Saturday, March 14, 2015

Procedural Scene & Conflict Resolution Table for Fiasco and other Story Games

A number of narrativist story games and RPG systems separate character-driven scenes from scenes where conflict is resolved in a procedural way against the environment or versus another player.

The first place I encountered this was in the gm-less cooperative RPG Archipelago 2nd Edition (2009), where anyone at any time can tell another player “That might not be quite so easy”. This requires that player to draw one of 16 different resolution cards that might read “No, and not only does the character fail, something unrelated also goes wrong.” or “Yes, but only if the character choose to make a certain sacrifice”. A third player adjudicates the results of resolution cards for the caller and for the player called. I found these results were very close to something that I’ve always admired in the Fate Core (2013) system, where failure is instead “Succeed at a serious cost”, ties are “Succeed at a minor cost” and an excessive win is “Succeed with Style”, which I find supports leading the players to narrativist-style play.

A more recent game, Robin D. Laws' Hillfolk (2013) RPG, explicitly separates what Laws calls “Dramatic Scenes” from “Procedural Scenes”. Dramatic scenes in Hillfolk are where players conflict over the withholding or releasing of a desired emotional reward — such as gaining approval for an idea by the petitioner or inflaming the petition-granter to anger. These contrast with Procedural scenes, which have an entirely distinct conflict mechanic that use three kinds of colored tokens, bidding techniques, and the draw from a deck of cards.

Fitting its Old West theme, Jorj Dunne's Western City (2008) gm-less cooperative resolves dramatic conflicts between players using thematically appropriate poker chips, which are bid up between players with a raise, poker style, until someone can't bid any higher. The winner looses all his chips, which are then split up among the other players, leaving any remainders in the pot for the next conflict.

Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco (2009) doesn't have either a procedural scene system or a player-vs-player conflict system. Ideally all decisions about what happens are decided through table consensus or are based on what best serves dramatic necessity or the theme of the game — whether the players are trying to open a safe door or competing for the love of a supporting character. This consensual approach works great with the typical 3 or 4 experienced players.

However, I've found that playing Fiasco with larger groups, especially one-shot groups at conventions, are a bit more difficult. I personally find Fiasco easiest with a total of 3 or 4 people — or perhaps 5 if everyone is experienced. However, my local game convention requires that game must support at least 6 people to be listed and scheduled, as there are just not enough rooms at the hotel for all whom wish to game. Getting 6 people in a Fiasco game to come to a consensus can be a challenge when we need to quickly resolve a procedure or conflict. This can even happen with a smaller number of players, if there are some new to Fiasco and story games in general.

The next time this happens in a Fiasco game I am facilitating, I will suggest that we use the dice that the players have received to resolve the procedural or conflict scene Archipeligo-style, using the following traditional Fiasco-style 6xdd6 table. The establishing player(s) can roll one dice and how that might apply the subresult #1 into the story as a default. The resolving player(s) for the scene can either accept the procedural roll's default subresult of #1, or roll a 2nd dice to get one of the 6 sub-results for that option. This has not been playtested yet with Fiasco, but as it is relatively close to Archipelago I think it should work.

In many other kinds of story games, having a procedural mechanic can be very useful when the genre, theme or specific situation in the game requires suspense over drama or suspense over consensus.

In my own gm-less cooperative game design, players start with 5 dice, and bid who establishes the procedural scene, and then bid for who resolves. If more than two dice are bid, all winning dice are rolled together, and the establisher can remove any dice rolled until there are only two, and the resolver can decide which of the two dice is which for resolving the table.

On major caveat to this table — dice are random, so you can have a run of good or bad luck that can hurt dramatic needs. Even a card version of this table, which may see to be more arbitrary (i.e. less random over time as cards are revealed from the deck), I think even in the most procedural of story games it would be rare to have 36 pulls from the deck, which makes a deck just as random as dice. However, I think a deck could work well in a narrative-style LARP, making the overall odds of success and failure for everyone to be 50/50.

The table itself is licensed CC-BY  — let me know if it works and is useful to you in some way, and I always welcome advice on how to simplify/clarify it.

Procedural Scene & Conflict Resolution Table

1. No, and unexpectedly…
  1. …something entirely unrelated goes wrong
  2. …others will discover or become involved against you
  3. …something dear to you is harmed, lost or destroyed
  4. …you harm yourself, a friend, ally or loved one
  5. …a dark future is foreshadowed or prophesied against you
  6. …another plot thread accelerates to conflict
2. No, but…
  1. …your failure has some positive consequences
  2. …you loose no time or resources
  3. …your failure can help another succeed
  4. …you gain insight or knowledge that will be useful in the future
  5. …you gain a friend or goodwill in the process
  6. …you gain insights on how to resolve a different plot thread
3. Perhaps, but you may still succeed…
  1. …at a serious cost
  2. …at the price of earning a new enemy, debt or bad reputation in the process
  3. …if you must sacrifice something dear to you
  4. …at the price of harming yourself, a friend, ally or loved one
  5. …if you find someone else more suited to the task
  6. …only if the stakes or goal are significantly altered
4. Yes, but you succeed…
  1. …at a minor cost.
  2. …with unanticipated or unintended future negative consequences
  3. …by exhausting additional resources
  4. …by being slower than planned
  5. …at the cost of others noticing your actions in the future
  6. …but you will be disadvantaged in resolving a different plot thread
5. Yes, and…
  1. …you succeed as you planned
  2. …you succeed using fewer resources
  3. …you succed quickly leaving extra time
  4. …you succeed quietly and without notice
  5. …you succeed with style or panache
  6. …you succeed perfectly and decisively
6. Yes, and unexpectedly…
  1. …something completely unrelated is a success
  2. …you find or discover something or someone important
  3. …you earn an ally, reward or good reputation in the process
  4. …you gain insight or knowledge that will be useful in the future
  5. …a bright future is foreshadowed or prophecied for you
  6. …you will be at an advantage in resolving another plot thread
This Procedural Scene & Conflict Resolution Table is ©2015, Christopher Allen (, and is licensed CC-BY.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Generic Plot Twist / Tilt Table for Fiasco and other Story Games

In my last exploration of tools and techniques for gm-less story games I focused on on a table to help create interesting pairs of dramatic relationships. These are typically established by the singular author of a story, but in a gm-less story game it is now the shared responsibility to create these by all of the players in the game.

An area that a singular author or gm has an advantage in storytelling over a team of players is in the area of misdirection and plot twists. If the players collectively plan these in advance, the drama in the twist may suffer or even be lost in play.

Plot twists are not required in all story games, but they are essential color for many types of genres, such as the caper, noir, tragedy, soap, etc. Though plot twists may be required for these genres, for more ordinary dramas they also can serve as glue between acts — connecting together disparate plotlines, styles, or episodes of a story into a larger continuous thread.

The gm-less cooperative Fiasco (2009) accomplishes plot twists by using what they call a Tilt. The Tilt happens in the middle between the two acts of a standard Fiasco game. The player with the most dark dice picks a category, and the player with the most light dice picks the sub-category on the Tilt table, and then vis-a-versa. This results in two surprise attributes that are added to the game in subsquent play, such as Guilt: Someone develops a conscience or Deception: A secret goes public. The players then decide together when to “discover those twists in the second act, or establish retcon (retroactive continuity) into play with a flashback scene to create the twist.

Fiasco offers two different tables, the dark and often cruelly humorous Hard Tilt table in the original book, and a second “Soft Tilt table in Fiasco Companion (2011), which offers lighter, more socially-focused plot twists suitable for more light-hearted Fiasco playsets.

Fiasco rules require two plot twists at once, which is probably overkill for many story games. However, the use of multiple plot twists is particularly important for the tone of caper and noir plots, which is what Fiasco does a great job simulating. Thomas Leitch in Crime Films (2002) observes:
“ambiguity and irresolution are at the heart of Fargo’s comedy, which […] works by systematically depriving viewers of any single privileged perspective from which to interpret its outrageous events”
There very few Fiasco playsets that offer their own custom Tilt table. Most notably the Star Wars spoof Lord Doomicus and His Giant Battle Planet has its own Tilt table with such thematically evocative results as an (Un)natural Disaster: Alien virus with un-expected side effects or It's Business: Embarrassment leads to rage for Lord Doomicus, and the Secrets of NIMH-like Rat Patrol, has results like Withdrawal: We’re all getting stupider” and Retrieval: In Dr. John Sutcliffe’s soft hands.

Seeking more varieties of plot twists, I dove into a variety of sources, most notably:
I’m very happy with this distillation of all these different kinds of plot twists into a relatively concise list of only 36 entries, which must convey both breadth and depth of possibilities. I'm also confident that this table addresses my goal of achieving the 80/20 rule to cover the most common and useful varieties of plot twists.

As I comment in my Fiasco Relationships post, I believe that the best Fiasco playset tables should offer customized results that fit their theme and setting, rather than using this Generic Plot Twists table. But I've seen very few playsets to date that offer custom Tilt tables. Thus you can try using my Plot Twists table as a subsitute for the default Hard or Soft Tilt tables, or if you are a playset author, use it as inspiration for creating your own customized Tilt table.

These plot twists also may be generally useful to GMs of other story games, such as Fate Core (2013) or Powered by the Apocalypse games, or even authors of fiction. I’m currently using it as part of a cooperative game that I’m designing. The table itself is licensed CC-BY, and I always welcome advice on how to simplify/clarify it.

Generic Plot Twists / Tilt Table

1. FATAL FLAW (hamartia  / hubris / hoisted petard)
  1. the characters' otherwise competent plans have a fatal flaw or their goal misses the mark
  2. the characters are not as skilled as they think they are
  3. the characters outsmart themselves / a trap or trick set by the characters causes grief for themselves
  4. the characters are faced with a impossible choice (a dilemma, mutually exclusive goals, which innocents to rescue, the lesser of two evils), or have to think out of the box for a third choice
  5. the characters are on the wrong side and don't know it / the source of the problem is actually the characters or the character's allies
  6. be careful what you wish for, because you might get it
2. CHANGE OF FORTUNE (peripeteia / catastrophe)
  1. didn't see that coming (false assumptions, known unknowns, unknown unknowns)
  2. the characters are betrayed or tricked by friends, allies, or mentors
  3. escalation / things have to get worse before getting better
  4. pyrric victory / success can only be achieved at a serious cost / sacrifice
  5. the characters' goal actually benefits the villain / is in fact villain's secret plan / is a diversion from solving the real problem
  6. the characters solve a problem that turns out to already be solved / goal is no longer valid or has become meaningless
3. INFORMATION REVEALED (anagnorisis / discovery)
  1. the characters have no idea that something someone possesses is special (reverse macguffin)
  2. information is revealed that wasn't to be shared
  3. the victim being rescued doesn’t want to be rescued (stockholm syndrome, love, has other goals)
  4. love rears its ugly head
  5. the enemy of my enemy is my (friend, rival, new villain)
  6. a prophecy is revealed / a prophecy isn't what the characters thought it was
  1. the characters believe something is special that is not (macguffin)
  2. someone or a relationship is revealed to be not what the characters thought it was (family, friend, villain, victim) / the villains are the victims and the victims the villains
  3. the real goal isn't what the characters think it is / the goal isn't enough and only reveals the beginning of a new goal
  4. hidden or false crucibles - the characters are being tested, but do not know how, or don't even know they are being tested
  5. a trope is subverted (instead of being plot type a, it is in fact plot type b)
  6. the untwist / unreveal — an outcome considered to be too obvious turns out to be what happened, or a reveal is untrue
  1. the characters are beset by an unexpected force (new enemies, the law, the weather, an event)
  2. a villain's known limitation is no longer a limitation
  3. a defeated villain returns / a minor villain scorned returns as a big villain
  4. the timetable is unexpectedly accelerated
  5. an early tiny mistake/compromise leads to ruin
  6. the villain did his evil deeds for a greater, good purpose and/or the characters become now responsible for the achieving it.
  1. there are innocents or bystanders that must be protected
  2. the characters must work alongside someone they don't like (rivals, villains, outcasts)
  3. the characters require help from an ally that wants their support for another goal
  4. the characters must succeed without violence, or without access to certain abilities or resources
  5. the characters discover someone else has failed to succeed in the the goal before them
  6. the longer the characters take to solve a problem, the tougher it gets
This Generic Plot Twists Table is ©2015, Christopher Allen (, and is licensed CC-BY.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Generic Relationships Playset for Fiasco

I have been exploring cooperative and gm-less story games for the last few months, as research for a book on cooperative play (the second of a trilogy of books about cooperation that I'm working on).

Ever since Gygax published the first role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons” in 1972, RPGs & story games have largely been “setting first, character second”. This essentially means that the player is given very early on a protagonist to identify with, support and grow, within the context of larger world created by the GM. This is a powerful design principle, as it draws the players into the story and a “suspension of disbelief” using their emotional attachment to their protagonist character.

The challenge to “character second” design is that this gives the players a subset of “player agency” I call “character agency”, where they exclusively control the story as it relates to that character, except where it relates to the “setting agency” which is controlled by the GM. This can make it difficult when different players have different or conflicting goals for their protagonists, or in story play when the narration and drama require fellow protagonists to sacrifice themselves, fail, to suffer, or even die.

Most recent narrativist story game designs largely follow that model. Even Universalis (2001–2011), one of the older and more sophisticated story games, characters are typically created immediately after setting. The same is true for a number of the more popular cooperative story games such as Penny For Your Thoughts (2009), Western City (2008), Microscope (2011), Archipelago 3rd Edition (2012), Okult (2013), Kingdom (2013), etc.

Like the other story games, Fiasco (2009) also defines the broad setting and theme first, by the players’  selection of their playset. However, one of the real innovations of Fiasco is how it asks the players to first define pairs of relationships, as well as needs that are shared by those relationships — and asks the players NOT to define characters or select protagonists until this is complete. You typically will have 4-pairs of relationships on the table first, plus four shared needs, before you decide which two your personal protagonist will be connected to.

This design pattern of “relationships and needs second”  is quite powerful, as it lowers “character agency” without affecting “player agency”. This is important in Fiasco, as some, or even all the characters will fail spectacularly, in support of the players creating an enjoyable narrative for the story.

I see this approach influencing other story-oriented RPGs, such as the introduction of Hx (history, sometimes called strings or debts) in Powered by the Apocalypse (2010) games, the creation of generic game aids like Backstory Cards, and game designers like Ryan Macklin recommending Decoupling Aspects from Phases in the Fate role-playing game.

In a great Fiasco playset, an evocative & scenario specific relationship is much better than a generic one. For instance: "FAMILY: The black sheep and golden child", "WORK: Business rivals in a dying industry", "FRIENDS: Coolest kid in school and fawning minion".

However, sometimes you wish to have a broader selection of relationships to draw from. I have read through 20+ playsets, looking at their commonalities, to create this more generic set of relationships, using a Fiasco-style table, to inspire players. Just roll a d6 twice. You’ll still need to fit these relationships into your setting and add some evocative color, but this table gives a broader range of choices.

I also believe that this relationships table may be more generally useful to players or GMs of other story games, such as Fate or those Powered by the Apocalypse — I’m currently using it as part of a cooperative game that I’m designing. I welcome ideas on how to simplify/clarify this table.

I’m also working on an equivalent composite table for needs/impulses/desires.

Generic Relationships Table

(each apply to a pair of characters)

1. Intimate
  1. current (spouses, lovers)
  2. past (ex-spouses, ex-lovers)
  3. casual (just met, one night stand, friends with benefits)
  4. unequal (rich, beautiful, power yful, older, younger)
  5. illicit (secret, adulterous, unlawful, forbidden, against custom)
  6. unrequited (crush, obsession, affection, ships in the night, sexual tension)
2. Family
  1. parent/child (biological, step, foster, adopted)
  2. elder (grandparent, uncle)/younger (grandchild, niece)
  3. peers (siblings, cousins)
  4. in-laws (mother-in-law, sister-in-law)
  5. distant (second-cousin twice-removed, lost heir, overseas cousins)
  6. unrelated (like a brother/sister/son,daughter, like family, relatives of in-laws, kith)
3. Friends
  1. close (or formerly-close) friends
  2. mentor/protégé (teacher/student, creator/muse)
  3. on the same side (leaders, sports, team, volunteer, neighbor, roommates)
  4. two of a kind (shared culture, experience, faith)
  5. mismatched buddies (different culture, experience, sex, enemy of an enemy)
  6. casual (beer buddies, same boat, fellow tourist, familiar stranger)
4. Work
  1. supervisor/employee (boss/worker, investor/ceo)
  2. professional peers (partners, co-workers, collaborators, colleagues)
  3. professional/client (salesman/customer, pastor/congregant, doctor/patient)
  4. professional opposition (rivals, competitors, adversaries)
  5. clandestine (secret, criminal, illicit)
  6. former colleagues (any of the above, but in the past)
5. Community/Society
  1. local (neighbors, from same city, fellow ex-pats)
  2. shared interests (sports, hobby, club, school)
  3. authority/civilian (mayor, sheriff, case worker/citizen, lord/commoner)
  4. social or faction rivals (running for office, cross-town sports rivals)
  5. crusader vs. villain (green-eco vs. lumberjack, underdog vs. leader)
  6. shared prejudice (politics, race, class)
6. Trouble (optionally roll again on the table to combine with intimates, family, friends, etc.)
  1. dysfunctional (co-dependent, controlling, jealous, toxic)
  2. non-violent crime/victim (con-artist/mark, dealer/addict, prostitute/john,  blackmail, petty theft, bribery, embezzlement)
  3. violent crime/victim (bully/sufferer, enforcer/target, assassin/quarry, pimp/prostitute, non-consensual intimacy)
  4. crime leader/follower (boss/consigliere, capo/made-man, cult leader/cultist)
  5. partners in crime (bullies, professional thieves, con-artists, gang members, hoodlums, spies, conspirators) 
  6. exotic (fated, cursed, hunted, separated at birth, zealots, cultists)
This Generic Relationships Table table is ©2015, Christopher Allen (, and is licensed CC-BY.