27 February, 2010

Vector Theory #7: Lenses, Mirrors and Quantum Burrowing

You've been playing a game for a while, it really doesn't matter whether you've been following the story, or whether the story has developed in response to your own actions. Events follow choices, choices follow events. The sequence has built up over the last few minutes...few hours...few sessions...few weeks.

You seriously begin to consider whether the game has been preplanned by a GM following the storyteller model (vaguely allowing a level of illusionism to make you feel like your decisions really matter), or if the GM has simply been facilitating a story that has developed naturally.

Sometimes the rulebook is pulled out, because people vaguely remember something about die rolls needing to be made in certain situations; they then flip through a couple of pages to make sure that their die rolls are actually valid within the context of the game being played.

Sometimes another player on the table will make a judgment call on the part of their character. It's situation X, and their character tends to react in this way, but that's not really to their advantage at the moment...
  • Do they follow their character's typical modus operandi, hoping it might be good for the story or might explain something about their character?
  • Do they perform a completely different course of action, to gain more of an advantage from the situation (trying to justify it through meta-game talk later)?
  • Do they let a die roll determine if their character simply follows the usual pattern, or deliberately makes a stand against their former ideas to grow as an individual?
  • Do they keep quiet, hoping that inaction is better than a bad action?

Where do these choices come from? What can they lead to? What does it say about the player?

Vector theory considers the game/story experience as a point of light; a photon traveling along a path from the introduction to the conclusion.

Along to way, the point of light encounters nodes; from the perspective of the game/story these nodes are choices or points of decision (random or deliberate). Each choice can be imagined as a variable sheet of glass, possibly reflective, maybe not; possibly a converging lens channeling the flow of light in a predetermined direction, but just as easily a diverging lens designed to open the choices in a photon's path.

The development of a good story lies in the placement of these nodes and the methods by which they interact with the story (both the story of the individual and the story of the collective).

Bad placement is simply placing mirrors in the path of the light. No matter what the photon does, it must follow a given path, reflected through the twists of the maze until a conclusion is reached. Good placement is offering a variety of lenses and translucent surfaces that have a chance of letting a particle through (more likely as the node becomes more transparent), reflecting it in a new direction (more likely as the node becomes more reflective) or possibly even terminating it (more likely as the node becomes more matt).

To follow the analogy even further, nodes could be coloured or polarised; eliminating wavelengths of the spectrum as a beam of light passes through them. A pure white beam of light passes through a red node, it turns red. It is then capable of passing through future red nodes with no problem whatsoever; but as soon as it tries to penetrate a blue node, it's stopped dead in its tracks.

Every time a node is encountered, it is placed into play from the real world into the imagined space. Traditionally it is placed by the GM, but it could just as easily be placed by one of the players. Even if it is drawn from the rulebook, it is still placed into the imagined space by one of these two groups (the other option being to simply ignore certain rules under certain circumstances....but that's just also a valid statement about the game being played).

Let's look a the way the nodes link up with the choices.

Mirror (Path Diversion/Automatic Story Twist)

Converging Lens (Node with choices that tend to push the story in a given direction)

Diverging Lens (Node with choices that tend to create a variety of story directions)

Gravity Field (Method by which the story is manipulated in a certain direction regardless of any nodes encountered)

Gravity Well (Story Terminus)

Tinted Lens (When passing through such a node, a permanent marker is left on the story trail. This could be the application of a specific trait to certain party members, or something else that varies future events based on how this node was traversed)

Polarised Lens (Similar to a tinted lens except that it refines a story in a certain way)

Terminus (A "matt finished" node that simply absorbs any incoming events and prevents them from continuing their journey)

Over the next couple of weeks I hope to look at each of these in a bit more detail and see how they are actually used in the course of play.

23 February, 2010

Games for Goblins

My apologies if you've been on Storygames, or The Forge, or any of the other places I frequent, and you've seen this one or more times before...

I'm just trying to get some decent coverage to maximise the chances that some designers I respect might participate.

I've been inspired by a couple of things lately.

1. A storygames thread about games you'd like other people to design.

2. The gaming anthology "Norwegian Style"

3. Old style games compendiums.

4. Another storygames thread about artists looking for game designers.

5. The idea of how games and roleplaying might have developed in a
very different paradigm to our current understanding.

Combining these concepts, I'm thinking of developing a boxed set
through "The Game Crafter".

The box will contain 2 booklets. One purely an art book, the other an
assortment of games inspired by that art. In addition the game box
will provide everything needed to play the games on offer...a few
dice, an assortment of tokens, some pawns or movement markers, a
custom deck of cards and a board marked with some kind of abstraction
(possibly concentric circles divided into sectors) which could be used
as an abstract distance chart for combat, or anything else of that
could be imagined by a game designer.

A variety of game designers would offer a game of no more than 10
pages using some subset of these components, and inspired by the
artwork. Some would be roleplaying games from the perspective of an
exotic culture, others would be games specifically designed for
telling stories from that cultures perspective, some might hopefully
push the envelope to levels I haven't considered. The entire booklet
would contain a dozen or so of these games (maybe more if we get more
people interested).

I'll be running the project as a contest, with a specific set of
components declared once I get a few interested takers. Depending on
how many people offer their game ideas, everyone who contributes a
game will be able to purchase a copy of the set at cost price.

Everyone whose game makes it into the compendium will be able to
purchase as many copies of the set as they wish at cost price. I'll be
sending free copies of the final compendium to the contributor who
provides the most interesting game within the context of the artwork,
and the contributor who make the most innovative game using the
specified components.

I'll be looking to start the contest on the next equinox (22nd March,
2010), declaring all the components and providing the booklet of
inspiration artwork. The contest will run until the following solstice
(22nd June 2010). 3 months should give people enough time to write
something up, develop and refine their ideas, then submit something
that can be laid out by me. The final product is tentatively scheduled
for release on the next equinox (22nd September 2010), coincidentally
timing with Gencon Oz.

If anyone has thoughts at this stage, immediate game ideas,
suggestions for specific components in the compendium, feel free to

For some hints as to the images involved...see the last post.

The Goblin Labyrinth and "Games for Goblins"

I've had an interest in the Sydney gaming phenomenon known as Raven's Nest. It seems that the concept is forgotten across most of the world, but it was a marvelously ingenious concept. A combination of miniatures and live action play, developed twenty years ago.

A concept that has been left by the wayside as a quaint curiosity in the annals of Australian roleplaying, and a notion that is all but unheard of throughout the rest of the world.

My homage to it can be found here.

A page about it can be found here.

The conversation I started on story games led to someone challenging me to create a goblin labyrinth game, using the ideas found in Raven's Nest. Perhaps as a bit of a homage to it, updating certain elements of the concept, and refining the play.

It's something I've toyed with a couple of times, at least in a cursory manner; and it's something that a few of my recent game ideas could easily consolidate into.

I've started drawing some pictures for the concept.

And naturally those pictures have inspired another new idea...

Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to work on the Goblin Labyrinth, but this new concept is something special. I'll get to it in a post shortly...

For the moment, my thoughts on the Goblin Labyrinth.

What sort of play would it engender?

The idea of an Australian freeform is to preload the characters with impetus. To use my previous vector theory post as a point of reference, you'd apply a bunch of arrows to each of the characters. Certain factions would share arrows that pull them in a certain direction as a group, certain characters within those factions would have arrows pulling them against one another to add some tension within the group. The aim is basically to preload enough of these arrows to ensure the game will move in some sort of direction. You might not be sure where the session will end, and you certainly can't be sure of how the story will get there, but a story will develop as the players interact, discover common directions and conflicts.

Some players will take the angle of pushing their own agendas by taking risks, others will actively seek out story, some will hold in the background simply immersing in the experiences developing around them. No single method of play is right, and none will guarantee more fun than the others. Ideally, GMs act in the roles of facilitators, they don't guide the story in any particular way during the course of the session, because all of the impetus for the story should hjave already been applied before the session has begun. In a non-ideal situation, key players will choose to ignore certain arrows pulling at their characters, and the game will stagnate...in these situations a little GM intervention can go a long way.

But do I want the goblin Labyrinth to specifically run one-shot games? Not really.

If I'm going to spend days sculpting and casting a goblin city and it's surrounding maze, I want my labyrinth to be an immersive and dynamic setting, something that evolves over time rather than something that is engaged on a single occasion then forgotten. So I consider my next point of reference, continuous LARP campaigns (for example, the Camarilla).

Games like this draw regular crowds of 30+ players, and that's definitely the kind of scope that would make for some interesting game dynamics.

They work because they develop a setting for players to interact within. As someone who ran one of these groups on a local chapter level and a larger domain level I've come to realise a few things though (I wish I had recognized this at the time).

Each of the games within the Mind's Eye Theatre/Camarilla organisation is a self contained ecosystem. They each have players responsible for key aspects of the game, bringing them into a meta-GM capacity. Certain players are assigned the role of status watchers, other players are assigned the role of combat coordinators, some hold the secrets of the area, others manipulate events behind the scenes. If you want to be the player who holds responsibility for these functions, you need to make your characters suitable for the given role, and you have to play the part. It's like real life, if you want to walk the corporate walk, you've gotta talk the corporate talk. If you don't kowtow to the right expected idioms, no-one will accept that you are a part of that culture.

As a result, the game develops an inherent equilibrium.

There is no point forcing stories of war onto the social movers and shakers, because these guys aren't built for it. And throwing subtle clues at a combat monster is an exercise in futility because in most cases they're just after the next thing to hit. The manipulators behind the scenes have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, because it ensures that they remain valuable. The new players are expected to rebel and upset the establishment whether through lack of respect for the existing structure or simple lack of experience.

You could try to apply a story into the mix overtly, but this is often met with rebellion from the manipulators, and many players will have their own reasons for why their character's wouldn't get involved. Or you could preload each session with a few hints and let the story develop organically. Better still, you can add impetus to the drives a player has developed on their own.

The more preparation you force into a game from without, the more restricted the players feel. The more you adapt the preparations of players who have enthusiasm and energy, the more empowered they feel.

Let the players drive the game, and take a role of facilitator rather than storyteller.

That's the kind of direction I'd like the Goblin Labyrinth to take. But it would take a couple of sessions for the players to really understand the interplay of the status quo. actions would need to be assigned to govern various aspects of the environment (a trade guild to regulate pricing, a mercenary guild to regulate protection, a craft guild to regulate new items, etc.)...each player would then be able to find their suitable niche, and the most capable characters within each guild would rise to positions of leadership. A system of communal status would help to identify who holds rank, and how power can be usurped.

I don't want to be someone who drives stories through this game, I want to be someone who chronicles and archives the stories that emerge. I'd like to bring subtle changes to the mix, to see how the evolving stories change....what would happen if I introduced a new race capable of XXX?...what would happen if Faction Y suddenly lost their power within their accepted sphere of influence?...how would the social dynamics change if a new technology "Z" was introduced into the labyrinth?...how would it change again if that technology suddenly failed?

It's another grand plan, and something I probably won't get to see before the year is out. But I'll let it simmer on the backburner for a bit...let the stew gather flavour as I think of other ideas.

19 February, 2010

Rules of Game Design

Every now and then something really catches my attention on Story Games...

This is a post that really intrigued me.

Here are Jordan Mechner's (of the original Prince of Persia and the Last Express fame) rules for story-based game design, from over 10 years ago. They are a little bit dated but altogether quite good for the purpose of video games.

  1. The story is what the player does, not what he watches.
  2. List the actions the player actually performs in the game and take a cold hard look at it. Does it sound like fun? (Resist the temptation to embellish. If a cinematic shows the player’s character sneak into a compound, clobber a guard and put on his uniform, the player’s action is “Watch cinematic.” Letting the player click to clobber the guard isn’t much better.)
  3. The only significant actions are those that affect the player’s ability to perform future actions. Everything else is bells and whistles.
  4. Design a clear and simple interface. The primary task of the interface is to present the player with a choice of the available actions at each moment and to provide instant feedback when the player makes a choice.
  5. The player needs a goal at all times, even if it’s a mistaken one. If there’s nothing specific he wishes to accomplish, he will soon get bored, even if the game is rich with graphics and sound.
  6. The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.
  7. Analyze the events of the story in terms of their effect on the player’s goals. For each event, ask: Does this move the player closer to or further away from a goal, or give him a new goal? If not, it’s irrelevant to the game.
  8. The longer the player plays without a break, the more his sense of the reality of the world is built up. Any time he dies or has to restart from a saved game, the spell is broken.
  9. Alternative paths, recoverable errors, multiple solutions to the same problem, missed opportunities that can be made up later, are all good.
  10. Don’t introduce gratuitous obstacles just to create a puzzle.
  11. As the player moves through the game, he should have the feeling that he is passing up potentially interesting avenues of exploration. The ideal outcome is for him to win the game having done 95% of what there is to do, but feeling that there might be another 50% he missed.

Certainly applicable to designing a scenario for convention play, and considering that what I'm noticing in a lot of current indie games is that they are basically written as one off scenarios, it seems appropriate to "narrow focus" indie game design.

Though I'd never put my thoughts into point form, it's also a very similar formula to the method I've used for writing general games (whether campaigns or one shots). This is especially true when I've been running a sandbox style of game.

More good food for thought for game designers out there.

17 February, 2010

Vector Theory #6: Pulling on the strings

No matter what sort of roleplaying games you play, there are choices involved.

Do you fight, or do you negotiate?

Do you compromise your principles, or do you fight for your honour?

Every choice says something about a character (and whether we like it or not, every choice says something about the player of that character). But we need to know why those choices are important.

If you fight, why do you fight? If you stick by your principles, what are those principles?

Choices can be preloaded through a character backstory, or they can be revealed through the narrative.

Like I said earlier, vector theory is fractal; it works on a number of layers.

Consider the diagram for today's post.

If you consider the grey wavy arrow to be the journey of a specific character, then the black arrows might represent the various forces pulling at their lives. One could be a desire to please a certain someone, one could be a duty to fulfill a certain obligation, another arrow could represent a dark urge.

Each arrow pulls at the character in a different direction, yet it is a players choice to choice which of those desires they prioritise. But if enough arrows are pulling in a certain direction, then it becomes safer to assume that a player will take their character in that direction, or it becomes even more dramatic when they make choices to pull away from the forces that threaten to control their lives.

In recent roleplaying theory, the arrows a character starts a game with are considered "kickers". These are basically a preloaded impetus that drives a character's story in a certain direction from the start. But during the course of a story, the arrows change.

A twist in the story might render one option irrelevant, and thus the character's story direction alters. Player choices, GM plot introduction and mechanisms within the game may create new arrows to pull on a character.

In a good story, a character's destiny remains uncertain, there are always arrows pulling them in many directions, and in stories with real depth the arrows themselves are continually in flux. From moment to moment, the forces on a character vary. If the same choice is faced at two points in a story, the character will have gained new perspective, or a new insight when they meet it for a second time. Thus the decision remains relevant and still tells us something about the character.

In a bad story, a character only has a few arrows pulling on them. Every choice seems to be the same because the arrows don't vary in their direction or their intensity.

At a larger level, the grey wavy arrow isn't the story of a single character, it's the story of the group as a whole. Each arrow represents the pull of a specific character on the group's story.

Sometimes one character's pull on the story will be more influential, at other times, another character will probably take the dominant role. In most roleplaying games, the GM also has a pull on the story (in certain groups the GM often has more force than the combined weight of the players, and this is diagnosed as "railroading"...but more about that in a later post).

But how does this apply to game design at a system or scenario level?

I'm glad you asked.

There are a few games which have struggled to create a morality mechanism or system. This could be the old D&D alignment system, the Humanity system from White Wolf's vampire, the system found in Ron Edward's Sorceror...in fact I like the old D&D system best out of these because at least it has two axes of choice for characters to pursue. The Australian freeform really plays to this concept well, because the whole structure of the game is a relationship map and every player is constantly bombarded with choices that affect the arrows impacting on other characters. The whole game is in a state of flux. Numerous arrows pulling on each character, and numerous characters pulling on one another. The game has a natural draw toward a certain point, but it could end up heading in almost any direction depending on the choices made by the people involved.

So a system can really impact on the way a game is played. It can really provide important choices for a player to consider in the context of the story. A game like Dogs in the Vineyard gives players the ability to escalate a situation and push it in a new direction by raising the stakes. So this serves the concept of story because every choice actually makes a change in where things might head, rather than simply pushing upward toward success or downward toward failure on the way to a story's conclusion. Instead of a linear progression from start to finish, the story becomes more like charting an orienteering course, or an ocean voyage. (These two ideas will become more important later as well).

Specific design of a campaign or even a scenario can incorporate these notions as well.

Do you want your players to end up at a certain point? Provide a series of impetus arrows pulling in that direction.

Do you know that one player always likes to rebel? Provide an impetus directly against their rebellious urges and play to them with reverse psychology.

Some might call it "illusionism", but if you get enough of these arrows working together, then a story develops a motion and a sense of purpose/direction. If you keep enough arrows pulling toward a predestined finale (or keep choosing between two or three possible finales), then you can prepare for the big showdown. The characters might not approach the showdown from the direct you originally intended, but they'll get there in the end and they'll have made some important character decisions along the way.

It's a balancing act I've been trying to fine tune over the past decade or so.

Impending Gencon Oz 2010

I guess it's time to start thinking about the biggest con of the year in this part of the world.

What can I reasonably commit to? What have I already committed to? How does this compare to past years?

I'd love to get some more time playing this year, but I honestly can't see that happening.

I'd love to really get in contact with the other independent game designers from around the country, and that's definitely an aim I hope to achieve.

I'd love to get some better experience with other indie games from around the world beyond merely theory and discussion.

I'd love to bring some innovation to the convention, but last year's attempt at that was only moderately successful (so I might have to tone it down a bit).

Last year both Leah (my wife) and I offered some suggestions to see what ideas might be worth pursuing. I offered a live interpretation of Gregor Hutton's 3:16 (which met with some excited anticipation), and Leah offered a Serenity/Firefly freeform (which garnered some instant recruits there and then).

Both of these are certainly still feasible. I've been thinking about some more options, but depending on the events later this year there might be some new choices to make.

Leah will probably be changing her job at some time in the next month or so, and she probably won't have accumulated any annual leave. So instead of our traditional annual road trip up the eastern coast of Australia, we'll probably be flying up. Just spending a couple of days up there in addition to the core weekend of the convention. Flying reduces the ability to bring extensive props to a convention (which will mean dramatic changes to the Quincunx format, and will alter the way that "The Eighth Sea" has been played publicly.) It may also change some of the costume ideas I had.

I was going to run my live 3:16 game in a variant suit of the Iron Man armour I'm working on, and I was going to run something else in full costume...

...Arkham Asylum by Night.

A freeform for 30+ players, all with amnesia at the start of the game (perhaps a failed gas concoction from the Scarecrow), gradually regaining their memories. They start with a series of memory fragments (some kickers to get the drive happening), some props and some paperwork. None of the players know whether they are supervillains from the Batman mythos, wardens from the asylum, visitors from outside, or something else. As a critical mass of players start pushing in a certain direction, the game starts to reveal deeper truths. The memory clouding effect starts to dissipate and players start to realise the truth about the characters they are portraying.

I'm planning to do this by having the players literally vote for who they think different other players are. First round of voting; who is an "inmate", a "visitor" or a "warden"? Second round of voting; inmates vote among themselves "Who is the Joker/Riddler/Mr.Freeze/Poison Ivy/etc", visitors vote among themselves "Who is visiting the Joker/Riddler/Mr.Freeze/Poison Ivy/etc", wardens vote among themselves "Who is the pharmacist/security guard/psychiatrist/etc"???

Third round is the real twist, so I'm hardly going to reveal it in m blog. But it's a mindscrew.

I was planning to run the game wearing my Batman costume.

For the majority of the convention, I'll be running as a part of the iGod crowd. Definitely thinking of offering some Norwegian Style, maybe some Chronica Feudalis, and a couple of my own games (maybe even Brigaki Djili).

Anyway...that's my current plans. I'm sure they'll change over the next 7 months or so.

13 February, 2010

The Turku School

What is it about scandinavian gamers?

I've been reading through the Manifesto of the Turku school, and the first thing that comes to mind is that we've been doing a lot of this stuff in Sydney since the late 1980s.

Live gaming and immersion are such an intrinsic part of the Australian-style freeform that we just never bothered to formulise the proceedings. As far as we were concerned, it was all a part of the word free-form.

Just like most Australian endeavours, we innovate, but no-one can be bothered ritualising the details or refining the patents. Aussie attitude, probably...sheer laziness, maybe.

I've played games under The LARPers vow of Chastity, and have had really great times doing so. Often adding immensely to the theme of the session for other players. In fact I spent the L5R freeform at Gencon 2008, simply sitting in the corner painting pictures in character, not following agendas because I didn't have any, I simply painted and had other players approach me, following their own goals.

It's interesting that Scandinavians have become known for this style of play. It seems to share something deep with the notions of Jeepform.

06 February, 2010

Vector Theory #5: Conflict and Task based resolution

Vector Theory is fractal.

A story game consists of story paths and game nodes.

A game node may consist of a single decision point (with a choice defined by the GM, the player or the mechanisms of the game), or it may consist of a cluster of decision points all interconnected with tiny paths of story fragments.

"You do this" which leads to a decision point offering "choice A" or "choice B", bother of which have an immediate impact story and lead to a choice about the consequences.

As an example, you roll to hit, the story then describes how you've hit, leading to a new node defining how much damage you've done, the story describes the damage in context, then the choice moves to the victim, who becomes the new agressor. They make a choice and push the story from their direction.

The large node is a conflict between two people, the actual tasks of the situation are defined by the sub-stories and sub-nodes within it.

I've basically come to this conclusion based on a post by Eero Tuovinen on Storygames

So, let me give another stab at this. I've been phrasing this thing slightly differently from anybody else for years - I think that this is a more useful way of looking at this, but it hasn't caught on to any great extent for some reason. As far as I'm concerned this is just standard Forge theory phrased in an easier form.

Conflict resolution

"Conflict" is not a term of natural language - it's a technical term introduced at the Forge (for our purposes, I mean) to distinguish a specific literary phenomenon: conflict happens when dramatic actors (characters in a story who represent some sort of value or meaning) have a disagreement with each other or with the environment, and move to resolve it. "Conflict resolution" concerns this phenomenon.and how it is handled in roleplaying. Conflicts are resolved and therefore "conflict resolution" happens whenever dramatic actors move to resolve their disharmony. This happens on all games and even literary works that have dramatic actors and resolutions of conflicts, it's not in any way special or uncommon.

The important technical breakthrough of the early Forge-style games like Sorcerer (pretty much the definition of "Forge-style" as a matter of influence) was the idea that you could detach a conflict from the narrative and consider it as a discrete phenomenon to be mechanized or otherwise handled by the game. This approach to conflict resolution is often cited as the meaning of the term, but I find that this confuses people more than helps them. It is absolutely well-established that a rules-set like the D&D combat system in fact does resolve conflicts (insofar as the player characters have been developed into dramatic actors), for example. Discussing conflict resolution like it was some new thing that didn't exist in games before this decade is a surefire way to get people to look at the superficial structures instead of what is actually happening. Are conflicts being resolved? If they are, you have conflict resolution.

Now, when we say that a game "doesn't use conflict resolution", what we mean (or should usually mean) is that the game either doesn't concern itself with resolving conflicts, or it does require conflict resolution, but its rules fail to do so, and thus any resolutions are left up to the group in the form of GM fiat, unwritten group methodology or other means. For example, we might say that D&D doesn't have social conflict resolution, but we wouldn't actually mean that social conflicts do not get resolved in D&D; we just mean that when social conflicts do get resolved, it does not happen out in the open, according to explicit procedures, but in a murky mix of GM fiat, advanced applications of the task resolution system and freeform roleplaying.

Task resolution

Task resolution as a theory term originates as an opposition for conflict resolution, but here I find that I can't reconcile the practically useful term with the theoretical idea that task resolution is somehow opposed to conflict resolution, as an alternative. Rather, let me float a definition that I feel people actually go by in practice even in theoretical circles:

Task resolution is the resolution of tasks in the fiction; when characters undertake actions and those actions have outcomes, "tasks" are being resolved.

Just like conflict resolution, task resolution is rather common and nothing out of the ordinary in games. Any game that involves characters undertaking actions, if it should resolve those actions in some manner, involves task resolution. Just like conflict resolution, again, the term is non-committal about the means of resolution: we might say that a game "does not have" task resolution when tasks are resolved in a freeform manner - this is not strictly exact, but it's good enough when we're talking of mere mechanics and not practical play.

The problem with having a well-defined task resolution system but having the conflict resolution system dysfunction (usually because the game's rules text doesn't address conflict resolution, and thus a bad GM gets to mess with it) is that task resolution alone is in reality pretty boring. It does have value in certain types of games for color and immersive purposes, but if you're really looking to resolve conflicts in your game (a necessary precondition to any story games, narrativist or simulationist, for example), then task resolution detached from conflict resolution is just rolling dice without meaning.
Followed by another post to finish it up.


Looking at task and conflict resolution from the above viewpoint (which to my understanding is amply compatible with the Big Model, and should be for the most part really obvious to anybody), it should be evident that they are not things in the same frame of reference at all! Those interminable discussions about task vs. conflict resolution are completely meaningless, as these two things are separate and independent of each other. HIstorically a lot of hot air has been blown about task vs. conflict resolution, but to my eyes that's about as intelligent a topic as dice versus chairs - you can have both in your session, and aside from some very experimental games, almost always do.

A game that has explicit conflict resolution via explicit task resolution is a game where dramatic actors have disagreements and move to resolve them (conflict resolution), and this is done by choosing a task or several, which are then resolved (task resolution), and this resolution is in turn fed into the conflict resolution process for a final outcome. This sort of thing is so mind-bogglingly common that people are in fact usually blind to it: D&D (in combat), Sorcerer, DiV and a host of other games all work exactly like this. Most specifically, Solar System, which I've been working with lately, very much works like this: when a conflict is first recognized, the players continue to describe the action until it is sufficiently clear what tasks are aesthetically pleasing as crucial turning points in the conflict; then those tasks are resolved, and the rules say that whoever won the task resolution also wins the conflict. This is the reason for why you can win a conflict in SS with a sword-fighting ability: the rules say that conflict resolution is flexibly nailed into specific tasks on the moment of resolution, so if the players explicitly agree that this conflict will be resolved with a swordfighting task, then that's how it is going to be, and any further complications in the fiction will be resolved in favour of whoever won that swordfight. In SS and many other modern conflict resolution games the conflict-task correspondence is pretty arbitrary in that the players can choose whatever abilities they find sensible for resolving whatever conflicts that come up in the game - the only requirement is that the fiction is described in a way that makes a sort of sense narratively. This is all natural to us as humans, as we see this all the time in fiction: much fiction works on the premise that the writer carefully arranges complex conflicts and describes them in such a way that the outcome ultimately hinges on just some simple action sequences which, when successfully resolved, lead into a happy ending.

A game that does not have explicit conflict resolution but does have explicit task resolution is the sort that people usually complain against when they advocate explicit conflict resolution. In this type of game the rules say that whenever the characters try to do something, you roll dice and find out whether they succeed. However, because the rules do not actually have anything firm about when and why these task resolution procedures should be engaged, and also doesn't have any rules on conflicts, this practically means that the GM will naturally use the task resolution rules as a guideline in resolving conflicts as well. This can work well if the GM instinctively or by experience uses the task resolution system to resolve conflicts logically, fairly, quickly - just like a game that has explicit parity between the two resolution types. However, if the GM should not be up to the task, we get the sort of horror stories that have given task resolution a bad reputation: meaningless task resolutions, illusionary meaning in the task resolutions, lacking a task to resolve a given conflict (really common in scale-based situations like when we'd like to roll the dice just once to resolve a month's worth of activities) and so on.

A game that does have explicit conflict resolution but doesn't have explicit task resolution is also well-known: games like my own Zombie Cinema and other "hippy" games often are like this. Even if the game doesn't have skill lists and never asks you to roll the dice about a given, discrete task, it is likely that tasks are still being resolved. It's just that the game's rules allow most of the tasks to be resolved by declaration: the player just says that his character (or some other character, in fact) does this and that, and if it's his turn to speak and his narration matches the current limits of what he's allowed to say, then hey, more power to him. This sort of game often has very exact conflict resolution rules - Zombie Cinema, for example, dictates when your character lives or dies or escapes alive, and it warrants that any influence the characters have over these major conflicts comes only by engaging and resolving minor conflicts between the player characters. Those major conflicts notably are not attached to any sort of in-game task-type action, even if the minor conflicts might be seen as sort of brushing against the moment-to-moment action; your character in Zombie Cinema dies when his pawn gets into the wrong place on the game board, and you're required to narratively justify the death after the fact.

As you can see from the above three paragraphs, there are plenty of games that have explicit conflict and task resolutions, as well as games that only have one or the other. (Games without either are also possible, they're just very zany and experimental and rare.) An important point here is that even if there are games where these resolution modes are not made explicit, the resolutions still occur, and the line between implicit and explicit is totally blurry. The step from a non-conflict resolving task resolution system to a conflict-resolving task resolution system is as small as deciding that from now on, every task that is resolved will correspond with a conflict that is also resolved, and no exceptions. (This is largely what Burning Wheel does, by the way - those rules about "letting it ride" and other limitations for the GM in executing task resolution are meant to bring transparency into the conflict resolution process, making it impossible for the GM to get interpretative about things.)

Thus, the answer to the original query: combining task and conflict resolution within one game is possible, and you're probably doing it in your game in some manner. The important technical point is how you do this; there are fun and unfun procedures for resolving conflicts and resolving tasks, and for some purposes the fun ways are specifically such that they attach the conflict resolution steps directly to task resolution steps. What people usually mean when they say that they "resolve this situation with task resolution and this other situation with conflict resolution" is that the former situation did not have an appreciable conflict present, and thus no conflict resolution was engaged - the task was resolved for some other purposes, which also happens often even in games that use explicit conflict resolution. In both Burning Wheel and Solar System (similar games in many ways) there are plenty of reasons for engaging the task resolution system without resolving a conflict at the same time. Typically these are preparatory tasks that establish setting and situation and character and provide further mechanical advantages in the future, when conflicts are actually being resolved.

Solar System is my current magnum opus on this sort of basic "we already hashed this out in 2004" Forge theory put into practice. I think it's pretty clear about making the distinction between task and conflict resolution and how the latter largely runs by activating the former at appropriate moments.
So it's obvious that a lot of thought has been put into this idea over recent years.

I'm not going to try and reinvent the wheel, I think that task resolution and conflict resolution fit into the vector theory fairly neatly as they are.

It often helps to look at a couple of actual play examples to really get a grounding for the theory.

Appropriate Task Resolution and Appropriate Conflict Resolution

A group of investigators need to determine what is going wrong in the local area so they can report their findings to their superiors. The conflict here is the investigators against the local environment, the tasks are the individual searches, checks and conclusions drawn. Some might say that it really shouldn't matter whether the "RIGHT" things are investigated, only that the investigation phase occurs. Enough successful results will lead to some useful clues and will allow the story to progress. If the investigations aren't successful, then the conflict hasn't been resolved...the investigators need to find another way to proceed. Perhaps they feed through the node again, perhaps the story leads them to a new node based on their failed results.

When both tasks and conflict are in synchronicity, the story as a whole makes sense and the feedback loop between story and mechanisms is satisfying to the players.

Appropriate Task Resolution and Inappropriate Conflict Resolution

This time the investigators fail their tasks, but a Deus Ex Machina occurs...an NPC shows up and gives them the information they need anyway. Or contrariwise, the investigators succeed in their tasks, but the GM doesn't want the story to progress yet, so he tells them that their successful searches have found entirely different things unrelated to the story.

Both options suck for the players, both lead to a feeling of deprotagonisation. Suddenly the choices of the characters feel ineffective, and the players feel that they have no input into the story what-so-ever.

For a great example of how this can go hideously wrong, see my rant last year about Heroes of Rokugan at Gencon Oz.

Inappropriate Task Resolution and Appropriate Conflict Resolution

When done badly, this type of GM fiat can be just as bad as the previous example. But when done correctly, it can be a form of illusionism that is overlooked by the players.

In such a case, the investigators may or may not succeed in their specific skill checks, but the very act of making an effort is enough to push the story forward. The GM might give their players a second chance at searching a location, just to give the players a feeling that their perseverance is making a difference.

Generally the conflict is still meaningful in the context of the story, but the individual tasks are downplayed in their importance.

Inappropriate Task Resolution and Inappropriate Conflict Resolution

This is usually the type of situation where no matter what you do, the actions of the characters have little bearing on the story. GM fiat runs rampant, and the GM will tell their story regardless of what anyone else in the game might do.

I've been known to walk out on games like this, even when I've paid to attend them at conventions.

Actually, that should read..."Especially when I've paid to attend them at conventions, and I typically ask for my money back."

Norwegian Style

Matthijs has sent me a copy of Norwegian Style (he said it would probably take a fortnight to arrive, but it only took a week or so...surprisingly good service from Lulu.)

At first glance, I'm really struck by a couple of key ideas.

1. I really like the idea of a roleplaying anthology.

It's a series of games all linked by the theme that they are Norwegian, even if this purely means that the games are written by Norwegian authors. I would love to see similar "anthology-style" books following other themes; "horror games", "swashbuckling games", "immersion games", "games using non-dice, non-card randomising tools".

2. The roleplaying poem.

The idea of a quick roleplaying game with minimal preparation that plays out over a period of less than an hour, maybe even 15 minutes. I'm so tempted to insert a couple of these roleplaying poems into my new D&D game, just to see how well the concepts work among players who aren't used to playing this type of game. Or playing a couple of roleplaying poems in the pub after a convention. It's interesting to think that a lot of the concepts in roleplaying poems are instinctive...pretend you're someone else for a while, riff of the elements introduced by other players...don't contradict people, just see where this leads.

I don't know if this is an advanced form of play, or if it's simply stripping the elements of roleplaying to their barest essentials. Either way, it seems pretty cool.

03 February, 2010

Overlooked Innovation

Sometimes you just don't notice the interesting things happening around you. Sometimes you just take them for granted.

I gave a personal reflection on a game called Raven's Nest, an unusual game incorporating aspects of miniatures and live action. I played it around 15 years ago, but a lot of the concepts it used seem relevant to the notions of story gaming and narrativist play.

I thought the game was dead, but apparently it has started making a comeback.

Maybe it was just ahead of it's time.