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.

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