Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Conflict Resolution vs. Task Resolution and Fudging Dice Rolls

From a post I made today at

I hate GM fudging and hidden rolls. I say put the dice on the table and let everyone weep at the outcome!

But seriously, if you play a game that gives you more latitude to determine what success or failure mean, you need never fudge another roll or hide the results.

Jenskot, I know you've been reading Vincent's blog, and this is pretty much what the whole Conflict Resolution vs. Task Resolution thing is all about. When a die roll is resolving a conflict rather than a task, you never need to fudge the results.

Over at the Forge, they suggest that everytime you go to the dice (or other method of Fortune, like cards), there are actually four steps that happen. They call this IIEE (Intent, Initiation, Execution, Effect).

So how does that help? I'm going to steal an example from Abzu to help illustrate. Let's say you're playing a fantasy game, and your character is in a castle and running from some guards. He comes to a locked door.

Step 1: Intent. You say, "I want to get through the door before the guards arrive!" That's your intent. That's what you're trying to achieve with your roll.

Step 2: Initiation. I, as the GM, ask you what skill (or trait, or however the system you're using judges these things) you're going to use to accomplish your intent. You say, "My lockpicking skill."

Cool! Now we have an Intent and have established the Task that you will use to accomplish that Intent. As a good GM, I'm going to help you qualify that by restating the risk (or stakes) for you and making sure you understand and agree.

"Your Intent is to get through the door before the guards arrive. If you fail the roll, the guards arrive before you get through the door. Cool?"

Step 3: Execution. You've consented to the risk. The dice hit the table. Failure!

Step 4: Effect. "You struggle with the lock, the pins are a bit rusty and you really have to push to slide them into place. Your heart is beating a mile a minute and sweat is trickling down your brow as the last tumbler falls into place! The lock clicks open! Just as you begin to tug the door open, two guards stumble around the corner, shouting, "Halt! Thief!"

See? The conflict in this situation was never about the lock at all. It was merely a complication, placed there as a problem to see if we can't eke a little more drama out of your escape attempt. In this case you failed the lockpicking roll, but that really had nothing to do with your Intent in the scene, so as the GM, I'm free to let you open the lock. Unfortunately, it took you long enough that the guards were able to catch up with you. Now we have another juicy conflict to deal with.

You can do this sort of thing with any system. However, some will support it better than others. For instance, Clinton R. Nixon's game, The Shadow of Yesterday, gives this sort of thing awesome support (and he explains IIEE pretty clearly). In his system, you cannot have a deadly conflict unless a player intentionally escalates things to a deadly degree.

1 comment:

Thor Olavsrud said...

Chris Geisel wrote:
Good point re: players needing to understand the risk/stakes. That's one of the flaws with d20/D&D, the game I play the most, overall, but which doesn't support conflict resolution well (at least not outside of a specific kind of combat). You can fail a task resolution in D&D, and the consequences might be a lot more than the player understood.

E.g. player fails spot check when picking aforementioned lock. There is poison on the lock, which then forces the player to roll a save or the character dies. Not the stakes he was expecting when he decided to pick that lock and get away from the guards...

When I wrote the above post about hiding/fudging as a way of secretly introducing conflict resolution to a game that doesn't support it, I was thinking about D&D and my current group. They're all pretty "trad" D&Ders, who I think would double-take if a character failed a lockpick roll, as in the above example, but the consequences weren't that the lock didn't open. I was thinking, hmm, I could hide the failed roll and introduce the consequences without having the double-take... and maybe eventually I could tell them what was going on.

But that's the slippery slope of the control freak DM, at least for me, personally.

As a side note, my control freak DM issue is something like this. I run a game because I have a cool idea about how it could play, the situations the characters might get in, plus maybe even a resolution. Then I force the game down the path of my "story", regardless of what the players want. At best, everyone likes my story and is happy. At worst, the game is flat, usually for reasons no one can put their finger on. And eventually, I get seriously burned out as a DM, because doing all the heavy lifting in a game (in essence putting on a one-man show) is exhausting.

Hey Chris, that's a great example. And that's precisely what I mean when I say some games give more support for doing this than others. D&D's system is focused on one thing*, and that's using a combination of player skill and character abilities -- and teamwork -- to overcome challenges presented by the DM.

To make this work, D&D has classes, each of which is capable of different things, though obviously some classes blend aspects of two or more of the "core" classes at a somewhat lower degree of ability. With D&D's focus, these divisions need to exist so that each player has a niche in the group and that niche is protected.

In many instances, such as the one you described, using conflict resolution, rather than task resolution, may require that you "drift" the game by changing or ignoring some rules.

The problem with that is that the system is very well-designed to handle the sort of play I described above. Fiddling with it too much can undermine the niche protection and lead to unhappy players. I'm sort of working through this as I write, so bear with me:

So the door with the poison trap on the lock exists in order to challenge the thief and provide for his place in the party. Now, clearly, opening a lock is almost never a "conflict" as I define the term, which is an interesting, dramatic confrontation with a character. Instead, it's an "obstacle," a complication that can give the conflict more weight.

Obstacles are important, but they are usually in the game to either force a conflict or increase the ante in an existing conflict. In the example from my post above, the locked door increases the stakes of the existing conflict: "Can my character get through the doors before the guards catch up to him?"

So how to handle it in D&D? I think would go for something sort of in-between conflict resolution and task resolution:
* Your character comes to a locked door as guards are chasing him. (Having guards chase him is important! If there aren't any guards chasing him -- or he doesn't have to stay quiet so he doesn't alert someone to his presence, or he feels no need to make it look like he was never there, etc. -- then we should just assume that he opens the lock or breaks down the door, because there's no conflict. Meaningful conflict requires opposition. Think back to creative writing 101. You've got four to choose from: 1. Man vs. Self, Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature (which is really just a spin on Man vs. Self as far as I'm concerned), and Man vs. Other (this one is just a spin on Man vs. Man). In any case, no conflict, no roll. As D. Vincent Baker puts it in his game Dogs in the Vineyard, "Say yes or roll dice.")

* Ok, we've established the Intent and the conflict: Get through the door before the guards catch up. You, as a thief, decide you want to use your lockpick skill. As the GM I say, "ok, your Intent is to pick the lock before the guards arrive. The risk is that they show up before you get through the door. Also, the door may be trapped and there's a risk of bodily harm, impairment, or even death if you try to open it. You still want to go ahead?"

Now the player knows the stakes! This is super important. It doesn't matter whether the character knows this or not, but the player has to. He knows that dealing with this door could have really bad fallout. If his character dies, he can only blame himself and his dice! He knew what the stakes were.

So, you give your assent to going forward, and we layer a number of tasks into this conflict. You've got the Spot Trap check, a potential Disarm Trap check, a potential save vs. poison, and a lockpicking check. The last one is the biggie, but the first two will help establish the conditions of failure. It's also very important to express to the player that failure on the first two rolls will not lead to failure of Intent. Only the last one can do that (although a deadly poison could prevent the last one from happening).

"You can call it quits on the lock at any time before the dice for the lockpicking roll hit the table. However, stopping means failure of Intent."

This is juicy! Now the player has an awesome, meaty choice to make if he fails the Spot Trap check. Go on and risk being poisoned, or concede and let the guards catch up!

* The dice start hitting the table. I want him to roll the Spot Check and I want it out in the open so we can all see the results. Sure, if he succeeds, you lose a bit of tension over whether or not to give the door a shot, but he would have found out with the very next roll anyway. And the real conflict is between him and the guards and that conflict is still taut. If he fails though, you've ratcheted the tension through the roof. He'll be in agony over whether to risk the lock or take his chances with the guards. Even better, the other players will be in the same boat. I'd be willing to bet they'd be standing up and peering over the table to watch the dice as they fall.

Honestly, if I were actually running this, I wouldn't even bother with the Spot Check. I'd just tell him off the bat that he sees a little needle in the key hole and it seems to be coated with some black, foul-smelling resin. Poison or guards, what's it going to be?

* I haven't played D&D in 14 years, so I may be very wrong about this in its current incarnation, though I'm reasonably sure it still holds true.