12 Jan 2009

The Necessity of Questions in Conflicts

The adoption of Conflict Resolution by many games in recent years has focused on asking questions on the nature of the conflict. For instance, 'Why are you doing that', 'What are you trying to achieve', 'What do you want to happen'.

In traditional games these questions often went unasked, and were implied in the usage of the skill chosen. Combat was mostly about a series of attacks and defences, and most other skills were defined in detail, usage and scope within the rules. It is not necessarily true that the question was not present or implied, but it was rarely dwelt upon. Indeed in some groups, questions that pulled one into the meta-game were suspect at best.

There were however mechanics that supported Conflict Resolution, an example that comes to mind would be the Resistance Table in RuneQuest, which sought to provide a percentage chance of succeeding against any value of passive resistance. A heavy object would resist passively and the character had to cross reference his skill against the resisting skill to discover the chance of lifting it. The idea that the passive resistance was acting was hard-wired into the rules.

RuneQuest also grappled with that perennial situation getting past the guard.

In RQ2(1979) which itself was but a polished version of the 1978 first edition a sneak would be accomplished by Move Quietly, which on a successful roll would surprise an opponent unless he rolled a successful Listen. Listen is described as taking precedence over Move Quietly

Here we have some elements of conflicting interests. The guard is naturally watching and listening as part of his roll, and we have two opposing rolls. Boiling it down the player will only be successful if he succeeds and the guard fails. If he fails then the guard need not roll and if the guard succeeds then a success will not be enough.

However, this was frequently house ruled to take into account the Fumble and Critical rules, which led to an actual mechanical Conflict Resolution, as both results were necessary for a description of the result. RQ3(1984) had us subtracting the stealth skills from the guards skill which did away with the need for the house rules and made the rolls more task focused again, but only by adding a distinction of active listening, which brings the interests of the opposition to the fore.

As soon as games began to allow skill names that were not chosen from a set list but made up to suit, it became far more difficult to define rules that handled such issues because you could no longer have detailed skill descriptions. And, more to the point, it became possible for misunderstandings over intent. Couple with this the prevalence of universal resolution systems and you have issues of scope and skill application to handle.

Asking questions to pin down exactly what is about to be resolved becomes necessary.

11 Jan 2009

Why Scope and Stakes cloud Conflict Resolution

My reason for posting these ideas on Conflict Resolution is that many definitions of the term seem to focus on the scope and or stakes of the conflict, see for instance Vincent Baker:
In conflict resolution, what's at stake is why you're doing the task. "I crack the safe!" "Why?" "Hopefully to get the dirt on the supervillain!" What's at stake is: do you get the dirt on the supervillain?

or this Glossary:
A Forge term for a resolution mechanic which depends on the abstract higher-level conflict, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict.

as opposed to the The Forge Glossary (which still clouds the issue by contrasting 'components'):
A Technique in which the mechanisms of play focus on conflicts of interest, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict.

or the far more succinct definition by Tim Kleinert:
Conflict Resolution is when the dice decide whether a character/player's interest is realized, most often in contrast with another character/player's opposing interest.

In my opinion the key is in assigning opposing interests. Where confusion has arisen is in ideas of scope and stakes, seeing conflict resolution as deciding on the outcome of the overall conflict as opposed to the individual tasks in the conflict, and using the question 'why' to decide on the scope and stakes, in the process de-emphasising the clash of interests.

Where this becomes most apparent is in games like our two earlier examples Dogs in the Vineyard and HeroQuest. Both attempt to define the contest using conflict resolution and then allow the contest to be broken down into individual actions.

I would argue, just because these games focus on the individual actions, this does not mean that they move towards task resolution. The conflicts are still defined in a context of conflicting interests, and outcomes of individual rolls are interpreted within the overall conflict.

Both of these games can confuse players more used to task resolution, because component actions can easily be misinterpreted as tasks. If you fall into this trap in HeroQuest, you find yourself playing a game of point scoring which feels like a sub-game removed from the conflict at hand, and in Dogs, you end up playing a competitive dice game which becomes a battle over the stakes, instead of a conflict over the importance of the stakes to the characters or players.

10 Jan 2009

Conflict Resolution and Agendas

I will discuss the javelin example again in order to illustrate Conflict Resolution as I have defined it in my previous post.

There is no other character involved, so there is no inherent conflict. I think there are three possible options, an external conflict (with the elements or the world), an internal conflict (with himself), or an internalised external contest (with his non-present father).

The Forge Glossary suggests that the world should be seen as having interests even if abstracted, so the external conflict could be the breeze attempting to push the javelin away or the target itself appearing small distant and un-hittable.

An internal conflict needs to contain a conflict of interest, part of the character must either have an interest in failure (he wants to miss because he is uncomfortable with the symbolic patricide), or contain a potential for failure that can be abstracted as an interest(he has never managed to hit this target before and so his own doubt seeks to cause him to miss).

The non-present character option is a kind of internal conflict asserted upon the character by external forces. So we might have our character remembering his fathers scolding dialogue which serves to make him miss. We could use his fathers disapproval skills here even though he is not actively using it here and now.

In any of these cases it is necessary for the opposing agenda to actively oppose the character during the mechanical resolution so that we can decide on the outcome. So in HeroQuest we would have the resistance be the opposing interest in order to have two dice to compare, and in Dogs in the Vineyard we would use the Demonic Influence as the opposing dice pool.

9 Jan 2009

Deemphasising the ‘Why’ of Conflict Resolution

I have been concerned for some months about the categories of Conflict and Task Resolution.

The problem is in how the ideas have been explained. It is common to break them down into Task = What and Conflict = Why, which I don't believe is a correct interpretation.

It is probably better to define them thus:

Task resolution is concerned with the individual action that a character is performing and deciding whether that action is successful.

Conflict resolution is concerned with a character's interests in opposition to, or at least interacting with other interests, leading to a description of the resulting outworking of that clash.

This is not a new definition and is broadly in line with the Forge glossary which emphasises “conflicts of interest”.

The idea that the difference is in the 'what' and 'why' seems to be born from the concept of agenda taking a central role in the latter, but an over emphasis of this as the key difference leads to all kinds of confusion. The key difference is in how the GM defines the opposition.

Lets think of a really simple example, target practice with a javelin.

Task resolution simply requires the player to roll his javelin skill to determine if he is successful. He could have a reason and it could be emphasised heavily in the narration but that reason does not inform anything at the mechanical level.

Conflict resolution needs an opponent, we could abstract an opponent as the physics of the universe having a conflicting agenda that reflects the difficulty of the shot, or we could take the current context of the action to determine the opponent.

They may appear similar take this example that appears to fall between the two:

Player: I throw my javelin at the target.
GM: OK, but why are you even doing this now?
Player: To let out my frustration with my father!
GM: OK, so you visualise the target as your father and throw your javelin, make the roll.
Player: I get a critical!
GM: The javelin sails straight at the centre of the target and impales itself deeply with a satisfying thud, and you have to put all of your strength into pulling it out again leaving you exhausted but relived of frustration.

I would argue that this is task resolution. Yes we have a why, and yes we even have an idea of the opposing force, but there is no actual mechanical opposition, we only resolved the task at the mechanical level. I think this kind of example illuminates a current confusion inherent in the What/Why definitions and the current state of Task/Conflict theroy.