How Conflicts Work (PTA, Galactic, and many many more)

So in this post, I’m going to talk about some different games and how they deal with conflict resolution.
Specifically, in which games do conflicts work, and which they don’t work, and how to help out the ones that don’t work as well. I’m going to start with something bog-standard that pretty much everyone is familiar with (DnD), and move progressively further out until I get to an indie game with a lot of good going for it, a lot of good rep, and a conflict system that we keep failing to really ‘get’ — Primetime Adventures.
So, DnD. It’s hardly perfect, but the thing it WANTS to do well it does really well. The only real problem I have with combat is that there really isn’t an end-state where someone doesn’t end up dead; there isn’t really a point in the game SYSTEM where you can say “no: the potential price here is too high — I’m out”. There is a point in the game FICTION (if the play group supports you) where you can do that, but that’s it — the rules themselves don’t support it, and do a lot to discourage it (AoO rules, etc).
The main problem I have with NON-combat conflicts in DnD/d20 is they are all one-roll wonders; you roleplay roleplay roleplay, and then roll to see whether you succeed or just wasted your time. With combat, you get a blow-by-blow recreation of the action, and with a tense diplomatic session, you get… one roll. If you’re lucky, the roll might be adjusted up or down via GM-fiat-bestowed bonuses, thanks to your roleplay, but nowhere in there do you get a system that will give you a sense of verbal sparring.
Result: combat is (sometimes unfairly) called “20 minutes of fun packed into four hours”. Roleplaying is largely freeform, unsupported by the (inarguably solid) small unit combat system.
Here’s a game where you get to use the same system used for everything (unlike DnD, applying the same granularity to everything as well), and as a result of that, all conflicts feel equally important. The basic one-roll system is used when some sort of conflict needs to be resolved, but it’s not a hugely important conflict. The “Extended Conflict” system gets trotted out when a conflict is Really Important. This is kind of brilliant, because depending on the kind of game you’re running, a huge set-piece battle might play out in 10 minutes, with two die-rolls, while a conversation over tea back at the castle might be THE MAJOR ‘FIGHT’ of the session.
The only problem with the current version of the rules is that the gulf between the ultra-simple basic conflict system and the ultra-complicated extended conflict is pretty broad, and often filled with house-ruled mini-extended rules, because the extended conflict rules are cumbersome. This is being fixed in the new rules coming out sometime this summer, and from what I’ve seen, the new “let’s use the longer conflict rules, because this scene is IMPORTANT” rules are going to be easy and intuitive and do exactly what they’re supposed to do. Bravo, sez I: I can’t wait to do some stuff with that system again.
Spirit of the Century
Much like Heroquest, the game uses the same mechanics for both physical combat, verbal conflicts, and really anything else — this means that everything is equally important (ie: represented by the rules and the time spent on it at the table) and any kind of character can contribute. In many ways it’s a very ‘traditional’ game, but full of stuff you can use to really have some kooky story-game fun. I’d love to use this to run a middle-earth-style game of “subtle magics”; the system in the game of being able to Declare an Aspect on a location or in the scene is perfect for the kind of “did I really see that?” magic that’s prevalent in the books.
((Note: it totally isn’t fair to list Spirit at this point in the “timeline”, because it comes after and learns from a bunch of the games I’m about to talk about, but whatever. It reminds me of HQ, so I’m mentioning it here.))
Dogs in the Vineyard
There has been a lot of talk in the indie-game-design scene in the last couple-four years about “stakes”. This is all Ron Edwards fault, thanks to a little game he wrote called Trollbabe that originally introduced the term, after which it was promptly co-opted and at least partially misused in about a gazillion other games.
The idea basically is that before you start rolling dice, you decide what’s at Stake. An example of this might be something like “Okay, I want to get Count Bobo to back down and release the prisoner to me — if I win, he does that.” or something like that. The problem with Stakes is that, if you do it wrong, in the process of defining “what happens if you win, and what happens if you lose” before you roll, you frequently end up discussing and halfway playing out all end result possibilities, so that once you roll the dice, there’s really nothing else to PLAY. You just kind of grunt and say “Okay, well, that cool thing we already discussed to death? I guess that happens. Moving on.”
((Trollbabe, incidentally, bypassed this problem in typical Ron Edwards fashion, via the mechanics of the game — the stakes themselves aren’t nearly as important as the pain you’re willing to go through to GET them — but as is typical with Ron, he doesn’t really explain that in the text, and it’s only head-slappingly obvious about five years later, after everyone’s already cocked up a number of other games trying to pull off the same thing.))
Now, Vincent Baker wasn’t immune to this use of Stakes — he wrote Dogs in the Vineyard during that time, and the concept of setting stakes are there, but (in my opinion) are presented in a far clearer and cleaner way (because it’s Vincent, really). Basically, the conversation you have before rolling is basically “Okay, I want you to reveal what you’re hiding in the house”, and then you roll dice and let the dice sort out what happens. If I just plain beat you in the series of rolls that follow, you’re forced to give in.
However, you might not be willing to take the kind of Fallout (damage) from that full exchange, and give in early. In a sense, that is the heart of Vincent’s conflict resolution in all his games: Negotiation with a Stick. The Thing You Want is out there, but the getting of it breaks down into ACTIONS; into What You Are Doing.
“What you get” is interesting. “What you are doing” is interesting and COOL.
In Dogs, this breaks down roll by roll and is narrated roll-by-roll as a series of discrete and interesting and impactful actions… all of those actions DO something to someone else (that’s the ‘with a stick‘ part) who might decide not to take any more and just give in. (Or they might decide to up the ante and Negotiate with a Knife. 🙂
It’s genius. It sets a bar.
In a Wicked Age
I’m not going to sit on the Vincent Baker bandwagon for very long in this post, but I want to draw a parallel between IAWA and Dogs — they both do the Negotiation with a Stick thing, but they manage it from completely different directions.
The big thing with In a Wicked Age is that Vincent has entirely done away with the idea of Stakes. Instead, you go back, waaaaaay back to that good old d20 stuff and just talk about “What I’m going to do”, which (for me) is a more comfortable place to be as a player. And the end of a series of rolls, you know who actually did what they said they were going to do, and who failed. The winner can then say “give me what I want, or I hurt you.” And the loser can say “Okay” or “hell no, tha’s jus’ a flesh wound!” and you go back into conflict for more pain.
((I’m getting there. I’m almost to the Primetime Adventures thing. I swear.))
Galactic isn’t a finished game, but it’s by the same author who wrote PTA. Since it’s a newer game, it shows how the author’s learned and expanded what he wants out of the game and the conflicts, but it still carries with it some of the flaws. The biggest one I hear the most is that the conflict system is good for conflict, but not so great for roleplaying during the conflict… it has the back and forth dice and sacrifice tactics of, say, Dogs in the Vineyard, but there’s a bit more dice-handling going on, and you’re sort of focused more on that and less on the roleplay that (should be) allowing new dice to hit the table.
Hmm. That’s not very clear. Let’s go to the instant-replay, Bob.
Dogs in the Vineyard Example:
Dave is in a conflict, arguing with a recalcitrant member of one of the towns on his Circuit. The first couple verbal exchanges didn’t work out that well for him, so he’s going to assert a little authority in the form of his Coat — the sort of badge of office of the King’s Watchdogs.
Step 0: It’s his turn.
Step 1: He roleplays bringing the Coat into the scene. Maybe it’s how he stands, maybe he says something about it or asserts his right to wear it, or maybe he just flings it back and the end of it swings in the air, all cool-like. Whatever. He roleplays it first. That’s mandatory, and whatever is narrated to bring the Coat into play DOES happen.
Step 2: He rolls the dice associated with his coat and adds them to his pool. Maybe the dice are awesome, in which case the coat will have had a big impact on the conflict, and maybe they suck, in which case it didn’t.
Step 3. He narrates further, going into what he’s doing as his ‘move’ and ‘plays’ the dice that will represent the strength of what he just did.
You see what happens there? Roleplay is a MANDATORY prerequisite that allows the player to both strengthen their character’s position and justify the dice that he ends up playing against his opponent.
More importantly, it’s specifically stated as The Way You Do It in the rules.
Galactic Example:
Dave is in a conflict, arguing with a recalcitrant member of a colony world he’s trying to get some information from. The first couple exchanges didn’t go his way at all, and he’s gotten some of his dice potentially knocked out of play… plus the dice he has are kind of weak compared to his opponent’s.
Step 0: It’s his turn.
Step 1: He checks off a couple Edges that let him ‘save’ some of his dice from being knocked out. He also spends a fortune point to bring one of his unused Archetypes into play, to give him more dice.
Step 2: He pulls the ‘saved’ dice back into play, and adds his new dice to the mix, and he and his opponent roll.
Step 3: We figure out, based on which dice stay and which dice get knocked out, what happened.
Step 4: We narrate what we deduce has happened … it’s a bit like reading tea leaves. 🙂
See what happens there? Roleplay/narration is a kind of… addendum. An epilogue. It is not central to either the action or the mechanics. Note that this is just the way my group does it. We could (and should, now that I’ve figured this out) do it this way:
Step 0: It’s his turn.
Step 1: He roleplays the actions he takes and everything that happens that will bring in the Edges he needs and the Archetype he’s introducing.
Step 2: He pulls the ‘saved’ dice back into play, and adds his new dice to the mix, and he and his opponent roll.
Step 3: We figure out, based on which dice stay and which dice get knocked out, what happened, and continue roleplay/narration from the stuff we already did in Step 1.
See how that’s better? And there’s no reason we can’t do it that way… but there’s no reason we can’t do it a slightly sloppier, much less roleplay-reinforcing way either, cuz The Way It Is Done is not in the rules.
Hmm. Need to send these thoughts to Matt. Anyway.
Primetime Adventures
Whoo. Been a lot of typing to get here, hasn’t it? Sorry about that.
Okay, so PTA is brilliant. Seriously, and truly, it’s brilliant. I’ve never seen a game that so perfectly represents the way a story is told in the television-medium. The way fan mail works is great, but especially with screen presence and Issues… it’s hard for me to watch a show now and NOT see it in terms of “who has the big screen presence this week” or “oh, it’s an Spotlight Issue session for Angela”, or whatever.
The conflict system, though. Oy. My head.
The problem is, it’s so damned simple. I get x number of cards. You get x number. We flip them over, and whoever has more red cards wins. See? Easy.
No, no it isn’t.
The problem is two-fold. Maybe threefold. Two-and-a-halffold.
One is stakes. PTA is built entirely on setting stakes, and it was written when the term was very vaguely defined by the indie community, so it’s kind of vague and hazy here. It is very. very. very easy to discuss the stakes of the conflict to the point where you’ve entirely explored everything that can happen in the scene, before you even PLAY. THE. SCENE. We don’t focus on what is being DONE; only on what (eventually) happens.
Two is the conflict mechanic itself: flip over of all your cards and you’re done. Conflict mechanics are more interesting when you can insert narrative/roleplay action in the midst of them — we said that even all the way back when we were talking about DnD, didn’t we? The combat is better than the non-combat stuff, because there’s more stuff going on — it isn’t just one roll. In Heroquest, the “important” conflicts are the ones with a few more rolls and detail. Dogs always has a series of rolls, into which roleplay is completely integrated. Galactic has a similar back-and-forth, but doesn’t integrate the roleplay (yet), so it’s not as smooth or as enjoyable.
PTA? It has one cardflip. Boom. Done. The most suspenseful conflicts in the games I’ve played in so far have been when we use the “Chase Scene” rules, which means we flip one card at a time, so if we each have three cards out, we break it down into rounds, basically, and narrate how the action is going up to that point, then flip the next ones.
That’s good. Honestly, I think we should use that “Chase Scene” method a lot more of the time, if not always. If we houserule in a rule that said you can spend Fan Mail in the middle of the conflict to bring in another card (probably paying double for it, since it’s mid-fight), as long as it was before the last flip, that would give us one more reason to roleplay each of those exchanges.
Problem Three, put simply, is just how the scenes are introduced.
Bad: “Okay, I think we’re at a conflict here, what do you want out of this, if you win?” (this is how we do it when we’re not feeling comfortable in the game)
Good: “She says ‘I love you…’ and looks at you expectantly.” (BANG!)
What’s all that mean? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. I’m possibly running Galactic this weekend after a lot of time away, and we’re playing PTA next weekend, so these things are on my mind. I welcome any thoughts from those (two) of you who managed to stick with me til the end.


  1. *headslap*
    I sent my thoughts on how Galactic conflict/roleplay integration should work to the author.
    He replies: “Huh. How you suggest it should be played is actually how I intend it to be played. Better text clarification and examples, I guess.”
    Which… well, I’m editing the book for him, so it just became my problem. 🙂

  2. I’m playing PTA right now with a group for the first time, and we’ve had exactly that problem with PTA conflicts and stake setting. Thanks for laying it out so clearly!

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