Fortune In The Middle Is Awful

What the hell are you talking about, Jacob?

"Fortune In The Middle" is an unnecessarily obfuscating jargon term for a little game design trick. Let me show by illustration:

A Fight With Goblins

Typically, in D&D, a fight with goblins will proceed as follows: the DM calls for initiative. On each creature's initiative count, they take actions, often including bopping each other about with their implements of doom. As one side looses more HP than the other, that side is whittled away until they are no longer a threat. As the creatures take actions, the DM describes what happens, in a call-and-response style like so:

DM: The goblin lunges at Ned's character! *roll* Hits a 21.
Ned: That hits.
DM: *roll* 5 damage.
Ned: Okay. Endur the Great grits his teeth and powers through.

Occasionaly, it might go like this:

DM: The goblin lunges at Ned's character! *roll* Hits a 21.
Ned: That hits.
DM: *roll* 5 damage.
Ned: Endur the Great is dying. That hit him in the guts. Halp!

Or like this:

DM: The goblin lunges at Ned's character! *roll* Hits a 13.
Ned: That misses! Endur the Great blocks it with his shield.

You can see the pace: The goblin does something, and then rolls dice to see how effective that something was. The flow goes like this: "I do X!" then *roll*, then "Y happened!"

A Fight With Goblins Revised

The little game design trick that is applied here is that you switch up the flow. Rather than saying you do something, then rolling to see how successful it is, the roll's result determines what you did. Here's the examples:

DM: *roll of 21* I rolled a 21.
Ned: That hits.
DM: *roll* 5 damage.
Ned: Okay. Doesn't kill me.
DM: The goblin scrapes you with the blade. You grit your teeth and power through.


DM: *roll of 21* I rolled a 21.
Ned: That hits.
DM: *roll* 5 damage.
Ned: Okay. I'm down.
DM: The goblin impales you through the guts with his blade.


DM: *roll of 13* I rolled a 13.
Ned: That misses.
DM: The goblin dings against your shield.

Wait…what was the difference there?


It's a subtle change, so it can be hard to see. In the first example, the DM declared an action. In the game-world, that action happened. Then, then DM rolled to see how effective that action was. In the game-world, that then became the effect of the action.

In the second example, the DM and the Ned first figured out what the dice dictated. THEN, after they had that result, the DM described the entire event.

The first way, once the DM has stated that an action happened, the action happened. The dice give you the results, but no one questions that the goblin lunged in for an attack.

The second way, the DM has a lot more flexibility. That 13 may have been a ding against the shield, but it may also have been a goblin that never attacked in the first place, or a goblin that got distracted by something shiny, or a goblin that chose to pick his nose rather than attack.

The first way is what we may call cause-and-effect style. Something happens, and the dice determine the effect.

The second way is what we may call quantum style. After you have the effect that the dice tell you about, you THEN determine what happened. The dice tell you what the result is, and you work backwards to find out how that result might have happened from the LAST result you achieved. This is kind of how quantum mechanics works: the cat in the box is both alive and dead until you observe one or the other.

"Fortune In The Middle" (FitM) is an obfuscating jargon term for that second style: of determining the effects, and then describing the cause that might have produced them.

You can see this at work in games like Sorcerer or Hero Wars, and even…Fourth Edition D&D. (Dun Dun Duuuuuun!)

4e uses it in things like hit points, in things like powers, in things like the universal application of Prone (an ooze can be knocked prone not because an shapeless thing has prone, but because the effects of being prone are applied to the ooze, too — it's not cause-and-effect, it's effect-then-figure-out-cause).

Well, that doesn't sound so bad!

Yeah, it sounds pretty cool, actually, doesn't it? It gives a lot of flexibility, it enables universality, and it removes a lot of fiddly bits from the rules. You don't need to worry about things like specifically how often a goblin tries to hit you in a given round of combat, or specifically what happens when you daze a mindless creature with a psychic attack. This means that there's no weird, unbalancing exceptions to the rules based on "realism," and there's a lot of flexibility in how you describe something. As long as the dice-roll result happens, it doesn't matter how simple or how Rube Goldberg the actual events that happen are.

So, why do I think it is awful?

Because Tina Fey told me so.


I Like Her, She's Funny

She's funny AND smart. She's also got a book out called Bossypants in which she heaps praise on her old improv group, the famous Second City for imparting on her not just mad comedy skillz, but also a way of thinking about the world. This way she says is embodied in four Rules Of Improv that are as follows:

  1. Say Yes: Don't reject things. Say yes. Embrace them. See where that takes you. See how much you can do this before you HAVE to say no.
  2. Yes, And: Don't just accept things. Contribute to them. Refine them. Tweak them. See where this takes you.
  3. Make Statements: Don't just raise questions and contribute ambiguity and undermine the reality in front of you. Build on things. Do things that establish something definitive.
  4. There Are No Mistakes: There is only a situation. Once something is out, it can't be brought back, so even if it wasn't what you expected, even if it wasn't what you wanted, even if it wasn't what you intended, live in the present and move forward from that place.

You can see that these four rules are probably good DM advice, and can even be a solid life philosophy, and work from all sorts of practical problems you face on a daily basis.

Improvisation happens to be what DMing is, in the moment, whatever else it is. You are making stuff up. Often, you have things prepared, but every DM knows that preparation can protect you, but it's rarely enough, and it's rarely appropriate and PC's ALWAYS find ways around your best-laid plans. Everyone around a table in a game of D&D is a lot like an overly-prepared improv group. This is part of the fun and surprise of the game: not knowing exactly what will happen when your ideas meet your friends and synthesize into an amazing mess of things.

This means that tabletop games (like D&D) have their own very unique and specific psychology at work. The reason Tina Fey's rules of improv are good and useful beyond improv isn't just because they make people laugh. It's because they are guide-rails for the brain's own psychology, shortcuts and tools that create interesting things.

Wait…she said nothing about Fortune In The Middle!

It's true.

But try to apply those rules of improv to a quantum-style game, and you're going to run into problems real fast:

  1. Say…What?: When the results of the dice dictate your outcome, there's nothing to assent to, or to reject. You don't get to say yes: The Rules have already decided what happened. You can't disagree with the outcome, because The Rules have already dictated it. You can't affect the thing that is happening, because it has already been determined what happened.
  2. And…Huh: Because there's nothing to assent to, you don't get to add your own spin. There's nothing you can contribute beyond what the die roll already dictated. You don't affect things going forward, you can only affect things that have already happened (and maybe you can change them so they happened a different way, but either way, they're already done).
  3. Maybe Ambiguity: On the face of it, the quantum-style game removes ambiguity because it says that the RESULTS matter. But in actuality, because you don't yet know how those results are achieved (and however they are achieved doesn't influence the outcomes at all), the events happening in the world are ambiguous. Did the goblin attack? Maybe, maybe not. This erodes a fiction of a shared world.
  4. There Is No Present Moment: Because the results dictate the events after the fact, you are constantly working backwards. This means that mistakes don't change anything, can't affect the moment, and that whatever was planned to happen (by the die roll) ALWAYS happens. There's no such thing as a mistake, since there's no such thing as a wrong choice, since there's no results other than the results the dice dictate.

In contrast, a cause-and-effect style game uses the rules of improv basically as written. The DM says something happens, the Player responds with something else that happens, and everyone knows what the world is like at any given moment, and everyone can incorporate each individual success or failure into the overall arc of events, since no one knows what the outcome is going to be.

It Is Unscientific

The Scientific Method is a tenaciously logical process: Get a hypothesis, and test it, try to disprove it, and if you can't, it might be provisionally accurate in some way. It is methodical: you test, you re-test, you advance. You have a hypothesis, but you don't know before you test what the outcome will necessarily actually be.

FitM mechanics have a result first. The test only matters in retrospect, and the process is irrelevant to the outcome.

Also, Time Is Linear

There's a reason people say Quantum Mechanics doesn't make any friggin' sense. The cat in the box was supposed to be used to show how crazy this idea seemed.

Time, at least to most Western minds, is personally linear. It starts at one point and proceeds, step by step. Small changes may create big effects "down the line," as iteration upon iteration exaggerates and mutates them. This is chaos theory. This is the plot of 90% of time-travel stories. Specific actions matter because they change outcomes.

According to this quantum-style Fortune In The Middle game mechanic, they don't. Your actions in the moment don't matter. Your outcome is determined. You can affect the OUTCOME, but your specific actions only matter in the abstract, in how they helped the OUTCOME change. The result is god. There is no present. There is only the past.

Furthermore, Imagination Is Hard Work and People Like Surprises

This is tremendously dis-empowering for the player. Even if they can change a failure into a success or a success into a failure, it robs the player of agency knowing that it is not their SPECIFIC actions which had this effect. It is some generalized concept of some actions they may or may not have performed.

A game using the FitM style predominantly becomes an exercise in talking about the past: in describing what you DID do rather than in describing what you ARE DOING.

Other guidelines from improv show that an improvised scene must always re-assert its reality. It encourages you to be specific. To listen to the input of your partners, and to respond in that context. To constantly add history, to constantly characterize, to provide more and more information, to never deny, to provide information, to raise the stakes, to avoid questions. The The more people that buy into a reality, the more "real" it seems to onlookers. The more you question it and the less you detail it, the more unreal it seems.

FitM relies on that lack of detail to work. The detail is something you fill in after you get the result. It is less like improv and more like writing: the GOAL is important. The method is simply a way to get to it.

That's not true in the moment of gameplay, though. The GOAL is changable, flexible, in flux, and indeterminate. The result is yet to be achieved. The method helps determine that success before that success is determined. If you already know the outcome (even if you can affect it), playing through the motions becomes tremendously less interesting. The actions don't matter. Only the outcome does.

The outcome-first method also removes elements of in-the-moment surprise or unexpected twists. I can't react to an individual action because I'm not currently acting or reacting, I'm just describing what happened in the past. Surprise is an important part of enjoyable game design, of achieving flow.

It's not…always…awful

So, because of the way people think, because of the way people interact, and because of how much work it takes to achieve a shared fiction, Fortune In The Middle's quantum style is largely untenable as a basic design element. This is why some people have some tremendous problems with certain 4e mechanics: if the results trump the actions, the actions don't feel important and the world feels amazingly artificial, always calling to attention the fact that it is just imaginary, rather than constantly reinforcing its reality.

But while it's not a great basis for a rule system, it isn't a problem for everyone. In a group with a powerful imagination, a trusted DM, and with more invested in other areas of the game than in action resolution, it can be totally acceptable. You might not have a problem with knocking oozes prone or taking damage that might be a wound or might be a near-miss (to be determined at the time of healing). In whatever circumstances you play, that's probably a good thing, since your fun isn't disrupted. Some folks grok Quantum Mechanics no problem.

However, the disruption is too great for the a general audience. Because time is linear, and because of the fragility of the shared reality at the table, a cause-and-effect process is better for general gameplay.

Elements of FitM might be further psychologically useful in a game that is trying to duplicate a novel-like way of stoytelling (it all occurs in the past, and the big events are dictated, even if their outcome is in flux for the players), or a game in which the characters can't reprieve reality directly (people suffering from delusions often interpret things in light of their delusional belief, rather than as a cause-and-effect process). It might also be an interesting way of doing a time-travel based game.

But those are niche uses, and for certain niche groups. For a broad audience, you are better off embracing how people actually think than in challenging it.