January 18, 2013

Conflict Resolution Options

I have been running Madness at Gardmore Abbey for a diverse player group.  They just completed the Crypt section, which is the only straightforward dungeon in the module.

Warning: The initial part of this post has some mild spoilers for that one part of the module.  Nothing I say will ruin it for you, but just in case, I'll let you know where to skip to if you really hate spoilers.



The crypts contain five encounters of "battle to the death" violence, which, after a while, starts to show the flaws of every edition of D&D: Dungeon crawling is sort of repetitive.  Now, I love Madness at Gardmore Abbey because most encounters are more than just a straight fight.  Many challenges have alternate ways to overcome them, other than combat.  And even the fights often add skill challenges or ad hoc systems for creative additions.  The crypt dungeon, being full of tunnels and rooms full of undead, was the most straightforward of the sequences in the book:  Go from room to room encountering undead and slaying them.  One encounter started with a short skill challenge (though I will not spoil why).  Another had monsters who were not on the same side, but all of them wanted to kill the living heroes who entered their area.  So that detail was somewhat irrelevant.  And another encounter used an ad hoc system for adding extra random magic to the battle, which is the theme of the module.

End mild spoilers.

There are two lessons I've learned from Madness at Gardmore Abbey.

First, for game designers, encounters always need multiple possible paths to resolution, even if the paths converge eventually, variety is the spice of life.  Madness has a good ratio:  About 50% of the combat encounters in the module can be resolved without combat, and of the remainder, half (25% of the total) have additional layers of interest, such as the signature ad hoc system for random magic, some other ad hoc system, or a skill challenge mixed into the encounter before, during or after the battle.  So for 8 encounters (enough for a level!) 4 can be resolved without a battle; 2 have extra stuff going on during the battle; and 2 are straight up fights.  More, D&D has a flaw:  the only realistic way to resolve a combat encounter is fighting to death or the surrender or retreat of the monsters.  Here are some resolutions I would like to see solid systems for.  If the systems are there, there need to be solid instructions for GMs to use them:
  • Fighting Retreat:  The heroes just need to get away, but the enemy can overwhelm them if they flee (such as if the enemy can fly or walk through walls or run faster than them).  The heroes fall back to a defensible position, then the enemy catches up to them in waves so that the heroes can fight them in smaller numbers from better terrain.
  • Rout:  The heroes run away from overwhelming opposition.  Typically this comes down to a skill challenge or series of skill checks to run through obstacles faster than the enemy.  The problem with rout in D&D and many other RPGs is that the expectations players have are that they will be able to win most fights.  They usually don't realize they're doomed until one or two of them are unconscious.  Either the DM needs to tell them "it's OK; the bad guys will not just kill the unconscious PCs; they'll be captured and it will create an interesting skill challenge later" or something.  Alternately, there needs to be a system for the DM to communicate to the players early in the fight that it's too hard for them.
  • Guard Something (or Someone):  Defeating the bad guys is not the point of the fight.  Protecting something or someone is the only purpose.  To that end, the heroes can negotiate, flee, or hide -- whatever helps.  The system for capturing or destroying the guarded item or person needs to be carefully balanced against the antagonists' capabilities, and the heroes should probably know the antagonists' capabilities in order to prepare for them.
  • Take Something Away:  The system for taking an item from another character in most RPGs is pretty complicated, if it exists at all.  Yet "get the phylactery by stealing the lich's scepter" or "take the key from the ogre and run" are interesting challenges.  The easy way to handle it in most games is to have the item sitting out or locked in a chest or something, and the antagonist attacking anyone who tries to get it.  But that limits your options.
  • Run and Hide:  Part of the problem with retreat is that in most RPGs, movement speeds are static and the PCs need to stick together -- especially if they're trying to run away and hide from their enemies somewhere.  So what do you do?  Again, this can be abstracted to a skill challenge.
  • Foot Chase:  Again with static movement!  A foot chase is the simplest conflict from a conceptual perspective, and such a complicated conflict by most rules.
  • Capture Someone:  How do you capture someone in D&D without dropping them to 0 hit points?  Even the best grapple systems still have round-to-round checks!
The process of a conflict scene goes like this:

After a challenge is introduced, the players will react to it, plan a strategy, and then employ it.  At this point, the GM should present the option space.  By that, I mean the range of acceptable options.  That range can vary based on the tastes of your group.

For instance, a gamist group might like the range of risk/reward offered by a list of options:  "At this point, you can pay the bandits' toll, try to intimidate them, attack them, or attempt to flee to a more defensible position."  The option space here is 4 options, as well as all the minor variants of each option (an intimidating bluff is different from an intimidating threat; and attacking with ranged attacks and dropping back to nearby cover is different from rushing the leader).

Another example for a more simulationist group could present a wider option space with fewer distinct choices.  "You're each chained to a stake in the bandit camp, not quite close enough together to touch.  As time passes you learn that they trust the stakes and don't watch you all that well.  After a day they stop caring if you talk to each other, but they can hear you.  Your goal is to escape, naturally.  Keeping in mind you could be overheard, feel free to discuss a plan.  The only OOC talk allowed here is when you talk to me."  This creates a simulation of a prison situation, and the option space is pretty wide:  The players can come up with any plan to escape from bribery to seduction to stealth.  This creates an opportunity for ludic/exploration play -- trying something doesn't close the option space, so you can experiment -- play -- with different ideas.

Note to self:  I should do another post about ludic play, the "exploration pillar," bounded but indistinct option space, and simulationist creative agenda.

After writing about flaws,a narrativist group may prefer to have a challenge presented that connects to their character flaws or personal hooks, so that they have an opportunity to include their story.  "The contact offers to meet you in his home or at a public bar.  Obviously it's safer to meet in a public place, but Humphrey's three months sober and craving a drink..."

In a highly simulation-driven group, you can let the players come up with solutions or spill them into a situation where any number of creative solutions can be attempted.  In a highly narrative group, you may want to limit the solutions to a few that lead to the most interesting outcomes, and make sure the players know what outcomes they're selecting for.  In a gamist grpup, you should consider this an opportunity to present risk-reward choices (so one option is high risk, high reward).

Summary

Alternate resolution options have to be...

  • Meaningful choices, tied to meaningfully divergent outcomes
  • Distinct and bounded or wide and bounded.  
    • Distinct in story opportunities (e.g ties to flaws, character hooks, etc.) or risk/reward opportunities (e.g. game choices); or
    • A wide (but still carefully bounded) option space with fewer distinct options and more opportunity for playful exploration, carefully scaffolded and bounded
Presumably you can also employ a wide and playful option space for narrative games as well.  You would create the A and B points and let the players describe how they get their characters from A to B, within certain bounds.      You can run this as pure storytelling, or mix it with gamist play by using a game system for it (Adventure! has just such a system).

LARP GMs take note!  This is directly related to my LARP Prep Manifesto!  It takes time to design distinct, meaningful choices.  It takes time to design the scaffold and boundaries for simulationist play.  It takes even more time to write it out so that an assistant or floor GM can implement it.