: Conflict resolution sans stakes
Once upon a time there was this guy. He was loyal, he was smart, he was effective with violence, and he really wanted to be with this one woman. He was played by Bruce Willis. There were also these bad-ass villains who weren't what they seemed, and their ruthless plan came between him and the woman in question. So he undertook to use his smarts, his violence, and his will to defeat them. He'd have to figure out who they really were, who he could trust and who he couldn't, where to apply violence and where to run away, and then follow through without misstepping to do it.
(You should recognize this as a passionate character locked into conflict across the line of his passion, fit to take on his fit opposition. You should get that we'll escalate, escalate, escalate to crisis and resolution and that's a story. If you don't, go read my old piece about Creating Theme, and if you still don't, say so in Ask a Frequent Question, not in this thread.)
So Bruce Willis' character, this woman, and these bad-ass villains, right, and it's you, me and Mitch playing a roleplaying game. We've got a bowlful of dice on the table. The question confronting us, right now and urgently, is: can the villains win? Can they really beat Bruce Willis' character at investigation, deception and violence? If they can, it makes sense to roll dice for them. If they can't, it doesn't. So can they?
If you're playing Die Hard, they can't. (I could make it a study question: list at least 3 dysfunctional behaviors required when you're playing Die Hard but you roll dice for the villains anyway.)
Die Hard isn't the only possible movie you're playing, though. There's also 12 Monkeys, right? Same setup, opposite outcome: he doesn't beat the villains and doesn't get to be with the woman. There's Last Man Standing, too, with the same setup and another different opposite outcome: he beats the villains, but only after they good and prevent him from being with the woman (by killing her).
NOW it makes sense to roll dice for the villains. You roll dice for the villains to find out which movie you're playing. When we created that opening situation and started play, we didn't know whether this was one where Bruce Willis' character wins, or one where Bruce Willis' character loses. We still don't know; we won't know until the end.
In fact, we know even less than that. I can't think of a movie off the top of my head, but what if Bruce Willis' character turns out to not even be a hero? What if we take the same setup and because of the dice it turns out, quite organically, that he doesn't deserve her? He's too cruel, too cold; it gradually dawns on us that we aren't seeing how far he'll go for love and loyalty, but how far he'll go to preserve his sense of entitlement, how far he'll go to own her. (It wasn't Bruce Willis, but didn't Memento turn out this way?)
This is, if you ask me, one of the essential beauties of narrativist roleplaying as a fictional form. I would not love the medium as much as I do without this feature.
It's also something that lots of people get, without analysis, and intuitively dislike. Character death is one of its manifestations; I suggest that part of your* discomfort with the idea of dice-imposed character death is discomfort with the idea of not knowing what genre you're playing in.
Ron talks about this in Sorcerer as the sorcerer's story's four possible outcomes, by the way. I find that game and its supplements consistently rewarding to read and reread.
* I leave it to you individually to self-select into or out of "your." If you individually don't feel discomfort with the idea of dice-imposed character death, groovy. Obviously I'm talking to someone else.
1. On 2006-10-02, PaulCzege wrote:
If you individually don't feel discomfort with the idea of dice-imposed character death, groovy. Obviously I'm talking to someone else.
Importantly, all four Bruce Willi are protagonists at the end of their respective narratives. I don't fear dice-imposed character death. I fear dice-imposed character deprotagonization.
Personally, I don't mind playing supporting cast once in a while, as long as there's a real protagonist for my character to be the supporting cast of. I even don't mind letting the dice decide whether this is one of those times.
But yes, fear of character deprotagonization is a whole different bug from fear of character death.
I don't know. When I'm worried about character death it's because I'm worried that I'm going to sit around not contributing meaningfully for the rest of the session. When I worry about de-protagonization, I'm worried about sitting around not contributing meaningfully all session.
Yeah, I mean, if I had a protagonizing character death, that's cool, but that's in the past. What am I doing now?
Character death is a black pit! All discussions of it suck. So okay, fine, you have discomfort with diced character death that isn't discomfort with not knowing upfront whether your character's going to win. Okay! I concede.
Let's talk about not knowing whether your character's going to succeed instead please.
We played Dogs in the Vineyard. Sister May, my character, had a shining vision of the future, and God told her what she needed to do to achieve it. The first step was to rally the townspeople behind her; each step would build momentum, so that when it came time to finally overthrow the U.S. she'd be poised and able.
And she couldn't achieve that first step. The stupid-ass townspeople fell to squabbling, they punched each other, and she lost. She lost them, she lost herself, she let God down, because the dice didn't back her up.
It was AWESOME. I learned something about people from it. The dice didn't deprotagonize her, they made her lose.
This post is stressing the element of chance in RPGs, right? I'm reading it as "How does the protagonist achieve or fail to achieve his goal?" rather than "What does it cost the protagonist to achieve his goal?" Is that a correct reading, Vincent?
Vincent, as an honest question with no snottiness, how does this impact on design now? Seems like we've already covered this and have the games to prove it. Or is this just an issue of gamer perception you are commenting on. Jus' feels like a bit of a nothingburger to me.
Its quite interesting to me to see how this notion of "This is one of the essential beauties of narrativist roleplaying as a fictional form. I would not love the medium as much as I do without this feature." is very similar to the old notion of GDS Simulationism with front loaded theme as frequently discussed by John Kim et.al.
In many ways its not the "D" that GNS replaced with an "N"...it was the "S"; with a great renting of clothes and gnashing of teeth that subsequently accompanied the recycling / repurposing of the "S".
I actually like the idea of de-protagonization, or whatever you want to call it. It's not something that you can do regularly because it because fatiguing, but if you're looking to sucker punch a player - and let's face it, some of us live to be sucker-punched - pulling the old, "Hey, guess what? This story? It isn't even about you," can be a great way to do it.
12 Monkeys explores this a bit. Willis' character is a nobody when he's sent back in time, and dies a failure. We're smacked around because we realize that noone, not even his handlers (the "scientists") have any clue what they're doing. He's the protagonist, but one steeped in pathos, and there's noone there to pick up the ball and run with it when he goes down.
Another one is Unbreakable. Willis' gets to be the protagonist again, but the twist ending destroys his sense of agency.
So I guess maybe I'm substituting agency for being the protagonist.
It's late. I'd have a better handle on this if I were rested. I'll try again tomorrow.
Ralph: In many ways its not the "D" that GNS replaced with an "N"...it was the "S"; with a great renting of clothes and gnashing of teeth...
Oh I think that's absolutely the case, that narrativism replaced simulationism (although "replaced" is a way-shorthand way to say it). I know personally that I'm satisfied by the exact same things in my roleplaying as I always was, it's just that the way I play now is more satisfying and more consistently satisfying than the way I played then.
But then, I figure GDS sim to be a philosophy of techniques, not a creative agenda thing at all. No reason why, properly applied, GDS sim doesn't make for great narrativist play.
I think I may be missing your point about not knowing being one of the essential beauties of narrativist play, though. Say again?
Guy: I'm curious as to how this relates to the topic of this post.
You mean how the post relates to the subject line? The post is about conflict resolution, with no reference to stakes.
Kirk: Jus' feels like a bit of a nothingburger to me.
Just to jump in with a somewhat tangential comment: I don't think that level of uncertainty is unique to RPG's at all. It's simply a trait of good stories. "Hamlet," for example, is nothing but uncertainty. And even though the plot of "Hamlet" hasn't contained a surprise for 400 years, some people still spend their academic careers trying to figure out what kind of a story it is, why Hamlet does what he does, and what conclusions we should draw from it.
(Incidentally, Vincent, you called it "genre uncertainty," but I kind of think it's "thematic uncertainty," since you're not really sure how the story's going to resolve its thematic crisis, or the stance its going to take on that resolution. The failure of the main character, or the revelation that they're not a main character at all, is really saying something about that character's issues, rather than the genre it's in.)
To drag back off the tangents about character death and deprotagonization and other well-beaten dead horses:
Vincent: You roll dice ...to find out which movie you're playing
I'd go further, because you get to make decisions about your dice rolls: decisions about what you're going to risk, about when, and, once those dice have rolled and the fortune is in the middle, about whether you're going to accept the consequences or risk something else to undo them. If those are real, non-obvious decisions -- dilemmas, which as I've said elsewhere are the sine qua non of both Gamist and Narrativist play - then most of your energy in play is going to be about those decisions. And those decisions, and how your fellow players react to them, are what really tells you who your character really is -- not any static "character concept" you came up with before play began.
I think this idea terrifies a lot of people, who prefer the character concept they came up with to be involate and simply want the play around the table to confirm that character. Which is actually a fine, socially sound, artistically legitimate way to play. I specifically think it's a major sub-category of "the Right to Dream" (aka "simulationism," ugly word though that is): Let's all share our imaginations and validate each other.
A smaller group of people aren't so frightened but are afraid of "deprotagonization," because they confuse "you're not allowed to play your character as you've envisioned him or her" with "you're allowed allow to play your character." But in fact, you are making decisions for your character, you do have options: It's just that none of options is "you are pretty much the person you thought you were before you were tested in this fire."
So I'd say:
You roll dice to find out which character you are really playing.
Maybe all this means that randomness ("dice") is much more important to "dilemma play" (Nar and Gam) than it is to "celebratory play" (Sim).
In "right to dream," randomness is there because realistically it should be there, because some things are unpredictable, and so a randomized outcome is sometimes the right outcome to preserve the integrity of the dream. But to the extent everyone around the table agrees that something in particular "obviously should" happen next -- whether because of the fictional physics or the fictional characters or the structure of the type of story you're telling -- you don't need randomness at all.
But in "story now" and "step on up," the role of randomness is as a source of adversity in itself: it's another force -- alongside your fellow players (GM included) -- to say, "no, you don't get what you want so easily, so now what do you do?" It's not merely a refinement of the simulation; it's a forcing function to throw you back into the dilemmas that are the driving engine of play.
Sydney, have you seen this article in Ludanta Retero? We covered (or at least started to cover), in a tentative way, the sort of behaviours you are talking about. Now my only real response is to just shrug, what can you do? Some people hate Othello because they wanted him to kill the bad-guy and get the girl and everything would be happy in the end. That's cool, just don't take them to the theatre to see Othello when they want to watch Die-Hard. Not saying there's anything wrong with this preference, just being practical.
So, I ran this game almost a decade ago, called Aquinan Angels. The player characters were angels and demons straight out of the Summa Theologica -- they were given comprehensive knowledge of the entire history of the universe at the moment of their creation, and then had a single choice whether to accept it and serve god as angels, or reject it and be demons. Nothing could ever change their minds because there was nothing new they could learn.
To run this game, we had a session where we figured out the plot ahead of time. Who were the characters, hom many scenes were in the story, what happened in each one, and so on. Then, we played out the scenes, playing the characters as people who knew the scenario and how it turned out and what they would do just as well as we did.
It created theme with supernova intensity, though you can't add dice or any other form of chance to it at all.
I'm feeling a little disconnect between what's being said and what I find important about randomness in games so I thought I'd chime in.
I like randomness when it takes me to unexpected places and makes me consider different options then what I had originally planned for a character or a game however I dont like randomness to determine who my character is or what he does.
Take games like Pendragon. I dont want a random dice roll determining that in this instance my lust score forces me to cheat on my wife. I want to make that decision.
I dont want games like Vampire where because of a random dice roll my character has to suck blood from whoever happens to be nearby. I want to decide whether I'm going to kill someone for my survival.
What I want randomness to do is provide me with interesting options I wouldnt have come up with on my own.
Not to make my character a villain without my consent, or a bit character.
What I want randomness to do is provide me with interesting options I wouldnt have come up with on my own.
Not to make my character a villain without my consent, or a bit character.
There's a story about the film "The Usual Suspects"... well, okay, look. It's ten years old, so if you haven't seen it it's high time that you did. Because there's a large spoiler coming up in the next paragraph. Okay?
There's a story, maybe apochryphal that after "The Usual Suspects" was wrapped, they gathered the cast and crew together to screen the final cut for the first time. If you don't recall, Agent Kujan questionins Verbal Kint for hours, building him to the conclusion - with substantial evidence from the events of the story - that Dean Keaton, Kint's boss and possibly friend, was actually infamous underworld kingpin Keyser Soze. At the end of the film, of course, it's revealed that Verbal Kint is actually Keyser Soze. (Maybe. Probably.) Gabriel Byrne, who played Keaton, was incensed, and reportedly accosted director Bryan Singer to tell him he'd gotten it wrong. I mean, let that sink in a minute: the actor grabs the director, after the film is completed, and tells him that the entire conclusion (and arguably the whole premise of the film) is borked.
You're Gabriel Byrne. What you're afraid of is that the director is going to make a decision that suddenly robs you, or your character, or whatever, of your agency. Only you only kinda have agency to begin with, because you're an actor reading a script in someone else's film.
Only you're actually not - you're playing in a game, not in a film, and all of your lines are improved. But there's still a director, and he either knows where the plot is going to take you, or he's going to roll dice to find out. Maybe he'll even ask you. But that is, after all, why he's the GM. Otherwise, what would you need a GM for?
Okay, let me see if I got this. The post is premised on the sans stakes talk, which I am assuming plays out like this: when you take out stakes talk, leave in conflict resolution, the results are more dynamic, and you have less control over them. The story may lose some thematic unity, but trades that for surprising and powerful transformation.
Dice/randomness are mentioned as a key element of this, but it seems that they are not necessarily where the 'real action' is. Without stakes, the conflicts get a touch more fine-grained--one thing stakes risk doing is 'jumping ahead' of the dice, and guaranteeing some pretty big story elements which, sans stakes, conflict resolution parcels out into smaller conflicts, each of which can change a character's narrative velocity and direction.
Sans stakes, you zoom in, take small steps, each of which can (by randomness or feedback from other people at the table) lead to profound changes in direction.
Michael: I like randomness when it takes me to unexpected places and makes me consider different options then what I had originally planned for a character or a game however I dont like randomness to determine who my character is or what he does.
Me too! Exactly right. Those two mechanisms you mention in particular, Pendragon's and Vampire's, suck bad. (There's some reason to believe that that's a misreading of Pendragon's rules that's so persistent it's become "the way to play Pendragon," but whatever.)
So let's accept as given that you and only you get to choose what your character undertakes to do. But now let's suppose that your character's undertaking to do something that's genuinely difficult - that maybe she can't pull off. Is that okay with you, or do you need to know at the start of the game that your character will defeat the villain, save the world, and win the girl?
Sam: Otherwise, what would you need a GM for?
Well now THAT's a good question.
In Dogs and the many games like it, your job as GM is to create a backstory and then play the NPCs - NPCs with understandable, even sympathetic, human motivations, and no special loyalty to any pre-conceived plot. From the moment of "go!" as GM you're an equal participant in what happens. You've got some different responsibilities, but no more power over the emerging plot than any of the other players.
I'd have to watch The Usual Suspects again before I'd be comfy talking about that flick in particular. (Last time I tried, I got bored after about ten minutes - does the movie reward rewatching?)
One game to check out for its handling of who-controls-the-backstory is Tim Kleinert's Mexican Standoff. The backstory in that game, including just who is Kaiser Soze, seems to be all up for grabs. I haven't played it, though, so I might be wrong - particularly, the urgency and the prisoner's dilemma might be so compelling that the backstory isn't a real concern and doesn't develop enough complexity for those kinds of reversals.
Ian: Pre-playing conflicts through stakes-setting is a problem all on its own. Here I'm just talking about conflict resolution and leaving talk of stakes-setting aside - that is, I'm trying to talk about why conflict resolution is cool however you do it procedurally. Your procedures might include functional forms of stakes-setting, or not, or whatever.
I feel some responsibility for how "conflict resolution" came to be synonymous with "preset stakes." In my earlier writing contrasting conflict resolution with task resolution, I left implicit the fact that in this exchange - "I crack the safe." "Why?" "To get dirt on the guy." - on the guy is the most significant part. "To get dirt" is just a higher-level task; "to get dirt on the guy" establishes the conflict of interest currently up for resolution.
Anyhow no, I don't figure that preset stakes vs. non-preset stakes has any implication on the scale of resolution.
"Stakes" are something that have to exist, but they can be implicit.
In Absinthe, player sheets are pretty much a list of stuff you care about. If you want to do anything, you risk your relationships to those things implicitly. They're your resources; by using your resources, you affect the things you care about. If it's not on that list, either you don't care about it or it should be written down.
That means that conflicts are without explicit stakes ??? the stuff you do determines what's at stake.
Do I know how the character's life will end? Nope! Do I know if they succeed? Not at first. Do I know what the dude will lose in the course of the story? No! But I know that the protagonists have the tools to succeed in changing the world for the better with the power of their vision and craft. I know that the players will make statments by what they write down and what they risk, and for what.
We roll dice (or whatever) to determine if this is a story about artists, triumphant against the grey world, or a story about art crushed as WWI looms. They both say things about artists and art (maybe they even say the same things) but the events of the story will be tightly tied into what those characters are designed to address no matter what.
Is this what you're talking about, V? Cuz if so, I'm with Kirk and his big "Well, duh." I mean, stakes setting is a transitional technology and we're doing other things too. But... so? Where does this take us?
What I remember of Pendragon's personality traits actually puts most of a knight's behavior in the player's control. Unless a trait is 15 or higher (out of 20), it won't overrule an insistent player - and it will rise or fall according to how a player has his knight behave. Your knight won't sleep around over your objections without a Lustful 15 or higher, and since a Christian knight starts at Chaste 13 / Lustful 7, it isn't likely at all unless you want it to be. Even if you are stuck with a too-high trait, if you are always trying to act against it, the trait will only go down, never up. The trait- or passion-based compulsion that actually exists in the system allows a Gawain to be tripped up by his lust, or a Lancelot to be affected by his passion for Guinevere.
As for Vampire, I think that something like the frenzy rules would rock on toast if the entire game supported the premise that a player-character vampire's behavior was an honest-to-goodness bone of contention. Instead, along with certain disciplines such as Dominate and Presence, it become a semirandom "gotcha", stroking the game designers' egos at the expense of the players. Or maybe: because Anne Rice never addressed such a premise, it follows that Vampire would only address it superficially. (hmmm ... must sheathe claws) For a literary example of a vampire's behavior as bone of contention, I would recommend Agyar, by Stephen Brust.
How do you behave? Do you control yourself? Does someone else control you? Is your story Agyar? Or is it User Friendly (by Spider Robinson)? Externally controllable behavior can be a dramatic copout, or it can be effective story-meat.
I'd say Fifth Element is just "Die Hard" again: beats bad guys, gets girl.
So's Pulp Fiction, though with a twist: makes peace with bad guys, gets girl.
Sin City, he doesn't get the girl, 'cause he dies. So it's Beats bad guy, saves girl, dies.
Which is I guess all within Vincent's big point, which is that they're ALL fun, and seeing whcih one the system leads us to is fun. Perhaps it's useful to chart all these out to see (for instance) that what people are invested in can vary more than just lose/win or live/die. ("He dies? OK, but only so long as he saves her." Or perhaps I only charted them out just because.
I like this game of "Which Bruce Willis are you?" It takes the samey-ness of Willis portrayals to a whole new level. And maybe just barely hints at why we love him so much evewn though he's kinda the same guy in every movie. I want to publish a book for Young Adults now called "Chose Your Own Willis."
In my case, Vincent, I think it's a big "duh," but probably only since recently. It's a significant duh, in that it ties into (as in is the same point, really) the for me recent realization that conflict resolution isn't amechanic or whatever, you can be doing with any system, anywhere, anytime, so long as all your rolls are all banked toward resolving the conflict. That Con Res must be a specific funky mechanic is a misunderstanding I'm afraid I fostered on my brother who I play with, in my early theory-reading and theory-understanding days, to the effect that he's hostile or at least unattracted to con res in a way that I think is at least half misconception.
Another sub-poiint to this is that people were DOING THIS SHIT long before we had the Forge hippie games to give support and procedures for it. I've been watching Settembrini's interview clips with Ron Edwards, and his talk about Champions play and using Disads for positioning and address of theme is just awesome. I wish I could send that video back to my fifteen year old self.
PS I read the Ludanta post, and found this amusing: Carrie: "So did you watch Buffy? I promise this is relevant.
The episode ???The Body??? almost killed that series for me, because Joss Whedon is an ass when it comes to character death. . .[snip]. . .And ???damage??? doesn???t have to mean something that???s bad for the *character*; it just has to be bad for the *concept*: what fun is Cyclops if he can control his power?"
I just couldn't stop chuckling to myself and thinking, "I wonder if she knows Joss just got through giving Cyclops control of his power?"
Those two mechanisms you mention in particular, Pendragon's and Vampire's, suck bad.
Wait, wait, wait...that "sucks bad"? I don't understand why that is. Let me explain why:
You take a character, you decide "This guy is a lusty cheater and feels guilty as hell about it, but he does it anyways." So you plop down "Lust" on your sheet with some value.
The question the dice resolve is: am I going to cheat on my wife? How is that any different from the dice determining randomly whether you, the greatest swordsman on three continents, successfully strikes the blow against the arch-enemy who murdered your entire family?
If I'm playing a game about a guy who sold his soul and his humanity for power and immortality, and the price is that I having a burning, nigh-uncontrollable hunger to contend with that drives me to murder and drink blood...well, shouldn't the game be dealing with the fact that at any moment the beast in me could rise up, thirsty and murderous, and I may succumb against my wishes to do so?
That's what the game is about: "I have an uncontrollable monster inside me."
Why does dealing with that suck?
After all, by playing a vampire, I am asking for that to be a problem in play. I am asking that my character not do what I necessarily want him to do and get in trouble for it because...that's human nature.
I get angry when I shouldn't, I do things I shouldn't when I know better. Why is my character any different (especially if I'm deciding what those problem areas will be)?
Raven, I can see it working in some hypothetical game, but I'd want much better systemic support than either of those two games provide. (This could very well include a cunningly drifted version of the game in question.)
In the context of 'old piece about Creating Theme' does this thing mean that during conflict resolution dice can influence and change initial issue itself?
Like when there is a protagonist and dice do cut her out of participation in resolving conflict based on this particular issue we just find another meaning of this conflict or wholly different conflict (another issue) and it is a cool twist, right?
Or am I getting something wrong..?
...I'm an ignorant fool and that's probably the reason I fail to see the connection between the concept of conflict resolution and the death of poor Bruce Willis.
According to The Provisional Glossary conflict resolution comes into play on a different level ...or what?
Would someone please enlighten me
Take Bruce Willis' guy at the beginning of the movie. How that guy becomes who he is, where he is, dead or triumphant or whatever, at the end of the movie - how he becomes that is through a long series of conflict resolutions.
How this conflict resolves determines where the story goes next. Altogether, how the conflicts resolve determines how the story ends.
I know I'm being terribly dense here. But if the potential mortality or 'de-protagonization' of the charachters is what you desire for your game, how and in what sense can that not be achieved using task resolution?
For the uninitiated (that would be me) it would seem to be a simple matter of deciding: 'Henceforth player charachters are no longer immortal' and adjusting system (in the widest sense of the word) accordingly.
Vincent, are you then talking about a sort of uber-genre, defined as, I guess, indeterminate? As in a group of rpgs where part of the point is that you don't know who and what your PC is in a lot of broad ways? And things that don't fit into that genre -- well, don't fit in. Maybe there's several other categories, maybe one, but it doesn't matter because that's not what you're talking about.
Again, this may be obvious, but folks, definitely including me, have gotten tripped up by missing the obvious contexts.
Big yes and there with you on everything except Pendragon.
I will make a note here: Ron is right about Pendragon. It is a Sim game, not a Nar game. So if you're approaching it wanting to make Nar choices you shouldn't be surprised when it bites you.
However, as a Sim game of Malory and similar literature it is stellar. The difference is between "here is this character, now I figure out who he is through conflict" and "here is this character whom I know, now I see what happens to him in conflict."
Which, I suppose, only makes sense when you consider that in legends you already know how the story turns out where as in modern stories you (supposedly) don't.