Karma, Fate, Drama, and Four Colors al Fresco

A few weeks ago, I was trying to think of a better way to explain the interaction of the various mechanics in Four Colors al Fresco, and I had an epiphany: they are almost-pure examples of karma, drama, and fate, something that is relatively rare in RPGs–and that might be why so many people get hung up on them.

Karma, Fate and Drama

Let’s back up a bit. “Karma”, “fate”, and “drama” are a trichotomy coined by Jonathan Tweet in his maybe-a-bit-too-groundbreaking RPG Everway. He observed that there are really just three ways to decide the outcome of something in a roleplaying game:

  • You could decide that the most logical thing, based on the reality of the game world, happens. This he coined “karma”, because a large part of that in-game world is the character’s capabilities, so the notion is that you get what you “deserve”. I.e., a strong character will outlift a weak character.
  • You could let random chance decide. In most RPGs, that would mean rolling some dice. This he called “fate”, as in “the whims of fate”.
  • You could decide that the most interesting thing happens, in a storytelling sense. This he called “drama”.
[Disclaimer: I’m summarizing from memory, so if I didn’t exactly capture what he wrote, the fault is mine.]

How RPGs Decide Outcomes

Up until that point, the majority of RPGs had used an intertwined karma/fate system to determine what happened in the world. To this day, many (most?) still do. When your barbarian swings an ax, basing the result on her skill & strength is karma; so is considering the skill or armor of the opponent in determining the outcome. Rolling a die, thus introducing a random element, is fate. And most RPGs combine those two factors in some way. Back in ’93, drama was the new thing, but most RPGs that used it at all did so in the form of “hero points” (under one name or another). In many games, you could spend this resource to give you a reroll or a bonus on a roll–in other words, to layer drama on top of fate, which in turn was generally intertwined with karma. I’m not sure whether the first published RPGs had yet appeared that let you use a hero point to just state something outright, completely bypassing karma and fate to get what you wanted from the game–presumably what you thought would be the most story-appropriate outcome (at least from your individual POV of how you wanted the story to go).
 
Since then, drama has become a much more common means of action resolution, often intertwined with fate. If you roll some dice to generate a result that doesn’t depend on your character’s capabilities, and then get to spend those points to decide where the story goes, that’s fate intertwined with drama. If you have points that you can just spend to decide what happens next, and it’s not dependent on your character’s capabilities [or a random factor], that’s pure drama. Also, pure-karma resolution is much more common than it was then, with a modest number of games eschewing randomization entirely.
 
Despite this, karma/fate, often with a way to add a little drama in to the mix, is probably the most common way that RPGs resolve the flow of the game.

n.b.: Karma/fate/drama has nothing really to do with simulationism/gamism/dramatism, or it’s mutant child simulationism/gamism/narrativism, despite the obvious parallels in both naming and concepts. Any resolution method could be paired with any creative agenda.

Resolution Mechanics in Four Colors al Fresco

Ok, now that you’ve got that in your head, back to Four Colors al Fresco. In Four Colors al Fresco, we have 3 completely-separate tools for action resolution.

  • Most of the time, we resolve actions by looking at the characters’  descriptors. Either the character has the capabilities, or she doesn’t. It’s pure karma, with no fate or drama.
  • Character excerpt

    Planets

  • Only when that produces an ambiguous result do we turn to rolling the dice, or “Planets”. That’s not just a gimmicky name–the conceit of the mechanics is that the Planet scores represent nothing about the characters, but instead are a proxy for the influences of the universe on the character. Originally, they were meant to be pure fate (in the mechanical sense), though as the game has evolved, rolling the Planets has come to have elements of karma, in that the situation & surroundings can have some influence–but they still don’t have any basis on the character’s descriptors.
  • And finally, there are the Storypath cards. When a player uses one of these, they function according to their own (very broad, minimal) rules, and are not at all limited by a character’s capabilities or any random factor. Much like hero points in some other games, a Storypath card is pure drama–it gives the player the option to do whatever they want with the story (within the very broad constraints of the card title), taking it where they think it should go.

Storypath hand example small

So, there you have it: in Four Colors al Fresco, the reason there are 3 different resolution systems is precisely so that each gives you a different feel by tying into different aspects of the game. And it just so happens that they map almost-perfectly onto the 3 basic types of RPG resolution.

Challenges

But I think what makes them tricky is that pure fate is relatively rare in RPGs; it’s usually married to karma or, less frequently, drama–and sometimes both. Certainly my experience in running the game has been that the part people have the toughest time with is separating fate and karma. Everyone expects the die rolls to be based on their character stats, and that’s just not how they’re supposed to work. Maybe this way of explaining them will make it easier for players to get in the right mindset? I think if someone comes at the game from the understanding that the Planet rolls are essentially fate, with just a touch of karma (and that’s still not character-based), rather than assuming they’re equal parts karma and fate, as in so many other RPGs, it may be easier to get into the feel of the game.

Does that make more sense?

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