Monday, April 2, 2018

Conflict is not Dead

So.  Taking some time to reflect upon an old bugbear.  I proposed the idea of cards to resolve conflicts a little more than seven years ago.  Strange to think how enthusiastic I was about the idea at the time ... and how soon it was after starting this blog. The concept did not survive the online campaign; yet I shall try to paraphrase the idea, as I think of it now.

The plan was to provide the characters with different methods of changing an NPC's mind, with the concomitant idea that the NPC would be able to similarly lock down the player's decision making process, precisely in the way that combat functioned.  Just as a player could force an NPC to adopt an action or opinion, the NPC could do likewise to the player.

The "methods" were based upon the speaker's class, background, previous successes, means and ability stats.  Characters could therefore "reason" if they were intelligent enough, "torture" if they were an assassin, "seduce" if they had a high enough charisma and so on.  Logically, as more methods for changing minds were imagined, the system could be expanded.

Resisting this, a speaker would have various resistances to having their minds changed; wisdom imposed fortitude against arguments, while stupidity defeated arguments by lack of comprehension.  Thus, as the first speaker imposed a method for changing the second speaker's mind, the second speaker had a means of being bullheaded and stuck in their ways.

Fair enough.  Where the system failed ... and continues to fail in my thoughts, revolved around this problem: what change of mind was permissible?

Could I, for example, impose upon an NPC to force them to give me all his property?  His daughter?  His life?  What, exactly, kept the "convince person A to change his mind" from becoming, "mindfuck person A into being my mental slave"?

Players bent on getting the most out of the system saw it as a kind of suggestion spell.  This was never the intention.  My ideal was a system that the players could use to inveigle information out of a suspect, or subvert the loyalty of a person against their employer.  Players viewed it as a way to get free drinks out of a bartender, "just because."

Do understand. We need to draw a line.  But that line is very pernicious.  There's no reason in the world why a bartender would give free drinks to strangers; particularly when we consider everyone in the world would have this power to convince every other person, since no interactive mechanic can be built to serve the players alone.  Logically, a bartender, and a lot of other vendors beside, ought to have a get-out-of-jail-free card for such attempted abuses.

But say a character, charismatic, stumbles out of the woods and produces a monumentally believable reason for why they must have your horse, and right now?  They show a rolled up bit of paper bound with a ribbon, they're wearing the King's livery, they're carrying a saddle to the horse that has just been killed from under them and the message must be taken to the King immediately!  "And no, you can't take it, you're not an official messenger.  So I'll have your horse now, sir, if you please."  A die is rolled; the player makes an argument; the messenger counter-argues ... and the player loses, handing over their horse.

Could happen.  But what if it is all a scam?

As I say, it is a difficult line to draw.  Clearly, the problem here is not the method by which we ask [as I built the system to answer], but what we're allowed to ask FOR.

I think, maybe, that is the answer: a list of potential asks, which can expand as ideas for requests are realized, that characters are allowed to request ~ once again, dependent upon their level, status, specific reputations, ability stats and such ~ ranked from somewhat miserable requests to outlandish demands.

A character might, for example, be allowed to ask for a discount on anything, in their home town or in their home county ~ 10% off, say ~ at first level, because they are a cleric or because they have a high charisma.  Or because they have a particular ability [or feat, whichever system you play].  A low-level character might be able to intercede in fights; or distract a guard; or buy their way into a card game ... but they couldn't just ask to talk to the king.  They couldn't ask that a guardhouse be opened up so they could free a prisoner.  They couldn't just demand any damned thing they pleased, as if they were lords of the earth.

This would firmly confine the expectations of the players to specific possibilities ... and then, the possibilities would have to be gambled for, in the way the cards were supposed to work originally.  That is, just because your gambler thief could buy his way into a card game, doesn't mean he does.  It only means that he can try for it.

Now, some readers will be a step or two ahead of others at this point ... just as I am building to the key point here.  Some will realize that I've already been building up a system that guarantees the player can do a large variety of small, skill-based things, which I call my sage system.  I might have already created a "gambling" ability that included "being able to buy into a game."

Suppose that the varying sage abilities (and I find, from moving them to the new wiki, that there are 182 sage abilities so far) serve as a template for what a character ~ any character ~ can ask for.  Studies like Sure-footedness, which gives a lot of benefits to sneaking around and into things, wouldn't bring much in the way of, "What can I ask for?"  But a study like Politics, which offers nothing in the way of physically empowering a character, would bring lots and lots of potential things that could be asked for.

As ever, it could be a lot of work ... but it IS a solution to something that has denied reason for a long time.  An ordinary character couldn't go into a guard room and demand a room for the night, but many different kinds of functionary could.  And many more things besides.  An ordinary character couldn't demand a free beer, but many bards with a Performance ability could talk a bartender into one.  It is simply a matter of assigning potential asks to existing abilities, as the player or DM invents the process by precedent.

The player looks at their sage abilities, and asks, "Could my player ..."

The DM answers, I think that's rational, given you have an ability that fits that request, of that particular NPC.

Then someone writes down the request so that it can be looked up later.  Easy peasy.

The reason I never came up with this before is that I didn't have the sage abilities conceived of, in this form, when I was making the conflict system.  And the only reason why I put the two of them together now, is that I'm moving the whole damn wiki.  Ideas, being jumbled, tend to bump against one another.


Pandred said...

It seems pretty solid, and definitely could iron out the kinks of the old Conflict system a great deal.

Samuel Kernan said...

I like it. Having a base list to expand upon is so much easier than starting from "It's an RPG! You can do anything!" and then eliminating abuses one at a time.

I forget from the old system: does failing to persuade someone with cards carry a risk of loss beyond just not getting a thing you are after? Like, if you ask for the horse and fail, does the other person become actively hostile to you, thinking you are a fraud?

And if there is a concrete risk/reward tradeoff with real penalties, could it be used as a basis to assign non-combat experience? I'm not sure that you would want to, given that characters aren't in mortal peril like in combat.

Ozymandias said...

I concur: there should be the assumption that certain requests always succeed and others always fail. The ones in the middle require a resolution method.

Where you're going is different from my path, it seems, in that I'm assuming the sage skills offer certainty instead of opportunity. Opportunity exists because of circumstances; certainty exists because of skill.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Funny you should say that, Ozymandias, given that you're trying to change my mind about something.

Here's the thing: the sage abilities are build on certainty rather than opportunity; but they are ALSO built on the principle of self-directed action, against a largely neutral system. The wall in climb walls, the whole social construct in functionary, the heavens in celestial navigation, fungi in mushroom hunting ... these are not "conflicts," but measures of actual ability.

But actual ability has a tendency to fail where it comes to other humans. I might know how to build a bridge, and be able to do so with certainty ... but how do I convince YOU that I can do it? How do I convince you to let me build one in your town? How do I convince you that when I do something strange with my bridge, it's not because I don't know what I'm doing?

That's where the conflict comes in: not ability, but reason, will, charisma, a bribe, whatever means exist that permits me to bring you to my side. The sage ability is the LIMIT on what I can ask. I'm a bridgebuilder, so it is rational that I am allowed to play the conflict cards as they exist right now to convince you to let me build a bridge. A non-bridge builder would fail, no matter what cards they held. That is the point.

The ability only determines in what manner the changing of minds can happen. It doesn't change the ability itself.

JB said...


I don’t particularly like where this is going. One nice thing about the sage abilities: they define actual knowledge (as you commented, they provide a certainty). Codifying a mechanical system, on the other hand...especially one that would apply equally to NPCs as PCs...smacks of the same madness I find in later edition D&D skill systems. Save yours would probably be a trifle more complex in conception and execution.

The reason I dislike that is that, ultimately, playability would suffer unduly for what’s gained. Forget for the moment the possibilities of the system being “gamed” or “broken;” assuming it worked perfectly, would it really be providing something fantastic worth the cost of the extra fiddlyness, both in terms of chargen and table-use? I suppose with a deep enough database and a searchable spreadsheet, the handling time could be sufficiently reduced to be a non-factor (especially with practice)...but I’m not sure I see the great “gain” here. More PC-NPC interaction than what you’re currently getting? Players feeling they have a better option than going for the sword?

I don’t know. Maybe my past experience with the conflict cards are coloring my perception here, but I’m not terribly enthused at the prospect.

Alexis Smolensk said...

To be quite honest, JB, I tend to agree with your take.

Put another way, are the intricacies of player-NPC interactions worth codifying to the point where they are reduced to gambling against odds to produce results. Is there not enough of that in the game already?

When I conceived of the system, in the days of 2011 yore, there were many things about the game that [surprising to me] I did not know. I know that most DMs who play for as long as I have come to a point of stagnation, where they cease looking for understanding in a game they've already played for decades ... but I am not those DMs. In the last seven years I have written How to Run, which was as educational for me as it was for any of my readers; I have vastly increased the sage system; I've dug deep into game design and purpose; I have been transformed by the mass production of sprawling wiki; and I've changed many of my opinions about players on the internet due to personal one-on-one conversations with people at game cons. There has been much growth on this end ... and as such, I'm less inclined to think that "role-playing" has nearly as much importance to the actual play of the game than I did back in the day.

Oh, I know EVERYONE thinks it does ... but it is clear to me that EVERYONE is grasping at straws, not understanding the fundamental appeal of the game, struggling to make it interactive without knowing what that means, and searching for something "new" in an environment where the only thing that most people can comprehend is whatever drivelling masturbation that falls out of the gamer's mouth. After decades of kill the monster, steal from the monster gaming, role-playing SEEMS like a huge advance. But it is a dead-end.


Alexis Smolensk said...

I can't help seeing all this non-specific, lacking in detail glorification of the WONDERS of role-playing in the modern age of table-top gaming, a wisp that everyone claims to embrace but which no one seems to accurately describe, is a desperate grab for relevancy, for gamers who are too tired, too troubled, too lazy or otherwise too narcissistic to eschew in favor of something that requires, you know, work. Reeking videos proliferate online how to "make worlds" by drawing lines on paper or making up stories, without the slightest hint of how prep-method A manages to morph into play-master B. But this is what they've got in their pocket, and by GAWD they're going to lord it over all the little people who keep wondering what they hell they're actually supposed to do when running a game.

It was inevitable, I think, that I would come up with some solution to the conflict card madness that I concocted out of my own attempt to codify this desperate role-playing culture that spat on roll-playing. But I will be honest: over the years, I have grown less and less interested in the whole debacle. I think that, with some effort, the idea could be turned into one hell of a video game, one that freed the dialogue of cut scenes from drop down boxes, once some genius came up with an algorithm about what people were allowed to talk about based on their actual in-game knowledge. But for myself, and where I am in this game, I don't feel any inclination to move forward on a new conflict card system. I don't believe I will.

As Ozymandias points out, the sage abilities system already seems to provide a unique, fluid, shifting framework for dialogue and game-play, without needing die rolls or such to lock the idea down. Since I don't give experience for role-playing, and since I'm not interested in letting some player TALK their way into great success as an adventure (an idea that, in fact, sickens me, particularly in light of meeting such persons in, say, the workplace, who seem incapable of getting down to work as they obsequiously attempt to obtain mobility through flattery in the hopes of cronyism), there's actually no need for me to create rules to limit players in my game who want to role-play. Role-play, in my game, is icing; it is fun, it happens spontaneously, it sets up the next moment of fear that must be resolved by standing up in combat and it is, essentially, harmless where it comes to creating powerful characters.

So I can leave it as it. It doesn't need a rule set.

James Clark said...

Your concluding statement is ultimately where I ended up on the matter as well Alexis. I found that both Conflict! (which I used in my own game very briefly) and then my own subsequent attempts at codifying the spontaneous "play" of ROLE playing resembled one trying to grab smoke and expecting it to remain smoke-like. The video-game algorithm you described would only replace what actual people can already do naturally for video games lacking enough people.