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Author Topic: Asymetrical Conflicts  (Read 3105 times)
Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« on: March 27, 2006, 10:58:34 AM »

There's been a principle that I've wanted to discuss for a while, and what with the buzzword Asymetrical Concflict being thrown about on the news a lot of late, I suddenly find myself with a phrase that matches the phenomenon. So here's a little jargon that might be useful in this discussion (some of which I'm making up on the spot):

Arena of Conflict (or just Arena): I've been using this one for a while now. It refers to the in-game nature of the conflict, and consequently what abilities would seem to be effective within the conflict described. This is separate from...

Goals: Separated sometimes into player goals and character goals, this is the outcome sought as a result of the conflict. Note that in many RPGs certain Goals and Arenas are linked by the rules. Most notably, combat exists as an arena with the goal of killing the opponent in many games (in many versions of D&D, if you want to "subdue" your opponent, you use entirely different rules). In other games, like HQ, these are not as tightly linked.

Indirect Conflict: the contest is actually between two individuals to see how they do relative to an impartial third party. The classic example is a footrace. Each uses similar abilities, the arena is simply defined by these, but there is no actual impedence put on one character by the other through the use of his ability. Actually one could have a "racing strategy" ability or something that could be seen to psychologically affect his opponent in a footrace, so it's not always black and white. But these are fairly easy to identify.

Symetrical Conflict: A conflict that occurs in an arena that's easily defined because everybody is using abilities of a type that make the nature of the arena clear. For example, again, combat in most games is symetrical because everybody uses "combat skills" or the like, and the Arena is very clearly a "fight" or a "combat."

Asymetrical Conflict: A conflict in which the Arena is not so clear, because the opponents are using abilities that seem to indicate more than one Arena simultaneously. To use the classic example, one character uses his Rapier, while the other uses his Rapier Wit. All Asymetrical Conflicts tend to feel like Indirect Conflicts.

Note (for the term wonks) that Conflict Resolution is not the same as Conflict, so there's no conflation occuring here. This stuff works in conjunction with the idea of task resolution and conflict resolution.

How are arena, goals and symetry of conflict determined? Well, RPG tradition says that selection of task leads to selection of arena, which leads to selection of goal. That is, in most D&D, choosing the "attack" task leads to "combat, which in turn always has the goal of "killing the opponent." Note that other results may occur, but that the player's only prerogative is to attack to kill. If he wants to capture his opponent he must "attack to subdue" (which uses entirely different rules in some editions), a different task.

In HQ, however, it's not quite as clear as this. The text alternately implies one thing in one place, and others elsewhere. But by the reading that I use, the player selects a goal and an ability with which he wants to get that goal. Then his opponent selects his goal and ability. And from these selections comes the Arena.

Now in D&D style, the important thing is that if your opponent chooses the "combat" arena, then you are forced to respond in kind, generally. That is, your only effective choice is to select some task that will cause the death or incapacitation otherwise of the opponent. That is, you end up in the combat arena, too. Actually, there are a couple of other options. You can, as mentioned, attack to subdue (or use spells to that effect), or you can try to run away.

In fact, running away, trumps the combat arena every time. You must compare movement rates to see who can go faster, and, usually, the faster side wins the new contest which is to either get away, or continue fighting.

HQ is far more open-ended, however. Not only can one change goals like in D&D, but one can have goals that don't play into the opponent's arena, neccessarily. This is a major point of contention in readings of HQ, but again we have our Rapier example from above (and actual examples from the texts and authors in other places). That is, what's the Arena if one person has a goal of using his Rapier ability to kill his opponent, while the other has the goal of using his Rapier Wit to send his opponent away thoroughly embarrassed? What's the Arena in an Asymetrical Contest?

Well...it is what it is. I don't think we need to be able to term it something like "social conflict" or "combat." I don't think that we need to name all of the arenas and that it's better to leave their definition freeform given that there are so many permutations. To some extent, the arena doesn't matter, really. What matters is that at the end of narration that everyone is satisfied with the nature of the narration that's performed to explain the mechanical results. From this POV, the Rapier contest is no problem at all. It's just a question of GM skill. And, again, simply trying to think of it less as "Combat" or "social conflict" helps.

That doesn't mean that you don't need to have the arena. That is, you have to describe the acts that occured in space and time to accomplish the victory in question (generally - once in a while I simply skip to post conflict, and leave it entirely to the players' imagination: "Later that day, Sir Rapier is seen avoiding people at court, his face still red from the confrontation."). Very often the simplest way to narrate an Asymetrical Contest is to simply emulate the most typical of Indirect Contests, the footrace. That is, victory means that the opponent merely beat the clock faster than the opponent did, and accomplished his goal first. So if the character with the Rapier is defeated, he leaves the arena embarrassed before he can accomplish his goal.


Now, one of the key questions here is that of Improv Modifiers. There are two functional ways to use these. The first is to simply never use them at all. Call this the "radical metagame" option, in which we assume that the numbers on abilities are simply for player power, and that we're not rolling to simulate much of anything. This has the theoretical advantage that no particular arenas or abilities are incentivized.

Actually I present this only to say that nobody plays this way, and to contrast it with the other functional method - because even the putative reason to play this way isn't neccessary. The way everyone plays, to some extent, is to use Improv Modifiers on a "when they're fun" basis. As such a particular group may, indeed, penalize the Rapier Wit character in the situation above. Why don't I worry about people then all taking Rapier ability instead or Rapier Wit? Well, because having higher ability levels isn't sought in HQ.

That's a contentious statement, but not one I intend to discuss here. If you disagree bring it up elsewhere. In any case, there is nobody who's going to both believe in radical metagame, and that players should worry about victory, so the question is moot here.

What do I mean by the "when they're fun" basis? To contrast, I'll display the third method, which is the "By Mechanic" method. HQ doesn't work with the "By Mechanic" method because of the vagaries of the Arenas which can be created. There are so many potential conflict types that can occur that one cannot make hard mechanical statements about when one particular ability should have an advantage over another (I even consider the eqipment bonuses to be merely examples). In other RPGs where mechanical rigor can be found in the limited selection of arenas, and limited sorts of abilities, this can work. Not in HQ. The "when they're fun" basis says, that the application of such modifiers is at narrator whim, which he'll use to create a community standard for such simulative elements as he feels they're needed. Which includes, interestingly, the ability to be inconsistant if/when that happens to be the fun thing to do. Normally consistancy is a good thing, but in certain circumstances, exceptions are more fun. HQ solves this by placing this decision on the narrator's back.


Now, there is an interesting phenomenon in HQ that I've yet to mention, that of how this all applies to extended contests. In an extended contest, a narrator may in theory allow asymetry in one of two ways, or disallow it altogether:
  • Disallow - Arena is probably set by the first player's selection of ability, and other players must follow suit, or get improv mods up to and including potentially Automatic Failure. Rapier vs Rapier, perhaps augmented with Rapier Wit. Note that this can tend to have a chilling effect on creativity with goals...sure I can embarrass somebody with my Rapier, but why do that when I can kill him, too?
  • Overall Asymetry - every round is like an asymetrical simple contest. Rapier vs Rapier Wit every round. As with all simple contests, this does lack the fun feel of less indirect contests. And since we are allowed to change goals in extended contests, it seems funny not to allow arena shifting, too...
  • Round to Round Symetry - This is one that people seem to enjoy a lot. On your round, we fight in your arena, and in my round we fight in my arena. This also may be seen to be the most indicated version in the text. What this does is to allow for the variability of goals that we want, while also allowing a player to use a wide range of abilities, and yet having that feel of "appropriateness" to the responses to certain actions. Further, the question of balance (should be moot, as I've said) goes away as certain abilities can never be used to trump the others.


While I dislike using extended contests for more than a select few contests, I do so love this effect of extended contests when using option 3. For simple contests, I tend to allow a great deal of Asymetry, and that has it's fun effects too (sometimes you get really novel results). But in extended contests I tend to go with pretty strong symmetry.

Mike
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lightcastle
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« Reply #1 on: March 29, 2006, 01:32:10 PM »

When you say in Extended constests you go with pretty strong symmetry, are you implying 1)  or 3)  above. (I would have thought 3.)

I, definitely, fall on the Round to Round symmetry scale, it seems to be the most fun.I think this is what resulted in questions like my Priest question, because there are situations that seem to fall into Indirect contests even when thought of round to round, and those seem intuitively "false" to me.

In fact, they are really just requiring option 2, but since I never saw option 2 as an option for an extended contest (as I was far more enamoured of option 3) it was a blind spot.

OK, you've laid out what I think is an excellent summary. Do you have a question, or are you just looking for how other people see it and play it?
LC
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #2 on: March 29, 2006, 02:30:37 PM »

Heh, in large part, I put this all here so that I could link to it from the thread on Unrelated Actions.

I think a point I may have not made clearly above is the manner in which a narrator enforces symmetry and such. Which is by the use of Improv modifiers up to and including "Automatic Failure." Does that make sense? Or do people create these limits in other ways?

Mike
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lightcastle
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« Reply #3 on: March 29, 2006, 03:29:40 PM »

I mostly use improv modifiers up to and including "automatic failure".

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simon_hibbs
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Posts: 678


« Reply #4 on: April 20, 2006, 08:10:34 AM »

I think Round to Round symetry is raly the only practical option. The two characetrs in the rapier example are trying to achieve different things, using different abilities. The ability they are useg to achieve their goal is completely inapropriate to preventing their opponent achieving his goal.

The problem here occurs if the Rapier Wit guy wins. What exactly was his goal? if it was "To goad my opponent to admit he kidnapped the princess", then what happens when he wins? What's to stop his opponent continuing to try to kill him after making the admission, since doing so would if anythign make him more intent on slicing up Our Hero.

There are a number of dramatic solutons to this - te kings guard burst in on-cue and drag the bad guy of to his fate, for example. Cinematicaly such a plot device is appropriate, but in other cases the GM might allow the bad guy to press on his attack, but sufferign a huge penalty due to his frustration and anger allowing Our Hero the ablity to inflict something along the lines of a lethal Coup de Grace. Creativity here is I think the key.

Simon Hibbs
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Simon Hibbs
lightcastle
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Posts: 118


« Reply #5 on: April 20, 2006, 03:04:19 PM »

Quote
The problem here occurs if the Rapier Wit guy wins. What exactly was his goal? if it was "To goad my opponent to admit he kidnapped the princess", then what happens when he wins? What's to stop his opponent continuing to try to kill him after making the admission, since doing so would if anything make him more intent on slicing up Our Hero.

That is a good question. Those cases where the winning of one sides goal doesn't actually prevent the other goal from being accomplished. I'm never quite sure what to do with that. I've mostly gone the route you suggest, putting some kind of penalty to the loser if they choose to continue (the penalty in some way commensurate with the magnitude of loss of the previous contest). That's seemed to work all right, and often the conflict is set up where a win by one pretty much nullfies the goal of the other anyway, so it hasn't been that big a deal.
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Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #6 on: April 24, 2006, 12:32:28 PM »

Yep, remember that one of the most brilliant rules in the HQ book is the one that says that you should occasionally ignore the "No Repeat Attempt" rule (check it out in the narrator's section). I usually ask the player.

"Do you want out here, or would it be more fun if the guy keeps attacking you?"

For victory by the opponent, I always find a dramatic way out so the player can't continue. Often I make this explicit to start.

"If he wins with his Rapier Wit, your character will end up slinking away in embarrassment."

Yes, this is controlling the player's character. That's what setting the stakes is all about. If the player doesn't like that, I'll come up with a different contest that he likes better. Because if a player doesn't feel that the failure conditions are interesting, it's not something we should be rolling for, IMO.

Put another way, never have a demigod come along with 8 Masteries, and say "If you lose (and you will), he's going to make your character look stupid" as the stakes. Instead say, "The demigod finds your character a fascinating plaything, and decides to send you on a quest - he fails to resist, not being nearly powerful enough to do so..."

At some point you will get to know your players and the characters well enough that you can do this without making the process explicit. That is, you'll just make it up at the end, and the player will trust you to do so. It's good to get to this point, because then you can surprise players with the outcomes. But if you have even a shred of hesitance because the failure outcome might not be what the player wants, then stop and ask.

Mike
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