Important conflicts, and when to engage the machine

Learning to discern when an in-fiction event is important enough to warrant using the games mechanics is a pretty important skill. Dependent on the game, the ease with which one identifies meaningful decision points (what I think of as conflicts) varies greatly. In Dog’s in the Vineyard those dice come out whenever you disagree (Or as Baker says it in the text “Say yes or roll dice”). My life With Master and Prime Time Adventures both put limits to the actual scene framing, so that there is only ever one conflict in a scene. But all of those games are created in such a way that the rules only express to further story, such that the mechanics make it impossible to not know what is at stake.

In most RPG games that I’ve played actions taken in the game are simulated by some sort of direct dice roll. Climbing walls, Sticking a shiv in someone, write a paper, decipher a manuscript, all of these are done in the context of rules and mechanics around taking these actions. Roll your stat, roll your skill, add in an appropriate aspect, spend some tokens, all the crunch is about what you do and little is about why you do it.

Yet just because such a mechanism exists in the game, and that action happens to be taking place doesn’t mean that you need to bog down in the crunch. Sometimes the action taking place is secondary or unimportant to something else that is happening within or around that scene. In a recent Sorceror game, I was playing a cardshark who was tasked with going out and conning a guy in an illegal game. Mechanically, I ended up rolling a bunch of dice for playing cards, using my demon (a deck of cards that loves it when people get taken for everything they have) to win, and at some point rolling dice to spot the other guys telltale (i.e. that he was a sorceror).

While the setup for the scene was centered around card play, that was actually less important than me noticing his telltale and realising what that means. But with so much time and effort invested in discerning what was happening with the poker game rather than with the point of the scene, it ended up coming out a little garbled. Sure, I came out of it knowing that the guy was a sorceror, ok, but why was so much time spent on poker?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why there was a push towards the card game, and the GM and I spoke about it after the session was over. I can see why the dice were engaged the way they were. I created a guy who was a card shark, my Cover (read as profession for those who have not played sorceror) was as a dealer, my demon a possessed deck of cards. It’s kind of like a guy who in D&D game creates a fighter with all the relevant stats and statistics and then is confused as to why he spends so much time fighting.

But only kind of, because I’m not saying I shouldn’t be seen playing poker, but that it’s not always what’s important in that scene. Sure, sometimes the scene is going to hinge on how well I play my hand, but it just as well might have to do with my relationship with the other card players, or with something else that’s happening, or even with the demon itself. The game being played might be nothing but colour: it puts what I’m actually doing in context, makes it believable that I’d be there at that time, it adds description to the situation. Maybe I’m really there to listen in on a conversation happening at the bar. Or something’s going on with my demon and the poker hands just an expression of that. Figuring that out will inform whether or not it’s worth rolling dice, and what dice to roll.

In Apocalypse World, I ran in to similar problems over and over. When I first picked up the game, my instinct was that whenever someone tried to do something, I would have them roll the relevent move. While this worked, it injected a lot of mecanical rolls for things that just weren’t that important: seeing whether or not the Chopper could stay awake after ingesting some drugs (acting under fire) might be important, but isn’t neccessarily so. Brainers can do a bunch of weird based things, but it’s not always a conflict when they do so. It’s when these things are important that the machine of the game should engage.

Here are some things I think are worth looking for. They are not perscriptive, nor absolute; all of these these things don’t have to be true, nor if any of them are true does it neccessarily mean it’s a meaningful conflict:

  • Does the action represent something that the character(s) care(s) about? If so, what does it represent?
  • Does the action represent something I as a player care about? Sure, it might matter to my character whether I come out on top or on bottom in the card game, but I as a player might not really care one way or another and if I do what I care about might not be immediately obvious from the situation
  • Do success and failure represent different paths for them? i.e. does it actually matter what the outcome is? What might those outcomes be?

Keeping the above in mind can lead us to what the scene is really about, whether it is important, and what parts of the rules apply. Otherwise, you can end up with a stream of constantly engaged mechanics. That does not help in creating a meaningful and fun story but rather bogs play down in endlessly simulating mostly unimportant minutiae. And to me that is missing the point.

4 thoughts on “Important conflicts, and when to engage the machine

  1. I’m fond of saying that the Three Musketeers do a lot of swordfighting, but the story isn’t ABOUT swordfighting. Sometimes the fighter takes all the fighty skills because the game focuses on fighting and it’s the only way he can not have to worry about winning fights and can concentrate on what he really cares about. Athos, Porthos, and Aramus NEVER LOSE A FIGHT (at least not in the movies), but that’s not what’s important about them. What’s important is how they uphold the honor of the Musketeers, how they defend France against her enemies despite being officially disbanded, how they show D’Artagnan what it means to be a Musketeer, how they do what’s right even when it makes them criminals and forces them to make sacrifices. The swordplay is incidental- a set piece to show the main characters being badass (so that when they encounter someone who is a challenge, it MEANS something to the audience)- in short, as you say, it’s just Color.

    I think your last bullet point there is pretty key: If the consequences of failure are not going to be just as interesting as the consequences of success, WHY THE HELL ARE YOU ROLLING?

  2. It’s interesting to think about when a dice roll is truly necessary. When I was playing in that old-school D&D marathon last month, I was reminded how little dice were used when playing in that style, in part because there simply were no rules to cover many things. Instead of a Spot or Search roll to notice something unusual or find a trap, for instance, the player would have to describe exactly WHERE he was looking or HOW he was searching, and the DM would determine what happened based on how that matched up with what was actually there. The dice would only need to be rolled if there were an element of chance involved.

    I would advise caution, however, about removing dice rolls based on what seems important at the time. A player (or character) may not care so much about a result that down the line (perhaps known only to the GM) will have an incredible impact. In time, a GM calling for a roll at a certain time (or the lack thereof) may become a “tell” to the players about it’s importance to their characters or the plot in general, when they should have no clue.

  3. Hmmm, interesting. I do see your point that if the only rolls taking place are the ones with meaning, then you know that any time you roll you know something important is going on. But I’m not sure I have a problem with that. For one obscuring the importance of any one roll by making people roll a whole lot just sounds… well, kind of boring to sit through. But that ties in to my second thought which is that I don’t really mind if the players know that this roll right here is important. Even if they miss it, there’s something to be said for adding tension by playing to them as audience, rather than as that character in particular.

    I don’t know if any of that makes sense, still thinking the logic through.

  4. Hey Timo,
    A guiding principle that I follow that seems to make sure dice rolls mean something is you only roll the dice when there’s an actual, real, conflict of interest between two actors in the fiction.

    Notice that “actor” doesn’t have to be a person – sometimes the environment becomes semi-sentient in everyone’s mind, as in “that fucking mountain is trying to kill us”.

    Also, because it’s boring, I never roll for NPC vs NPC crap.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *