Monday, January 12, 2015

Drama, Karma & Fortuna are all random mechanics

Drama, karma and fortune are three resolution mechanism commonly cited in game design theory, such as GNS. Fortune is the one renown for its randomness, chance, as they say, determines the result. Over the last few months I've had conversations with avid supporters of GNS and drama, karma and fortune as means to categorize resolution mechanics, and what's called my attention is that they're in the understanding that only fortune (dice, cards, etc.) brings randomness to the game.

My position is quite the contrary. All three are random processes, being drama the one with the most unpredictable outcomes, after all dice can't roll on more sides than they have, right? Yet players can select from a nearly infinite set of options in a tabletop RPG. My intent in this article is to go over the three mechanisms, review them from the angle of information entropy (uncertainty) and see how we can see all three as random resolution mechanism.

A quick review, what is drama, karma and fortune? The abridged version of it is that drama is the resolution by means of players narrating the outcome; karma is the resolution by means of comparison or expenditure of some value; fortune is the resolution by means of random value generated by dice, cards, etc. It is common practice to call this last mechanism as "uncertain" or "random", but it's not the only one. Drama and karma are also random, that is there is uncertainty of their results when such mechanisms are applied.

To prove this and show that drama and karma are mechanisms with a degree of uncertainty in their outcomes I'll take a moment to touch on entropy, namely information entropy or Shannon entropy. Information entropy characterizes our uncertainty about our source of information it is the average amount of information contained in each message received. This sound a bit confusing at start, information, uncertainty, messages? What's this got to do with tabletop rpgs? Well it is really easy to explain with a coin. A fair coin has a 50-50 chance of landing heads or tails. A coin with two tails has 0% chance of landing heads. I'm certain that every time I flip it it will land tails. The outcome is certain, there is no uncertainty in the action and the action provides me no information that I don't already know. In other words flipping the two tailed coin is pointless. This behavior is illustrated in the graph below. It measures entropy as a function of the odds of landing heads or tails. A truly fair coin is in the middle, a 50-50 chance yields maximum entropy ( a value of 1). To the left and right of the graph a 0% or 100% chance (two tailed or two headed coin) yields zero entropy and thus zero information. The X axis (Px) represents odds, the Y axis (H) represents entropy.

Now back to drama, karma and fortune. I've already mentioned that fortune is random and it creates a degree of uncertainty in the game. A good example is the coin flip I just gave. But what about drama and karma? How can they be random processes and provide uncertainty in the game? This is contrary to much of what we hear: dice on one end, storytelling on the other. Now, lets consider that karma and drama are indeed non-random mechanisms, that they provide no uncertainty. If so then their entropy is zero, just like the two headed coin. If they provide no uncertainty in the game they also provide no information, they add nothing to the story. Why then do we use them? Why then do we go through the trouble of using them if we know their outcome prior to their usage? The only reasonable conclusion is that contrary to the beliefs of some, karma and drama are random and have an uncertainty just like dice do. The question is how much more or less uncertainty!

Information content and entropy are things I seldom see touched when discussing game design. What's the overall value of die roll? Of the player's words? Of those numbers on the character sheet?

Over a series of upcoming posts I'll look into die rolls, their entropy and the effect of modifiers on the overall impact on a story. What is acceptable uncertainty in a storyline? If you look at the graph above you'll see that success rate drops at a different rate than entropy. Uncertainty is not the same as odds of hitting it with an ax!

What do you think? What makes things unpredictable, uncertain and possibly "not fun" in your games and what makes for "very fun" in your game? How far do allow things to become predictable in your games before it's just plain boring or railroading?

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