Thursday, June 23, 2005

On Conflict Resolution

a.k.a. Technical Concerns #1

All games have conflict resolution.

I guess I'm going to have to back up that statement, aren't I? To do that, I'm going to need to say what a conflict is, and what resolution is.

A conflict is any situation in a game where the players of the game are concerned about the outcome, and there are multiple possible outcomes. In other words, a situation where the results have meaning. Further, you might say that such a situation is meaningful.

(One can further subdivide this, and I may do so later in this post, but let's just leave it it as it is for right now.)

Resolution is a method for choosing one of the possible outcomes, or generating a new outcome, from the situation.

Note: This is totally agnostic with reference to time scale -- the outcome we care about could be anything from "do you blink or not" to "does this civilization prosper or not." It is also totally agnostic to creative agenda -- what is meaningful is defined entirely by the interests and focus of the players at the table.

So that's what conflict resolution is. Now, as to why every game (and I'm talking about in games in play, here, just to clarify) has conflict resolution.

Pretty much any game, no matter how bad, has at least a few meaningful moments for the players, where they are concerned about the outcome and direction of the game. Games also move on from these moments -- the situations turn into something else. Okay, so we have these conflict situations, and they are being resolved. Bing! We must have conflict resolution.

With me so far?

Now that we have established that every game has conflict resolution in play, we can talk about the types of conflict resolution that games have. I'm going to make a division between two types, and then further divide one of those types into two more. This is just the way of thinking about it that is useful for this essay! I'm sure that you could divide conflict resolution in other useful ways as well!

Some games have mechanical conflict resolution. Games like the Pool, or Dogs in the Vineyard, say, have an explicit method by which the players can select or otherwise determine the outcome of a conflict. Other games do not have explicit conflict resolution. We have traditionally referred to the conflict resolution in these games with the somewhat dismissive term blanket term "GM Fiat." I think that the implication of this term, that the GM decides everything, is flat-out wrong, and that this sort of conflict resolution is actually any number of different arrangements, complicated social bargaining, Drama-based interpretations of die rolls and skill numbers, and pre-established fact. There are a lot of different ways that this implicit conflict resolution works, and boy, it would be cool to talk about them, but it is outside of the scope of this essay.

When you ask to an RPG designer "does your game have conflict resolution?" you are really asking "does your game text have explicit conflict resolution rules?" The game, when played, will have conflict resolution by default.

Still with me?

Okay, now, we can look at types of explicit conflict resolution. Boy, there are a lot of types. What I'm particularly interested in here is bounded conflict resolution versus unbounded conflict resolution. What do I mean by that?

Most of the conflict resolution systems that the pervy theorists who read my blog are familiar with are what I'm calling "unbounded" conflict resolution. The point is that you can pretty much set pretty much anything as the outcome for your conflict, with possibly a few exceptions. For instance, in the Pool, you can say anything happens if you get a success -- it is yours to say how things go. In Dogs, you can declare anything except "I kill you" as the stakes of a challenge (if you do, that has special rules which effectively prevent it.)

But there are also other types of conflict resolution systems, which only resolve a fixed number of conflicts. In fact, nearly every RPG has a conflict resolution system like this -- the combat system! Some of these can only resolve one conflict "Do I kill you?" but others have more options "Do I knock the weapon out of your hand? Do I make you run away in fear?" etc. Usually each of these conflicts has its own special systematic exceptions and mechanical bits to go along with it. For instance, in D&D, you can try to resolve the conflict "do I knock him out of the fight?" with HP damage, but you can also get "Do I push him over? Do I disarm him? Do I repel the evil?" and more with their own special rules. D&D has a gazillion of these things -- nearly every skill is its own little conflict resolution system, and many options in combat also are. Hence, why I always say "D&D is a conflict resolution based system." 'cause it is!

I'm not going to make a broad statement about whether the first or the second type is a better game right now. I do think the second type is much harder to learn. And there is also a way that the second type becomes the first type.

See, most of the special combat maneuvers in D&D are of the form (maybe Base Attack Bonus) + (attribute) + (maybe a size modifier) + 1d20 vs. (the same), with the penalty that you give the enemy a free attack on you for trying it, or that you suffer the effects if you fail, or both. One could imagine a D&D game where the GM groks this mechanism enough to improvise things like:

Level + Cha + Social Class Modifier + 1d20 vs. Level + Cha or Wis + Social Class Modifier. If you succeed, your opponent is embarrassed, suffering a -2 to all actions until they take (your level) rounds to recover. If your opponent is already embarrassed, they become scorned, taking a -4 scorn penalty to all Charisma checks until they restore their reputation. If you fail this roll, you become embarrassed or scorned yourself.

And then we've turned a bounded conflict resolution system into an unbounded conflict resolution system! We could even imagine feats like "improved insult" or "ranged insult." So that's an interesting thought.

(Note: When I talk about D&D as a conflict resolution system, I am talking about by-the-book play, not this sort of improvisation. This isn't actually the way I play the game, it is just by way of example.)

So that's some things about conflict resolution.

Mostly -- every game has conflict resolution.

What does this do to the hoary, old "conflict resolution versus task resolution" business? More next post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Rawk on. I am seeing eye to eye with you on this shit.

There is an article in an old Dragon magazine I got lying around that does something similar to what you are grokking with the social "combat" only it uses reputation points in a manner similar to hitpoints. Always thought it was a neat step forward to making DnD a more complete game.

3:00 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...

Screwdrives, man.

If you're seriously interested in social conflict in D&D rules you could check out Dynasties & Demagogues, from Atlas Games, which makes a whole system of it.

Of course, there are some subpoints that I disagree with the post on, but I'll wait till the next in the series to see if you clear them up.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Joshua A.C. Newman said...

Dynasties and Demagogues is a neat book, written by the owner of Space Crime Continuum in Northampton, my favorite FLGS.

Ben, the nasty part of this is that, yes, you could improvise all these rules, but given D&D's concern with "balance", improvisation of rules is both frowned on and necessary.

There's still no telling what you get out of the insult mechanic when what you want is to get the king to let you marry his son. -2 doesn't establish very much.

Now, if you had a mechanic for Interactions, where every successful interaction gave you a +2/-2 on the next action, and whoever said "uncle" first lost, then that would be the case. But can you, for instance, insult the king into the marriage? I bet that's still up to the GM to decide if the king decides he's just going to stretch your kneck or not.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Joshua --

*please please please* approach my material about D&D in these two posts (and further posts) with a great deal of caution. I think it has to do with either you playing in a drifted D&D game or a non-drifted D&D game that doesn't give you what you want, but you have a tendency to mistunderstand things that I say about D&D.

Why D&D has a conflict resolution system is thus -- there are any number (perhaps around 40 or so) conflicts which can be addressed with the system. The sole point of the second example was to show that, with improvisation, you can expand this sort of bounded conflict resolution system into an unbounded conflict resolution system.


11:15 PM  

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