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Author Topic: Fortune and narrative suspence  (Read 6664 times)
Johannes
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« on: March 07, 2003, 02:42:16 AM »

Hi,

I'm working on the purpose of fortune mechanics in RPGs. I'm basically trying to address the question "Wh people use fortune in their play?" One of the sub-questions I have come up is  "Do fortune mechanics add to the narrative suspence experienced by the players?" By narrative suspence I mean the exitement felt by players when they are faced  with the question "What will happen next?" typical of climaxes of action adventure movies. (Will the cavalry arrive in time? Will the hero rescue the heroine before it is too late? etc.)

Does the use of fortune add narrative suspence to _your_ gaming experience? Is there a differnce in the level of suspence experienced if _you_ use karma or drama instead?

I'm also interested in any other insights or comments you might have.

Cheers,
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Johannes Kellomaki
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« Reply #1 on: March 07, 2003, 06:33:06 AM »

Quote from: Johannes
By narrative suspence I mean the exitement felt by players when they are faced  with the question "What will happen next?" typical of climaxes of action adventure movies. (Will the cavalry arrive in time? Will the hero rescue the heroine before it is too late? etc.)


I don't mean to be difficult, but I don't think in movies the questions you list generate all that much suspense.  Of course, the cavalary will come in time, and the hero rescue the heroine before it is too late.  Typical action adventure movies all answer these questions in the typical way.  There may be some directors/writers that play with the basic formula, but you usually know that before watching one of their movies, and so anticipate that as well.

I still think the question's very interesting, and I'd like to hear others' answers!  Before joining the Forge I mentally equated my concept of Narrativist play with diceless, or at least minimal dice rolling.  After reading Ron's essay and buying up some of the Narrativist indie games which seem to all employ Fortune, it was an eye opener.

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #2 on: March 07, 2003, 07:54:34 AM »

Hello,

Johannes, I think discussing "suspense" at the outset is assuming too much. What we are dealing with are events that cannot be controlled by personal agenda, which play very differently roles in different modes of role-playing.

In Gamist play, Fortune varies greatly. It may be incorporated into either of two general approaches, one of which I'm calling "the Gamble" and the other I'm calling "the Crunch." They are not exclusionary, but play does tend toward one or the other. Neither of these has been discussed before on the Forge, and I'll be presenting them in full in my upcoming essay.

Briefly, in Gamble-heavy play, a lot is at risk and a lot of unreliable chanciness is involved, thus Fortune plays a big role in final outcomes. In Crunch-heavy play, chanciness may be present but it modifies or sets up relatively reliable contexts for strategy.

To make all this even more confusing, an enormous amount of in-game material can be covered by a single roll in Gamist play, if the issue at hand is only setting up for the Gamble or Crunch of interest. For example, "initiative" in many 70s games represents dozens of physical and perceptive events in-game, handled usually by a very arbitrary single die roll.

In Narrativist play, Fortune also varies greatly, and for many of the same reasons. However, outcomes in this mode of play are about different things than in Gamist play and reflect differently upon the people involved. The underlying principle is that posing adversity is fun, and resolving adversity is fun, but doing both for a given conflict is boring for Narrativist purposes. I think of Fortune methods here as "springboards," or contributing arbitrary, or almost-arbitrary material that the authors use as inspiration and constraint (which are practically the same thing when creating a story).

Fortune-in-the-middle is extraordinarily effective in generating a usable, dynamic relationship between springboarded input (what the dice say) and author-type decisions. I consider it vastly more effective than unstructured Drama systems, which is what people most often mean by the term "diceless."

In Simulationist play, Fortune is historically very different - it almost always falls into two exclusive categories: "physics," which I think most people understand easily, and another one that's hard to name or even to recognize, but "situating" or "arranging" might be stating it adequately. This latter notion includes things like rolling on birth tables or for today's weather - it is, essentially, extending and including the process of character or setting creation directly into play.

Best,
Ron
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #3 on: March 07, 2003, 09:22:28 PM »

Quote from: Johannes Kellomaki
Do fortune mechanics add to the narrative suspence experienced by the players?

At first I thought the answer was obvious. Most of my players, particularly those who are heavily gamist, think that fortune is essential to prevent you from knowing the outcome in advance. One recently said he didn't see the point of playing a game in which your character couldn't die unless you gave permission--there was no "risk" involved unless the dice could kill you. In that sense, it seems inevitable that the fact that there is a random factor creates suspense: you can't know what will happen in advance, you wonder what the outcome will be, and it matters.

But when I play Stratego, I don't know where the other player's pieces are, and that creates suspense. In most of the card games I play, while dealing the cards is a random factor, the play is not random, and even if I know all the cards my opponent is holding I do not necessarily know how he will play them, thus there is still suspense. Done right, non-fortune systems can create as much suspense as fortune ones. Perhaps it's easier to design and use a fortune system to achieve that, but to say that you need it is very narrow.

Quote from: Ron Edwards
The underlying principle is that posing adversity is fun, and resolving adversity is fun, but doing both for a given conflict is boring for Narrativist purposes.

I hesitate to disagree; my gut feeling is that in game play this is true. However, I also write novels, and in doing so I often find that I am posing adversity with no clear knowledge at that moment of how I'm going to resolve it, and a good deal of the fun comes from finding my way to that resolution. I am not at all bored by the process; sometimes I actually jump out of my chair and rush off to try to find someone to tell about how the character solved the problem. Maybe that's entirely different--a matter of creating problems for yourself that you don't know how to solve (within the limits of a particular character's ability and identity) and then working through to the solution; but maybe it's not so different after all.

And maybe like so many things in gaming, it appeals to some players but not to others.

--M. J. Young
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #4 on: March 07, 2003, 10:29:55 PM »

Quote from: M. J. Young
I hesitate to disagree; my gut feeling is that in game play this is true. However, I also write novels, and in doing so I often find that I am posing adversity with no clear knowledge at that moment of how I'm going to resolve it, and a good deal of the fun comes from finding my way to that resolution. I am not at all bored by the process; sometimes I actually jump out of my chair and rush off to try to find someone to tell about how the character solved the problem. Maybe that's entirely different--a matter of creating problems for yourself that you don't know how to solve (within the limits of a particular character's ability and identity) and then working through to the solution; but maybe it's not so different after all.

I am going to agree with MJ here big time because my own feeble attempts at writting have yielded similar results. The thing to understand is that the narrative of a story rarely comes to the author all at once. In some cases the situation comes to mind and then the author "watches" their characters work their way out of their situation. In a sense, the author becomes the story's first reader and can enjoy it on the thematic level very similar to any other reader.

To bring this back to the original questions posed for this thread:
Quote from: Johannes
"Wh people use fortune in their play?"
"Do fortune mechanics add to the narrative suspence experienced by the players?"

Well, I think that my and MJ's experiences show that suspense can occur apart from Fortune, unless you count the inner workings of the mind as Fortune. But if you do, how do you distinguish it from Drama?

No. I think that Fortune can = suspense, using the term to refer to a heightened interest and uncertainty in the events as they unfold during play (because it is possible to know with certainty the outcome of events and still retain interest, like rereading a favorite book and is likewise possible to not know the outcome and not give a shit) where the problem lies is many roleplayers mistake that  fortune = suspense and that suspense = fortune which just isn't so.
Quote
Does the use of fortune add narrative suspence to _your_ gaming experience? Is there a differnce in the level of suspence experienced if _you_ use karma or drama instead?

Fortune can add uncertainty, and it can also fail to do so as noted in past threads when the effective value is so high that it might as well be Kharma, whether it's suspense or not will vary. In any case, it is a matter of application.
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Johannes
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« Reply #5 on: March 08, 2003, 03:21:41 AM »

Quote

I don't mean to be difficult, but I don't think in movies the questions you list generate all that much suspense.  Of course, the cavalary will come in time, and the hero rescue the heroine before it is too late.  Typical action adventure movies all answer these questions in the typical way.  There may be some directors/writers that play with the basic formula, but you usually know that before watching one of their movies, and so anticipate that as well.


It's very true that most of us usually know the conventions of the genre so well that we know the outcome (the good guys always win). However it's an interesting feature of the human mind that we still can (and usually do) feel suspense. People somehow pretend to themselves they don't know what will happen. This is illustrated also by the example of whatching a thriller movie for the second time. It is usual for the audience to still feel suspence even if they know the outcome for sure. Strange thing that imagination is.

This is the reason I am asking this. If I thought that suspence was the rsult of not knowing the outcome the relation between fortune and suspence would be pretty obvious.
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Johannes Kellomaki
Johannes
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« Reply #6 on: March 08, 2003, 03:33:34 AM »

Hi,

Ron: Thanks for the valuable insights on the nature of foortune. They will be useful to me. Thanks for the biblographic info as well. (refering to a private message) I'd still like to hear your subjective take on fortune and suspence.

M.J. and Jack: My intuitive view on mechanics and suspence is similar to yours but I'm pretty inexperienced with other than fortune systems so your insights are valuable to me.

I'm still interested on reading how people experience the relation between suspence and fortune in their play and hou does it compare to drama and karma. Keep them coming.
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Johannes Kellomaki
clehrich
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« Reply #7 on: March 09, 2003, 01:23:43 PM »

Alfred Hitchcock once explained suspense like this.  Suppose you have some people sitting around a table, in a room.  A bomb goes off, under the table, and kills them all.  That's surprise.  If you show the audience that there is a bomb, and that it's ticking, and then you have the people around the table start having a conversation, you've got suspense.  The point is that the audience knows that something big is likely to happen, and soon, but they don't know exactly when, nor whether the characters will figure it out in time.

I think fortune mechanics are usually quite different from this.  You have a situation that could go lots of ways, and you roll dice (or whatever) to find out which way it does go.  What's suspenseful about this?  It seems to me that real suspense depends on a determined situation, not on random factors.  In fact, taking Hitchcock's suggestion, you could argue that random factors eliminate or undercut suspense.

One way you could imagine the suspense working with random factors is if (to take the bomb example) the characters do find the bomb, but then they have to make skill rolls to turn it off (James Bond does this a lot).  Will they roll well enough?  But again, the suspense comes from the situation; the rolls are simply a way to decide how to resolve that situation.

To take an alternative extreme, suppose there's a hidden bomb, and the characters have to do well on their "spot hidden" skills to find it.  They fail, unfortunately.  Boom!  That's surprise, not suspense.  If they succeed, they flick the off switch.  Click!  Where's the suspense in that?

I think fortune mechanics can certainly be useful, but I don't see that they have anything particular to do with suspense in a formal sense.
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Chris Lehrich
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« Reply #8 on: March 09, 2003, 06:09:35 PM »

Quote from: clehrich
I think fortune mechanics can certainly be useful, but I don't see that they have anything particular to do with suspense in a formal sense.

I really appreciate a good explanation of suspense when I can get one and this is no exception, but you missed the most important metaphor.
    The dice
are the bomb.[/list:u]Like the Hitchcockian audience, the players know that the dice are coming out and watch as all the IIEE elements are aligned before the throw, but their characters don't.  The question in all good die rolls is what creates the suspense.  Will he hit?  Will they dodge?  Will he notice the forgery?  And so on; no I think suspense is probably one of the best guidelines for 'when to pull out the dice.'  Do it too often and there's no tension in it.  The best die rolls are just like the bomb in this example; you know they're going to roll, but you don't know 'who is going to survive.'

If anything, I'd say that a Fortune in the Middle (FitM) system is one of the harder mechanics to write for exactly this reason.  Basically, the bomb goes off and then you figure out where everyone was and who survives.  Fortune at the End (FatE) gives you the opportunity to create suspense while performing the 'fortune check' and is released suddenly at the end.  That's why I'm fond of allowing 'a little barter' relative to 'what's gonna happen' with FatE before the roll; it creates suspense.

The way some systems call for so darn many rolls that they completely lose this is left to the reader as an exercise.

Fang Langford
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #9 on: March 09, 2003, 07:22:09 PM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
I consider (FitM) vastly more effective than unstructured Drama systems, which is what people most often mean by the term "diceless."


And I really wish people would stop making comments like that, because it futher supports the belief that "diceless" means unstructured.  Come on, Ron, throw us Fortuneless designers a bone here...

Personally, I haven't played any game that uses Fortune in the past 2 years.  I play Nobilis on a weekly basis and just came back from the first Storypunk playtest that went exceptionally well.  Full of suspense, I might add, without any Fortune whatsoever.

In my experience, suspense in Fortuneless games comes not from the dice but from either A) the unknown future actions of the GM, B) the unknown future actions of the other players, or C) the fact that nobody knows what the heck is going to happen.  All of these types of suspense are also there in Fortune-based games, and losing any minor suspense that the dice create, doesn't, I think, do much in the long run.

Take my Nobilis demo this weekend.  The group of characters investigated a dark ship (as in the sailing kind) that had come from the Lands Beyond Creation and probably housed a being capable of destroying concepts such that they never existed.  Serious levels of suspense because only I, the GM, knew (supposedly) who was on that ship and what they were going to do when they discovered the characters.  This kind of suspense is also present in Fortune-based games.  Likewise, only the GM knew the stats/abilities of this enemy, which also provided suspense, but this is also there in Fortune-based games.  The other characters, as well, were not fully predictable and were constantly doing things that surprised/freaked out each other, creating more suspense.  Lastly, I was running the whole session in my usual off-the-top-of-my-head style, which provided suspense for me, because even I didn't know what would necessarily happen.

To understand the last bit, you have to understand that I run my games as if Clinton's "Donjon" is there in the background.  That is to say, if one of the characters searches for X, I'll make sure there's some X there.  If a player/character is interested in X, I'll make sure it makes it into the narrative in some way or another.  It's a very responsive style based on what the players do and want.  I find it to be a lot of fun, and very suspenseful and exciting for me, which is something that doesn't happen so much if everything's planned out or (uggh!) railroaded.

Just some thoughts.
Jonathan
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #10 on: March 09, 2003, 09:04:16 PM »

Quote from: Jonathan Walton
Quote from: Ron Edwards
I consider (FitM) vastly more effective than unstructured Drama systems, which is what people most often mean by the term "diceless."


And I really wish people would stop making comments like that, because it futher supports the belief that "diceless" means unstructured.  Come on, Ron, throw us Fortuneless designers a bone here...

Jonathan, I think you've done Ron a disservice with this. Ron certainly knows, and has often said, that there are many excellent approaches to games that have no dice, and games that have no fortune mechanics whatsoever. He's not decrying all "diceless" games as being "unstructured Drama systems". He's not talking about excellent games like Nobilis.

I'm sure you've encountered the same kind of people I have; I know exactly who Ron means when he references "most people" in this context. These are the people who tell you that you can play a role playing game with "no system at all", and that they often play "without any rules". On a list I'm currently having an excellent debate about the role of GM/Referee in play, and my adversary in this debate maintains that "rules take the referee out of the loop" (whereas I argue that the referee is the one whose understanding of the rules is definitive, and thus the application of the rules as written is de facto the interpretation of the referee as to how the game is played). He has presented as evidence that his wife ran a "role playing game" with no rules at all; she'd never played one, knew nothing of the trappings of such games, but merely decided "what seemed right" as the game progressed. This, he said, was a game without rules. As Seth Ben-Ezra so skillfully pointed out over there, he had overlooked that "what seemed right" was itself a rules system.

Ron is only saying that those people out there who are constantly saying you should get rid of your dice are the same people who say you don't need any rules, you can just play without rules or dice or anything; and that they are actually using unstructured Drama resolution for outcomes--a system, and usually not a terribly good one.

No one would accuse Nobilis or Amber or any of the great "diceless" games that have been written of being "unstructured" anythings. These are well-structured games. The point of the statement had nothing to do with these.

Personally I like to mix my resolution systems to some degree; but I do find Fortune most useful in many situations.

--M. J. Young
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #11 on: March 10, 2003, 07:44:09 AM »

I don't want to derail this thread, so I'm not going to respond to M.J.'s comments as thoroughly as I'd like.  Suffice it to say, I knew Ron wasn't seriously making the claim that all diceless/Fortuneless games were unstructured, but the Fortuneless systems that would be most useful to this conversation (in my opinion, that means structured ones) were seemingly being swept aside by his throwaway line.  That's what I was objecting to, not the points that you brought up.  I also take exception to this:

Quote from: M.J.
Ron is only saying that those people out there who are constantly saying you should get rid of your dice are the same people who say you don't need any rules...


Well, there are "some people in here" as well who are constantly saying you should get rid of your dice (like me) for completely different reasons, and who happen to like rules a whole lot.  Personally, I think dice are an overrated, antiquated throwback to the early roots of roleplaying and are taken for granted by way too many designers.  But that's just me ;)

But getting back to the topic...

To answer Johannes question, I don't think dice necessarily have much to do with suspense at all.  It all depends on how they are incorperated into the system.  Like people have said, if you have many die rolls for unessential things (like skills in times of no stress, or for resisting drunkeness when not in any danger), it lessens their impact.  But if you only use die rolls for moments of high drama and risk, they do provide elements of suspense.  This isn't to say that this suspense couldn't be created in other Fortuneless ways, though.  Dice are just a traditional method of acheiving this end.

However, if you really want to get into the question of "why so many roleplaying systems use Fortune," which you seem to imply in your opening post, I think you're coming at it from the wrong direction.  Many designers (I would almost say "most," but that might not be completely accurate) use Fortune because it's what they're comfortable with.  They can do Fortune, because they've done it so many times before.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed for the day when Ron writes a Fortuneless system, but I'm not holding my breath :)  Fortune is a traditional and conservative component of roleplaying and, in many cases, the reasons people use it have less to do with its usefullness and more to do with traditional views of the hobby/art.

Later.
Jonathan
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #12 on: March 10, 2003, 07:53:00 AM »

Hi Jonathan,

You've mis-read me, badly. I am referring to unstructured Drama systems, just as you quote. But Nobilis, and Amber for that matter, use Karma-based systems. They are completely out of the purview of my comments.

This is exactly what "diceless" is such a rotten term. Not having dice really doesn't tell you what the game actually has, whether it's an alternate Fortune system, or whatever - and in this case, whether it's Karma or Drama primarily.

As for your somewhat snide challenge, I wrote a Fortune-less system in 1998, called Fantasy for Real. You have two values: a base, and a pool. You can choose to use your base alone in a Karma resolution, or you can pump a point from your pool to increase it, which is a resource that has to be re-filled by carrying out some specified act.

Sound familiar? Yeah. It's Nobilis, basically.

I cannibalized so many parts of Fantasy for Real for Elfs, though, that I never completed it. Some of its magic system has shown up in Clinton's Donjon.

Oddly enough, I agree with you about Drama, Karma, and suspense. But that's not what Johannes is asking about. Perhaps your "Must ... Defend ... Nobilis!" defense-mechanism can be put on hold while we discuss Fortune.

Best,
Ron
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #13 on: March 10, 2003, 08:04:33 AM »

Quote from: Ron Edwards
Perhaps your "Must ... Defend ... Nobilis!" defense-mechanism can be put on hold while we discuss Fortune.


Actually, it's my "Must ... Defend ... Fortuneless ... Systems!" defense-mechanism at work, since every game I'm currently working on is Fortuneless.  I'm not defending Nobilis so much as defending my own work.  But I'll try to refrain myself...

I'm sorry I assumed you'd never written a Fortuneless system.  I just haven't seen talk of any and made a erroneous assumption.  I apologize.

Later.
Jonathan
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Johannes
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« Reply #14 on: March 11, 2003, 12:09:31 AM »

Hi,

Your comments have been very interesting. When I started this thread I had this hunch that many gamers defend the use of fortune because they think that it provides narrative suspence. I also thought that this line of thinking was too simple and wrong.

The thing about fortune is that you cannot predict it which means that use of fortune provides the game with a degree of unpredictability and surprise. Surprise is not suspence as clerich showed with his/her Hitchcock example. The possibility of surprise can be a part of suspence but its not necessary. You can have suspence without the possibility of surprise (watching the same thriller movie twice for example).

The consensus seems to be that there is no necessary connection between fortune and suspence and I agree. It is also a very good point that fortune CAN work towards more suspence and that the contextualization of the die roll (or what ever) is perhaps the key issue on this one. By contextualization I mean things like plot functionality and dramatic rythm.

However it's interesting that this (fortune = surprise = suspence) fallacy is so common. Maybe it's because gamers easily mistake something else for suspence or maybe it's just because they haven't tried anything else than fortune. I'll take a look on the mistakes now.

1. Mistaking game suspence with narrative suspence. By game suspence I mean the kind of suspence spectators of a football game (that's soccer for you Americans) feel. You really don't know for sure who will win the game. It is different from narrative suspence because the object of the emotion is real/actual. I can easily imagine that this is one reason why fortune and not cheating are often an important part of gamist experiences (which can emerge in any GNS-style of play).

2. Mistaking the general unpredictability of human life with suspence. Here the fortune represents those variables of a character's life which are beyond his/her control.

Pleas don't equate these with GNS-categories even if the connections seem obvious. I believe thay can be part of all three styles of play.

Fortune and surprise are more important to these forms of suspence (surprise is imortant to games like football and the feeling that you cannot control all the variables of your life is important to simulating life) than for the narrative suspence. So this could at least in part explain the fallacy.
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Johannes Kellomaki
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