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.

RPG Bucket List Or Gaming Resolution for 2012

Recently, I subscribed to the Evil Machinations blog and read through Jade’s RPG Bucket List.  The idea is to list the RPGs that I would like to play or run. Below is a list of RPGs that I have not played. There are others that I’ve only played once or twice and would love to play again (Fiasco and Do for example).

  1. Technoir – A gorgeous presentation with the awesome Transmission concept.  I’m still working my way through this book, but it’s at the top of the list, especially given it’s high marks.
  2. BattleTech – This is certainly influenced by Fear the Boot‘s rabid fanaticism, but I’ve always had a soft spot for miniatures combat.  Throw in a feudal society and I’m seriously interested.
  3. Burning Empires – I love Burning Wheel and am fascinated by the concept of a truly adversarial game master and rules to enforce it.
  4. Lacuna Part I –  Role-playing agents who delve into the shared “dream world” and unraveling what it means.  The dungeon is the waking world? Or is it the dream world?
  5. Apocalypse World – 2011 Golden Geek winner for best RPG, the systemic layering of moves is fantastic.  I’ve played Dungeon World and really enjoyed it.
  6. Dogs in the Vineyard – The conflict escalation pressure cooker is very intriguing.
  7. Lamentations of the Flame Princess – D&D stripped to what I consider to be it’s core. Many of the obscenely powerful spells have been stripped away.
  8. Microscope – Collaborative world/epoch building engine.
  9. Reign Enchiridion – I love Birthright and the idea of having agency at the macro-level.  Reign appears to handle this quite well.
  10. Inspectres – A Ghostbusters type RPG with the confessional couch.

I should probably lay out a plan for making this happen, but knowing is half the battle.  Of the above Microscope, Inspectres, and Lacuna Part I appear to be the easiest to bring to the table.  Followed by Technoir, Dogs in the Vineyard, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Apocalypse World.  Then Reign Enchiridion, with it’s unique mechanics. And finally BattleTech (no minis, no rulebook) and Burning Empires.

And herein lies the challenge.  I want to play in long running campaigns (8+ sessions) that see characters develop and events unfold.  I also want to experience via play the different game systems.  All of this is in tension with finite time for my hobby.

So my New Years Resolution for 2012 is to play two of the above games face to face with my friends.

Breaking the Stonewall with Vincent’s Admonition

One of my most frustrating gaming sessions ever was when our group of D&D characters were attempting to get information from a venerable old dragon.  The dragon was placed under an extremely powerful spell that by all accounts was unbreakable.  Ultimately the spell prevented the dragon from talking about the major plot elements.  The typical response when asked a question was “I can’t talk about that.”  We jumped through hoops asking questions, and were stonewalled.  We had spent a session or two merely traveling to talk to the dragon only to get there and encounter a might stonewall blocking access to more information.  Granted, in not getting information, we were able to glean that there were most definitely extremely powerful agents at work. But we were unable to advance the plot.

Presently we are playing the Scales of War adventure path and have been doing so since January of 2009; As of now we are 19th level and it is likely we will wrap up sometime in late 2012. Sadly my interest in the events contained in the adventure path is only minimal; Hell I honestly can’t remember two of the player characters’ names in the game.  We continue to play, and enjoy each others company, but slogging out three combats per week at 1.5+ hours for each is leaving my interest rather flat.  And, as we gain levels, combats are likely going to take longer (On paper stunning effects may be interesting, but loosing 20% of your actions for a single 1.5 hour combat sucks mighty hard.)

So with the arrival of D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard I am left with his admonition:

Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.

If nothing’s at stake, say yes to the players, whatever they’re doing. Just plain go along with them. If they ask for information, give it to them. If they have their characters go somewhere, they’re there. If they want it, it’s theirs.

Sooner or latter — sooner, because your town’s pregnant with crisis — they’ll have their characters do something that someone else won’t like. Bang! Somethings at stake. Launch conflict and roll the dice.

Roll dice or say yes. Roll dice or say yes. Roll dice or say yes.

For me the question becomes, is there anything at stake in these games?  For all intents and purposes, both plots are opaque.  In one case, we had creative freedom to explore the world, but weren’t able to punch through the stonewall.  In the other case, the focus is so much on the tactical elements, that the plot is non-existent.

What I am ultimately after is to have my weekly role-playing session focus on the story that can be told by all of the players.  Can this be done in a tactical game?  Yes.  Is it something that is easy in a tactical game? No.  After all, combats take a long time, thus leaving less time for the non-combat elements (i.e. the story).  I don’t want to see a movie that with three fight scenes that consume 90% of the screen time.  Likewise, I don’t want my role-playing games to be that either.  If I wanted to grind out XP advancement, I’d play a CRPG.

So where does that leave me?  Confused.  I want to spend time with my friends, but I’m struggling, because I’m eager for something different that what I’m getting.

Finally, Dogs in the Vineyard

This past week, I negotiated a trade for, among other things, D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard.  The game is truly inspiring.  Just read the design goals outlined by D. Vincent Baker:

“My design goals are: it’s interesting to Mormons, it’s relevant to Mormons, and it treats the concerns of Mormonism with subtlety and respect.”

I suppose that isn’t terribly engaging. But when several other RPGs that I like (e.g. Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel & Burning Empires, VSCA’s Diaspora, Chimera Creative’s Nine Worlds, John Harper’s Lady Blackbird) all pay homage to Dogs in the Vineyard, it is something that definitely deserves attention.

Actually the blurb at D. Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard page is more evocative:

You stand between God’s law and the best intentions of the weak.

You stand between God’s people and their own demons.

Sometimes it’s better for one to die than for many to suffer. Sometimes, Dog, sometimes you have to cut off the arm to save the life.

Does the sinner deserve mercy?
Do the wicked deserve judgement?

They’re in your hands.

roleplaying God’s Watchdogs
in a West that never quite was.

Now that’s much more engaging! The characters’ purpose is to make sure that the church’s body survives.  If that means amputation, then the King of Life’s will shall be done.

When the book arrived, I immediately set about reading it, and was outright impressed.  As Luke Crane and Jared Sorenson would say, “Game Design is Mind Control.”  And D. Vincent Baker drives it home.

The Die Schtick, as defined/proposed by Ryan Macklin and Josh Roby, of Dogs in the Vineyard is “where the magic happens.”  The dice mechanic is inspired by poker bets, which is fitting given that we are in the old west.

Each participant in the conflict rolls the relevant dice (based on relavent stats, relationships, equipment, and traits) and a turn order is established.  On each players turn they simultaneously narrate and expend rolled dice (via Seeing and Raising), pushing the scene towards resolution as dice pools are exhausted.  In most cases, the initial dice results are in the open so players can see rather early when they are unlikely to win the current conflict in its current form.

At anytime during their turn, a player can choose to escalate the conflict from conversation, to pushing, to brawling, and finally gunfight.  The incentive to shift the conflict is in doing so you then add new dice rolls to the dice pool.  So what starts out as a simple verbal confrontation can very easily spiral into a brawl with pistols being drawn.  And that is most assuredly D. Vincent Baker’s intention.

So here we have a dice resolution system that pushes toward conflict escalation.  We also have player characters who are anointed judge, jury, and executioner.  Both of which are ingredients for narrative fireworks!

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to play this with my regular group of players, but I’m itching to give it a try.