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.


Anonymous Mendel said...

What you're talking about by the end seems to be very close to the basic idea behind Donjon (C.R. Nixon). If I recall the premise came from rolling to detect secret doors. If you succed shouldn't there actually be a secret door?

More generally, the task / conflict split is largely illusory. Things get much more interesting when you focus on giving people the chance to contribute, and worry less about how the scope of their contributions fits in a conflict versus a task.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Mendel, thanks for writing.

Yes, Donjon does do this very well (I think I even made a passing reference to it in the article). However, Donjon is--at least in my experience--largely a light-hearted, freewheeling and often somewhat comic game. The players don't tend to take the game too seriously--at least from a story/dramatic standpoint

Also, I believe the loser of the roll narrates in Donjon, which is slightly different than most winner-narrates systems. And it gives play a very different feel. If you win a roll, you get to establish a number of hard facts, and then the narrator tries to see how much they can screw you over. It's a little like making wishes with genies.

I think the same basic techniques could also be used in more serious stories--provided all the players are on the same page. Of course, it only takes one player to cause everything to descend into silliness--but to one extent or another, this is always the case.

I also think the technique could be used to establish the non-existance of things. In Donjon, a successful perception roll is usually used to start an encounter. However, you could also use it to state that there is no encounter. For example, I'm on watch. If I succeed at my perception roll, I could declare that my watch passes quietly.

Your last comment is, I think, right on. I was concerned for a while that some of my theory ideas were inconsistent--but I eventually realized that I was just focusing on the wrong things.



9:28 PM  
Blogger Hackfleischkannibale / Arne said...

What I find interesting is that Vincent Baker said about conflict resolution that you can handle it on the typical task resolution scale, and the other way round, and the difference is really only that conflict resolution is win/lose where task resolution is succeed/fail.
(you can find this on his site:

5:26 AM  

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