Blog Posts

Acceptable Weight of Conflict Resolution

burning wheel
dungeons and dragons
role-playing game

Role-playing games inevitably contain some form of conflict resolution mechanism.  Even the rules-lite Fiasco has the mechanism of either the player frames the scene or determines how the scene ends.

System Survey

Dungeons and Dragons has hit points as the primary currency for use during conflict resolution.  If you run out of them, you are out of the fight or dead, depending on your version.

Diaspora and other Fate-based cousins, have stress tracks (health, composure, and wealth) along with consequences.  So long as you only take stress, you are fine; But once you have a consequence, the bad times are just beginning.

Burning Wheel has body of argument dice or injury dice, depending on your flavor of conflict.  If you run ouf of body of argument dice, you lose your Duel of Wits; Accumulate too many injury dice and you may be incapacitated or more likely begging for mercy.

Short-Circuiting the Standard Method

In Dungeons and Dragons, there are plenty of methods that short circuit hit points.  The dreaded level drain, in which a month or more of hard work is undone via a specters could embrace;  The annoying stat drain, in which you get a little weaker and have to recalculate your bonuses.  In older editions of D&D this wasn’t so bad, but ability damage in 3E was an actuarial pain in the ass); The save vs. death, throw the dice and pray you live.

In Diaspora, I could hand out consequences, but that goes against the design; I can do stress damage, but the decision of taking a consequence is up to the player.

In Burning Wheel, as part of a failed test, I’ve handed out Light wounds; I haven’t gone so far as giving out a Midi, as I’m a bit skittish about delivery that kind of injury via GM fiat.  Maybe, as my understanding of Burning Wheel develops, I’ll hand out the Midi – after all, that -2D can be a boon when you are attempting to advance a skill.

Providing Enough Player Agency

Dungeons and Dragons, at its core, is merciless.  If you get hit by save vs. death, you’d better hope you’re a high level cleric and a lucky one at that.  Otherwise, bam, you are eaten by a grue.  You can’t get help from your team, nor do you have a luck pool to draw on.  You are dead, and your companions are already looting your body.

Diaspora and Fate in general, provide ample opportunities for a player to fudge a conflict in their direction; One roll of the dice can be modified by free-tagging aspects, spending fate points to tag aspects, or re-roll a horrific dice roll.

Burning Wheel provides numerous ways of improving your odds; First you can solicit help both from others and by FoRKing in your own skills.  Then, you can opt to spend your Artha both before and after the roll.

Resolving a Big Deal with One Roll

For me, both Diaspora and Burning Wheel provide enough touch points in a dice roll for me to say “I’m satisfied with how this conflict was resolved.”  I may not like that my character picked up a moderate consequence, but I had the opportunity to spend Fate points to avoid the consequence.

Contrast this with D&D where I have little recourse against Ability Drain; Either the specter hits me or it doesn’t.

This also highlights the fact that I’m okay with Diaspora and Burning Wheel using a single dice roll to adjudicate a much larger deal than Dungeons and Dragons.  If I, the player, have ample opportunities to influence the test (even if it’s likely to fail), I am much more willing to accept the outcome.

And in Fiasco, I simply want to see everything go up in flames!

Apocalypse World moves in the Fellowship of the Ring

apocalypse world
lord of the rings
role-playing game

Earlier I wrote about Dungeon World’s moves as seen in Empire Strikes Back. This time I’m going to look at the Lord of the Rings through lens of the Apocalypse World moves. (Yes, Lord of the Rings might be better for Dungeon World and Empire Strikes Back might make more sense for Apocalypse World, but what’s done is done.)

Apocalypse World Moves

Separate Them

Frodo Breaking the Fellowship

Frodo chooses to leave the Fellowship, thus separating the group. Later, Frodo is left for dead by Samwise.

Capture Someone

Merry and Pippin are Captured by Orcs

The Uruk-Hai capture Merry and Pippin.

In the above MC move of “Separate Them”, a follow-up move made by Tokien is the Orcs capturing Frodo.

Put Someone in a Spot

The hobbits first encounter a Nazgûl

Who and what is this black rider about? What do the hobbits do?

Trade Harm for Harm

Boromir’s Last Stand

Borimir fights valiantly attempting to save the hobbits, but in the end, the enemy is too much for him (i.e. a single person is in deep shit if they take on a gang).

Announce Off-Screen Badness

Get off the Road!

In the movie, other off-screen badness includes Gandalf riding into Minas Tirath and seeing Mount Doom erupting; The black riders traveling from Mordor through the free lands.

Turn Their Move Back

Seeking Shelter and Lookout at Weathertop

Weathertop may have been a good place to seek shelter, but lighting the campfire was a bad move on the hobbits’ part. Lighting the campfire summons the Ringwraiths.

Inflict Harm

Frodo attacked by the Ringwraiths at Weathertop

In this sequence, Inflict Harm builds quite nicely from the campfire on Weathertop.

Take Away Their Stuff

“Fly you Fools”

In most Lord of the Rings games, Gandalf is viewed more as an item than a character.

Make Them Buy

Pippin blowing Mr. Underhill’s Cover

The currency most precious to the hobbits is remaining inconspicuous. Throughout the movie, buying something represents giving up inconspicuousness for other gains. (i.e. seeking shelter at the inn, take the high pass)

Activate Their Stuff’s Downside

Frodo putting on the Ring at the Prancing Pony

The ring comes with tremendous power, but a horrific downside.  Likewise, Pippin’s curiosity could be construed as a downside.

Offer Opportunity With or Without Cost

Strider at the Prancing Pony

Strider was an unknown agent whom the hobbits’ need not have trusted.

Make a Threat Move

Nazgûl Riding out From Minas Morgul

Not everything can occur on camera; Advance a countdown clock.

Necromancers’ Maze

dungeons and dragons
necromancers maze
role-playing game

During the 2nd Edition D&D days of high school and college, we would occasionally get together and play through a Necromancer Maze.

The concept of the Necromancer Maze is rather simple; It is a player vs. player game adjudicated by a game master. The game master is responsible for tracking the position of characters on the map. I believe, in most cases, the players had access to the entire map.

Why Necromancers?

In 2nd Edition, Necromancers couldn’t access Illusions and (if memory serves) Enchantments. This meant that Invisibility and other spells that were more painful to adjudicate in PvP were off the table.

How We Played

Each player would submit their necromancer’s moves (i.e. I move from here to here) via paper. Then the game master would handle any incidental sighting of other characters. If characters noticed each other, then conflict would ensue.

The game master would pull the players aside and have them resolve their conflict while others were puttering around the maze.

Fun Times

This player vs. player concept was great. We were playing in the age of Mortal Combat and Street Fighter II, and found the spell selection and tactics of the Necromancer’s Maze to be very engaging.

Typically, the necromancers were 5th to 7th level, so they had a few hit points and plenty of spells to fire off. The GM would give each player a set of magic items (pick 2): +1 quarterstaff, 1 healing potion, +1 ring of protection, and probably other things of use to those trapped in a dungeon with a bunch of other angry necromancers.

What We Could Do Today

Contrary to what some may believe, I don’t play a lot of video games; I tried playing “Zelda: Twilight Princess” when it came out, but lost heart after I spent 15 minutes training and that game was erased. When my brother is in town we’ll play Mario Strikers and Mario Tennis. But that is about it.

So the concept of PvP remains somewhat novel to me. I believe this method of play would work reasonably well in today’s D&D 4E, but most 4E characters might have too many hit points to make the fights quick enough. I suppose you could have 3rd level characters running around beating each other up.

My Present Gaming Group

gaming group
not quite gaming

Let me give you a bit of insight to my gaming group.  After all who I play with is more important than what I play – contrary to what any of my rants about rules and systems would indicate.


I’ve been role-playing with Matt for 24 yearsSee some of Matt’s characters. I can always rely on him to play interesting characters.  His favorite character archetype is the swashbuckler – the outwardly confident character with some not immediately noticeable flaws.

He remains the baseline of role-playing for me.  I’m always impressed at the amount of energy and thought he puts into his characters, both mechanically and narratively.  He has a keen intellect and an uncanny understanding of games – he is my Dominion nemesis. Sometimes it’s hard to get him to write up his character’s beliefs, but once he begins role-playing, the characters are always unique and vivid.

Matt tends to playing instigating characters, ones who are ready to throw an insult then dig in their heels.


Jaron joined the group in the fall of 2005.  His first session with us was perhaps one of the most absurd sessions I’ve every played – A regular comedy of errors.

Jaron is exceptionally quick on his feet and an all around brilliant guy.  He’s a confident role-player, willing to push his character. More importantly, he shares the spotlight and works with other players to drive the story.  He’s not afraid of complications so long as the story keeps progressing.

Jaron ran our group through a part of the Scales of War until we all agreed that we weren’t having fun on the railroad adventure.  He did a good job with the material, it’s just that adventure path is one gigantic string of combats.

Jaron tends to play risk-taking characters; He knows that he can always make a new character, and is willing to ante-up his character to see where things will go.


Joe joined the group in either 2004 or 2005.  He is one of the group’s regular GMs – he is running the Butcher, the Baker, and the Candlestick Maker. Of all the current players he has tendency for most old school mischief – always pestering players if they are going to put on the unidentified magic item.

More than anyone, Joe offers the dissenting voice in our group.  He has a different perspective on games.  We’ve argued about various topics, either game systems or the “broken-ness” of some magic item or game mechanic.  Ultimately I’m glad he’s around because of his different perspective.

Joe tends to play risk-averse characters; They are typically very slippery in their element. I would love to see his characters step up and take greater risks.


Aidan is my son. He’s been off and on again gaming with me for years.  His first long-term stint was as Delfar the Eladrin Wizard in our Scales of War campaign.  As you would expect from a 14 year old boy, he has chaotic tendencies.

He is a very capable character role-player, chuffing and muttering as Menas the Dwarf High Captain.  Our group is working on helping Aidan be the commanding leader that a Dwarf High Captain would be.

Aidan is very interested in exploration; He’ll gladly go off on his own to pursue some outrageous wild tangent. He is definitely not afraid, in mid-combat, to pull some extra monsters into the current battle. Ultimately, however, he wants to be part of the team and part of an interesting story.


Savannah is my daughter.  She has always expressed an interest in gaming.  During the Scales of War campaign she would often times sit at the table and draw maps of the game, or help Jaron roll dice.

She is also a very capable character role-player.  She is a good actor and plays her part quite well.  She wants her characters to be a bit mysterious, but won’t hesitate to throw off her cloak and heal a captured enemy.

Savannah is very interested in the teamwork aspect of gaming; She wants to be part of the action and make an impact for the better.  Every character she has made has been some kind of healer.


There are others with whom I’ve regularly played, and for the most part they fall into one (or more) of three camps – my kids, those with technology backgrounds, and those with theater backgrounds.  More on them at another time.

Survey of Conflict Structure in RPGs

burning wheel
dogs in the vineyard
dungeon world
mouse guard
old school hack
race for the galaxy
reign enchiridion
role-playing game

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.

  • Team 1 fires arrows, team 2 fires arrows.
  • Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  • Team 1 throws weapons, team 2 throws weapons.
  • Team 1 moves, team 2 moves.
  • 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.