Survey of Conflict Structure in RPGs

One of the common elements of the role-playing game is breaking complicated sequences into turns.  This is particularly evident in physical conflict, where turn order can easily mean life and death.  This blog post is a breakdown of different initiative systems that I’ve seen.

Teams 1 then Team 2

Through some mechanism, usually dice, it is decided that one team goes first.  At that point, everyone on the first team performs their individual actions.  Once those actions are complete, the second team performs their individual actions.

I have never used this system, but the advantages are likely related to group size. The simplified turn order is easier for each player to handle their actions.  Think about the old adventures that say for 9 to 12 players, it’s almost a defense mechanism for the poor GM.

Team 1 then Team 2 Stepping Through Phases

Similar to Team 1 then Team 2 initiative, but there are particular phases that might be resolved as demonstrated below.

  1. Team 1 fires arrows, team 2 fires arrows.
  2. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  3. Team 1 throws weapons, team 2 throws weapons.
  4. Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  5. Team 1 attacks with sword, team 2 attacks with sword.

Optionally, you could have a step 0 where the team members declare their actions.

Individual – With Phases

Following on the idea of combat phases, except each character selects their actions.  Rolemaster made use of this mechanism.  Old School Hack is another one.

Individual – Round Reset

Each participant rolls initiative at the beginning of the round and then actions are taken in initiative order.  A variant of this is where each player first declares their action, then initiative is rolled, and finally actions are resolved in initiative order (D&D 2E).

Individual – Circular Rounds

Each participant rolls initiative before combat begins, and for the duration of combat actions are performed in initiative order.  D&D 3E and D&D 4E come to mind.  There are rules for stepping out of the initiative order.

Scripted Simultaneous

Burning Wheel makes use of a scripted action sequence, both for physical combat and for social conflict. In the case of Mouse Guard for military or propaganda campaigns.

This system models the chaos of conflict.  Once the first bullet fires, everything is a mix of instinct and reaction.

Burning Wheel’s mechanic breaks conflict scenes down into multiple exchanges. At the beginning of each exchange, the players can survey the current state of the conflict and then privately script their actions.  Once the scripts are set, they are revealed and adjudicated.

Which means you may have wanted to swing at that guy with your sword, but he’s now inside your swing and poking you with a knife.  You’re still going to swing, but you’ll have quite a few penalties.

Within this mechanism there is the savoring of laying out a plan and the tension of watching the events unfold.  Very satisfying, and it does an excellent job of adding tension.

Social Initiative

Diaspora’s space combat takes a very novel approach for space conflict.  Each round is broken into phases for positioning, electronic warfare, beams, torpedos and damage control.  Unlike other conflict systems, the first person to declare the action is the first to resolve their action.

There are advantages to going first (i.e. striking a deciding blow). There are advantages to going last (i.e. striking where they are already hurt).

To facilitate this system, a caller is required.  They are the arbiter of when a particular phase is done.

Point, Counter-Point

Traditionally, most turn based conflict resolutions were focused on modeling physical combat.  As role-playing games have evolved, for better or for worse, the idea of structuring social conflict resolution has been explored.

D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard accepts that conflict can begin almost anywhere ( i.e. a barbed word, forceful push, stabbing knife, or pistol shot), and works to address that.

If you want to start a conflict, do it, and roll some dice.  The defender rolls dice as well, and an exchange begins.  First the attacker makes a point, followed by the defender, then the attacker.  In many ways it is like the Individual – Circular Rounds method.

However, unlike other games I’ve read and played, Dogs in the Vineyard allows conflicts to seamlessly go from banter to pistols.  Other systems may completely exclude social combat, and when someone says “I draw my gun”, the conflict resolution mechanism changes.

Characters Only

Another relatively new mechanic for me is the idea of removing the Game Master from the pool of people that participate in the conflict.  This is the method of Apocalypse World and Dungeon World.

In both of these games, the action resolution mechanic incorporates the idea of Success, Partial Success, and Failure.  Applied to conflict, a Success might mean I hit and damage my opponent and they don’t hit me.  A Partial Success might mean that both my opponent and I hit and damage each other.  A Failure might mean my opponent hits and damages me and I don’t hit them.

Order of when characters act is far less important, as the characters moves define their outcome.

And More…

Hollowpoint looks to who has the most of any numeral (i.e. 5 sixes were rolled) and they act knocking out other dice, then who has the next most of any numeral.

Reign Enchiridion, which I haven’t completed, looks to be somewhat similar to the Hollowpoint (though I assume Hollowpoint received inspiration from Reign).

What if?

What if the conflict resolution had a determination phase like Race for the Galaxy?  In Race for the Galaxy everyone blindly chooses the actions that they will be taking that round.  In taking the action, they get a bonus, but everyone else also may perform the action.  So imagine sitting at the game table and choosing between: Move, Magic, Missile, Melee, and Defend.

In Conclusion

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but instead highlights some of what I’ve seen.  Personally, I’d love to see more mechanics akin to Dogs in the Vineyard where conflict seamlessly moves from one domain to another.  I also believe Diaspora and other FATE-based games are onto something when they have a unified stress track.

15 thoughts on “Survey of Conflict Structure in RPGs

  1. Re: initiative there’s also the time-track method as in Car Wars and (I think) Exalted. The turn is divided into segments and some stat (speed in Car Wars) determines which phases in the turn you act. Runequest uses something similar I think.

  2. I prefer randomly determined initiative, with the player redetermining init when his action is done. So if a player went off on beat 12 and his second roll is a 9, his next action would be on beat 21

    It does get more complicated than that.

    • When you’ve used Team 1 then Team 2, do you let the player team optimize their actions? Example: I cast a buff spell on the fighter, the fighter attacks, the thief sneaks out with flank and backstabs.

    • I could certainly see this increasing team cooperation and eliminating some of that waiting-on-so-and-so-til-it’s-my-turn. Definitely seems like a time saver when dealing with 6+ players too.

      I would think it would increase a party’s power to take out a single opponent quickly from a group. And I wonder how it would with interrupts and reactions from D&D 3 and 4.

  3. I don’t have much love for Burning Wheel’s Fight! system, but one part of it I do like is how Reflexes gives you more actions during combat; I like that the system gives the character more opportunity to act based on a character stat.

    I once played in D&D 3.0 game that ran with incremental initiative; that is people rolled random to for their starting beat and then added an initiative number for their next beat (I can’t recall how they calculated what to add though; seem to think it had something to do with relation to the highest initiative score). To me, I couldn’t fathom trying to run a game like this without the aid of an electronic device with an app to calculate it ongoing for me.

    • I think my absolute favorite initiative system has been D&D 2E where people must declare, roll, then adjudicate. Especially at low-level when a single hit can bring ruin. This is why I enjoy Burning Wheel. Steel and injury add to the tension.

  4. The Supercrew: every participant declares what action he will perform, then everyone rolls. Higher result attacks first (leaving the opportunitie for lower-roll defender to forfeit action and go for all-out-defense)

    also: Smallville RPG conflicts are very much in the same spirit as DitV.

    • @Udo – Giving the opportunity for lower-rolls to forfeit action is an interesting mechanic; I’d make sure that if you planned “All Out Defense” as part of your initiative you get a “+3” but if you scuttle your action to go “All Out Defense” you get a “+1”.

      I’ve been intrigued by the Smallville RPG, but have yet to read much more about it.

      • In The Supercrew you don’t have many options in terms of actions for a combat round. You just decide who you attack. Period. If you roll high, you get to act first. If you see a big hit coming at you, you can forfeit your attack for a BIG defense.
        It is a simple, straightforward, somehow parodic system. But a very funny one.

        Smallville RPG is just honey and love. Very very different to 99% of other RPG systems but pure gold. We are actually playing a GothamVille campaign.

          • Smallville is a drama/soap simulator, not much of a supers RPG itself. It allows Superman to play in the same league as Lois Lane, limiting big cheesy powers to special effects with influence on drama itself, not “physical” consequences.

            If you are just a regular guy but love Lois d10, you can fight Hulk and his Brute Force d12 without being overwhelmed. At first. ;)

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