focus of play to the extent that they are in some games) is games lacking formal conflict or task resolution systems that are distinct from what happens during “normal” parts of play. In both mainstream and most indie roleplaying, you play for a while (which usually means freeform) and then, at certain points, you switch over to something else, “resolution.”

    It’s hard to point to really great examples, because a lot of what current exist are hybrids (Polaris, Mist-Robed Gate, Zombie Cinema) and the ones I can really point to (It’s Complicated, A Flower for Mara) aren’t familiar to most folks yet.

    On your ultimate point, I think you’re mistaking me for someone else. I’m not a freeform elitist, not by a long shot. I just think it’s the most interesting design and play style right now, mostly because it hasn’t been explored extensively.

    Linnaeus: Way to post in the wrong thread 🙂

    Brand: I don’t think I fully parsed what you just said Mo said, but I think that makes sense coming from a unstructured freeform background, the natural social give and take. That kind of thing is often present even in the “non-resolution” portions of D&D, yeah? It’s interesting that some play groups (Vincent’s group does this too) apply those freeform negotiation principles on top of Fortune mechanics (“We’ll roll this way this time, but do something else next time”), where most people do the opposite. That partially how playstorming works, I suspect, for good reason. You sorta let the practices develop some regularity and then try to code them into rules.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, social design is something we’re just beginning to understand.

  13. BTW, Brand, do you have a rant on IIEE saved up? Seemed like there was a hint of it in that last post. I suspect Ron would argue that IIEE is how anything gets added to the fiction, period, not just during “resolution.” Are you suggesting otherwise?

  14. brandrobins Says:


    Ron very well could argue that. Hell, he probably would, as what Ron says and what people repeat him as saying are often sharply different things.

    However, Ron and like… Vincent and maybe two others… aside, I don’t think most folks consider IIEE as ongoing resolution issues. Most of the community seems to be very spot focused.

    But no, I don’t have any rant about it cued up. I think IIEE is fine for what it is.

    As to the other.. yes, its rather like the non-resolution parts of D&D. I think it also ties into the old talks about trad games having mechanics for things that “don’t matter.” That is, many Indie games say “this is the point of the game, therefor the mechanics will control and/or focus and/or structure that part of the game” trad games have often said “this is the point of the game, so the mechanics will show you how to have fights and fall and drown so that you can cover that stuff with rules and play the parts that really matter yourself.”

    Which is… well, dubious as game design, but has certainly been successful for a lot of groups. I know that several members of my group have no problem rolling dice and doing fortune resolution — so long as it isn’t about the part of the game they care most about. Roll to hit the orc? Sure, no problem. Roll to see if your love with the prince will stand the test of time? Fuck off asshole.

  15. Yeah, I think people often underestimate Ron and Vincent’s perceptiveness (present company included), when it comes to certain theory issues, judging them by what people say that they’ve said.

    “Roll to see if your love with the prince will stand the test of time? Fuck off asshole.”

    Yeah. There’s probably a whole article on deciding which parts of play to procedurize and which parts to leave as the fruitful void. Thing is, I’d rather read it than write it.

  16. Marshall Burns Says:

    Whoa, sorry, I wasn’t accusing you of it. I just see a lot of it around.

    Which isn’t to say that none of those games are innovative. It’s Complicated certainly is. Not because its primary mechanic is about establishing relationships by drawing lines on a board; that’s just something on the same principle of rolling on the random encounter chart. What’s innovative about It’s Complicated is the way it allows you to do stories of a certain shape, type, and texture that no other game so far has.

    Like, this doesn’t count because *I’m* saying it, but The Rustbelt is innovative, despite the fact that you can find all the bits and pieces of its systems in other games (Sorcerer for most of it, and Misspent Youth had a override-failure-by-giving-something-up mechanic before me). None of that’s new; what’s new is the way it allows you to do post-apocalyptic roleplaying, which has never been done before. That is, if you (like me) think that the postapocalypso genre is centered around the horrible things that people have to do in that environment to get by (thereby providing a metaphor for the horrible things we have to do to get by in everyday life).

  17. Marshall: Surely games can be both/either structurally innovative and/or innovative in the content they explore, yeah? Hopefully all games do one or the other or both, or at least are unique in how they synthesize previously explored ideas into a new and exciting form (like TSOY).

  18. Marshall Burns Says:

    I guess?
    This is possibly just my personal karma; as far as I’m concerned, the structure is nothing without the content, and the content is nothing without the proper structure. I used to shout “Style IS substance!” at people amid hazes of cigarette smoke, back when I was in art school. And while I’m less volatile about it now, I’m still pretty much a Formalist.

  19. Marshall Burns Says:

    It’s like Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.” It’s basically a novel, but it’s got all this craziness of form going on: orientation of the text gets weird, edging even into stuff you’d expect from EE Cummings; there are footnotes upon footnotes, footnotes with footnotes to other footnotes; a mixture of real references and fake references; a variety of weird clues, codes, and red herrings. You don’t read the book, you NAVIGATE it.

    This is good because the story is about a young man reading through and organizing this paper that a deceased old man wrote about a documentary film that doesn’t actually exist in which a man moves into a house only to find that it’s larger on the inside than on the outside, and all manner of craziness ensues when a hallway appears in a closet and they hire people to explore the seemingly infinite and ever-changing labyrinth found inside the house. And as they try in vain to navigate the labyrinth, they are destroyed; as the old man Zampano tries in vain to navigate it (by writing the paper), he is destroyed; as the young man tries in vain to navigate it (by reading and preparing the manuscript for publication), he is destroyed. And as we, the readers, try to navigate it, we must either give up hope of making total sense of it, or drive ourselves nuts trying to make sense of something that is not sensible.

    Because of that content, the form of the book is PERFECT. If that wasn’t the content, the form would be stupid and gimmicky and empty. If the content stayed the same, but that form wasn’t there, then it could only be a mildly interesting horror story, nowhere close to the same impact and allure.

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