ewilen (ewilen) wrote,

Against Drama, Fortune, and Karma

Yeah, yeah, yeah...


It started in a thread about diceless RPGs over at theRPGHaven. Somebody decided to bring up a classification of resolution systems into the tripartite "Drama, Fortune, and Karma" scheme, by which they meant: either someone just says what happens, or you use a randomizer, or you use a deterministic comparison of numbers.

There's nothing conceptually wrong with this breakdown. It's a little simplistic, but the post actually went into describing other approaches. But that brings up the first problem, which is that as an enumeration of possible mechanics, DFK fails. It gives the impression of a "central three" and then "a bunch of other stuff". (Beyond that, one could question when "resolution" is really resolution--that is, how it is that we frame certain things that happen in game as being the product of a "resolution method", and how it is that other things "just happen". But that would be a pretty big digression.)

A more serious problem, though, is the basic impenetrability of the terms chosen. Especially, why does "Drama" mean "someone decides", or even, to use another fraught term in RPG discourse, "Fiat"?

The reason these terms have become somewhat embedded is due to history. The Law of Karma, The Law of Drama, and the Law of Fortune were originally three concepts used in Jonathan Tweet's Everway. But there they had rather different meanings. All three Laws were really principles used to inform and inspire GM decisions. Ultimate application of one "Law" or another, or choice of which one(s) to use, resided in the GM. Although application of Karma included comparing two scores, many of the examples from the books simply involve interpreting the significance of a given score in combination with the overall circumstances. Other examples don't involve scores at all--they simply refer to extrapolating a given situation, or even applying a cosmic sense of justice. (If the PCs do mean or evil things, the Law of Karma can be invoked as payback.)

The Law of Drama, while involving GM decision, applied to a specific kind of decision: the choice to do something for the sake of a better story. If a GM decided that something should happen because it was the logical consequence of something else, that was Karma, not Drama. The Law of Fortune would be applied whenever the GM wasn't sure what should happen--a card would be drawn from a special deck and then interpreted by the GM somewhat impressionistically, like an oracle.

The transformation of these terms into contemporary (if still specialized) usage seems to be traceable to The Forge. The Forge glossary is a record of how words are used over there, based mainly on the writings of Ron Edwards. It contains:

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 method of resolution employing unpredictable non-behavioral elements, usually based on physical objects such as dice, cards, or similar.

Resolution based on comparison of Effectiveness values alone.

However, the Glossary also states:

Short for Drama, Fortune, and Karma, referring to the Resolution mechanics of a given System, which may include any combination or blending of the three. Terms originally presented in the game Everway; altered in current usage.

[Emphasis mine.]

One of the seminal instances of the usage is Chapter 4 of "GNS and Other Matters of Role-playing Theory". The acknowledgments contain, "My re-statement of the definition of Drama has been approved by [Jonathan Tweet]."

We can take the claim of "approval" at face value; my main point here is that the creators of Forge theory themselves acknowledge that their DFK is different from what's found in Everway.

So again, what's the argument in favor of using these terms outside of the Forge? Whatever it is, needs to overcome the mangling of English, the jargonized walling-off of discourse, represented by the use of the term "Drama".

The only thing that's left, if it counts for anything, is to trace the meaning directly back to Everway. That's not really any better of an argument. But I'm wondering if it really has any legitimacy at all. The person who made the post over at theRPGHaven says he's a big fan of Everway and that this breakdown is what he always took away from the game. I've looked at the text and I just don't see it. I was basically out of gaming for the decade following Everway's release, so I'm wondering if anyone has any recollection of this breakdown gaining currency among Everway fandom.

One possibility, which might explain how multiple people could come to this same interpretation of the Everway text, is a story-based bias. I've talked about this before, how at some point (but not originally), some people began conceiving of roleplaying as an exercise in literal storytelling. Under this paradigm, the GM is the storyteller, and all narration is automatically informed by dramatic necessity. From that perspective, there's no concept of reality or of modeling a pretend world. Therefore the idea of "Karma" shrinks to the rump concept of "using numbers and rigid mechanics", while "Drama" is what always happens when "someone decides".
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