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."
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