Something I run into a lot when trying to explain Four Colors al Fresco–and, to a lesser degree, Dread, too–is that it has a different underlying philosophy than most other RPGs. It is not a “traditional” RPG, where the underlying philosophy of the rules is to judge character capabilities. It is not a “story game”, where the underlying philosophy of the rules is to craft a meaningful story. It is a third way.
Two well-known styles
Most RPGs, particularly until about 2001, focus their rules around the capabilities of the characters. When you roll the dice (or pick cards, or allocate effort, or whatever else you do in the rules), they revolve around the character succeeding or failing at something. Some of this sort of game are complex enough that they begin to revolve around player skill, too. Popular examples of this style of game include D&D, World of Darkness, and Savage Worlds.
Another style of game that has come to prominence in the past decade focuses the rules around building a story, in the classic lit-crit sense of dramatic tension and meaningful conflict and so on. Since Ron Edwards articulated a version of this and founded the Forge, a lot of the smaller-press games have taken this style, as well as some more-mainstream ones. In this style of game, the rules promote or even enforce an interesting storyline. Popular examples of this style include Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life With Master, and Fiasco.
There are, of course, hybrids of the above–Spirit of the Century is about equal portions of both kinds of rules–and most games aren’t pure examples of any particular style. Most of the 2nd-style games still have elements of character capability–most have character stats, for starters. Meanwhile, many of the 1st-style games have picked up innovations that give the players some ability to create meaningful stories, or reward doing so.
A third style
Four Colors al Fresco is, quite inadvertently, neither of the above. I say inadvertently because it was crafted before Ron Edwards’ GNS essay, so my understanding of RPG design was based on a different theory that doesn’t categorize quite the same way. Also, because the conscious goals for the game design were very different, this is a bit of an emergent property stemming from other design decisions.
In Four Colors al Fresco, the rules aren’t focused on either success & failure or story construction. It is assumed that your characters are highly competent and will succeed, ultimately, though the methods and costs are up in the air. This is, after all, a game of action-pulp heroes and golden-age supers, so we always know the good guys will win in the end. And the rules don’t try to actively create, or even support, this story–or any particular story. Instead, the rule philosophy is that you know how the story should go, and you know when your characters should succeed or fail, so the rules’ job is to give you tools to make that happen the way you want, and to make it interesting.
…Including choosing to fail at important tasks, if that’s more interesting to you.
Now, to be clear, characters are described, and much of that description is about their capabilities–as well as personality, connections, equipment, and so on. And there is a dice mechanic that can tell you success or failure if you want it to (though it’s designed to tell you why you succeeded or failed, rather than just if). So a lot of the pieces look just like every other RPG you’ve played. Or, at least, pretty similar–most RPGs have numbers, rather than purely-verbal traits, but that’s a different sort of difference from what I’m talking about here.
And I think that’s the other part of why so many people feel a bit out of sorts when the dice first come out in Four Colors al Fresco. They’re used to the dice being the core of the rules, and that those dice either tell them what their character is capable of, or where the story ought to go next. The dice in Four Colors al Fresco do neither. The players (including the Storyguide) decide success & failure, looking at the characters’ traits. The players decide where the story ought to go next, using the Storypath cards. The dice are for something else.