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[Alternity] Conflict Resolution saved my game!

Started by James_Nostack, February 19, 2005, 07:28:42 PM

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My campaign was dying a slow, slow death... until Conflict Resolution brought it back to life!  Hallelujah!  Examples to follow, when I have time.

My campaign has mostly been a kind of "A Team"-meets-"Futurama" technothriller in a very future-shocked setting; the heroes are spies, diplomats, or mercenaries depending on the situation at hand: fightin' space pirates, clinching a critical business deal, or running industrial espionage.  We were having a ton of fun.

But over the last six months of play (10 sessions?) things have slowed to a crawl.  The heroes, instead of dealing with crazed clones or memes run amok, are smack in the middle of an interplanetary Cold War, and are trying desperately to establish peace, in spite of a dictator conspiring to undermine them at every turn.  Everyone is emotionally engaged in this--but play itself has become this terrible drudgery of "What do you want to do?  I dunno, what do you want to do?"

The typical way I've been taught to handle blockage like this is to throw complications at players.  So: one session, an assassin kills one of the PC's.  In another, their own misdeeds are exposed to the entire solar system via Space CNN.  Then a trusted friend turns out to be a spy.  Then one of the more feisty PC's gets arrested for subversive activities, and the others have to organize a mass protest to get him released.  (This is all part of the "Empire Strikes Back" phase of the campaign.)

None of this worked.  I got pretty bummed out; here was this formerly fun game that was going nowhere!  I even wrote a thread about it, calling it a Post-Mortem as if the game were doomed.

A week ago it struck me: what if the problem isn't the plot, but the way they have to solve plot elements?  Given the enormity of the problems they're facing, the players could be overwhelmed with Task Resolution--you need to do sooooo much to work your way out of a hole this deep.

So: with minimal preparation, I ran the game today using Conflict Resolution.

Verdict: WHOA!

This is like the scene in the monster movies when the lightning strikes to animate Frankenstein's Monster.  In this session the players started a world war, took over a university, blackmailed this embezzler... into embezzling some more, evacuated a hospital under false pretenses, and generally got more done--and risked more--than they have in the last 3 months.

It was a blast.  I'll post more details later.  Thanks, crazy Forge theorists!  Three people had a lot of fun today thanks to you!



GM: Okay, we've been deadlocked on this space station for some time as you guys ponder and second-guess your next moves.  Let's try it like this: instead of fretting about what to do next, what is your immediate goal?

Players: Darn it, we hate that evil governor.  He framed us for the genocide, and now everybody hates us.  So: our goal is to make people understand that he committed that genocide, not us.

GM: Whoa.  Honestly, that will be a huge adjustment to my own views on the campaign, and something that ambitious will cost ya.  Let me think about the risks involved.  In the meantime, how do you intend to accomplish this goal?

Player 1: We're gonna do a hard-hitting expos/e of this guy: we've got tons of evidence.  So we'll put something together that gives incontrovertible proof.

Player 2: Hey, Player 3's old character was present for those events, right?  Let's retrieve his cryogenically frozen corpse and upload the video footage from his cybernetic eye!

GM: (jaw drops at the coolness of this makes note to give playes substantial bonus for nifty idea) Okay, I thought of the risk.  If you roll well, everyone will see the governor as the monster that he is, and you'll have accomplished a huge part of the campaign.  But the danger is, your documentary may end up serving propaganda purposes in the Cold War and incite both sides into open hostilities and a declaration of war.  Sound good?

Player 1:  Aw man!  That is intense.  But there's no way Player 3's new character would agree to those stakes.

Player 2: Yeah well, too bad Player 3's not here!  Let's roll!

(mechanics happen)


1.  The actual discussion took about an hour on-line, which I would have found pretty darn boring using Task Resolution.  But it was kind of cool to use Conflict Resolution because for that whole hour you knew something huge was on the line.

2.  The scope of what they were attempting would have made this almost impossible using Task Resolution.  Under the Alternity system this would have been an extraordinarily difficult Complex Skill check (difficult partly because it's a hard thing to do Sim-wise, and also because I would want to protect the Archvillain from an unexpected narrative attack like this).  Also, there would have been no serious risk of failure: if they screw up, well, they haven't really lost much.  So it's not just hard, it's uninteresting.

3.  Technically the Worlds at War outcome doesn't threaten the PC's, but they've really gotten hosed lately and there's no way I can threaten them directly any more.  So, unable to mess them up directly, I put the world around them at risk.

4.  Player 1 seemed to have a little confusion about the role of Player 3 here.  True, Player 3's new pacifist character would never accept those risks... but Conflict Resolution isn't about what the characters want, it's about what the players want.  Player 3 may roleplay a sweet li'l peacenik, but that doesn't stop the player himself from wanting blood, blood, blood (which allows the peacenik to get several spotlights).

5.  Graverobbing your cyborg bodyguard's cryogenically frozen body to steal the data in his eyeball.  It doesn't get better than this.


I love the kind of things that the players will invent when you stop asking them "What do you think is the reasonable next step to your goals?" and start asking them "What do you, as players, want to have happen?"

Because, really, that whole corpsicle-eyeball thing... what would you even roll for that on Task Resolution?  I think it's fair to say that if a game designer included rules for that then they are one very sick puppy.

Glad to see that you're liking the new mode!
Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum


Quote from: TonyLBBecause, really, that whole corpsicle-eyeball thing... what would you even roll for that on Task Resolution?  I think it's fair to say that if a game designer included rules for that then they are one very sick puppy.

Sadly I can think of at least three different ways to handle that in Alternity...

QuoteGlad to see that you're liking the new mode!
My only complaint is that by its very nature Conflict Resolution is very "meta."  It's not the least bit immersive, because you're constantly talking OOC to negotiate risks and pay-offs, and some effort has to be used to play a role, in the way that term has been traditionally understood.  

In this case I permitted players to earn bonuses to the roll through atmospheric narration, ingenious ideas, or roleplaying the character well.  Turns out ghoulish eyeball-info gets you a "3 step" bonus in this system.


Do you have any sense of how much of your trouble with having to talk OOC and all that was due to Conflict Resolution itself, and how much was due to the ruleset you were applying?

Come to think of it, what ruleset were you using?
Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum


Quote from: TonyLBDo you have any sense of how much of your trouble with having to talk OOC and all that was due to Conflict Resolution itself, and how much was due to the ruleset you were applying?

Come to think of it, what ruleset were you using?

We were using Alternity, with the dice mechanic discussed in this Forge thread.  Handling time is pretty low because we've been playing together for a very long time.  Naturally there's a little bit of OOC ("What are my mods on this roll?" "1d6 penalty"), but we're used to that.  

There were some slight modifications to account for "flavorful" play, narration rights, and reverting to Task Resolution in the case of dire emergency, ala Bringing Down the Pain in Shadow of Yesterday.

What was noticeable about Conflict Resolution--not good, not bad, just noticeable--is that the OOC stuff is more frequent and sustained, because it requires a conversation about what's at stake.  This isn't a problem for me, but it's a slight adjustment: it's unusual to be consciously aware of the "player level" the whole time.


GM: (some time has passed from the previous example) Actions?

Players: Okay, remember that time we found financial documents proving that Embezzler Joe was an embezzler?  And that he stole money from the Emperess's treasury to help his political party?

GM: (rolls eyes at the resuscitation of this unintentionally boring subplot) Yeah yeah yeah.  Right.  I see where you're going.  You wanna do what you were talking about a few weeks ago: blackmail him so his political party is on your side.

Sigh!  Okay, I've got nothin' storywise for this goal.  It succeeds automatically.

Players: Cool!  The thing is, that isn't want we wanted to do: we want to blackmail him into embezzling from the Emperess's treasure hoard again... so he can buy a planet for us.  

GM: (does double take; realizes he should have asked about goals instead of actions)  Umm.  Okay, that's not an automatic success then.  Sorry.  Let me see...  If you succeed, you get a planet.  If you fail, the Emperess catches him and he blames you, since you're already the pariahs of the solar system.  Since she's the only one sheltering you from your enemies, you'll be hunted down like dogs once you leave.  Sound fair?

Players: Yeah.

(mechanics happen)

Players: Hooray!  Let's choose continents!


1.  This was resolved much faster than the first example due to mechanical reasons.

2.  I made a major blunder initially by using my old habit of asking for actions, instead of asking for goals instead.  Also, I assumed too much about player intentions.

3.  In general, the "Eh, I've got nothing" rule is a great time saver.  You do it, case closed.  In this particular case, Embezzler Joe was a subplot that never went anywhere, and I was bored with him cluttering up the players' conceptual field.  The "blackmail the support of this political party" goal didn't interest me much, so I was willing to grant it automatically.

4.  Thanks to the players being greedy little blackmailers, however, they turned Embezzler Joe from a lifeless subplot to someone who has significantly altered the nature of the campaign.


Okay, but... were you still using Alternity to resolve things at Conflict Resolution levels?  From what I've read, that sounds like it could be a pretty serious retooling of the game system.

You keep saying "Mechanics ensue" after people have declared the Stakes of the Conflict.  So are those Alternity mechanics, or something else?
Just published: Capes
New Project:  Misery Bubblegum



First, I'm also curious to see how you're using Alternity, since I always liked the game, even though it's kind of weird.  

It seems to me though that you're conflating Conflict Resolution with some other things, namely (1) a big scale and (2) deciding to consider what the players want directly, rather than focusing on the characters.  I mean, it seems like you're using all of these to good effect, but that the scale issue has been most critical to the turn-around, since time is such a problem.  Is that a fair assessment? If you're still having any problems, maybe you could mix and match some more -- maybe go back to character-based goals, say, while keeping conflict resolution and a big scale.
Jasper McChesney
Primeval Games Press


Dipping into mechanics, though I should warn you that I don't actually know what Conflict Resolution is.  It's a term I've heard tossed around on the Forge, and some helpful people in the Indie Netgaming channel talked about it with me.  But basically this is "cargo cult" Conflict Resolution.  I'd appreciate feedback or suggestions for improvement.

Typical Alternity Play, i.e. Task Resolution
0.  GM asks players for actions.

1.  Players announce activity.  "Let's blackmail Embezzler Joe!"

2.  GM decides: realistically, would this be an automatic success?  "Hmm: he's not gonna like that.  You'll have to roll for it."

3.  GM decides: is this a Simple Skill Check (only one roll needed), or a Complex Skill Check (multiple rolls needed for each stage of the process)?     Designing a website is a simple programming check, but building an Artificial Intelligence would be dauntingly Complex.  Though some cases might be borderline, in play making the distinction is never a problem.  Note that the Alternity rulebooks view the distinction almost exclusively in Simulationist terms: is this something that, realistically, involves a lot of discrete steps over a long period of time?  "Eh, this blackmail stuff is a simple skill check.  Buying the planet once you have the money would definitely be a complex financial transaction."

4.  Situational modifiers are assigned.  Examples: telescopic rifle sight would give "1 step bonus" to shooting check.  A sizeable law library would give a bonus to law checks.  A very headstrong NPC would impose penalties on checks to influence him; whereas having done a favor for him some time in the past might give a bonus.  "All right: because Embezzler Joe fears you already, that's a small bonus, but because what you're asking him to do is so extreme there's a heavy penalty.  This nets to a slight penalty."

5.  Dice are rolled.  "Simple skill check at slight difficulty: roll 1d20 + 1d4.  Hooray, we blackmailed him successfully!"

Modified Alternity Play, emphasis on Conflict Resolution
0. GM asks players for goals, and an idea on how to accomplish them.

1.  Players reply.  "We want to buy a planet by blackmailing Embezzler Joe again."

2.  GM/players decide if this is cool enough to merit a roll.  If nobody can think of how to exploit a failure to further the story, it succeeds automatically because a failure wouldn't be interesting.  "Okay, that sounds interesting, let's do this."

3.  Players and GM discuss pay-off and risk.  After some back-and-forth, a consensus is reached.  "Okay, if you win, you get a planet.  If you lose, you're driven out of here like outlaws and everyone in the solar system tries to hunt you down."

4.  Everything starts out as a Simple Skill Check (in theory, just one roll is required).

5.  Modifiers are assigned.  This can be the usual situational modifiers, like having a telecopic sight on your rifle.  But it can also be any "flavorful" play--atmospheric narration, hitting character traits, touching on key themes, etc.  "Oooh, okay, I like that bit about the corpse's video footage: that gets you a huge bonus due to coolness."

6.  A single roll is made, using the modifiers in Step 5.

6A.  If the players succeed, the GM narrates the outcome, making sure that they at least accomplish their goal.  "Hmmm...(interpreting an especially good roll)... Okay, Embezzler Joe is terrified of what madmen like you would do to him; he'll do anything to get you off his back.  After several weeks of frantic financial dealings, he hands the deed to this virgin world over to you."

6B.  If the players lose.... well, they have some options.

7.  Upon a failure, the players can choose to narrate the outcome.  Or they can initiate a Complex Skill Check, which reverts the game to Task Resolution momentarily.  This is intended to mimic the "Bringing Down the Pain" mechanic in The Shadow of Yesterday, where if you're unhappy with the result of Conflict Resolution you can slip into Task-based stuff.

The really significant difference comes at Step 0: asking for goals is an important psychological shift, and I'm surprised mainstream RPG's haven't realized the difference.  "What do you do next?" fosters a completely different style of play than "What do you want next?"

Haven't tested this out in combat yet.


Update: March 12

So, we gave these rules another shot yesterday, and it wasn't nearly as successful.  The session wasn't any worse than some of my slower ones using Task Resolution, but it wasn't as wild and crazy as the last time around.  There were several reasons for that:

1.  I had a story prepared with some bangs involving a trip to one character's homeworld, but that player couldn't make it.  I felt bad about running part of "his" story without him, so we went with some second-rate stuff on a different world, for which I had no bangs prepared.  Even if things had gone perfectly, this wouldn't have been a gripping story.  

2.  The players tried to use the rules to go back to Task Resolution style.  Instead of, "We discover the bad guy's weaknesses," they got scared of the risk ("he'll discover yours") and scaled-down to, "We find somebody who knows the bad guy's weaknesses," and so on.  I didn't press them to think bigger.  

I suspect part of the problem is that they naturally gravitate to a snail's pace, "What if this happens?  Uh oh, we'd better plan for that too!  Oooh, or this could happen, let's stop and re-think everything" type of deal.  I, on the other hand, want to wrap up the campain in the next 6 sessions, which implies a lightning pace.  (And therefore putting more at stake.)

The good thing about the rules is that the players understand how flavorful narration can help their rolls.  They also understood about renegotiating what's at stake to scale up or scale down.  I think the problem was that (a) I didn't hold their asses in the fire with nasty, nasty bangs, and (b) without that pressure they're really not big-time gamblin' men.

Anyway: I may end up stealing the "default scale, players can move it by one notch" type of thing from Trollbabe, though I'm not sure what's a good default scale to resolve a story in 3 hours of play.

Callan S.

Quote from: James_Nostack2.  The players tried to use the rules to go back to Task Resolution style.  Instead of, "We discover the bad guy's weaknesses," they got scared of the risk ("he'll discover yours") and scaled-down to, "We find somebody who knows the bad guy's weaknesses," and so on.  I didn't press them to think bigger.
I think your reward/penalty was too even to excite drastic action.

For example, the embezzling means they either get a planet or they are chased by cops. Frankly, they are both rewards. Being chased just leads to more high jinx and fun conflict choices.

Here, to learn the bad guys weakness, they had to risk him learning their weakness. That just nails them. It would be like in the above conflict, if you suggested that they are instantly incarcerated rather than being chased.

Thinking on it, the risk you suggest needs to be is another conflict in itself. Ie, if you fail this conflict, it leads to another conflict. Your not caught, your on the run. He doesn't know your weakness, but he's about to steal some documents that will tell him.

So the reward is some resolved event, while the risk is actually another conflict. I think the 'the enemy knows your weakness' is only a resolved event.
Philosopher Gamer


Quote from: JasperIf you're still having any problems, maybe you could mix and match some more -- maybe go back to character-based goals, say, while keeping conflict resolution and a big scale.

I think this is a great idea that can be applied directly to your situation, James.

I've played in big-scale, conflict-oriented campaigns before and felt similar to how you describe above. I missed all the smaller details of roleplaying a scene and figuring out what happened on that smaller scale. Like Jasper, I don't think the two are exclusive to either Conflict or Task Resolution.

One game I ran (Hyborea-HeroQuest), a player's character had been poisoned by a giant spider. The spider had put a serious hurt on the character and he was pretty much beyond the Incapacitated state and on his way to the Happy Hunting Grounds at the end of the session.

This was a character with a Destiny ability that eventually morphed into its own kind of keyword. So, his initial reaction of understandable displeasure was "So much for my destiny! Guess I'll roll up another character..."

At this point my "Decent GM" mode took over and I remembered a bit of what Ron Edwards had written about non-linear play in Sorcerer & Sword, as well as how he suggested things like Destiny be handled. In a nutshell, things like player death (or near-death) don't negate a Destiny or survival, they just up the stakes on what the character is willing to give (or risk) to achieve that destiny.

So, taking Conflict Resolution mode on a big scale, I asked: "What do you want to happen?"

The player replied: "I want my character to live!"

Which followed with the question of "Mkay, now, how do you want to do that?"

And at that point we began the story, knowing full well that, in the end, his character would live. The fun was in figuring out how.

So, we decided the meta-game info up front by asking the big question. And then we settled into the small details of role-playing the travel to a well-known sorceress, the making of a dark deal with heavy future repercussions and one of the other players forsaking his clan and family in fulfillment of said deal.

At the end, the characters got exactly what they wanted. But, by the means they took to achieve that, they all unanimously stated: "Man, we are so going to hell..." The fun wasn't in achieving their goal. That was determined up front in a meta-game context. The fun was in knowing that they were going to achieve their goal but wondering how in the world they were going to do so facing the odds in front of them.

That said, HeroQuest is pretty much a system where resolution on all scales works smoother in a conflict frame-of-mind. So, moving from one scale to another during play seemed pretty intuitive.

If only I could GM like that all the time...


P.S. I'm not trying to hijack the thread here. I just wanted to give a brief example of how you could slide the scale in play to get the effects you want. For example, you could go ahead and have them roll up whether or not they get to succeed at the meta-conflict. Then, knowing the results, your group could roleplay how they get from Point A in the story to the specified Point B of the meta-conflict.

IME, knowing what's going to happen isn't necessarily a plot-breaker, oftentimes it can be a "deal with the devil" sort of situation (as in my example) where the PCs pull out all the stops, knowing that they have to somehow succeed at their task. And sometimes it's like a "Sword of Damocles". If the PCs know that their deal isn't going to go through, they don't know why or what the consequences will be.

Who catches them? What will they do?

That said, I think the group will determine best which conflicts are deserving of an in-depth treatment. Sometimes it's just a notion (or a lightbulb) that a meta-conflict would make an interesting story that spurs a change of scale.

For instance, the players wanting to scale down to "protect their weaknesses" is a sign that the scale should shift at that point in the story, I think. The players are more interested in this part of the story, so we down-shift and roleplay it.

That doesn't mean that you necessarily have to go back to Task Resolution, such as "I use Diplomacy to convince the guard to let me look at the computer hard-drive" but rather that Conflict Resolution scales down to smaller and smaller conflicts. The operative questions, I think, are asking the players "What do you want to happen?" and then (if necessary) "How do you want to make that happen?" I think those questions will naturally lead you to whatever scale the group wants to play at.

So, for instance, when a player states:

Quote"We find somebody who knows the bad guy's weaknesses."

You know that the scale is down-shifting and can follow up with "How?" or "Who do you know that you think might be a good source for this information?", all the while thinking of some Bang or somewhat that will help to spike the conflict.

Then when the players come back with "Ooo, you remember that Telepath on Zeta Prime..." (Sorry, excuse my example, I only played in Alternity briefly, very briefly, years ago.

You can reply with some kind of conflict, obstacle or Bang to meet them head on. Such as the telepath being held by a big crime lord for having psi-sex with the crime lord's mistress and the PCs having to figure out some way to get to him. Which can down-shift the game to an even smaller scale when the players try to con their way into the crime lord's outpost... or try to break in... or something. I think it's still okay to make them roleplay their way through some of these events. Immersion is something I frequently miss in big-scale sessions, which often seem to me like a group of people hashing out a plot for a TV show. Make them climb that security wall. Or seduce that book-keeper. Or hijack that freighter. Throw in something like the mistress being a long, lost relative of a PC, or knowing the whereabouts of one (if that's an element in the game) and you're off to the races! Just because they already know what's supposed to happen, doesn't mean that getting there can't still be a lot of fun.

Sorry for the long postscript. I tend to ramble... It's a problem of typing faster than my mind can catch up...


Quote from: NoonThinking on it, the risk you suggest needs to be is another conflict in itself. Ie, if you fail this conflict, it leads to another conflict... So the reward is some resolved event, while the risk is actually another conflict. I think the 'the enemy knows your weakness' is only a resolved event.

This insight is very helpful, thank you.  I'll try to keep it in mind.

Callan S.

Now I've seen it myself, I'll keep it in mind too.

One of the reasons I post is that it often helps me to help myself, too! :)
Philosopher Gamer