Friday, October 28, 2005

Resolution: Task, Conflict, More?

Okay, so various threads at the Forge (which I'll link if I feel energetic) have got me thinking about resolution systems.

Common thinking revolves around Task Resolution and Conflict Resolution. Both of these systems are set to resolve a different thing, namely tasks and conflicts. Tasks are things that the players want their characters to do. Task Resolution tells us if the character does so. Conflicts are composed of two parts: character desire and obstacles. Conflict Resolution tells us if the obstacles are overcome and the character's desire is fulfilled. If this sounds like it's rather simplistic and you've heard it before, read it again and remember that I use really fucking precise language.

Task resolution does not address anything but the character's chances of doing something. This may or may not be limited to the character's ability to do something -- a basic actor-stance resolution system can be supplemented with plot points, for instance, or you could be playing Feng Shui where you can retroactively state that your character had whatever ability that you want them to use right now. This is important -- task resolution begins with the player and uses the character (and other imagined content) as a mediating factor. In any case, Task Resolution can only be used in scenarios where the players will want their characters to do something. That may sound like any roleplaying scenario out there, but it's not.

Conflict Resolution does not address anything outside of a conflict. That is, in order to even start using Conflict Resolution, you need both character desires and obstacles to those desires. If you don't have one or the other, Conflict Resolution cannot do anything for you. Do you successfully ride your horse down the road to get to the next town? Unless it's important to your character to ride their horse and there's something preventing that, no conflict, no Conflict Resolution. If there is desire and no obstacle, it simply happens; if there is no desire but there is an obstacle, it simply doesn't happen. (I suspect that this is the root of what really wigs out players used to Task Resolution.) Since the character may have no interest in having their desires interfered with by obstacles, Conflict Resolution begins with a player and uses the character (and other imagined content) as an expressive element.

Now a short tangent in regards to the very term Resolution. It sucks. First of all, it sucks because it interferes with the use of the word 'resolution' in narrative terms. I want to talk about resolving danging plot points, but using that word in exactly the way that it is defined by the rest of the world conflicts with how we define it in gaming. Secondly, however, Task Resolution especially does not really resolve anything. In an antagonistic GM vs Players setup, it "resolves" the table argument about whether you crack the safe, but when the GM wants the players to succeed in getting their characters up the sheer cliff and into the cave where the real fun stuff is... what's being resolved? So I'll try and be really clear that Resolution (game term) is different than resolution (narrative term) and in fact not use that incredibly useful narrative term unless there's no other options.

Both Task Resolution and Conflict Resolution are by their very natures limited. Task Resolution requires a character attempting to do something; Conflict Resolution requires both pieces of a conflict. A roleplaying game's procedures determine a whole lot more, though, than whether characters can do something and whether they can overcome challenges and fulfill their desires. Most of these other things get pushed out of the spotlight, and not because they're unimportant or because they're not game procedures. I'm talking about esoteric things like the composition of the immediate situation but also plainly important stuff like character generation.

Now I start blathering on decisions indemic to roleplaying games that can be fiddled with. Without exception, there are already procedures (and many procedures) for making all of these decisions, some of them obvious and some of them not so obvious. Most are implicit. What happens when we take these decisions and start writing explicit rules for how all the players around the table can start fiddling with them? What happens when these are dragged back into the spotlight? What happens when these are made the focus of an entire game?

Creating the Setting While we typically consider this as happening before "play" begins, I submit that this step is an element of play and that this process is continually happening throughout all play as the setting is expanded, focused, contracted, defined, and complicated. Even in instances where the Setting is theoretically "selected" (We're playing Changeling) it must always be refined and customized ( the Kingdom of Apples). The procedures for this process may be "The GM creates the setting" or they may be as pinned down and exacting as Dogs in the Vineyard's Town Creation Rules. Wondering if this process could be made the focus of play, I wrote Conquer the Horizon, which seems to work. CtH is interesting in that Discoveries form the bulk of play, and are neither Task nor Conflict Resolution. Exploitations, it could be argued, are Conflict Resolution with powerful Director Stance afforded to all players. Is this "Setting Resolution"?

Character Creation and Development Strictly speaking, this should not be considered as a separate issue than "Setting Resolution". Characters are a element of the Setting, after all. However, traditional distribution of authority makes the Setting the GM's and the Characters the players'. The line is fuzzy, allowing players a strong ability to influence the setting by the kinds of characters they create (this power is often obliviated by a "GM Approval" clause to all such decisions) or requiring the GM to strongly delimit player options from the outset (make a Rebel fighter, not an Empire goon). Everything that applies to Setting applies to Characters -- they are under a continual process of creation, not just "before play", and any selection (a Priest!) must be refined and defined (a Priest of Rock!) by the player. Theoretically speaking, a player can at any time declare that their character was raised by wolves and lied about their parents -- either this is allowable, or it's in contravention of a procedure of play. As a less extreme example, did my character's time spent as a guardsman translate into an understanding of street crime? Someone has to decide if the experience is applicable, and there is a procedure (however hidden) that they use to make that determination.

Composing the Situation The topic of a Forge thread of marginal utility, the fact remains that the players decide what the immediate situation is somehow, and the elements included in that situation come from somewhere. Credibility distribution and the root inspiration work in either the same way or in a handful of similar ways each time, so there is one or more procedures at work, here, and yet we have few tools to examine this process directly. How many kobolds can the GM throw at the PCs at once before he's violating those procedures and is "unfair" or "stupid" or simply "not a good GM"? Alternately, if a player wants their character to swing from a chandelier, slide down a bannister, or hijack a nearby car, what procedure determines whether the chandelier, bannister, or car is there to be exploited? What if the player wants their character to get run over by that car? Or have the fleeing badguy get run over? Or or or...? We've talked about Scope and Focusing the Scope, which may serve as useful terms for this process.

Pacing the Story Flow What procedure tells a GM whether or not to spring a character's primary thematic conflict on their player in the first scene? What procedure tells them not to let them resolve it immediately and permanently? PTA and Buffy both outline how to plan out what happens when, and other games such as MLwM or the Roach embed tension-increasing mechanics into the game to pressure play into a predefined shape. But how can these be turned from passive to active? How can I call for a climax scene, or request a day-in-the-life episode? How do I negotiate my preferences with the preferences with those at the table, rather than submitting to the pacing dictated by the GM or Designer? Call this "Pace Resolution."

Now I get really esoteric:

Setting the "Premise," "Goal," and/or "Agenda" While we tend to think of this as something that you should do before play begins, consider the majority of gamers who do not do this at all. Consider the pickup group that learns each other's play styles and preferences and forms a lasting monthly game with functional play. It is possible for these sorts of things to be determined in, during, and through play; unless this process is wholly idiosyncratic for every situation (unlikely), there must be procedures for doing so. Is it possible to imbue significance in a character, or an idea, or a nation, thereby making the player-directed statement, "This is important to me." Is this "Agenda Resolution?"

Adopting, Modifying, and Ignoring Procedures Call it "Meta Resolution." We decide what game to play, we decide which sourcebooks to use, we write house rules, we ignore rules we don't like. While most of this interaction occurs on a purely personal level between players discussing options, consider how many games are now being written with dice systems which are intrinsically tied to their settings/premise. If you have a Soul Drain stat and your character defeats the Evil Lich who causes the Soul Drain, declaring the game over is not the only option. At its extreme, this sort of play and rules-jockeying could result in an RPG equivalent of Nomic.


Now, I'll say this before anybody else does: these are all techniques. I'd call them interactions. Whatever. Fact is, techniques and interactions can either be explicit, formal, and manipulable rules or they can be implicit, informal, slippery, and uncontrollable habits. The more light we throw on them, the better we're all able to use them to produce what we want -- whatever it is that we want. Not every game needs a formalized system for players to influence the pacing of the plot -- but some games could. I'm excited by the possibilities that open up when we start tinkering.


At 1:52 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Three things J,

1. The final paragraph of your post is YES.

I said to Gary recently that the important thing about the Forge isn't the specific issues being talked about -- it is that issues are being talked about. If we know what we are doing with our tools then we can use our tools. If we do not, then our tools use us.

In the end task and conflict resolution aren't nearly so important as knowing that there are different ways for dealing with actions and conflicts in game, and chosing the one you want at a given time to yeild a desired result.

Which leads to 2 and 3.

Have you read Universalis? If not, you probably should. It's the granddaddy of games like Capes, and uses pools of points to give players (there is no GM) control over the creatin of setting, characters, and plot. It is a brilliant little break down of the power-dynamic and economics of game.

And, have you read Ben's posts about how Conflict and Task resolution bleed into each other? How sometime what we call one is the other, and sometimes there isn't a difference after all? They're at: and

At 2:26 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

I haven't read or played Universalis. It's one of many titles I need to.

I have read Ben's blog, and part of the second paragraph (the one where I snipe about precision of language) arises out of that. I think I have them defined in mutually exclusive ways -- not that they can't model the same situation, but that they model the same situation for different reasons. Prime in my headspace for understanding CR is that it must arise from a conflict, that conflicts have those two pieces, and CR needs those two pieces to function. Otherwise you're rolling dice according to CR rules, but you're only really doing Task Resolution, and it's going to be flat and hollow.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger Ron Edwards said...

Dude. Fuckin' awesome.


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