Thursday, October 18, 2007

Task vs. Conflict Resolution Revisited

OK, I just had one of those inspirational shower moments. Hmm, "inspirational" might not be the right word. It's not like a 5-point plan to bring peace and twinkies to all the children of the world suddenly jumped into my head. Rather, I uncovered a problem with one of my long cherished beliefs. Or, at least a potential problem. No, not inspirational at all--more de-inspirational. Distressing, but still instructive.

In previous posts I've argued for favoring conflict resolution over task resolutions (Resolve or Evolve and Character Integrity). Now, as a theory that sounds simple enough. Don't focus on the individual actions--focus on the conflicts themselves. This helps prevent the game from becoming bogged-down by rules, it favors story-focused gaming over tactical gaming, and it gives us more freedom to describe how our characters fail (and how they face their failures).

However, all's not well in paradise.

When I'm actually gaming, I find myself frequently calling for knowledge/perception rolls. These rolls determine how much a character knows about left-handed target pistols, or whether he spots the sniper on the K-Mart's roof.

As I stated previously (Eyes and Ears) one of the GM's most influential rolls is acting as a filter for the character's perceptions. Ideally, each character's view of the world should be hand-tuned to that character. A cage-match, bare fist fighter will undoubtedly see the world differently than the graduate chair of art history at a small, New England liberal arts college. Using knowledge/perception rolls provide a simple mechanic for automatically filtering the character's perceptions.

However, these rolls are profoundly task based.

So, what's a poor GM to do? I'm not sure, but here are a few, largely inconsistent, thoughts:

1) Ignore It

So, it's a little inconsistent. Does it matter? Perfect is the enemy of the good. My desire for a perfectly consistent system may set me upon a quixotic quest, began with the best of intentions, but ultimately doomed.

In play, I take a purely pragmatic approach here. Knowledge/perception rolls work within the context of my games, so I use them. And, really, is that so wrong?

2) Stop Using Knowledge/Perception Rolls

On the other hand, the mere thought of inconsistent rules may keep you from sleeping at night. And it raises the obvious question, are these rolls necessary?

The simple answer is, "no." There are many gaming styles that do not use these rolls (or do not use any rolls as all). The GM can simply determine what the character sees, and what the character knows.

Of course, this puts you at the whim of the GM. But, that's the same paper tiger always raised by opponents of diceless mechanics. You have to ask yourself, why do these rules exist? Are they there to accurately simulate a situation? Are they there to protect the players from the GM? Or the GM from the players?

If your primary goal is the creation of good stories, then you don't need to worry about accuracy (or the illusion of accuracy). And if you trust the other players at the table, you shouldn't need the armor of rules. We already trust the GM with maintaining consistency across large swaths of the game. Why should perception and character knowledge be any different?

3) Justify The Task Rolls

The knowledge/perception roll example really brings up a bigger, stickier issue. Namely, there are a lot of good reasons to use Task resolutions. Tasks are immediate. It's often much easier to deal with the tasks as they occur, then to manhandle the situation into a one-bite chunk.

And, really, conflicts are fractal. You can take a conflict and break it into ever smaller and smaller chunks. Within each chunk, you'll find new layers of conflict. Why do we call conflict at one level "a task" and say it's bad, but call it "conflict" at another level and say that it's good.

Obviously we're looking at the wrong thing. Task vs. conflict really isn't important. What's important is how we handle success and failure.

Having the ability to decompose different conflicts into different levels of detail is actually a very good thing. If the conflict is minor or unimportant, you can handle it at a high level of abstraction. If it's the climax of the entire campaign, then you can break it down into a step-by-step epic struggle.

The problem with traditional games is not that they focus on the tasks, but that they trap you at a single level of conflict decomposition. Regardless of the conflict's importance, the method for resolving the actions are always the same.

The second problem is one of GM laziness. The GM assumes that, if the character fails his roll, then it was obviously the character's fault. As I described elsewhere, if not handled properly, this can erode the character's concept. Every time my master thief fails to pick a lock, he becomes a bit more ridiculous in the eyes of everyone at the table.

There are many reasons why an action might fail. Most of them are not the character's fault. The lock's mechanism could be rusted solid. Guards might show up and interrupt my attempt. The door might be barred from the other side--so, even if I do pick the lock, I cannot open the door. No-fault failures can occur whether we resolve things at the action level, or at a higher level of abstraction.

One of the reasons I like the Resolve or Evolve mechanic is that it lets me initially resolve the larger conflict using the knowledge/perception roll. If the character fails that roll, he can take a disadvantage (for example, having an NPC killed by the sniper's first shot), and allow the conflict to evolve.

So, don't worry too much about it. Knowledge/perception rolls (indeed all task rolls) are just handling conflict at a lower level of abstraction. And, when done properly, that's a very good thing.

One More Thing To Worry About

If we're going to assume a winner-gets-to-narrate mechanic (e.g. Evolve or Resolve), then there's one last, little sticking point.

The GM's roles include managing the mysteries and maintaining consistency. Yet, if I succeed on a knowledge/perception roll, I get to narrate the results. These seem to be pulling in opposite directions. How can I narrate the result of searching a crime scene, yet still allow the GM to maintain consistency?

The easiest solution is, just pass the buck back to the GM. Just because you narrate the result doesn't mean you need to specify all the details. Just describe what you find at a high level, and let the GM provide the details. "I find an important clue" or "He tells me everything he knows" or "my roommate in college owned several left-handed target pistols" works just fine.

However, there is a more exciting option. Just narrate the details as you would any conflict. The GM can use their regular toolbox (e.g. evolving the conflict, the power of the period and outright vetos) to manage the results. Again, why are these actions different from any others.

Of course, narrating these results can give the players a lot of control over the story--and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Donjon takes this to it's logical extreme. The players can create encounters by succeeding on a perception roll. "I see a troll lumbering towards us down the hallway". Poof. There's a troll.

Similarly, players can use knowledge rolls to create weaknesses. "Ah, I remember from Monster Hunting 101, trolls are terrified by hamsters, gerbils and other small rodents."

And the rolls can be used to eliminate obstacles as well. "There are no guards at the south gate." Poof. Now you can enter unopposed.

This can be a great tool for giving the players more control over the story. Of course, all players need to be on the same page. If one player is trying to play a wacky comedy, and everyone else is trying to play a serious drama--well, the results will not be pleasant. As always, with great power comes great responsibility.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Defending One-Trick Ponies.

Ok, I'm a little late to the game, but I just saw Chris Chinn's post on specialization in point-buy systems.

Let me start by saying that there are a number of things at least potentially wrong with point-buy systems. First, I have trouble with the whole concept of building balanced characters. Characters can never truly be balanced. Different players have different meta-goals within the game. Some want to succeed in combat. Others want to be the center of attention. While you can affect some aspect of these goals through the choices you make during character creation. Other aspects will always emerge from how you play the character, or how you interact with the other players. A "strong" role-player with a "weak" character can often "dominate" the table. This is true for nearly any definition of "strong", "weak" and "dominate."

This leads me to my second, more critical complaint. Point-buy systems force players to master the system in order to build their desired characters. Lets say I want to build a master swordsman. If I'm playing a point-buy game, then I (as the player) must have a strong sense of how to tactically manipulate the system to build an effective sword combatant. If I do a poor job, then the character's in-play abilities will vary significantly from my original intent.

For me, that's a design flaw. I shouldn't have to master the system to build my character--my character should be a master swordsman because everyone at the table buys into the idea. We agree that he is a master swordsman, and as a result, he can do master swordsmanly things.

Of course, none of this really addresses Chris's post. He argued that specialization reduces the opportunities for conflict. Basically, within their realm of specialization, the character dominates. Outside that, they are dominated. Since the conflicts are a foregone conclusion, they are not interesting.

While this seems straightforward enough, something about it bothers me. Sure, overspecialization could be a problem--but I think specialization is an effective way to ensure that each player has a role within the story. Having unique roles is, to me, much more important than trying to balance power levels.

I think there's an assumed definition of conflict here, that is much too narrow for my tastes. I feel that Chris's argument applies to what I call "Mechanics Based Conflicts". Here, success or failure is determined by the roll of the dice. Character decisions are largely tactical. The conflict is considered interesting when it requires several rounds of decision making and die rolling before anyone becomes the clear victor. There is also a strong, underlying assumption that success is always good and failure is always bad. Combat is the most common (and most overused) example of mechanics based conflicts.

Personally, I feel that mechanics based conflicts are incredibly weak. They focus on game play, not story.

Instead, I would like to focus on internal conflicts within the characters. A small innocent child has been possessed by a demon. Do I kill the child, thus removing the threat. Or do I let the child live--struggling to prevent the demon from harming others while I search for a way to banish it. Here, the conflict is the decision that the character must make. Say that I choose to kill the child, the actual combat is unimportant. I should succeed easily--I probably don't need to make a single roll. But, the results of my actions are important. How will I deal with the guilt? How will the child's parents react? How will the townspeople? Once I make a decision to act, the world is profoundly changed, and I must live with the results.

Also, failure should not necessarily be a bad thing. Let's say I make a character who sucks at combat. I get into a fight with the bad guys, and draw my sword. Again, the actual combat doesn't matter. They disarm me and beat me bloody. Big deal. Then they drag me off to their camp, where I'm tied to a tree. Sure, it looks grim, but now things get interesting. I have a chance to uncover clues about their plans, and I must use my silver tongue to try and worm my way out of this mess. In many cases, a good failure can create more interesting stories than a simple success. Had I fought off the attackers, the conflict would have ended. Now, it has grown deeper and more intriguing.

Once the conflict is bigger than simple actions, then the actions themselves loose their significance. We no longer need to balance PCs and NPCs at the action level. We can often get rid of multi-round, multi-roll resolution systems. We're not focused on the action's result, we're focused on the changes those results make in the world. And, from this vantage point, Chris's problems largely vanish.

One last example, look at the Princess Bride. No singe opponent ever comes close to matching Westley with a blade. Yet, he is forced to surrender when outnumbered by Humperdinck's guards. While in the pit of despair, he is completely at the bad guy's mercy, and he is reduced to using trickery and deceit when recovering from a bad case of the mostly-deads.

Looking at it with an action-focused view, he either dominates or is dominated at every step. Yet, the resulting story is quite satisfying. The movie created numerous, interesting conflicts for Westley, without ever feeling the need to pit him against an opposing sword master of equal skill. We should strive for the same in our stories.