What the Heck is Fractal Adventure Design?
  • What the Heck is Fractal Adventure Design?


    I've been chewing on all things FATE these days, liking a lot of what I'm reading in both the core rules and community offerings online. One of the ideas that has come out of that reading is a very interesting discussion of Fractals in adventure design. Ultimately, this is a mindset for designing adventures that doesn't need to be tied to any RPG -- but it does make for a flexibility of design that will allow us to make room for player creativity and agency in ways that more linear design does not.



    So, what the heck is Fractal Design?

    Lets start at Fractals. A fractal is a pattern -- mathematical, perhaps, but not necessarily -- which is "self-similar" -- and by self similar, we mean "the same from near as from far. This sameness can be perfect, in some cases, or only nearly similar. There's a whole lot more to read about the concept of a Fractal on Wikipedia, so if you want more, follow the link and check it out.

    The idea of the Fractal for adventure design comes out of the design ideas that are built into FATE, but the concepts aren't unique to FATE by any means. The basic idea works like this: the constructs that are used to define the elements of the game at the smallest level are also used to define the game at higher levels.

    FATE Fractal Design

    In FATE, this has a lot to do with Aspects. And they system lends itself to this sort of use quite well.

    For those of you who don't know, in FATE-based games, the Aspect mechanic is at the heart of how the game is played. An aspect is a descriptor -- at best a sort of slogan or unique descriptor rather than a generic term. Those descriptors play an important role in the gameplay, are are used by the players to turn failures into successes, and by the game master to complicate the story for the players.

    A PC or NPC has several aspects that define them (Duty-bound warrior, "No moss grows On me"). The room they're having their encounter in will have an aspect or two (Cluttered with boxes, Dimly lit). During the encounter, one of the things that players can do is add aspects to parts of the scene -- throwing a gluepot at a target might add "stuck to the floor" to an enemy. Each of these can be "invoked" to add or subtract modifiers to the success of a check.

    What makes FATE work on a Fractal level is that, as you zoom out to see the larger story of the adventure, or the campaign, the region, the world -- each of these can also have an aspect, which operates with the exact same mechanics.

    Of course, Aspects are not the only way in which the Fractal expresses itself in Fate. It's also possible to apply other micro game mechanics, like "stress" and "consequences" -- the damage mechanics for combat -- on a grander scale to organizations, cultures, campaigns, and so on.

    Fractals in Other Games

    Once you get the idea of the Fractal into your head, you'll start seeing it in other systems. For example. most games, from D&D to Savage worlds use combat mechanics like hit points and armor class for things like large vehicles and structures.

    To take it a step further in those games, we might want to look at the mechanics that describe characters in D&D and how they might apply to macro campaign elements like organizations and nations. They might not have armor class and hit points, but they certainly could (and in some cases do) have others, like Alignment.

    Depending upon your style and game system, these ideas may be of more or less use to you -- it's not easy to see a huge advantage to be gained, for example, in seeing a religious cult in D&D has having an alignment. Combat conditions might be interesting when applied on the macro level (can the cult be stunned? blinded? ) but the more abstract systems like savage worlds have a bit more flexibility there ("Shaken" when you're talking about a cult can mean something interesting because it's not quite so specific as "blinded".

    Fractal Adventures

    Here's an interesting moment in which my Google-Fu has failed me. My searches for articles on this subject turned up an interesting document about Fractal Adventure Design posted as a public Google Doc. The user who posted it is anonymous. There's no indication on the document of who wrote it, or if it's part of a larger project. So, if you're the author, or you know him -- post in the comments below and let me know.

    The article presents an intriguing idea for a way to apply the Fractal concept to adventure design as a way to create and run adventures in a more flexible, responsive way -- so our adventures can move between macro and micro levels gracefully and allow us to allow players greater freedom and creativity in the game.

    The cornerstone of the idea is to think of an adventure as a question. Can the players kill the legendary vampire Strahd von Zahrovich? Can they escape the pits of the slave lords?

    Answering those questions leads us to other questions. Where will they find Strahd? What might they need to make it possible to defeat him? What allies might they find?

    And, because this is fractal, answering THOSE questions leads us to more questions. What will those potential allies want in exchange for their aid? What sort of defenses will they have to overcome to find the magic sword they need? Can they overcome those defenses? How will they do it?

    This network of nested questions becomes a flexible tree that can expand or contract as the players find answers to those questions. In some cases, they may have easy answers. Perhaps the party's token elf is the brother of a leader of a local elf tribe, and he can call upon filial obligations to get the tribe's aid against Strahd.

    Other groups might need to complete a side quest to win over the Elven tribe's help -- what is that quest, what resources will it require to complete it, and so on. Playing out the completion of that quest finds the answers the question the same way the filial obligation did -- one took much longer to play out, but both could certainly be good play at the table.


    Questions for D&D adventure Design

    So, what does this really mean for our D&D games?

    For me, it's more of a mindset than anything else. We can think of the adventures we run -- whether they're our own home-grown products or something off the shelf -- as a fractal nested set of questions.

    Fractal methods give us a lens through which to study the adventure and be able to react more quickly when things go off the rails. Running Ravenloft, for example, we can be a lot more flexible when a PC comes up with some crazy plans to use extortion and other leverage to try to make the gypsies work for the party.

    What do you think? Where are other examples of Fractals in game design? Do you think this can be a useful way to approach running your game? Writing for your game?


    Additional Reading:

    Comments 13 Comments
    1. Johnny3D3D -
      It sounds like you're describing the premise upon which GURPS City Stats is based. http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/citystats/

      "GURPS City Stats offers cohesive rules to define a city's impact on adventurers. A new stat block provides a compact way to write up a city, just like a character, vehicle, or planet. Guidelines for using urban regions in your campaign suggest how to turn them into exciting encounters or challenging places to live."



      In general, the idea that (I think) you're talking about is one of the things that made me like GURPS 4th Edition in general. There is a certain consistency to the rules which (I feel) provide for a broader range of solutions to a problem to be viable. Everything from swinging a sword to casting a spell to using diplomacy is done in more or less the same way. Despite the cumbersome reputation of the system, the consistency I've found while running the game has made me believe -my opinion- that the game is less cumbersome than some editions of D&D. Do I still find some faults with the system? Sure; sometimes I do, but I like having a game which has the flexibility to allow me to handle a wide variety of situations. On the adventuring level, I like that one player can play a silver tongued bard and another player can play a hack'n'slash barbarian and both contribute to the adventure. On a larger scale, the consistency of how things work allow me to stat up a city or a magic item in more-or-less the same way I'd stat up a character and be confident that things still work.


      All this being said, I'm still not sure that I'm entirely sure on what 'fractal' means in regards to the OP. I feel like I do, but, somehow; at the end of the article, I still felt unsure.
    1. Radiating Gnome's Avatar
      Radiating Gnome -
      Quote Originally Posted by Johnny3D3D View Post
      It sounds like you're describing the premise upon which GURPS City Stats is based. http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/citystats/

      "GURPS City Stats offers cohesive rules to define a city's impact on adventurers. A new stat block provides a compact way to write up a city, just like a character, vehicle, or planet. Guidelines for using urban regions in your campaign suggest how to turn them into exciting encounters or challenging places to live."



      In general, the idea that (I think) you're talking about is one of the things that made me like GURPS 4th Edition in general. There is a certain consistency to the rules which (I feel) provide for a broader range of solutions to a problem to be viable. Everything from swinging a sword to casting a spell to using diplomacy is done in more or less the same way. Despite the cumbersome reputation of the system, the consistency I've found while running the game has made me believe -my opinion- that the game is less cumbersome than some editions of D&D. Do I still find some faults with the system? Sure; sometimes I do, but I like having a game which has the flexibility to allow me to handle a wide variety of situations. On the adventuring level, I like that one player can play a silver tongued bard and another player can play a hack'n'slash barbarian and both contribute to the adventure. On a larger scale, the consistency of how things work allow me to stat up a city or a magic item in more-or-less the same way I'd stat up a character and be confident that things still work.


      All this being said, I'm still not sure that I'm entirely sure on what 'fractal' means in regards to the OP. I feel like I do, but, somehow; at the end of the article, I still felt unsure.
      It wouldn't surprise me if similar ideas were rattling around in other games I'm less familiar with -- probably just not talked about in the same way, with the same terms.

      Where the idea becomes most interesting to me, really, is when you get to the idea of adventure design -- the idea of asking questions, and answering those questions through gameplay -- and using whatever scale of question is the most entertaining for play. And, ultimately, that idea is system-neutral -- we can approach preparing and running adventures in any game system with those ideas.

      So, in the end, it's mostly about finding a way out of more rigid location-based and event-based adventure design. Of course, that's all well and good until you reach a point at which you actually have to run a scene with a given system.

      Some, more free-flowing games like FATE are far easier to improvise with, because they game doesn't expect a level of detail in a scene -- the way D&D tends to -- that makes improvisation. Still, even in games that tend towards more preparation, being able to think about your campaign in these ways is still quite useful.

      -rg
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by Radiating Gnome View Post
      What do you think?
      A fractal is a pattern -- mathematical, perhaps, but not necessarily...
      What do i think? I think, "Arrrrgggghhhh!"

      But then, I think, "Arrrrgggghhhh!" whenever I notice math and science terms being denied their strength and origin. I don't at all mind the analogy, but to early on outright deny the math and make it not an analogy but more like fact... Grrr. Did you see that thread we had about whether movies should explain the science? Same issues arise here. For me, the piece would have been stronger if you'd said, "In math, they have this concept of a fractal, and here's an analogy to gaming..."

      Sorry. You asked

      Where are other examples of Fractals in game design? Do you think this can be a useful way to approach running your game? Writing for your game?
      That being said, the analogy does have some merit. If the mechanics for resolving large-scale things (like the acts of countries, and the resolution of entire wars) is similar to the mechanics for small-scale things (like tactical combat), it can help your players from bogging down in rules that they don't use often. You get to say, "It is just like X..."

      You hit the point squarely, in that fractal design is not so much repeated as nested. What happens on the planetary scale resembles what happens on the scale of nations, what happens on the scale of cities, and so on down. In a true mathematical fractal, this goes on *forever* - there is a never a scale in which the pattern or theme doesn't show up.

      And that's a way this can apply out of the mechanical arena, but in campaign design - repeated themes. The conflicts the PCs have resemble the conflicts that happen to the town of their home base, and those resemble the troubles of the nation they are in. This could come in the form of an organization - the BBEG is a necromancer, and he uses necromancers as lieutenants, and they use necromancers as minions. Or, it could be in the form of dramatic themes, like "corruption" or "avarice" or "pride" or "no good deed goes unpunished" or what have you.
    1. Radiating Gnome's Avatar
      Radiating Gnome -
      Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post
      What do i think? I think, "Arrrrgggghhhh!"

      But then, I think, "Arrrrgggghhhh!" whenever I notice math and science terms being denied their strength and origin. I don't at all mind the analogy, but to early on outright deny the math and make it not an analogy but more like fact... Grrr. Did you see that thread we had about whether movies should explain the science? Same issues arise here. For me, the piece would have been stronger if you'd said, "In math, they have this concept of a fractal, and here's an analogy to gaming..."

      Sorry. You asked
      No problem -- I'm not the originator of the usage, and I was just trying to explain what I'm seeing out there as I read what others are saying about it.

      I did, at least, link to an article about "real" fractals, rather than just relying on the usage I found in the FATE articles.

      And while I don't want to defend the sloppy use of terms from one sphere in unrelated sphere, I don't necessarily think it's unfair to use the concept in this way -- your complaint is not far from saying that metaphors are bad, but similes are okay -- it's okay to say something is "like a fractal" but not that something "is a fractal."

      -rg
    1. Radiating Gnome's Avatar
      Radiating Gnome -
      Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post

      And that's a way this can apply out of the mechanical arena, but in campaign design - repeated themes. The conflicts the PCs have resemble the conflicts that happen to the town of their home base, and those resemble the troubles of the nation they are in. This could come in the form of an organization - the BBEG is a necromancer, and he uses necromancers as lieutenants, and they use necromancers as minions. Or, it could be in the form of dramatic themes, like "corruption" or "avarice" or "pride" or "no good deed goes unpunished" or what have you.
      I think that works -- and clearly FATE likes it because the system of ASPECTS apply at all levels of the game.

      But I think where the ideas actually might be more useful to non-FATE players are the ideas of adventure design -- that idea of being able to zoom in and out to respond to the needs of your game, rather than sticking with a single (or a few) level(s) of focus, which tends to be where D&D can try to force us to play.

      -j
    1. herrozerro's Avatar
      herrozerro -
      After reading the linked google document I really love the idea of looking at things and reducing their components to the lowest question. I feel that it will help my own foray into doing more improv DMing a little easier. the players want to pull off a heist, well break it down into the lowest questions and start resolving them!
    1. saskganesh's Avatar
      saskganesh -
      This just sounds like good old sandboxing to me. Asking a bunch of "what if"questions (ahead of time and during the course of play) is a good, simple, process and a lot of people could benefit from adapting it.
    1. Deset Gled's Avatar
      Deset Gled -
      Interestingly enough, I think "fractal design" (and like Umbran, I think that's a silly use of the word) is one of the biggest complaints most people had about D+D 3.x

      3.0 used of the same stat block and rules for creating NPCs/monsters as it did characters. This was a really cool level of detail that let DMs and designers play around with customized enemies, and really added to the cohesive mechanics of the system. But it was also huge pain in the ass to have to build a complete character for every enemy. One of the biggest complaints about 3.x is the huge overhead for DMs at high level, largely due to the detail work required for enemies you know are going to die. Using pre-built, cookie cutter monsters or just plain making up certain numbers is the only way I found to solve this problem.

      What people want is cohesive design. They want there to be consistent mechanics; always role high or always role low, but never switching. They want there to be standardized forms for charts and stat blocks; a monster stat block and an NPC stat block (or a city stat block or a boat stat block) need to be visually similar in layout and information so that you can glance at them quickly and read all of them without familiarizing yourself to a new format. They want common threads in the narrative that can be noted as the plot progresses, and they want recognizable symbolism across the game world.

      But nobody really wants fractal design. Nobody wants colossi that are mechanically exactly the same as fairies, because that completely destroys the sense of scale that makes colossi and fairies cool. Nobody wants to put in the extreme level of detail into completely mundane and insignificant things that true fractal design would entail. And frankly, true fractal design would be downright boring. You need variation to keep things interesting.

      So please, keep the design consistent, but keep fractals out of it.
    1. Radiating Gnome's Avatar
      Radiating Gnome -
      Quote Originally Posted by Deset Gled View Post
      3.0 used of the same stat block and rules for creating NPCs/monsters as it did characters. This was a really cool level of detail that let DMs and designers play around with customized enemies, and really added to the cohesive mechanics of the system. But it was also huge pain in the ass to have to build a complete character for every enemy. One of the biggest complaints about 3.x is the huge overhead for DMs at high level, largely due to the detail work required for enemies you know are going to die. Using pre-built, cookie cutter monsters or just plain making up certain numbers is the only way I found to solve this problem.
      That's all true -- one of key things that makes the concept more viable in games like FATE is that they're so much less crunchy that it does not imply a burden to apply the sort of same-mechanic-across-all-scales idea as it does for a game like D&D.


      Quote Originally Posted by Deset Gled View Post
      What people want is cohesive design. They want there to be consistent mechanics; always role high or always role low, but never switching. They want there to be standardized forms for charts and stat blocks; a monster stat block and an NPC stat block (or a city stat block or a boat stat block) need to be visually similar in layout and information so that you can glance at them quickly and read all of them without familiarizing yourself to a new format. They want common threads in the narrative that can be noted as the plot progresses, and they want recognizable symbolism across the game world.
      if that's what everyone really wants, 4e will be a HUGE HIT. It's got ALL of those things.


      -rg
    1. Kinak's Avatar
      Kinak -
      I've been kicking around some kingdom-building rules for Pathfinder based on this sort of thinking (hexes are levels, hex types are classes, wonders are equipment, and so on). It's surprisingly flexible, even with a system as heavy as Pathfinder.

      I think, however, this type of design naturally lends itself to simpler mechanics (such as Fate's aspects). Once you have a broad enough base mechanic, you can tie it to anything and let each object in your game world interact naturally. It's a thing of beauty when you get it working right.

      Cheers!
      Kinak
    1. RivetGeekWil's Avatar
      RivetGeekWil -
      Quote Originally Posted by Deset Gled View Post
      Interestingly enough, I think "fractal design" (and like Umbran, I think that's a silly use of the word) is one of the biggest complaints most people had about D+D 3.x


      3.0 used of the same stat block and rules for creating NPCs/monsters as it did characters. This was a really cool level of detail that let DMs and designers play around with customized enemies, and really added to the cohesive mechanics of the system. But it was also huge pain in the ass to have to build a complete character for every enemy. One of the biggest complaints about 3.x is the huge overhead for DMs at high level, largely due to the detail work required for enemies you know are going to die. Using pre-built, cookie cutter monsters or just plain making up certain numbers is the only way I found to solve this problem.


      What people want is cohesive design. They want there to be consistent mechanics; always role high or always role low, but never switching. They want there to be standardized forms for charts and stat blocks; a monster stat block and an NPC stat block (or a city stat block or a boat stat block) need to be visually similar in layout and information so that you can glance at them quickly and read all of them without familiarizing yourself to a new format. They want common threads in the narrative that can be noted as the plot progresses, and they want recognizable symbolism across the game world.


      But nobody really wants fractal design. Nobody wants colossi that are mechanically exactly the same as fairies, because that completely destroys the sense of scale that makes colossi and fairies cool. Nobody wants to put in the extreme level of detail into completely mundane and insignificant things that true fractal design would entail. And frankly, true fractal design would be downright boring. You need variation to keep things interesting.


      So please, keep the design consistent, but keep fractals out of it.

      To be fair, the idea of the fractal in Fate Core (also known as the "Bronze Rule") is not full stat blocks for everything. It's that you can apply one or more components of what makes up a character (in FC terms, Aspects, Skills, Stunts, and Stress and Consequences) to what you need to in order to match how important it is or what the focus is. In other games, it's like only assigning hit points to an NPC that is just meant to be a damage sink, or only noting their 18 INT because every other attribute is average, or giving a mob some HD and having them attack as one creature. It's just that in Fate Core, this can be extended out to things that you wouldn't normally think of. Campaigns or settings can, and often do, have aspects. They can even have their own skills. You can give a storm a skill and use that to attack the characters, or a fire a stress track and consequences (think hit points) as the PCs try to put it out. But you just don't do it because you can...you do it because that's where you want the focus to be, and to make things interesting.
    1. Johnny3D3D -
      I don't think you necessarily need a "lite" game in the vein of Fate for something like this to work. A more robust game which has a solid core can be built upon as well. Also, having rules doesn't necessarily mean you're required to use all of them; that's actually one of the great things about "toolkit systems." They're designed with the idea that you probably will not use all of them.

      I agree that the basic premise of writing up a town or a vehicle or a nation in a manner similar to a character can be helpful. I don't agree that doing so requires a more loosely defined game; that's only one way of doing it. The other route is something I already mentioned; you can start with a solid core that is consistent and coherent enough to support multiple pillars at multiple granularity levels.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by Kinak View Post
      I think, however, this type of design naturally lends itself to simpler mechanics (such as Fate's aspects). Once you have a broad enough base mechanic, you can tie it to anything and let each object in your game world interact naturally. It's a thing of beauty when you get it working right.
      I had almost forgotten. I've worked with a playtest copy of the Fate-based Atomic Robo Rules.

      I am not sure how appropriate it is for me to discuss specific mechanics - I'd have to double-check the NDA. But they have at least one nifty idea in there for having interactions across the scales of play - sometimes how things go for the PCs will impact a larger organization.
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