All roleplaying games have mechanisms for deciding what should happen when there is a question as to what will happen next. Surprise, you could say, is the reason we play roleplaying games, rather than writing a novel. In many games, the surprise comes from the outcome of rolling dice, but this isn’t the only way surprise can be injected into a story.
Fortune, Karma, and Drama
The mechanisms for deciding the crucial question of “what happens next?” are as varied as the thousands of roleplaying games that exist, but all of them boil down to some combination of the following:
- We consult dice or cards, or some other randomizer, which will tell us what happens next. This is known, in game design, as a Fortune mechanic.
- Someone pays an amount of some kind of points in order to purchase the authority to say what happens next. This is known as a Karma mechanic.
- And finally, someone who has the authority to say what happens next, simply says what happens. This is known as a Drama mechanic.
It’s the third and final option that I’m most interested in as of late. Now, every game includes some combination of the above options. Some of them (Fate Core, for instance) include all three. But every single RPG ever created has included Drama as a means of deciding what happens next, going all the way back to the very first game ever played of Dungeons and Dragons. Without this mechanism, the DM would’ve had no authority to decide on the layout of the dungeon, the locations of monsters, the timing of trap triggers, etc… This is commonly known as GM Fiat, and it manages to cultivate the surprise we’re looking for in an RPG by the fact that we do not know what is inside the Gamemaster’s mind before it happens.
But GM fiat is not the only possible manifestation of Drama as a mechanic. I’d like to point out an RPG called Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at the Utmost North, by These Are Our Games. In this game, dice are sometimes rolled, but conflicts can be completely resolved via negotiation, which is itself a form of fiat. There are procedures, certain key phrases, which codify how the players talk to each other and decide what will happen next. Two of the most important ones are “But Only If…” and “You Ask Far Too Much…”
The great thing about these phrases, is they keep the players talking and engaging with the fiction in a thematically appropriate way. Players can suggest a compromise by effectively saying, yes you achieve that goal, but only if you accept some other consequence. Equally important is the ability to say “You Ask Far Too Much” which lets the other players know that their suggestion is unacceptable, and they should try a different way.
Compare Polaris the the Norwegian Style game, Archipelago III. In this game, the main mechanism for negotiating what should happen next are ritual phrases like “Try a Different Way”, and “That Might Not Be Quite So Easy”. Again, these are codified ways of talking about the fiction that encourage people to stay engaged with the story. We don’t have to break immersion in order to say that our suspension of disbelief is being threatened, or that the current story direction is violating our notions of theme.
All of this leads me to wonder if we need randomizers or points at all, or if there is some way we can cultivate surprise purely via negotiation. A lot of you may be thinking this all sounds very deterministic, but the most surprising factor in any game isn’t the dice, it’s what the other players will come up with.
I’ve talked a bit before about Amber: Diceless, and why I don’t think it works as a game. The reasoning behind that isn’t that it’s based on GM Fiat, it’s that the fiat is arbitrary. There are suggestions and guidelines on how the GM should proceed, but no good rules. This is where Archipelago and Polaris have succeeded, and Amber has failed.
Going forward, I’m interested in thinking about games that codify how GMs and players talk to one another, which is something I think is missing from a lot of RPGs. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth RPG, also helps codify how players speak, albeit in character rather than at a meta level as with the Archipelago ritual phrases. It does so via Taglines which are given to you by the GM as possibilities for things your character might say. When a player arranges events so that they have the opportunity to appropriately utter the Tagline, they are rewarded. This helps keep the game moving forward in a thematically appropriate direction. As storytelling engines, we need these kinds of guidelines to tell us how the game ought to be run, and what to say when we don’t know what to say.