Author Topic: [Soth] Is my conflict resolution procedure broken?  (Read 1056 times)

Steve Hickey

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[Soth] Is my conflict resolution procedure broken?
« on: April 23, 2015, 12:03:26 AM »
Soth is my game about cultists trying to summon a dark god in small-town USA, while trying to stop their family and neighbours from getting suspicious. It's a diceless RPG that takes a lot of inspiration from Apocalypse World's MC moves.

One of the trickiest part of the game is the procedure for dealing with conflicts. I have a process that works well for me when I run the game, and I've been trying to explain it in simple language.

I thought I'd pitch it here and check:
• Are there any areas where it's fundamentally broken, that I'm too close to see?
• Is it understandable? Were there any points you couldn't follow?
• Are there any areas that are redundant?

The full procedure is in this 5 1/2 page .pdf: Soth - Conflict text

I've put a summary below. But first, some game terms:

Keeper: the GM role
Cultist: the generic term for the characters you play
Investigators: Investigators are NPCs that try to uncover what the cultists are doing and then stop them.
Suspicion: a resource the Keeper spends in order to have an Investigator take an action
Clarity: a score that only increases. Cultists with high Clarity has trouble interacting with non-cultists without increasing Suspicion
Supporting characters: every NPC who isn't a cultist or an Investigator.

- - -

RESOLVING CONFLICTS: SUMMARY

A conflict is initiated if a player feels their character absolutely has to stop the actions of another cultist, supporting character, or Investigator.

Establish a clear vision of the situation
• The Keeper establishes current location (the environment and where the character, inside that environment).
• The Keeper and players describe their characters' single intended action (at level of character who's acting fastest). For instance, if someone is sneaking around a building and another person is preparing to fire a gun, everyone describes what their characters are doing in the time it takes to aim and pull the trigger.
• Everyone revises their intended actions (in response to each others' declarations) until actions are finalised.

Establish the order of actions
• The Keeper establishes the action order for the characters involved in the conflict
  ... Does someone clearly act next based on the logic of the scene?
  ... Does someone clearly act next based on what’s happened in the conflict so far? Compare characters' skills, current positions, and relevant personal attributes. Assess existing injuries.
• Does anyone seize the initiative (to trump the action order and go first)? This costs cultists 1 Clarity (i.e. their Clarity increases) and it costs Investigators 4 Suspicion.
• If no-one wants to act, either:
  ... have a supporting character take action
  ... take an action from the 'Make the cultists' lives as difficult as they deserve' list
  ... end the conflict.

Establish the effects of each action
• Players narrate their character's action.
• Keeper describes the action's effect, establishing an injury or other fictional consequence.
• To change an action 'smoothly', seize the initiative. Otherwise, changing an action puts the character at a disadvantage in the fiction

Ending a conflict
• Repeat until characters are either unwilling or unable to oppose each other, or until the situation stalemates or changes so dramatically that it creates another, more urgent conflict.

David Berg

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Re: [Soth] Is my conflict resolution procedure broken?
« Reply #1 on: April 26, 2015, 05:41:44 PM »
Hi Steve,

I don't find any parts redundant.  Regarding comprehension and brokenness, here are my responses as I read it:

A conflict is initiated if a player feels their character absolutely has to stop the actions of another cultist, supporting character, or Investigator.
"Absolutely has to" is unusual language.  I'll check the full doc to see if it's significant, but for now I assume you just mean "tries to".

Establish a clear vision of the situation
Okay, pretty standard, but good to have it stated.  The real question for me is, "How?"  The traditional RPG approach of "figure it out yourself" has been deemed sufficient often enough, but it certainly has its pitfalls, so I'm hoping for more here.

• The Keeper establishes current location (the environment
I can't tell whether this means we establish conflict intents before scene framing, or whether this bullet just refers back to what will previously have been done in order to play the scene the conflict emerged from.

and where the character, inside that environment).
I assume this should be "where the character is".  I also assume this refers to an NPC.  We need to know where the Cultist is too, right?  I assume their player establishes that.  Who establishes where who is first?  If this positioning matters, then how it gets established matters.

• The Keeper and players describe their characters' single intended action (at level of character who's acting fastest). For instance, if someone is sneaking around a building and another person is preparing to fire a gun, everyone describes what their characters are doing in the time it takes to aim and pull the trigger.
This is interesting.  Not sure if I get the point, but I'd happily try it and find out.  Note: this step is only possible pending successful resolution of the previous steps.  If we have any uncertainty remaining about who started doing what first and other issues of synchronization, then we have no idea exactly what stage I'm at while you're pulling the trigger.

• Everyone revises their intended actions (in response to each others' declarations) until actions are finalised.
There had better be a procedure in the full text for this.  Otherwise, an infinite loop of, "Oh, if you're doing that, then never mind, I'll change and do this," is possible.  In fact, if the goal here is to get one's way over the opposition, I'd go beyond "possible" to "likely".

Establish the order of actions
• The Keeper establishes the action order for the characters involved in the conflict
  ... Does someone clearly act next based on the logic of the scene?
No.  Real life happens simultaneously, and it will never be "clear" which unfolding actions occur in which order.  If "logic of the scene" means "GM's judgment of what's dramatically interesting", then that's fine, but say that!  Similarly, if the GM simply judges who goes first according to their own vision of in-fiction causality, and screw what anyone else thinks (as long as the GM is making a good faith effort), then that's workable too, but make it clear that that's what's going on here.

  ... Does someone clearly act next based on what’s happened in the conflict so far? Compare characters' skills, current positions, and relevant personal attributes. Assess existing injuries.
I like that a basis for the GM's judgment calls is established here.  Unfortunately, skills, attributes and injuries can do no more than serve as tie-breakers if fictional positioning is causal here.  If fictional positioning mattes, my earlier concerns apply.

• Does anyone seize the initiative (to trump the action order and go first)? This costs cultists 1 Clarity (i.e. their Clarity increases) and it costs Investigators 4 Suspicion.
Sounds like going first could be important!  If the GM simply dictates this important thing, be sure you have buy-in to that system first!

• If no-one wants to act, either:
  ... have a supporting character take action
  ... take an action from the 'Make the cultists' lives as difficult as they deserve' list
  ... end the conflict.

Establish the effects of each action
• Players narrate their character's action.
Sounds fine.

• Keeper describes the action's effect, establishing an injury or other fictional consequence.
What's the GM's rationale for such decisions?  "GM decides what happens" might not yield much for all our preceding efforts at establishing what's what.  If this system were simplified to "players announce intent and task, GM declares action order, players narrate their actions on turn, GM decides what happens," would anything be lost?

• To change an action 'smoothly', seize the initiative. Otherwise, changing an action puts the character at a disadvantage in the fiction

Ending a conflict
• Repeat until characters are either unwilling or unable to oppose each other, or until the situation stalemates or changes so dramatically that it creates another, more urgent conflict.
Sounds fine.  Take my simplified formulation above, add on, "you can spend to act early or to change your stated task without penalty (changing without spending means the GM will give you a disadvantage)," and perhaps you're covered?

The initial fiction-establishing steps and the responsive action-revisions don't seem like a match to me.  If it comes down to "GM decides, spend to revise", why not establish "here's what I want and my first plan to get it" for each Cultist very quickly?  I get how the fictional particulars can (and perhaps should) factor into the GM's judgment calls, but in my experience those can be established as needed by the GM asking relevant questions in the moment of decision.

*********************************************************************************************************

I hope all that was useful in terms of crafting your presentation. 

As for the system itself, I'll go read your full conflict document now...

*********************************************************************************************************

Okay, I like the doc a lot better.  I think the "why" behind every step is much clearer.  It also leads me to believe that conflicts emerge from within scenes, and that the GM "establishing" where the characters are (including Cultists) is really the GM acting as consensus-facilitator.  If I'm correct on that, I'd re-word your bullet point summary to make that clear.

I am unclear on the point of identifying the quickest action and then narrating every action on that time scale.  Let me take a guess:

Once we know what every character is up to, we can compare their endeavors to see which will finish first.  We will then use that order to resolve them in play.

If you try to stab me while I'm weaving a complicated spell, I narrate the tiny fraction of the spell I complete during the stab in order to establish my position upon the completion of the stab, when I may change what I'm doing.  Right?

I'm not sure how to make that clearer, but I'd try if I were you.

I'm still getting thrown off by the "listen to each other and revise what you're doing" phase.  It strikes me as completely antithetical to the rest of your "assess the fiction and go from that" m.o.  Perhaps your intent here is that players shouldn't initiate an action only to have subsequent fictional details revealed that make it nonsensical?  If so, I think there's a better way to do that: let the GM consensus-facilitating phase cover it.  You already say "establishes where each character is and what they're doing" -- I'd say that "what they're doing" is all you need.  Move straight from there to evaluating time scales, and straight from time scales to resolution.

Here's how I'd handle each unit of resolution: at each time scale, the person acting slowest talks first, narrating the part of their action they complete before the quicker action finishes.  So if we have one character throwing a punch, another character loading a revolver, and a third character assembling a Jenga tower, we go like this:

GM: "Punch time-scale!"

Jenga: "No interruption spend.  I place three blocks on the table."

Gun: "No interruption spend.  I place two bullets in their chambers."

Punch: "I punch him in the arm, trying to mess up his gun-loading!"

GM: "You strike a mighty blow!  1 Injury.  However, you are small, so he isn't bowled over, and he is strong, so he doesn't lose his grip on the gun.  Alright, next will be gun-loading time scale, unless someone does something quicker!"

Jenga: "Nope.  Still building."

Gun: "Nope.  Still loading."

Punch: "I'm not just going to stand here and drool while he loads.  I hit him again!  This time with a kick!"

GM: "Alright, kick time-scale!"

Jenga: "Three more blocks."

Gun: "Two more bullets.  That's 4 of the 6 chambers."

Punch: "I kick him in the knee to knock him down."

Is this more or less how things go in actual play?

Ps,
-David

Steve Hickey

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Re: [Soth] Is my conflict resolution procedure broken?
« Reply #2 on: April 30, 2015, 01:03:31 AM »
David, thank you for that well-considered feedback.

A lot of what you've said, I agree with. I'm just going to take your notes into my rewrite and consider them or just outright make the changes. I'm sure as I go deeper into your notes, I'll have more questions!

There are three general areas I wanted to expand on:
- The Keeper's agenda
- The potential 'infinite loop' problem with stating intentions
- The quickest timescale process


The Keeper's Agenda

This is a diceless, distant-cousin of Apocalypse World. I thought I'd describe the Keeper's Agenda in Soth. It affects how the Keeper establishes the order of actions and how the Keeper describes an action's effect. Here's what I say in the game:

As Keeper, you aren't in competition with the players. You aren't trying to stop the cultists from summoning Soth—although that can easily happen if the cultists' actions raise the suspicions of the people around them.

Instead, you decide on the consequences of the cultists’ actions. I use a metaphor of ‘rock-climbing’ to describe the players' and the Keeper's activities while playing Soth:

* The players are climbing to reach the top of the cliff. They're trying to figure out their cultists' best next move and dealing with sudden set-backs.
* The Keeper is ‘gravity’: relentless, always present, and making sure any mistake a cultist makes has consequences.

In play, I find this creates a "thriller" atmosphere. Everything is very grounded and logical. Mistakes, harm and bad things don't happen because of Murphy's Law; they happen because of carelessness or an honest assessment of the situation.


An infinite loop of intention-stating?

I took the 'everyone states their intentions and then amends' procedure from the 'Free and Clear' phase in Sorcerer. In play, I've found that it works fine: players do very little revision.

That said, I'm going to really think about (and test) this: your suggestion about the GM establishing those intentions seems reasonable.
On a first think-through, my only concern is that I'd like the procedure to be consistent if a conflict goes for multiple rounds.


Why do I have a process for handling different timescales

The way you've imagined handling the 'quickest timeframe' aspect of the actions isn't how I run it. I'm going to think on that a bit more deeply: your procedure feels a bit more complicated than I want … but it could also be a perfect way of iterating through 'rounds' of a conflict really quickly.

But the main thing I take from your feedback here is it's unclear why you'd identify the quickest action.

I'm trying to establish that a 'round' of a conflict isn't a fixed amount of time (like, they're not 60-second or 6-second turns). The length of a round is determined by the  questions of "Who is going to complete an action fastest? How much stuff will everyone else in the conflict accomplish during that time?"

--  --  --

Thank you again for all of this. I really appreciate it :)

David Berg

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Re: [Soth] Is my conflict resolution procedure broken?
« Reply #3 on: April 30, 2015, 02:05:43 PM »
Hi Steve,

I'm glad some of my feedback was interesting -- I hope it proves useful to the game!

Regarding the "amend actions" procedure, I suspect the issue is at least partly one of emphasis.  Knowing that people at your table don't use it much makes a difference, I think.  There may be a way for you to both (a) keep it if you want and (b) let readers know that this procedure isn't intended to do much (any?) of the crucial work of establishing what's what in terms of advantageous positioning; that instead it's intended to avoid accidental nonsense or miscommunication.  (Or whatever its actual purpose is.)  At the same time, spending more words on this procedure in your document will only increase its apparent importance, so I'd go for either brevity or some sort of footnote-type format.  (Or perhaps I'm misunderstanding why it exists.)

As for my timescale example, I hope it only seems complicated because stuff that flows quickly and naturally in conversation is often awkward to write and read.  But if there are genuine, significant discrepancies here, I'd like to know what they are! 

Quote
The length of a round is determined by the  questions of "Who is going to complete an action fastest? How much stuff will everyone else in the conflict accomplish during that time?"

I totally get that, and it sounds cool to me.  So where does my vision differ from your play?  Do you do the turn-taking thing, where player 2 gets to finish his action after player 1 has taken one turn, regardless of whether the fiction would allow player 1 to act again before player 2's action completes?  If so, I'd present that system differently in the text.

Keeper agenda...  My own experience with AW GM tools (and thoughts from comparing them to other GM advice in practice) is that the agendas are a great initial wake-up call for GMs who may not be accustomed to an AW-appropriate orientation, but that after that, it's the list of concrete things for the GM to do that really aids play.  So, for me, "GM plays gravity" is nice to know, but only if actionable rules/instructions for "how to do that, specifically" follow.

Ps,
-David