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Task vs. Conflict Resolution – Saying it for my group

Started by Halzebier, November 29, 2005, 09:35:36 PM

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We've had a big (though perfectly ameniable) discussion in our DSA group the other night (DSA's a German FRPG).

Our fantasy heroes tried to cross a ledge to get to the other side of a ravine. The GM asked for a climb check at –4 from the first character (who wanted to stake a rope on the other side). The character failed. The GM asked for a Reflex save. That failed, too. The GM ruled that the character fell, but only to the end of the safety rope, and took a very minor amount of damage. The other characters pulled up the climber and he tried again. And again. And again. Over and over, until it became a total farce which was impossible to ignore.

Discussion sprang up then.

I kept out of it that evening because I'm happy to have run The Pool with success recently and have been biding my time to introduce my group to more Forge games. (I'd characterize our play as zilchplay with occasional incoherent bits of G, N and S. It's also participationist.)

However, I've decided that the opportunity is just too good to pass up and the group may be ready for change. So I'm planning to break the concept of Conflict Resolution to them.

I would like to ask you to take a critical look at the following e-mail which I have drafted. I'd like to know if my understanding of Conflict Resolution is correct. Also, I'd be grateful for any other comments (e.g. "too preachy", "ill-fated approach" and whatnot), even if you're necessarily acting on little information.

Many thanks in advance!


QuoteIn light of our discussion about climb checks, I'd like to introduce you to an alternative approach, which I know from other RPGs.

Our current approach is generally dubbed "Task Resolution" and it's alternative is "Conflict Resolution". These look as follows:

1. TR
GM: "Make a climb check at –4 to cross the ledge."

2. CR
GM: "Make a climb check at –4 to cross the ledge without taking 3d6 damage."

What's the difference?

1. With CR, the stakes are agreed upon before the roll.

Even though a bottomless ravine suggests otherwise: The survival of the character is only seemingly at stake, as we have a gentlemen's agreement that our characters won't die. As the characters also (a) have as many tries as they want and (b) must be allowed to cross the ledge for the adventure to continue as planned, the question is not WHETHER but HOW they cross the ledge. This "HOW" is what is really at stake and can take different forms:

- without taking 3d6 damage
- without being forced into a melee by our pursuers
- without assistance or retries (i.e. elegantly)

Because we don't determine what is seemingly at stake ("Will someone fall to his death?", "Will we eventually be able to cross the ledge?"), but what is really at stake, the agreed-upon procedure completely resolves the situation. Additional rolls are automatically unnecessary.

With TR, the stakes can only be guessed at. The players – and often the GM, too! – don't know the consequences of a failed check. These are only improvised (or at least announced) afterwards, usually to allow the characters to survive after all or to guide the module (e.g by asking for stealth checks again and again until the characters trigger the alarm as planned).


CR's three most important advantages are as follows:

1. It's tense ("Do I risk this much damage?") rather than uncertain ("How much damage will the GM decide upon?").
2. It's fair ("3d6? Okay, I'm game.") rather than prone to misunderstandings and fights ("If I had known that beforehand, I'd ...").
3. It speeds up the game, because additional rolls are unnecessary.

CR has other advantages (and TR has some of its own), but this email is long enough already.


In my opinion, a shift to CR would make our game more tense (but not more dangerous to the characters), less frustrating, more atmospheric and, above all, much faster.

But: A shift is easier said than done.

DSA is (contrary to The Pool) suitable for both TR and CR, so that it's easy to fall back into old habits. Also, you have to learn to say No to certain suggestions ("If that definitely comes about if I fail, I won't risk it." and "No, Gary, I won't allow a check even at –30. It's just out of the question.")

For these reasons I think that a shift only has a chance if we're all behind this – to which end I'm happy to discuss this further with you! – and if we go for it full bore.

Alternatively, we can try out CR during an intermezzo with DSA or other rules. I'd be very happy – regardless of this whole TR/CR business – if I could run more indie games between modules or GM rotations (in our accustomed setting, too).

Regards & Thanks in advance,



That looks like a very nice description.  I think you can be particularly proud of having stayed out of the discussion until you could phrase it this well.

Me, I'd go too far.  I'd talk about the things that CR does that TR can't do at all.  But that's because I can't stop talking.  I think you've chosen the right way to address the issue:  the specific things that CR will bring to the table that your group already desires.
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Andrew Morris, I don't think that's it. It might just be a bad example, though. I'm no expert, and it seems like CR and TR are defined differently by different people. The difference, to my way of thinking, would be dependent on why the players wanted their PCs to cross the ledge in the first place. Was it to stop an enemy from getting away? If so, then CR would address whether the PCs stopped the enemy, and narration of crossing the ledge could just be an obstacle that stopped/didn't stop them from preventing the bad guy from escaping.

Vincent Baker discusses CR and TR

Conflict v. Task Resolution: An Outmoded Distinction?

[Vocab] Task versus Conflict
Download: Unistat


I think that "in conflict resolution, we say what's at stake before we roll" is a great way to put it, far better than how I've put it in the past.


Eric Provost

Looks like a pretty darned good explination to me.  Better than I probably would have done.  Unlike Tony, I don't say enough, which tends to be confrontational.

Hope it works out well for you and your group.


Andrew Morris

I dunno, Vincent. I may just be failing to see what you and Hal are saying, but that doesn't seem different from task resolution to me. For example, I can say what's at stake before I have my PC swing a sword at an orc (reducing the effectiveness of the orc while risking my own character's effectiveness if I fail), but that's still TR, right? What makes it CR is whether we're addressing the reason why I have my character swinging the sword in the first place (e.g. killing the orc, impressing my allies, etc.), as I understand it.
Download: Unistat

Malcolm Craig

This seems to mirror discussions that myself have been having recently regarding tasks vs conflict, dramatic appropriateness of dice rolls and so forth. To my mind, your email succinctly encapsulates the point and uses an example relevant to the people involved in the discussion.

Until recently, I too was in a similar position to your friends, in that the distinction between a task and a conflict was hazy at best and, at worst, completely irrelevant to the game In the sense that I did not make the distinction with any degree of accuracy). Recently, I've become very aware of this distinction and have attempted to carry it through to games design I have been working on a recently and into the way I run games.

As Vincent quoted "in conflict resolution, we say what's at stake before we roll" is, to me, a great way of encapsulating things in one easy to understand sentence. The concept of 'stakes' was something that, although I probably unconsciously used the idea in the past, wasn't brought front and centre for me until I read 'Dust Devils' and 'Dogs In The Vineyard'.

Anyway, in summation, I'd say that your email should, if nothing else, provoke interesting and fruitful discussion amongst your gaming group.

Malcolm Craig
Contested Ground Studios

Part of the Indie Press Revolution

Eero Tuovinen

Andrew: I suggest not making this a discussion of term definition. It's obvious to us all from the example what the problem is, so I for one am not particularly interested in whether it's task vs. conflict resolution or not. I've lost my faith in those two terms a while back, as the great majority seems to not understand them anyway. I don't think this even is about conflict resolution, or at least I think the original problem can be solved without resorting to it, as I'll argue later on. (Start a new thread if you want to rehash the issue; I can try to explain it again)

Hal, here's my take: I personally wouldn't try to take this kind of high-order theory concepts and add them wholesale into an existing rules system. I wouldn't dare. instead, I would work inside the rules system in question as far as possible. In this case it would mean focusing on the actual problem, which is not conflict resolution (although switching to conflict resolution would certainly fix the problem, too). It seems to me that the root cause of the climbing accident you described is GMing technique: the GM is afraid to make active authorship decisions over skill rolls he calls, and that results in lots of rolls for no reason. The key to fixing this is:
- Know why you're asking for the roll (what's at stake)
- Know what happens if the roll succeeds of fails (again, but from a different perspective)
Assuming that the GM is on board with the creative agenda (that is, he agrees that it's not very interesting to roll dice without any effect), those are really the things he needs, and task vs. conflict resolution is incidental. In this case, for instance, the GM could have just decided to make the it a single climbing roll, with whatever suitable resource at stake (if they succeed, they don't take fall damage; if they succeed, they get up before nightfall; if they succeed, they lose their pursuers; if they succeed, they don't have to abandon the piano; if they succeed, they get up at all; whatever suits the situation). If nothing applies due to the climb being actually rather easy or there not being any limiting conditions on the situation, then it's a case where no roll is warranted, be it task or conflict resolution. This is a principle from the time of the dinosaurs, you don't ask players to roll dice to cross a road. You only roll for a reason.

So if it were me, I'd discuss when to roll as a plain, concrete thing, not task vs. conflict resolution. The latter is a bad discussion, because conflict resolution (whatever the individual means by it) has many effects on various things in a game, and it's a rare game that can be shifted between the two at will. I've not played Die Schwarze Auge (or however it's written, I forget), though, so for all I know it might be a game where it makes eminent sense to shift to conflict resolution. But if it's a Runequest derivative (as I understand to be the case), then I find it difficult to conceive how conflict resolution as I understand it would fit. All kinds of problems with equipment bonuses, skill applicability and cross-skill conflicts abound, it seems to me.

Also, note that for all I know my formulation above is already the gist of your idea of conflict resolution. If so, then all is good. If this is not the case, are you sure you're not trying to sneak conflict resolution in the game in a situation that does not really warrant it? In any case, about your post's content: it seems to me that you're discussing explicit and important stakes much more than conflict resolution. The latter condition is something I already dealt with above. Do you find the former important, too? Do you think the GM needs to reveal the stakes of a given roll to fix the problem you described?

I think I'll say something about the core nature of conflict resolution, while I'm here. Otherwise you're left wondering why I think this is not a case of conflict vs. task resolution at all. So: conflict resolution, at it's core, is about the player ability to choose stakes for the game mechanics. There are three important and commonly protean qualities of stakes in rpgs:
- explicitness; that is, who knows what the stakes are and when
- meaning; what type of things may become stakes at all, triggering resolution
- choice; who chooses what the stakes are
If you think that the stakes should be explicit and mechanically significant, as you write in your post, then you aren't necessarily talking about conflict resolution at all. But if you think that the climbing accident is about who gets to choose stakes (the GM should have let you negotiate a bypass to the situation because you found it non-important), then it's indeed an issue of conflict resolution. Note that in conflict resolution stakes are not always explicit or even meaningful; example is Polaris, in which you can keep your stakes secret from other players during the conflict resolution, and are quite able to choose non-meaningful stakes. Because your post does not address the most important question of who gets to choose the stakes, I'm not convinced that conflict resolution is really the solution to your problem.

As a closing: I think your post will do a fine job of introducing the idea of different orders of resolution, regardless of whether your use of conflict resolution as a term is valid (whatever that would mean). If the players are game for experimenting with the rules system, I don't think there is any significant harm in using the post as is. The points I note above about your assumptions and emphasis are really nothing you can't fix in actual interaction with the others when the time comes to put the idea to practice, especially as you know the rules system, which I don't. So don't take the above analysis as a judgement on the message, but rather as an exploration of your thoughts on the original climbing accident and it's reasons.
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Those other things you cite as 'reasons' are stakes too.

Both conflict resolution and task resolution are ways of negotiating what gets into the fictional world of the game. That's not the distinction between the two. They're just different ways of cutting up what happens. Sometimes a task is a conflict, sometimes several tasks make up a conflict, sometimes several conflicts make up a task, and you can even get weird ratios like 5:2 task:conflict where it's not clear how to separate them.

The term 'conflict resolution' also is sometimes used ambiguously, meaning either conflict between players at the table and conflict between elements in the fictional space. The important definition is the first one; 'say yes or roll' is a way of calling bullshit on apparently system-generated and/or habitual conflicts, among other things, as well as getting people out of the 'you do something, you should roll' mentality.

I don't think much of anyone in the history of role-playing has used pure task resolution in the sense of 'roll whenever someone wants to do something in the fictional world'; this is where that vague "only make 'important' rolls" idea comes from. One way of deciding that a roll's important is that people disagree on how a certain scene/situation should play out; that's where conflict resolution comes from. One could go on from here to a vindication of those who claim an 'adversarial' model for classic gamist GMing, understood rightly, but I've got to go cook trout.

Callan S.

I don't think there is a distinction between task resolution and conflict resolution, these days. Conflict resolution involves the players determing what important thing is at stake. With task resolution, the book determines what is at stake.

Just because your not excited about what the book puts at stake, doesn't change anything about the resolution. It's just that you find the books fixed stake, boring.

Equally, just because you find the stake involved in a conflict resolution exciting, doesn't change anything. With conflict resolution a player could declare the stake he's excited about is killing an orc. He could be equally excited about using a task resolution to kill an orc.

I contend there is only fixed conflict resolution and open conflict resolution. The former is set by the book rules, the latter by the players. The flexibility is the only difference.

So, "we say what's at stake before we roll" could be stated as "You know that thing youd really like this scene to be about? We could say that's at stake, before we roll. And that other thing your really excited about but is a dire (and INTERESTING) turn against the protagonists, that can be the failing result of the roll"
Philosopher Gamer

Ron Edwards

I'm getting pissed off about all these "well, there's no real distinction posts." But that holds no water; it's an emotional reaction on my part. Never mind that.

I do think most of you are not being constructive for Hal. I think we all understand exactly what playing with his group is like. Focus on that. He's trying to tell them something, and you know what that is too.

Quit fucking around with terms. Give Hal jargon-less, clear, and most of all targeted suggestions which will help him communicate with the people he plays with.




I think your email is great because it makes the main issue clear: 'we're going to say what's at stake up front before we roll instead of just calling for rolls. Everyone can ask what's at stake if they're not clear on it, and everyone should try to say what they want to do.' The terms as you're using them are really just tags for hidden stakes vs. explicit stakes, which is a big part of conflict resolution (although you can also have open stakes conflict resolution - 'who gets to narrate what happens?' is CR too).

It's very likely that the precise meaning of the terms doesn't matter for your group, but if you want to worry about it, you could just talk about 'stakes up front' resolution vs. 'stakes hidden' resolution and say you want the former.

What are you going to experience after making this shift, playing DSA? If you're going this way you all need to be clear on what limits (a) the system and (b) your group's preferences put on the kinds of conflicts you can resolve. Can you get into a conflict to rule the empire from any position? If the GM can just say no to this, does the GM vet all conflicts?

I suspect that if you're playing DSA there are some tacit assumptions about what conflicts you can get into that you may find yourself needing to make explicit. The way I think about the task-conflict shift in traditional RPGs is this: you can specify anything you want initially, but there's an expectation that there's going to be some 'road', involving describable actions that everyone can imagine a person taking, from the current situation as imagined by everyone to the outcome. This effectively limits the scope of conflicts according to group (and systemic) interpretation of characters and situations, since your character can only win an 'I'm the Emperor' conflict by engineering a war or election or throne room assassination or coup, and this will involve substantial maneuvering of the in-game token.

The existence of that 'road' from the traditional 'I control my character' point of view to conflict resolution effectively means that anyone at the table ought to be able to ask 'how are you doing that?' and the player doing it should be able to provide a description. This winds up often leading to fortune-in-the-middle, where the early narration determines what thing on your character sheet is going to be rolled to solve the conflict and the subsequent narration leads from those actions to the stakes.

But this is on the border of the 'realism' issue and it may surprise you (or not) how similar/different people's expectations about how much needs to be described to make it clear how you're getting the stakes you want in certain situations.

Another thing where CR is highly limited in traditional systems is in the combat mechanics. You can't directly specify "I carve my way through the seven soldiers, leaving the room strewn with body parts and blood" as the outcome of a conflict. You have to specify "I wound him" or (in more complex or freeform systems) "I disarm him" etc. as the appropriate possible stakes in combat. This too can be managed, but you may discover some tension here as well.

Good luck with your experiment! At the risk of tooting my own horn, I've given these issues some thought in this thread of my current game design: . The first and (especially) last posts in the thread are the issues that might interest you (the middle posts are character generation stuff irrelevant to your concerns); I'm trying to work a traditional character-setting interface with relatively open-ended effect specification as best I can.

Callan S.

Hi Hal,

I think even entering into 'task Vs conflict resolution' discussion is an entry into fruitless jargonism, for my reasons above. Really cut straight to the chase that "We decide what a passing and failing roll results in, choosing exactly what is exciting to us. Really, we choose what we think is exciting...don't think of the next little thing that happens, that's usually boring. Keep thinking of how things would end up at something thats damn exciting to you!". The 'player finds each potential result exciting' is the important distinction to make rather than task Vs conflict.

I think one problem you might come into is sticking with old habits and finding it fun at first. So they'll stick with 'I hack at the orc' or such like, because they do indeed find it exciting. But then the orc will die and they will idle around, because all the other task like resolutions are boring to them, but they are in the task groove now. Its a pain in the arse, because they do find the other way fun so focus is drawn there. But fruitful play soon runs out. Perhaps organise in advance some sort of explicit sign that can be used during play to 'think big', so players scale up their ideas and are thus likely to find something exciting to happen next (they may indeed scale back town to task after that, but you can use that explicit sign again too).
Philosopher Gamer


Hi again and thank you for all the answers.

(Also, I apologize for remaining silent for so long. I'm digging myself out of an avalanche of work right now.)

You're all making sense to me – even where we disagree about certain nuances – and I find that very reassuring. I'm confident now that I 'get' CR, so one purpose of this thread has been fulfilled.

That leaves us with the nuances and the practical suggestions that you've brought up. I'd like to deal with the former in a new thread ("Nuances of Conflict Resolution") and with the latter below.

1) Terminology

Many of you have suggested dropping the terms and that's sound advice, I think. The core principle is clear enough in the draft under discussion and the references to Forge theory are not productive. On top of that, I'd either have to go with the original English terms in a German e-mail or translate them (which is always difficult). I'd still like to have a label to use as shorthand at the table, though. Sean's suggestion – "hidden" vs. "explicit" stakes – seems like a good starting point (though "hidden" is too generous, really - "false" would be more like it, in many cases).

2) CR and the existing combat system

DSA is indeed the usual incoherent FRPG mess one might suspect. Eero immediately intuited the problem of combat, to which I say: Yes, CR won't fit with that at all, as a rigid system of rules, homewbrew rules and expectations is already in place. As my group already recognizes that a shift of some sort takes place once combat starts, I think using CR for non-combat situations should work fine, though.

3) CR and the way we play

Quote from: SeanWhat are you going to experience after making this shift, playing DSA? If you're going this way you all need to be clear on what limits (a) the system and (b) your group's preferences put on the kinds of conflicts you can resolve. Can you get into a conflict to rule the empire from any position? If the GM can just say no to this, does the GM vet all conflicts?

We are exclusively using modules with extremely rigid plots.

(Quote from one module: "If a player sheds real tears for this NPC's passing, award 100 bonus XP. If someone makes an inappropriate joke, subtract 25 XP." Talk about failed novelist syndrome, eh?)

Our GMs make heavy use of illusionist techniques, though everybody knows and is on board with this. (Acknowledging this situation is a recent development, largely driven by me and another player.)

Hence, a much more player-driven game – which is a natural, but not necessary result of using CR (a point I'll be happy to argue with you in the new thread) – is out of the question.

I'm convinced CR can benefit us regardless – it's gonna be GM-vetted conflicts, as Sean called it – , but I also anticipate a breakdown of certain illusionist techniques. That is a problem (especially as it will take the GMs out of their comfort zone), but one I'm planning to address face-to-face.

4) Shifting to CR

Quote from: CallanI think one problem you might come into is sticking with old habits and finding it fun at first. [...] Perhaps organise in advance some sort of explicit sign that can be used during play to 'think big', so players scale up their ideas and are thus likely to find something exciting to happen next (they may indeed scale back town to task after that, but you can use that explicit sign again too).

This is the biggie I'm worried about: old habits. I like your idea of agreeing on some sign, though I think scaling back to TR is a bad idea. Once you're comfortable with CR, you could do that (but wouldn't see the point, I'm sure), but for people trying to get the hang of it, rigidly asking "What's really at stake here? Why do we roll the dice? Name that conflict!" is the way to go, I think.




I originally considered this thread pretty much finished and wrote Hal a PM, but he asked that I add this to the end of this thread, so here goes.

I agree that dropping the jargon is a good idea, but I also think there's more to that. I understand where Hal's initial post is coming from, and I actually started a thread about something related to it a while ago:

Complications Instead of Failure

The constant re-rolls when players fail are annoying, and they stall the game progress. Your post suggested that instead of "Do you make it over the chasm," you'd say "Do you make it with or without taking damage?"  That's exactly what I wrote about in that thread, too.

So, without getting into details with your fellow players on tasks versus conflicts and those theory level discussions, I'd suggest focusing on "We'll roll for whether something goes wrong while you do this, not whether you fail" as the easiest way of addressing your problem.