Storygames: We are the loom

When I wrote the Weaving Worlds post I was right on I believe all the technicalities.  But I couldn’t see the wood for the trees without putting it down clearly.  What storygames are is quite simple and can be boiled down to one single point.

We should be able to make games that improve on Free-Form

Free-form is, of course, when people sit round a table or write together – no rules, just telling a story together (which means WFRP shouldn’t qualify although it is highly influenced by this wave).  And when writing a story a structure (such as a three act structure) can help.  Likewise adding a pre-made setting and set of motivations that other people are aware of gets you onto the same page fast, making a collaborative story faster and easier to tell.  The other factors listed like failing forward, challenge based and yes-but resolution, and actions mattering more than potential, and everyone designing the universe are all ways of facilitating this.

To make this more than a Mea Culpa post I’m going to give two more ways that are commonly used – and why RPGs where the goal is directly challenging the player don’t use them.  Those two are:

  • Fiction First
  • Fortune in the Middle

Fiction First

Fiction first is simple enough.  It’s the idea that you describe what you are doing, and then roll dice to find out what the outcome is going to be.  For a group telling improvised stories, fiction first is almost natural.  The person describes what their character is doing up to an interesting point of conflict or challenge, then hands things over to the dice/resolution system to see which way it goes and for added inspiration.  This gives the greatest creative flexibility to the players to build on each others’ stories.  On the other hand some fans of AD&D and other gamist games sometimes hate it – what happens in the game happens in the fiction, so you need to establish the game outcomes first.  And going fiction first means getting the game to interfere with the rules.  Neither side is wrong, of course; one enables free flowing stories whereas the other enables clearer challenges.

Fortune in the Middle

The Fortune in the Middle question is a simple one.  Should there be a way within the game rules to alter the result after rolling?  The purest gamer would instinctively say “Of course not” and go for Fortune At The End.  The purest storyteller would instinctively say “Why the hell not?  The dice serve us, not the other way.  And people really do pull out all the stops when their back is to the wall.  So more narrative games tend to be Fortune In The Middle and more challenge-based games Fortune At The End.

And then there’s option C: dig deeper and they meet.  Which is, as far as I know, mostly the domain of D&D 4e, although WFRP 3e does it a little, and Gurps Martial Arts combos might (it’s been a long time since I read that book).  4e is a pure fortune at the end system – that sometimes allows you to take actions in the middle.  So, for instance, the spell “Wizard’s Escape” is a spell the wizard prepares – and when the attack hits them they instantaneously teleport out of the way, leaving the “successful” attack hitting only empty air.  And the fighter has the ability to make a “stop-hit” when someone attacks an ally – which if it kills the attacker prevents the attack working.  (If it doesn’t, the attack goes ahead).  Again, the different rules provide a different feel.  So where’s the problem?

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2 thoughts on “Storygames: We are the loom

  1. “Fortune in the middle”, in the Forge useage of that term, means that you roll the dice before you finish narrating the action. So, for instance, I don’t describe the details of my sword swing, or of the bad guy’s parry, until after I’ve rolled the dice and worked out whether or not I succeed.

    Thus, if I attack but fail, it’s open to narrate a desultory attempt that the bad guy deflects with little effort, or an epic assault that the bad guy deflects only because he is a swordsman who knows practically no equal.

    One initial rationale for FitM is that, in narrativist play, it permits the player to maintain the image of the PC despite bad dice rolls (so contrasts very markedly with RQ, where – with its FatE narration – the dice and not my narration tell me whether I missed due to a desultory attack or an epic parry by the bad guy).

    4e is heavily FitM in the Forge sense, because the meaning of the action economy, hit point loss, encounter power usage etc is all determined not by the deployment of the resource and the rolling of the dice, but rather the narration that the players at the table set up using these mechanical inputs simply as constraints and parameters.

    In one of his essays (to which I can’t currently find a link) Edwards aptly describes this as the fiction being “negotiated in a casual fashion through ongoing dialogue, using system for input (which may be constraining), rather than explicitly delivered by system per se”. For me, this is the essence of FitM.

    One challenge of FitM design is to avoid losing all relevance of fictional positioning – which some people argue is a pitfall of 4e’s design (I personally don’t agree, but that’s another matter). That is, it is possible to design the game so that all the “negotiation [via] ongoing dialogue” happens at the abstract, system level, and no one ever bothers to actual reference or establish the fiction. This concern is also behind the moral panic over “dissociated mechanics”, though advocates of that theory have (in my view) singularly failed to deliver any insight into the design issue or various solutions to it.

    Vincent Baker on “clouds and boxes” is pretty good on this fictional positioning issue, I think. Here are some links, though I can’t find the one I actually had in mind: http://www.lumpley.com/archive/156.html; http://lumpley.com/index.php/anyway/thread/438

    • My understanding of FitM and FatE is different from yours. It’s not about when you stop rolling. It’s about when you stop making meaningful choices (and the big model wiki concurs). Can your actions after rolling have a meaningful effect, or are they just gilding.

      So to me, a classic D&D attack roll where the narrative goes like “I attack him.” [Rolls a crit/kill] “I raise my axe high in the air and bring it down on his skull, cleaving it in two and showering blood everywhere” is Fortune at the End. Under your definition, I believe this is Fortune in the Middle?

      Textbook Fortune in the Middle would be “I say that it’s been a long time since the orc clans went to war and that I am going to lead them to victory!” [rolls, doesn’t like the roll] “And remind them that the elven cities are paved with gold and gem encrusted” (tagging a fate point to mess around with the outcome after the roll).

      4e is weird. It appears to be procedural Fortune at the End every bit as much as AD&D or 3e is (complete with FatE attacks and skill checks), but it has one major design decision that changes this. Almost no major narrative change should be as the result of one single action (hence Skill Challenges being three strikes and out, Save or Die not happening, etc.). So although at a procedural level it is very close to orthodox FatE (there are, of course exceptions like Elven Inaccuracy and Heroic Effort) across the game as a whole it works out as FitM.

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