Do good rules have to be rigorous?

One of the things that’s bothering me about Four Colors al Fresco is the rules for rolling the dice (or, in game jargon, rolling the Planets). Specifically: when you roll, and when you don’t.

Some background:

The spirit of the rules is that you first look to the character’s Descriptors (which are pretty much what the name says—purely textual, non-numeric character stats) for any action, hoping to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer on that basis alone. Sometimes, however, the Descriptors won’t be definitive—you get a ‘maybe’. That’s when we roll the Planets.

Also, you need to know that only super-powered individuals—Omegas—have Planets to roll. Everyone else just has to abide by their Descriptors, whatever they say.

Now, in play, I’ve found myself, and other Storyguides, doing one of 3 things, in practice. Most often, going straight to rolling the Planets whenever multiple superpowered characters are involved, regardless of their Descriptors. But then I realized i was doing this, and in our latest game I made a conscious effort to compare Descriptors—as I’m supposed to—first, and only fall back on the dice when those weren’t definitive. [There are rules for taking into consideration the sort of Descriptor it is—regular Trait or Power, or whatever.] And most of the other people I’ve seen running al Fresco (which would be to say, both of the 2) seem to use some sort of semi-consistent middle ground: they’re using the Descriptors, but sort of widening the ‘maybe’ category, treating a lot wider range of results as non-definitive (and thus requiring the dice).

There are two issues here: consistency, and fun. Now, for conistency’s sake, it would be nice to have a hard-and-fast rule, and stick to it. I see two ways to draw such a line:

  1. As it currently is, meaning that very few conflicts, even with other Omegas, will lead to rolls. There are just so many possibilities with freeform narrative traits, that the odds of two characters having traits related to a given action that are similar enough in scope and magnitude to lead to an ambiguous result are very slim.
  2. The other obvious line to draw would be to simply say that, when two or more Omegas are involved, you roll. Life is too unpredictable around such characters for certainties to apply.

There are a couple of issues with both options, however. With #1, play becomes very deterministic, at least on paper. Maybe, in practice, this is a non-issue, since the players won’t usually know their opponents’ capabilities in detail, so it only feels deterministic from the SG’s side. But, from a fun standpoint, it also means that dice are very rarely rolled—and for some people, that would be less fun. They really like the randomness in their RPGs. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and posit that that’s the majority of RPers, based on the success/popularity of games with a randomizing element, vs. those that don’t have one. It’s certainly been my observation, in hundreds of convention games, that most people can’t wait to grab the dice. (And then there’s a much smaller group that hates to grab the dice. Not a lot of people who seem indifferent on the matter—and a lot of them seem indifferent to the whole experience.)

#2 runs into a different sort of consistency problem: now, who the characters are doesn’t matter, or at least matters a lot less. It doesn’t matter if the Thing is wrestling the Hulk or Jubilee—they’re both supers, so you roll the dice. Suddenly a character’s Descriptors—who they are—is basically irrelevant whenever facing another Omega. Which seems like one of the times when their particular nature should be the most relevant. The unsatisfactoriness of this, at least for most of the people I’ve ever encountered in RPGs, should be self-evident. It might work OK for The Tick, but not for most “serious” superhero stories.

And that’s the short version of the background. Whew! OK, now I’m ready to talk about what this post is actually about.

Is consistency just a hobgoblin?

Originally, Four Colors al Fresco was very explicitly a different sort of game: it relied heavily on the group to have a strong shared imagined space (to use jargon that antedates al Fresco). This was a deliberate response to RPGs of the day, just about all of which (particularly superhero games) tried to solve the problem of modeling superhero comics by creating a complex system of rules to handle every possibility, situation, and permutation. And, inevitably, failing on some [bizarre] edge case. In some cases, just plain failing, in other cases, maintaining a good set of rules, but failing to model the comicbooks (Hero System is an excellent example of the latter—judged on internal consistency, the system is an awesome win, but if you judge it against actual comics, it sometimes falls short, mostly because comics aren’t consistent).

So, perhaps I’ve been brainwashed by too many very solid games that go down a different route.

The trigger was reading Vincent Baker’s post about “magical magic” in RPGs. And I realized that his putative “only solution” for truly magical magic in an RPG is roughly the same solution for comicbook-like superheroes that we came up with a decade ago: don’t even bother trying to codify; leave it to the players to make it happen.

And maybe this is the way it should be. Maybe this isn’t a bug in our rules, but a feature? Certainly, we have a decade of running Four Colors al Fresco at conventions, as well as at home, and a lot of different sorts of people playing, and most of them having a great deal of fun. A significant portion of people we’ve introduced to the game have said some variation of “I used to hate supers RPGs, but this was damn fun!” Maybe the reason so many people think that Four Colors al Fresco is such an awesome supers game is precisely the huge amount of wiggle room that the rules afford, so the people playing it can make it fit the way things “should” go—basically an extension of the wiggle room intentionally built into the character stats, for that same reason: trying to model the world of comicbook supers is futile, because the actual writers aren’t using a model, so they are wildly inconsistent. The only way to emulate them is to work in the same way: not a model, but a narrative style.

So, maybe I’m agonizing over a non-problem. Do I actually need to come up with a strict codification of how Descriptors and dice rolling interact? Or is it enough to trust the players at the table to find the balance that works for them? Do I even need to include a discussion along these lines in the rulebook, or is it better to just leave it ambiguous?

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