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Fiction Limbo

March 28, 2015

Years ago, I was playing in an AD&D game, and my GM was a construction worker.  He pulled out a small sledgehammer, had us pick it up.  “You feel this? This is about the size and weight of the warhammer in the game.  Think about getting hit with this full swing, that’s 1D4 hitpoints.”

Of course, AD&D didn’t really have rules for injury or consequences until you hit zero hitpoints, so mechanically, it never was backed up in play.

Fiction to rules, rules to fiction

Tabletop RPGs have the unique medium of existing in the agreed imagination of the group playing which means a great deal of play has to deal with how people can navigate between turning the mechanics (dice rolls, numbers, hard rules) into declarations of the fictional (imaginary characters, events, etc.) and vice versa.

Limbo or Schrodinger’s Fiction

One of the things that can happen with games that deal with events in a more abstracted way, is that the mechanics are pushing along, but people don’t know how to turn that into fictional events. “I swing my sword at him.  I’ve got 3 Advantage Points…. what does that mean? Is he hurt?”

For example, older Heroquest had a point bidding system – the final consequences of a bloody sword fight wouldn’t be known until the final totals were made, usually several rolls later.  This meant that every attack had to be described in some way that left the consequences of it open for interpretation – after all, you didn’t know if it amounted to nothing or if it would be a deadly wound until the conflict ended. (This also becomes a potential pitfall in D&D and hitpoint based games as people try to find ways to describe why getting shot with 20 arrows doesn’t stop a character from fighting or jumping off a cliff is a minor wound.)

Movies and other types of media can afford to do this, but it doesn’t cross over well to tabletop RPGs.  In movies or TV, pretty much any movement on the screen is visually interesting, so whether an attack lands, or is blocked, or whatever, doesn’t matter specifically as much as that there’s continuous movement.  In books, they have time to edit and re-edit, and they can skip to the relevant point of actual consequence at any time.

By comparison, in tabletop RPGs, you have to improvise interesting action, and not being able to narrate the effects/consequences takes a bit of creative work that begins to add up quite quickly.  All the events effectively sit in “Limbo” – their consequences are unknown, until the resolution mechanics finish out.

Short Abstraction vs. Extended Concrete Mechanics

Games that avoid this usually focus abstract game mechanics to short resolution systems – either a single roll or pull of cards, or something like best of 3 or such.  You’re not expected to keep producing descriptions of non-determined consequences.   When you do it this way, it’s easy,  you describe build up knowing that the actions won’t be “set” for consequences, and then after the mechanics, you finish out with an idea of what consequences can land.  “I enter the duel with a fast, mobile style.  I’m looking for weaknesses at any point. Oh! I win by 10, so that means a great victory – I think my barrage of strikes keeps him on the defense, then I kick out his legs!”

When it comes to extended conflict mechanics, usually games that have more concrete consequences do better.  This is because the consequences don’t have to be worked around repeatedly and creatively held in abeyance – “I hit you with the sword, your arm is bleeding and you dropped your axe.” and we can continue the conflict from there.

The case of freeform

You might notice that the issue of “when do we decide consequences and how?” is effectively a problem many freeform groups also engage with.  Usually it falls down to either “when the GM decides” or “the group agrees” which usually settles consequences as an immediate reply to any given action or conflict.

What this means for your game?

In terms of system preferences, the rules you use determine:

– How granular the choices are players make in play? (One roll vs. several choice points)

– How much creative energy is put into narration vs. the system giving you the results

– How much the group feels coordinated on the fiction vs. lost to what’s happening and how we decided that

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