Thursday, June 17, 2010

What is DFK?


First in my retroactivist articles is DKF. DFK stands for "Drama, Fortune, Karma." In itself, that probably doesn't mean much. It was, to the best of my knowledge, originally cointed by Johnathan Tweet around 1995. The exact usage has changed some since Johnathan invented it for his game Everway. However, it was very instructional at the time and formed the basis for a lot of innovation in the years to come.

Drama, Fortune, and Karma refer to the three major types of resolution systems typically used in RPG design. Think of them as the Genuses in the Family of Resolution Systems. Each Genus has multiple species that are radically different from each other and impossible to recount in any detail here in this blog post. Each Genus has its own characteristics that help the players decide what happens and how.

What is Drama Resolution?

The Provisional Glossary defines Drama as: "Resolving imaginary events based on stated outcomes without reference to numerical values or (in some cases) statements that have been previously established (e.g. written on a character sheet)."

A definition is a good place to start but not really complete enough for understanding. Drama resolution systems are about forcing human-to-human negotiation and contact during play. In fact, negotiation becomes the centerpiece of any climactic situation, conflict of interest, or crisis. The players are expected to actively and verbally extend ideas for action within the game to advance the plot. The players must interact with each other.

This is usually accomplished through several, rather formulaic, methods. I really want to examine all the different ways these different resolution systems tackle resolving tasks and/or conflicts in their own isolated articles, so I'm just briefly going to describe what can go on during Drama Resolution here.

Most of the tinkering with Drama Resolution systems goes on in the area of assent. Just because a player states something happens, doesn't automatically make it so. Sometimes the group as a whole has to agree, sometimes just the GM, sometimes it's another player with whom the first player was interacting. It can be something as simple as Player A stating he leaps down the firepoll and Player B saying, "Okay, that's fine." Or it can require the use of currencies where Player A has to offer X number of tokens in the pot, then if anyone trumps his tokens with more tokens, that player gains narration rights unless someone trumps him and so on. Or the rules could require Player A to give all the other plays a certain number of his XP points in order to earn the right to narrate the action. However it works, the end result is that one (or more) players decides and then verbally describes how the situation resolves to the rest of the group.

What is Fortune Resolution?

This is the resolution system most of us are familiar with. The Provisional Glossary defines it as, "A method of resolution employing unpredictable non-behavioral elements, usually based on physical objects such as dice, cards, or similar."

Again, the definition is okay to start with, but needs to be unpacked some more. Let's get the obvious and boring out of the way first. Fortune mechanics can use any sort of randomizer like dice, spinners, cards, chicken bones, coins, or whatever to achieve some type of result. The key is, the result is unknown before the resolution system is put into action. There should be some mystery (i.e. unpredictability) to how the conflict, task, crisis, or action will be resolved. If there isn't, it might be Karma Resolution instead. But I think most everybody already knew that.

The key is the "non-behavioral" elements. The randomizer or whatever must be apart from the players. It can be something that they interact with, but must be something that acts or thinks impartially and independantly of the players' desires. There can be PLENTY of shenanegans that alter the result before or after the randomizer is used. In fact, those are often the most fun parts of the Fortune resolution system. But the randomizer must still remain an independant negotiator apart from the players themselves. It's almost the "invisible extra guy" at the table that mediates conflicts of interest.

There are a lot of abreviations associated with Fortune mechanics. You've probably seen things like FatB, FatE, FitM, FitMw/T or something along those lines. I'll give you a quick run-down of what they stand for but hold off on really going into detail about them until I can do an article just dedicated to Fortune Resolution.

FatB: Fortune at the Beginning

FatE: Fortune at the End

FitM: Fortune in the Middle

FitMw/T: Fortune in the Middle with Teeth

These types or "Species" of resolution systems also exist for Drama and Karma, but they aren't talked about very much. The terms above were developed by many authors over the years and discussed at length at the Forge. All this ties into IIEE, and I'll get into them more at a later date.
The thing that makes Fortune mechanics unique from the other is that it allows players to advance the action without necessarily interacting with anyone else. A roll of the die can decide if one charcter hits another and kills him, if one character successfully disarms a trap, or if the charasmatic rake woos the slutty bardmaid all without any input from the players other than the controler of the character. Fortune doesn't have to work that way, but it can work that way. Some see this as the key feature of the Genus; others see it as a drawback.

What is Karma Resolution?

Karma resolution is, "Resolution based on comparison of Effectiveness values alone." That's a very brief definition compared to Drama and Fortune. The reason is somewhat obvious- Karma is the simplest of the three. The character has a value, the conflict/task/situation has another value, and if the character's is higher, he or she succeeds.

The key feature of this method of resolution is who sets the values. Like Drama, this value is often arrived at using negotiaton among the participants. Often, it takes at least two people to make this thing work. The person playing the protagonist can't also play the opposition or the contests of the game fall flat and no one has any fun. Therefore there must be a GM or some other player/arbiter who chooses a target number for the conflict, scene, task, etc. How that number is chosen can be dealt with in a myriad of ways. The rules may suggest default values. The number could be arrived at using group consensus. It could be the result of various mathematical calculations.

Karma can seem somewhat rigid at times. Values can be strictly defined, and players can feel stymied by the fact that they can't do things at certain times. But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Karma Resolution is. Karma is there to inspire you to achieve greatness. Your character may not be able to scale that mountain right now, so go on some quests, build up your strength and your allies and THEN come back and see if you make it to the summit to see the Guru. Karma can be used to put more emphasis on the journey of a character instead of the destination. That's a little trite, but that's been my experience.

So is this Still Relevant to Design?

I think it certainly is. Fortune is the most developed of the three resolution systems. I think designers who want to break some new ground could really do some cool innovations with Drama and Karma. Aside from that, knowing what types of resolution systems are out there makes you a better designer. Each game calls for a different set of skills, or at the very least, a refinement of the skills you already have. You need a large toolkit to maximize your skills. DFK is one of the tools. Get to know it well, and your designs will improve.



So What's the Future of SD?


What's the future here? That's a very interesting question. I'll tell ya where I've been for the last few months. I'm a Gamist at heart. That doesn't mean that's the only type of roleplaying I like, but I am what I am. And honestly, to get my Gamist itch scratched the best, I've found that Magic: The Gathering does better than any RPG I've played. Ew, the enemy, I know, but I love that game. I'm fairly decent at it too. I've won a few tournaments here and there, earned a few rewards from WotC's player's network. Overall, I've had a great time with it.

However, Magic requires more money and more time than RPGs. I think it was originally intended to take less of both, but that's just not the case. With a wonderful wife getting her Master's degree and a beautiful baby daughter added to my life, I just don't have time to be heavy into Magic anymore.

But writing about RPGs is a whole 'nother matter. I've been looking over the anthologies of Socratic Design, and I've found that some of the best articles I did examined the basic principals of RPG design and play. I meant this blog to be an introductory resource for RPG theory and design, and when I've focussed on that, things have turned out best.

So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going back over the early days of RPG design theory on the 'net and the indie rpg movement in general. Over the next few months, I'm going to the best of my limited ability examine some things that were discussed, disected, and diseminated years ago that we sort of take for granted now. RPG design has come a long way in the last 10 years, but I feel that designers new to the scene have missed out on a lot of the discussion. The foundational stuff like areas of exploration and resolution systems have been so integrated into people's thinking that they just don't come up on message boards anymore. With the Winter of the Forge recently announced, I feel it is an appropriate time.

Many of these concepts are automatic and understood, or at least partially understood. And that's where I feel the loss is. Newbies to the Forge or Story Games Praxis lack familiarity with the foundational conversations that took place seven to ten years ago. The inspiration provided by those conversations rolled out a string of seminal games like Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master, The Mountain Witch, Polaris, Dust Devils, and Prime Time Adventures. I feel like something has been lost since then, and I want to provide a place for those who want to re-explore or re-familiarize themselves with those concepts to do just that.

Let me say in advance, I'm no expert on these. I'm merely relating what other- more brilliant- people have said and how it applies to game design. I'm not going to take any credit for creating these concepts. I'm just bringing them up again after years of dormancy.

Expect to see new articles here soon. They'll be on topics that you likely won't see at the Forge or Story Games anymore. If you're new or maybe lost in RPG design, I hope they will prove useful to you.