2004-12-21 : Archive 137

I started posting at the Forge in August 2001. I was the 116th person to sign up. Now there are 3,854. I've written about 1200 posts there, almost one per day. Mine are less than 1% of the total. 300 pages of threads in the general forums, 30 threads per page, 2 to 100+ posts per thread. The Forge is on-topic enough that you can safely ignore only, oh, half of the threads, maybe two thirds. Let's round down and say that to own the Forge you have to read 20,000 posts. Let's be generous and say that reading the essays will substitute for 10,000 of them, so if you prefer: all the essays and 10,000 posts.

Now let's say that I want to discuss RPG design with a friend. My friend isn't a Forgie, but I say: "let's talk Technique. Nailing IIEE is fundamental to your group's apportionment of Credibility, which is the baseline of play. FitM is better than FatE in every circumstance I've examined (plus gives you many opportunities for in-the-moment Reward, there's really no downside). And if you go with Task Resolution instead of Conflict Resolution, lordy lordy! You're foisting Social Contract negotiation off onto the instincts of your eventual players, which is a massive setup for dysfunction. God forbid you have Task Resolution plus a GM; you might as well write 'my game sucks' on every page."

My friend says: "sure thing, Vincent. Lat0rz."

It's a stumper. How do I tell people that Task Resolution's dominance in design has been perpetrated by crap GMs to keep the people down, but Conflict Resolution will free your soul, when I have to start with "okay, so, first, the rules of an RPG are social rules that apply only to the actual human players, not to the made-up characters and things in the game..."?

There're two pieces. Piece one: a good and accurate description of roleplaying. Here is what happens when you roleplay. (Problem being: the accurate description flies in the face of cherished wisdom.) Piece two: given that, prescriptions. Here is how to structure a game to get what you want. (Problem being: to talk about improving a game, you have to admit that it's not satisfying as it is, which boy-o-boy do gamers hate to do.)

At the Forge, those two pieces have grown up together, with the first piece leading the second by only a couple months' work and the problems sorting themselves out as we go. Each new development in description has led to applications, organically. I own the Forge because it happened to me with my hands in it; I'm not confronted with 20,000 posts I haven't ever read before. But now we're at a place where the describing is ... mostly done! Believe it or not. Had you heard, roleplaying is understood? If you ask me, I can tell you what roleplaying is and how it works. It's an answered question! But that means that if you come to the Forge today, you don't get to participate so much in the description part. You have to learn description, not create it.

I could talk about how uncomfortable that must be for new Forge people, on account of how hard they've worked on their own and how earth-shaking their insights have been to them - but then we dismiss them either as incorrect or as old news. But that's another topic, the society of the Forge.

The work of prescription - that is, game design - can be ongoing and open-ended in a way that the work of description can't and shouldn't. In a lot of ways, informed game design is just now beginning. That's another topic too, the brilliant blinding future. I can hardly wait.

But meanwhile ... me and my friend. I want to talk prescription. I want to explain why Dogs in the Vineyard is as it is. I want to pick apart my friend's functional group dynamic and mine it for game design - after all, the point of game design is to make a functional group dynamic portable to other groups. But I'm stumped: how do I distill 20,000 posts' worth of describing, arguing, convincing, solving, reassuring into something manageable? How do I show my friend where I'm coming from and what I'm after, in a way that fits into my friend's busy schedule?

Any thoughts?

P.S. Emily's writing an essay about co-GMing. It's hard, she's struggling with it, I don't envy her one single bit. It's going to be a great essay but dag a lot of work. How happy I am that I'm not writing an essay about roleplaying too. So happy! Happy, happy, happy and doomed.

1. On 2004-12-21, Meguey said:

Oh, you are *so* doomed. I'm lucky to be a way fringy part of the Forge, enough to have totally followed the above bit. You are doomed.


2. On 2004-12-21, Ben Lehman said:

I think that the glossary wiki is a good start. Anything that gives people a handle is a good start.

But, deep down, we need a textbook. And someone who is a clear, cogent writer to write it.


Not that I would know anyone who fits that description.


(looks at you meaningfully.)


P.S. It occurs to me that it is time to trim and adapt our vocabulary. See, what we have is piles upon piles of cruft, built up over the years, from conversations. Conversations are great for developing ideas, but poor for teaching them. Now that, as you say, were are approaching done, let's try to compile it in some sort of sensible, digestable form. (Which, despite the essays, I don't think exists.)

This would be a painful procedure. It would mean tossing out cherished terms, it would mean uncomfortable examinations about what really matters and what doesn't. It would involve us looking at our own knowledge and seeing all the faults. But I think it is worth doing.


3. On 2004-12-21, Charles said:

As one interested in discussing such things who has no history with the Forge, I am very interested in the question. However, I don't have much help of an answer at the moment. I'll try to think about over the next week (I'm in NC visiting family, so not much on the net).


4. On 2004-12-22, jonathan said:

Why do I get the feeling that the friend might be me? ;-)

One of the problems might be that I'm not a designer or even a GM, I'm a player who tends to just enjoy the games. I've almost never felt like I was being tyranized by a GM (*almost,* there have been times). Hell, I'm even enjoying playing through modules right now. So, beyond defining terms, you have to convince me somehow that your basic premise is valid, not just for *your* enjoyment of a game, but for regular players. I have no problem with task resolution in d20, I don't personally see it as inherently unfair to me. (And I've had enough GMs quietly swear to themselves when their monsters/NPCs roll really badly to make me wonder whether task resolution really does mean the GM has real power to control all outcomes.)

I also realize we often talk at cross purposes here. That might be because I've never been part of the Forge discussions, don't understand the terms, etc. It might also be that I have a hard time picturing the rules in my mind as you describe them. That's one of the many reasons I'm glad you sent me a copy of DitV, so I can read it and try to get my head around it. (Hopefully, I can do that before school starts again, or else it might have to wait until March for full cognition.) I'll try to create a character (i.e. the first thing you do to try and really understand a system) and maybe talk some of the guys into trying it out and giving you feedback from a non-Forge perspective. Which might actually be really valuable—if you're having problems explaining things to a non-Forge friend who's happy with the gaming he/she's been doing, does that mean your conclusions about design and enjoyment might not be valid for everyone? Could the Forge list have created a bit of a "preaching to the choir" audience/discussion group? (It's late here, I hope you see what I mean by this.)

Anyway, as I said, I'm gonna try and get DitV read by January (it's on the pile) and maybe see if folks want to try a game. I'll specifically try and get Jerry to play. True, he's designed very different games than this, but he does have a bit of a professional perspective and all that. :-)

And yes, definition/jettisoning of arcane terms might be the first step. ;-)


5. On 2004-12-22, kreg said:

Seriously...then there's the friends who will inevitably say "err..ok, well, WE play the games to HAVE FUN, not build theoretical rocketships that will carry us to the world of gaming theory." (or at least that's the rough equivalent of what I have been told...)

There are several people who i have shared posts from the Forge, or copies of indy games with, who seriously can't get past the whole "guy in monacle lording his deep knowledge of gaming over me"-thing. That's one of the many reasons I've never even bothered posting much AT the Forge...yeah, it's great to read, but sometimes a game is just a GAME.



6. On 2004-12-22, Vincent said:

Jonathan, about Dogs in particular - no, no such concerns. Read it or not, play it or not, show it to all those guys or not - I sent it to you because I want to share, not to get feedback. If you say "aw, Vincent thought of me" and stick it in a drawer, I'm just as happy as if you read, play and discuss.

I get lots of feedback, Forge- and non-Forge-; I don't need to put expectations on my friends.

But about theory, Jonathan and Kreg: you should know that I have two distinct approaches to communicating RPG design theory. The first is overt discussion, where I actually talk to someone about theory. It's hard, and if both people aren't into it there's no point. Thus I talk theory pretty much only with other self-identified theorists - the question here being, how do I talk Forge theory with non-Forge theorists?

My second approach to communicating theory - my exclusive approach when my audience is non-theorists - is game design. There's very little theory in Dogs' text, you'll notice. Instead it's all about how to play. The way I figure it, when people read the book and play the game, some of them are going to ask me why I did things the way I did, and that's opening theory as a topic. The majority are just going to enjoy the game. Yay!

I have enough to do in my life without trying to get theoretical with happy gamers who aren't interested.


7. On 2004-12-22, Council Member Coyote said:

Sure, sure. Steal and deal with all my gripes seconds before I get to post em. I must be some one who qualifies as both a happy gamer and someone intrested in game design, since we discuss all (though not to the depth Forgites do). I will say, that the vast majority of gaming pleasure is the people you game with and not the system(s) you play. They do add and can subtract, but the people are it I say. They best part of the session we had this past Friday was the diceless/conflictless part where it was all roleplaying. And that was people. The people are also the worst part, a crap GM is carp no matter what system and I advise any one who has one to RUN !


8. On 2004-12-22, Vincent said:

Ben: good god, a textbook. And here I was feeling happy and doomed to not be writing a mere essay.

Trav: okay, so that best part of your game Friday - how does my group get the same? Is my group screwed, just because we aren't the same people as you? Can we not learn from your experience?

The point of game design is to make a functional social dynamic portable to another group. I promise you, your group was playing by rules throughout the session - it's just that the real rules, the important rules, were unspoken and unwritten. You negotiated them among yourselves, you didn't get them from the rulebook. They're about who gets to say what about what, and when. They're about the real people sitting at the table, not about the made up characters and stuff in the game world.

So: it may be that there's a way to formalize what you did. It may be that the right set of rules - and please, throw out "roll this-or-under to hit" and "your character can lift this-times-100," that's not what I'm talking about, I'm talking about who at the table gets to say what about what, and when - it may be that the right set of rules can give my group the fun experience your group had.


9. On 2004-12-22, Vincent said:

Oh and this is important - I'm not going to defend "Task Resolution + a GM = foisting Social Contract negotiation = sucky game design" to anybody without first establishing a description of roleplaying to our shared satisfaction, plus establishing just what I mean by "sucky" and whether it applies to your enjoyment of play. Which I haven't done with anybody here so far, but maybe Ben.


10. On 2004-12-22, jonathan said:

Well, so far, Dogs looks great. :-) I love the background; I've just read up to character creation and have had to set it down for a bit.

I figured that wasn't *why* you sent it, but I'm hoping to be able to get my mind around where you're at *through* it, if you see what I mean. I'm not expecting theory, but my problem's been I can't seem to picture how your gaming ideas work in *practice.* Which is part of what I'm hoping to get out of Dogs. That and, hopefully! some cool-ass gaming. :-)

Oh, and since I didn't mention it in my e-mail, Drew's cover picture is *amazing!*


11. On 2004-12-22, Emily Care said:

Drew's cover _is_ awesome. And Vincent's really right that the way to reach folks who ain't interested in theory is to just design games that prove what all the fat-chewing is about. The proof is in the pudding, you can't eat a recipe.

On the other hand, I have no small amount of impatience for a textbook of all the good, down-to-earth, constructive bits of role playing theory that have come from the Forge (, frpg.advocacy (, the gaming outpost (, and so on being written out in clear, plain anglais that anybody could 1)understand easily and 2)find useful and interesting without being addicted to the view from ivory tower windows.

I mean, take for example scene-framing. Standard role-playing games say not word one about where to start or begin a scene, it's all left up to "gm inspiration", and it is assumed that everyone who runs a game will know how to introduce tension by beginning a scene in the middle of action. Or be aware of their players preferences for getting a sense of the surroundings, time of day and weather. Or know when to end a scene so it doesn't ramble on into an eternity of dullness. All these things right now are left up to each gm to learn over time. It's certainly possible, but if there was just a baseline understanding that you can think about these things and make choices that support different desires for play, then of course play would benefit because folks simply would have more awareness about a simple operation in gaming that has a ton of effect on how enjoyable play is. That's the kind of thing I'd like to see get disseminated. It's basic, salt-of-the-earth useful, and it's also not the kind of thing people start off with when they talk about rpg theory. If we start off in the stratosphere with "gns dysfunction", of course we're gonna turn folks off.

So, for me the Roleplaying Handbook project ( what I'd like to see become manifest. (Thanks to Jonathan Walton & Chris Lehrich for conceiving of it). John Kim's website ( is thorough and formidable, and it—along with the now vamped wikipedia of gaming that Ben mentioned (—really put people in a much better position to grok rpg theory than I think you credit, Vincent. But it's still tons of info to take in. What is needed is all that info put together in one place, written with the audience you're talking about in mind, concisely and well.

And though the thought of foisting it off on Vincent it quite tempting (not our fault you've cultivated all that powaful writing talent—go polish up your blemishes if you want folks to get off your back, V. : ), a project of this type would really be best done by a group or community. It's a huge project, and many voices would be better than one.


ps Vincent it pains me that there is no preview function in anyway. I apologize in advance for all the screwy run-on and messed up sentences I will write here.


12. On 2004-12-22, kreg said:

Vincent: i think the gist of what i'm saying is that if i could, as you mentioned, find a way to distill the Forge concepts into some sort of palatable Bouillabaisse for friends, i could actually get the old stick-in-the-muds sold on 90% of the concepts. i mean, i KNOW they're yearning for something different, but can't really express it themselves.

Emily: the idea of a RPG Handbook, esp. one done by the Forge crew, would be sweet as all get-out. a handbook, cleverly disguised as a game maybe, with all of the "core concepts" de-mystified and given lengthy examples, would be possibly the sweetest thing ever.

also, i have to, like, 3rd or 4th the "Drew's cover is SWEET" sentiment...good stuff. i keep Dogs on my nightstand so i can re-read the book routinely. every reading continues to hammer home what a great work it is. was just finishing up my Jan/Feb edition of "True West Magazine" and found an article of the filming of an "Investigating History" History channel program about the Mountain Meadows Massacare. wow...the things you never heard about in school.


13. On 2004-12-23, Ben Lehman said:

This is a bit of a tangent, and them folks what is not Vincent and Emily may not get all the terms, but...

I actually have been having some ideas recently about how people get enjoyable play out of Task Resolving GMed systems, and also what subset of rules Task Resolution really actually works quite well for. It presently involves D&D 3rd edition as the chief example, though, so I don't know if I have it refined enough to explain to you yet.

But heck, I've got some time, so let's give this puppy a shot. Arf! Arf! Nice doggie. This won't hurt at all....

Essentially, I think when most people are saying how "Task Resolution systems are just fine" and "a crap GM is crap no matter what and a good GM is good no matter what, so system doesn't really matter," they are telling the truth, insofar as they have experienced it. As proper theorists, we need to accept that people are not stupid, and know when they are having fun. I think you're totally on board with this, just stating it to begin with.

But you and I know that Task Resolution, in the reasonably undefined arena of most RPG play, is just GM fiat, with bitching. What I'm going to propose is that GM fiat is exactly what most people like about this. Task resolution means not playing for keeps, 'cause the GM can always soften the blow with rerolls and sleight of hand. And that's okay. Most RPers have been burned by unpleasant mechanics at one point or another. Why should they trust mechanics? A "good" GM will do what mechanics will "never" do for them—he will provide conflict resolution in a way that they find dramatic and pleasing. The role of the player here is not as a contributor to the game, but rather as a hyper-audience. The goal is to be as immersed and emotionally involved as possible in the GM's storyline. But, make no mistake, it is the GM's storyline, and everyone involved knows that.

A lot of people play like this. And a lot of people like it (heck, I like it just fine myself). What is going on here is that the task resolution is not really important in any solid sense. Rather, the game is based around a conflict resolution system that is entirely controlled by a GM, although a good GM will have a grasp of dramatic pacing and/or the ability to read the player's reactions and give them what they want, storywise.

In dysfunctional groups, there is of course social manipulation and bullying, but I think that this is only a dysfunctional case, and that a "good game" where the GM is providing the plot that the players want via fiated conflict resolution dressed as task resolution is totally feasible.

This is what is meant by "story" and "storytelling" in most RPG circles, I think.

But see, that isn't task resolution, really at all. It's a ghostly task resolution system riding on a social-contract level conflict resolution system.

So why is there task resolution? Why did we ever even start to do this? Well, again, I think that the only possible answer for this is "it works well, which is to say is fun." The question we should be asking is "what does it work well for?"

The problem with task resolution in most RPG set-ups, we both agree, is that it doesn't actually resolve a conflict, 'cause a GM can and will turn losses into victories and victories into losses as is his wont. But there are RPG situations in which this isn't the case, because the consequences of success and failure are clearly delineated in each roll. In other words, we have a concrete mechanical explanation of what the stakes of this roll are—what it means to fail the task, what it means to succeed in the task. Unfortunately, this is only really applicable to one small aspect of RPG design.

You guessed it (or didn't)—combat systems! For example, if I am in combat in a D&D game, the GM can't handwave my hits away—each hit does a certain amount of damage, rolled publically, and the monster loses that many hit points, unless the monster has some pre-defined ability to negate certain attacks, and even then there is a mechanical apparatus. Not only that, but a well-defined combat system also doesn't allow hand-waving with regard to range, cover, etc. which the GM could also use to adjust the outcomes of the situation to his liking.

So here we have a very functional task resolution system, and there is one in nearly every RPG! Wow! But, you can't use the combat system for everything. Why?

Because, it rests on a whole lot of pre-defined abilities and effects. Any "looseness" allows the GM to fiat resolution to the conflict vanishes, and it suddenly actually does become about character task resolution abilities. But the cost is pre-developing the consequences, which is hard. D&D3 has hundreds of pages of combat rules, plus books full of errata. Just for fighting things. Imagine if similar structures existed for debate, diplomacy, stealth, mecahnical problems, seduction, piloting, riding, travelling and stock trading. You'd have a great, well-defined, task resolution RPG. It'd also be 1000s of pages long, and impossible to learn.

This is the reason why non-combat skills are simply not as cool as combat skills. It doesn't matter how often or not combat comes up in your game. Combat skills matter, because the system forces them to matter, by giving consequences to their associated tasks. With no hardline, attached consequences, the non-combat skills simply become a part of the GM-fiated conflict resolution system, and that's just not as cool, because you knew it had to be that way anyway.


P.S. I think that there is another task resolution system which works, which is one where the GM sets up a reasonably complicated situation beforehand, and follows it through task by task until whatever conclusion it reaches, come hell or high water. I also think that this sort of GMing is much less common than people say it is, because GMs of the fiat type often claim to be these GMs, because they prefer a veil, and possibly even aren't aware of their Drama resolution themselves. Again, this works because the actions have pre-defined consequences.


14. On 2004-12-23, Tom said:


Ben beat me to it.

I was going to posit something along his lines. Something like: Task Resolution *is* Conflict Resolution when the conflict is "Do I kill it or not?". And I have a lot of fun mowing down orcs. Not so much fun being killed by a one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged Ogre Chef (no joke!), but there was no fudging, no GM-fiat. He presented the situation, I made my choices and let the dice fall where they may. The conflict was resolved via task resolution with me at -22 HP (memo to self: you are a Rouge, not a Fighter!).

It's easy enough to say, "Well, D&D is just a wargame with a trip to the store between fights; it's not usually a very deep role-playing experience" and I suppose that's true to some degree. But I also think that you can have a Conflict Resolution system that works on a macro-scale (a la Dogs and Heroquest) where you have to fill in the details of what your results mean OR you can have a detailed Task Resolution system (a la just about everything else, but let's go with Phoenix Command) where you have to string together a bunch of little Tasks and use those to resolve the conflict. I think it really depends on which end of the scale you have more interest in. And considering the early roots of RPGs, I suspect that there's a heavy micro-management slant in many RPGers.



15. On 2004-12-23, Vincent said:

Ben, Tom - that makes massive sense.

One little note I want to pick up: Conflict Resolution by GM fiat is hard work for the GM. When I design Conflict Resolution rules, it's not to protect the players from a bad GM. (I'm with Trav - you should ditch out of that game.) It's to take the GM load off. The expectations put on a GM by a conventional RPG setup are rough, often dysfunctional, and there are easier ways to get the goods.


16. On 2004-12-23, Vincent said:

Here are Em's links, linkinated:the Forgefrpg.advocacythe gaming outpostthe Roleplaying Handbook projectJohn Kim's websitethe now vamped wikipedia of gaming that Ben mentioned


17. On 2004-12-23, Emily Care said:


I just want to follow up Ben's post with an illustration of why it would be that task resolution ends up equalling GM fiat. I stole it from Vincent, so if you've heard it already, bear with me. It actually is a bit different from what you're describing as GM fiat in task res, Ben, so it may have different ramifications.

So, a player and a gm are discussing events in a game. The player's character is pursuing a lead on nabbing the villain, and just needs some proof that is said to be locked away in someone's safe. That's the situation.

The hero wants to nab the villain. Getting the proof to do so is what's at stake in the conflict.

The tasks involved may include: breaking in to the office where the safe is, avoiding detection while in there, and getting the safe open.

So this can be handled in a variety of ways. The GM could run the player through task resolution on each step leading up to getting the safe open. Or all the tasks could be lumped together: make one roll and bang—you get in or you don't. Note that even if the player gets the best possible outcome on all the tasks, the GM still has the power to say whether the needed papers actually are in the safe—this is where the fiat comes in—all that grand effort put into getting in to the safe means diddly since the player had nada to say about achieving their actual goals. Unless you define what's really at stake, ie what the player and or the character want to achieve, task resolution can be a sop to make players feel like they've got input into what's going on. If they don't want input, that's another thing, but if they do, it's bunk.

Another option is to use conflict resolution. In this case what will happen is that the GM and the player will agree about what's really at stake here: getting the goods on the villain. That way, when the outcome resolution gets figured, the player can't get short-changed. If they succeed, they succeed in what actually mattered to them, not smaller related contests that may or may not have any real impact on the larger goal. A nested structure of task & conflict res, would probably be quite satisfying, too.

So, Ben, good call about combat. It's an area where task often lines right up with what's at stake in the conflict. But, I guess I'd have to say that task resolution will have wiggle room for fiat, even if every conceivable possible outcome is enumerated. Unless task=conflict the player can't be sure of having say. Again, it's purely preference as to whether that's okay and enjoyable, but it sure would seem simpler to just cut the players in on having substantive input on outcomes rather than spending our lives reading and writing endless pages of charts and tables, especially when that won't guarantee anything anyway.

I think you hit it bang on, Ben, that the reason why combat rules are fun is because they are given perceivable consequences. What you do matters and affect other parts of the game world. But I submit that it's mainly since players are cut out of being able to do that in other arenas that so much focus is put on this one thing.



18. On 2004-12-23, Chris Goodwin said:

Thus I talk theory pretty much only with other self-identified theorists - the question here being, how do I talk Forge theory with non-Forge theorists?

Design cool games that they will play and that embody the theory. That's the only thing I can think of. A spoonful of sugar....

People have to have some understanding of the theory and the concepts before they can talk about it. I cringe when I read threads on discussing GNS or anything else that dips into Forge territory, because invariably they get someone popping in saying "This sounds like Forge stuff, and I avoid the Forge like the plague, but here's what I think..." They end up either reinventing the wheel (and making it square in the process) or misusing the terms, and either way they just sound pretentious.



19. On 2004-12-23, jonathan said:

Once again, I have to say that my experience is differing here. My friends and I have been playing a *lot* of D&D lately. I see what Ben is saying, and it might sometimes be true, but it doesn't have to be. A few points:

1. Not all DMs "soften the blow." There are a lot out there (some of my friends among them) who let the dice rolls tell the story. If you fail, you fail, if you get hit and die, you get hit and die. If you're at -7HP, it's up to the party to figure out how to save you, not the DM. (Which is, I think, exactly the kind of thing that goes against the idea of "GM fiat.")

2. D&D 3E has essentially made a lot of what you're unhappy about verboten anyway. The idea is that tasks to be resolved have specific difficulties (DCs), many of which are essentially spelled out prior to the game. Sure, a DM can (and probably sometimes does) adjust them, but that's less fiat and more so the players can make it through something and enjoy themselves. But it's something that's worked out *before* the game. This makes task resolution, in some ways, like combat resolution, where you're trying to roll over a specific number to accomplish what you want to do (open a safe or hit that guy).

3. There are cases where, in what might be called "situational resolution", you do have to roll off between either characters or characters and NPCs—things like bluff, hides, etc. Basically, you roll on your skill with something and your opponent rolls on their opposite skill. (i.e. hide vs. spot.) The results are then the results.

There were other things I was going to say on the subject, but they've flown out of my head. Still, I think Tweet and Cooke did good work balancing a lot in 3E.

Anyway, I agree that some players don't mind some GM fiat for story reasons—which is why they're players and not GMs. I enjoy the hell out of games run by my friends that could involve examples like Emily put up there. Red Herrings (as in "the safe you worked so hard to get into *doesn't* have the papers) might sometimes be frustrating, but they add to both suspense and (sometimes) realism. I don't get the feeling of being jerked around, possibly for Ben's "social contract" reasons; I enjoy playing and getting through the story. (Here's where I talk in examples that only Meg and Vincent can probably understand.) If I'm playing in a game run by my friend Jerry, for example, I know that he's essentially worked out the broad outlines with a lot of room for us to wiggle around and do stuff he's not expecting. If I'm playing in a game run by my friend Matt (not the Matt who occasionally posts here, but hi to that Matt!), I know in the back of my head that he has a starting point and then makes it up as he goes along based on what we do, though it always *feels* like he had it planned all along. So, one might be based more on you concept of "GM fiat" and one might be more along your lines of, well, non-GM fiat. But honestly, I can enjoy *both* games a hell of a lot because both guys are very good at what they do and make an effort to get the players involved and entertained, and we make the effort to involve and entertain them as GMs.

That's why I see this debate as ultimately academic and I continue to say it all comes down to the group. Reading Dogs (I'm about halfway done and am understanding it far better when reading on paper than I ever did on screen), I can see where, with a good group, you could have some awesome games. But I can also see where, with a group which isn't good/is disruptive/is inexperienced/whatever, you could have some completely chaotic, terrible games. It *is* partially about group dynamic. You could say that games like D&D (or Cyberpunk or even the old Star Wars) worked with a net and you're walking the tightrope without one, which is great. But it doesn't necessarily make for a better game.

Ok, here's hoping the above made *some* sense (from outsider me) and I'm not just babbling. :-)


20. On 2004-12-23, Mad Hatter said:

Vincent, I am one of those folks who drifts at the fringes of the Forge, but I have never delved deeply into those 20,000 posts, nor do I have the time to do so. I don't post a lot because I don't have the background.

On the GM fiat question, I totally agree with you. My main problem with Amber was that everything was left up to me as GM, and the stress was pretty great! I felt so totally arbitrary and railroad-y all the time.


21. On 2004-12-23, Mad Hatter said:

I forgot to sign my post.

- Brennan Taylor


22. On 2004-12-23, Emily Care said:

Hi Jonathan! Makes sense to me. Hope y'all are doing well! : )

Jonathan wrote:"If I'm playing in a game run by my friend Jerry, for example, I know that he's essentially worked out the broad outlines with a lot of room for us to wiggle around and do stuff he's not expecting. If I'm playing in a game run by my friend Matt (not the Matt who occasionally posts here, but hi to that Matt!), I know in the back of my head that he has a starting point and then makes it up as he goes along based on what we do, though it always *feels* like he had it planned all along."

Thems the magic words. If that's how Jerry and Matt play, then they probably are very satisfying GMs precisely because they respond to what the players create/are interested in and so on. As is shown by your example, the same exact rules can be applied completely different ways in different hands. And since so much of it is up to the GM's experience and ability, it's likely to be hit or miss. Your group luckily gets two types of hit!

The point of games like Dogs is simply to create in the rules themselves conditions like the ones that Matt is creating for your game group. That way if other folks (who don't have the same experience that he may have) simply pick up the game and start playing from scratch, chances are better that they'll have as good a time as you and your game group are having. Which might not affect your game group in the slightest since you are already getting what you want! : ) But it might help other game groups (and even your own if someone else GMs or if you try out a different system), hit more times than they miss.

It boils down to making rules that create a certain functional and fun dynamic. Other games might go something more like what is created by Jerry. Rules can address this sort of thing, that's the practical use of it all.

And, I agree, red herrings are the coolest! So, whether a group enjoys having it be a red herring or not (should we call this shroedinger's paperwork? :) based on the GM's say (ie fiat) or as the outcome of a roll that they have feedback on, is an aesthetic choice made group to group.

Jonathan also wrote:"But I can also see where, with a group which isn't good/is disruptive/is inexperienced/whatever, you could have some completely chaotic, terrible games. It *is* partially about group dynamic."

Yup. I think I addressed inexperience above, but if you have a group that doesn't function well socially, there is little any game can do to fix that since the rules themselves are social processes! It's always going to be the case that bad play can come out of gaming, but you might be surprised at how different _kinds_ of rules can help socially functioning game groups have more focused, more dramatic, more suspenseful, more challenging, more creative, more [insert desirable adjective or your choice] play.

And in the meantime, as long as you're having fun, more power!

Best to all, and happy holidays,Em


23. On 2004-12-23, eef said:

You know, I was going to post something on immersion in conflict vs. task resolution (short form—I think task supports immersion better) but I got worried because I don't have the 5+ years of discussion and context that the other people here clearly have.

So in short I desperately want an "RPG 201" so I can have a clue about what I say.



24. On 2004-12-24, Meguey said:

*heh* Ed, I know what you mean.

The weird thing is, if some one asked me to voice a preference about an aspect of game theory as applied, I'd be able to do it, but probably only if put in whole words instead of the inevitable 'alphabet soup' that grows up around any such long-term theory/technical conversation.

"Do you prefer FitM vs. FatE?" What huh?

"Do you prefer Fortune in the Middle, having results and 'experience points' come right away for your gaming, or do you prefer Fortune at the End, where results and 'experience points' wait until the end of the session?"

That I can answer (FitM, mostly but not entirely, and it depends on the game and the situation in-game.) Now of course, Vincent and Em and anyone else who *realy* knows, can please tell me if I'm even getting Fitm/FatE anywhere near right :)

(Side note: Again, I praise the Forge for giving Emily and Vincent (and many others) a framework to discuss this and community to support such discussion, because pre-Forge, I was just not even able to be a useful conversational partner about this stuff. There are ways it is a different language, just like my language around fiber arts.)


25. On 2004-12-24, Vincent said:

Meg ... not too right. The "End" and "Middle" of FatE and FitM are the end and middle of resolution, not the session, and Fortune means rolling dice. Dogs is FitM because you do stuff with the dice after you roll 'em - rolling dice comes in the middle of the decision-making of resolution. Ars Magica or D20 are FatE because all you do with the dice is read 'em - rolling the dice ends the decision-making of resolution.

But exactly! Ask me to drop the feed dogs and see how many tries it takes!

Ed: I think that's a really interesting argument and I'd encourage you to develop it. You don't need much theory experience to make your case, I think - you can base it on actual play. Play a couple of good Conflict Resolution games and see how your immersion fares. If you've already done that - sweet, I want to hear about it.

Here are a couple of pointers though. a) I don't know what immersion means. I'm happy with whatever definition you want, but you'll have to tell me how you're using the word. b) Make sure you aren't treating "Conflict Resolution" and "Scene Resolution" as synonyms. Conflict Resolution = the rules resolve what's at stake, not whether you succeed or fail. Scene Resolution = the rules resolve lots in one roll, like where the whole fight depends on one roll of the dice.

...This is part of the problem. The ideas are easy but pretty technical. The words we use to discuss them are sometimes counterintuitive and sometimes hotly contested. It's enough to make a guy consider creating his own, wholly new, wholly made-up vocabulary.


26. On 2004-12-24, eef said:

Let me try to develope my arguement with as little technical language as possible. (an aside: Wittgenstein for one was a really big fan of not using language that differed from normal speech).

I play RPGs to experience what it is like to be another person. What would it be like to be someone who would break into another's house and search their safe?

In order to experience this, I need to maintain a consistant point of veiw.

Let's get back to the specific example of breaking into somebody's home (Dr. Foobley's) to get evidence. In a coonflict resolution game, I'd roll to see if the papers are there. This means that I'm making a "Dr. Foobley" decision that he keeps the papers in that safe. This means switching POVs from my character to Dr. Foobley.

To me, the payoff isn't "finding the papers" but "making the decision to break in" and the chance of not finding the papers at all is part of the chance of that decision.



27. On 2004-12-25, inky said:

(This is a little late but I'm just seeing it from 20x20 now).

I'm surprised nobody's explicitly saying "use examples", since that's generally the thing that makes theory discussions work for me. The Forge is the most rewarding for me when it says "You know that dysfunctional situation when foo happens? .. "—and then I nod my head—" .. here's how to fix it/avoid it/deal with it". Like, say, Chris Lehrich's post on running mystery games in a non-cheating way, or some other post I saw on how to design a hero quest. These are both things I've tried to do in my games, mostly unsuccessfully, and it was great to see somebody explain why methods A, B, and C don't work, and here's methods D and E that do.

Now, partly this is cheating, since this is talking about specific end-products of theory, not the theory itself—but I think going bottom up is the only way you're going to sell anyone on a theory. First you show them a couple examples where it works, giving both the solution and the theoretical basis by which the solution was derived, and eventually you talk about higher-level theoretical points (and then, again, you prove them by diving back down into specific examples and showing people how to solve problems with the higher-level theory—and if you can't do that, they're rightfully going to question what good it is).

So if I was going to talk about IIEE, I wouldn't say "ok, there's this four letter term, and the four letters stand for (and then there'd be a pause as I have to go look it up). This can be classified generally into three subsystems, of which only one is any good. Therefore .."because that doesn't convince anybody.

Instead you say "Ok, have you ever had the situation where you say 'My ninja jumps across the table, does a backflip, and kicks the guy in the head' and then you roll a 3 on the attack roll? Doesn't that suck? Here's a better way to describe your actions so you can avoid that happening. And if you're a GM, doesn't it suck when you say 'ok, when this NPC sees you going for your sword, he goes for his sword too, and the player's all like 'well, if I see him going for his sword then I'm not going to draw my sword, I'm just going to shoot him with my pistol' and you say 'hey, you already said you're drawing your sword!' and everyone gets pissed off? Here's a better way to do things—here's what to work out *before* you roll the dice, and then you agree with your player what can get changed before the roll and what can get changed after"

And maybe, at the end of this article you bring up IIEE and FatE and FitM and stuff as terms and point people to forge essays on them. But nobody's going to listen or care if you pull out the terminology first, because they aren't sold on the theory so there's no reason for them to want to do any work for it.

—Dan Shiovitz


28. On 2004-12-27, Vincent said:

Ed: Cool, I think I get you.

Here's my answer, from theory: when you roll the dice, you've already imagined that the papers might well be in the safe. That's why you're opening it, right?

The difference between Task and Conflict Resolution, at that level, isn't what you have to imagine, it's what the GM has to imagine.

In both cases, a) your character goes to open the safe, and b) the papers may or may not be in the safe. In Task Resolution, we roll to see whether your character gets the safe open, and the GM just plain decides whether the papers are in there. (Notice that if the GM needs you to find the papers but you don't roll well enough to open the safe, the GM might "move" them to the desk drawer.) In Conflict Resolution, we roll to see whether you find the papers. It might be that we just give your character opening the safe - why not? - but the roll, not the GM, determines whether the papers are in there. (Notice that if the GM needs you to find the papers but you don't roll well enough to find them, the GM is screwed. That's good. A GM running Conflict Resolution rules needs a whole different approach to story - that's my point.)

In neither case, however, do you have to think about anything other than what your character does and feels.

Now that's my theory answer. My actual play answer is: really? I don't find that to be the case, generally. Do you? In what game(s)? Tell me all about it!

Dan: ooh baby yeah. Examples!


29. On 2004-12-27, jonathan said:

Vincent, that is the single best explanation of Conflict vs. Task resolution you've yet given (that I've seen). It makes a lot more sense than throwing the terms around. :-)

Of course, a good GM can do that with Task resolution as well. Again, a D20 example:

There's a safe. The player approaches it and tries to open it using his/her Open Locks. The safe is listed as DC 20, the player rolls a 23. S/he opens the safe. Now the GM says that the player has to roll on his/her Search skill to, well, search the safe. The player rolls a 6. The GM thinks, "well, crap. um." and says, "You find nothing." The GM then thinks, "well, um, they just don't have any info" and play resumes. The GM *can* tweak things, but that doesn't mean they *will.* I understand it's the "can" that bothers you, but I don't actually have that experience much. (Again, it depends on the group and the individual GM style, which goes back to the other post.)

To use a concrete example from one of my own games, Jerry was running a module. We had made it through the dungeon and were confronting the Big Bad. He was starting to give an Important Speech (beginning with something like "You know not what you do!") and before he could get more than a sentence out, Sarah just said, "I shoot him." Combat started and we never found out what the hell he was going to tell us. Well, ok, we found out later, but not because Jerry made the info available, but because the next module in the series essentially gave us *some* of the information as we played. My point is, not all GMs would do the "they need to know this, so I'll hide it somewhere else."

I understand you're talking in generalities and I'm talking in specifics and that's *always* a problem for me. But I honestly think that task resolution and combat resolution are *not* all that different or irreconcilable, depending on how you individually run the game. If you're complaining that task resolution is broken (which is what I think you're saying), then surely a "competent" group could break combat resolution as well?


30. On 2004-12-27, Vincent said:

It's not even the "can" that bothers me. It's the fact that in designing the game I left the decision up to the individual GM.

Task Resolution + a GM is bad game design, not necessarily bad play. Historically, most good play has been Task Resolution + a GM. In fact, for most of the history of roleplaying, Conflict Resolution has been a GMing style, not written rules.

As I say, the point of game design is to identify fun things that gaming groups do, then formalize them so that other groups can do them too. Conflict Resolution is just one such thing, of many many many.


31. On 2004-12-27, jonathan said:

Makes good sense. Sort of a training-wheels aspect in some ways.

I'm still not absolutely clear TR is bad design, it's just a different design that you don't like. By your own admission, it can work and work well; indeed, it has worked for a lot of people for a long time. It gives the GM and the players a lot of leeway and room for interpretation, which I can understand you not liking as a designer. It may not be the most elegant design, but it can work. Conflict res, on the other hand, might overtax some aspects in some groups to the point where it's no longer working. (Or it could work beautifully, just as TR does—again, we're back to the illusive dynamic question.)

I think a resourceful group could break CR (Confict res, not challenge rating!) just as easily and completely as you fear TR is broken...

But I do see your point. I just think there's an apples and oranges aspect to the argument as well. If you see what I mean.


32. On 2005-01-05, Chris(bankuei) said:

Hi Vincent,

Sorry to come late to the party, but what a worthwhile discussion. Here's my basic intro of Big Model Theory to folks, it goes:

Social Contract- How do we treat each other?Creative Agenda- What do we find fun? What do we aim for to get that fun?Techniques- How do we do that?(How do we play?)Explorative Elements- How does all the in game stuff(setting, character, color, system, situation) help or hurt us in getting the fun?IIEE- How do we decide what happens "in the game"? In what order? Does it start when you say, "I try..." even if it would be impossible and your character would know it, though you(the player) didn't? Does it start when you roll the dice? How well did it happen?

I usually skip the terminology, and give people the questions as the part of thinking, and offer some possible alternatives if they aren't aware of the possible (multiple answers) to a question. When people focus on the question, not the terminology(or that there may be a big ass theory behind it), then they're thinking, and that's the key point to understanding gaming.

As far as the specific example you posted- the Conflict vs. Task resolution issue, I just bust out Burning Wheel, and there's a nice example called "Let it Ride" which talks about the difference between having a player make 1 stealth roll vs. 20 stealth rolls- which is to say, if you KEEP making them roll, then eventually they WILL fail. And the worthy advice that this is the quick road to becoming Teh Sukk GM.

What this means in terms of many games is- you have a Task resolution roll, but no rules regarding stakes or closure. That is, HQ and Trollbabe can look at each individual roll as a Task Resolution, but there's a limit, a line to where you know when the contest is over and the goal will be achieved or failed. Contrasted to the stealth example, as a GM, if I don't want you to succeed, I can KEEP making you make rolls until you fail, and then slam you with a whammy of bad stuff.

The less serious problem without the "conflict" cap is that why do we have 20 rolls for combat and only one roll for a social skill in D&D? Why is there more "forgiveness" in the failure of each roll for D&D and no forgiveness for the 1 roll of most other skill checks?

By bringing forward concrete and familiar examples, it becomes easy to start pointing out problems to non-theory folks. The only issue is to keep them from sliding into Epherma as points of discussion. It's hard, but in actuality, they end up arguing to the effect of "Well, if you changed hit points to 'life' points, the game works better..." which of course, has nothing to do with nothing...


33. On 2005-01-05, Vincent said:

You gotta dig that black pit of ephemera. "I just don't like dice pools!" It's like they had some good or bad experience once, and instead of figuring out why, they just went ahead and associated it with whatever accidents surrounded it.


34. On 2005-01-10, Charles said:


It is the interesting thing about the 20 rolls versus 1 roll that the 1 roll can either be more forgiving or less forgiving, depending on what the meaning of a failed roll is. If you make twenty rolls for stealth, but a failure just means that a guard is passing by, so you have to roll under the stairs, and decide whether to wait for him to pass completely, or leap out and cut his throat when he has his back to you, then the 20 rolls are probably more forgiving, where the failure on the one roll means that you fail. On the other hand, if a bad roll on the one die just means that the GM has fiat to have things go badly for you, but good thinking on your part will still get you through, then the one roll matches the 20 rolls in forgiveness. In the opposite direction, the 20 rolls where a single failure means you fail entirely is obviously the least forgiving.


35. On 2005-01-10, Charles said:


On the issue of task versus conflict resolution, the big fuzzy area seems to come from the fact that the examples for conflict resolution always seem to conflate scale and type.

So I want to get the goods on the baddies, and I decide I can do this by stealing their lab notes from the safe in the guarded office.

The first question that comes to my mind is this: is this the sort of thing my group/GM plans out in detail, or is it something I come up with as an idea, and we resolve in ten minutes, and the office with the safe didn't exist until I mentioned them? If the location is developed in detail, then the scene will probably be played out in detail. If it is played out in detail, then the conflicts to be resolved will be small and numerous, right?, 'cause we're not talking about scene resolution, and I start to have difficulty distinguishing the conflicts from tasks. Lets say I'm breaking into the office, and there is a guard standing at the corner in the hallway. I decide to sneak up on him while he's not looking, and knock him unconcious. Where are the resolution points if we do this by task, and where are they if we do this by conflict?

Also, when we're doing this in detail and I get into the office, isn't putting the unopenable safe there or saying it doesn't have the documents a roughly equal way of hosing the players (in a task resolution ssytem). And isn't it roughly equivalent to declaring that there is one last conflict to be resolved, "After all that, do you actually get the documents?" in a conflict based system. Who decides that you need to make one more roll, and who decides how hard that roll will be? It seems to me that those 2 decisions still control the situation, whatever we call the basis for the roll.

Also, what happens if the documents are simply not in the safe? Is it possible to go into a situation where 'Annushka has already bought the sunflower oil, and hasnot only bought it, but has already spilled it. So the meeting will not takeplace.' and the characters' inescapable failure has already been set in motion, but neither they nor the players know it yet in a conflict based system? If it can't, is that really a virtue?

I can understand the difference between rolling before you describe and rolling after you describe (which seems to be what FitM and FatE are about), or even the Dogs system of rolling well before you describe, but I'm not really getting task versus conflict.

As before, if there is clear and concise discussion on this somewhere already, please do point me to it.


36. On 2005-01-10, Vincent said:

"I try to sneak up on the guard." "Why?" "So I have a chance to knock him unconscious without him noticing." We resolve. "Cool. I hit him in the back of the head." "Why?" "To knock him unconscious." We resolve.

In Task Resolution, the dice tell us whether you sneak up on him and whether you hit him, and the GM tells us whether you have an opportunity to hit him and whether you knock him unconscious.

In Conflict Resolution, the dice tell us whether you have a chance to knock him unconscious and then whether you do or not.

"I sneak up on the guard and knock him unconscious." "Why?" "To get his key." We resolve.

In Task Resolution, the dice tell us whether you sneak up on the guard and knock him unconscious, and the GM tells us whether you get his key.

In Conflict Resolution, the dice tell us whether you get his key.

In both cases, it may be that you do sneak up on him and do knock him unconscious, yet are interrupted before you can get his key. In Task Resolution, the GM decides by fiat whether you are interrupted or aren't. In Conflict Resolution, the dice tell us that you don't get the key - and then the GM (or whomever) tells us you're interrupted.

Scale doesn't figure - the distinction applies at every scale. Just ask "why" and resolve that.

If the document isn't in the safe, don't roll. Only roll when something's actually at stake. And man oh man, that question? Who controls the unknown? That's a fruitful question. There aren't any clear and concise discussions of it that I can think of, but many many tangled and productive ones. It might be better to have one fresh. I'll repost the question on my front page and make a stab, soon.


37. On 2005-01-10, Charles said:

Okay, I think I get it now. I don't see why conflict resolution is vastly better than task resolution, but I can see how it is marginally better. I also think I see that it suggests FitM's roll-then describe methods much better than task resolution does, which is probably why it is considered to be much better than task resolution.

It seems to me that it always has a faintly larger scale than task resolution (mostly by adding a little bit more stuff under the control of the resolution). This may not be true if the character decides to set the conflict at a very fine resolution where the goal of the first conflict is setting up a second conflict, as in your first example above - goal1: get a chance to attack, goal2: succeed at attack.

It does seem to me that it mostly becomes equivalent to task resolution (as task resolution is usually handled) at very fine scale.

In my experience, if I roll against my sneak skill to sneak up on the guard, and I succeed, the GM will not throw in something that makes my sneak roll irrelevant: "Okay, your sneaking really smoothly, and your almost up on him, when he drops his cigarette and it rolls toward you. He turns and sees you." On the other hand, if I have a monster sneak skill, and I roll badly, the GM might well give exactly that description, ignoring the fact that that isn't really a failure of the task of sneaking.

I guess this suggests that task resolution tends to actually be played mostly as quasi conflict resolution, which would suggest that the main advantage of explicit conflict resolution systems is that they operate closer to the actual level of play. The main disadvantage is that they conceptually privilege higher scale play (even if they don't have to be used at any higher of a level than task resolution, they feel like they should be (in the sense that people constantly think that that is what it means), and that means that they probably will be used that way in play, except in those situations where the situation feels like it should be dealt with at high detail.

Actually, that ability to function well across scale may be one of the advantages of conflict resolution (which I wish were called conflict-based resolution, since conflict resolution makes me think of mediation or arbitration services, which -come to think of it- may not be that bad of a model).

Also, it seems to me that it is susceptible to some strange effects as it interacts with established but unknown aspects of the world.

In the second example, two actions are combined into a single goal, and the combined goal may be impossible from the outset if the GM is the sort who plans everything in psychotic detail.

"I try to knock the guard unconcious to get his key."

"Well, he doesn't actually have a key, so you are guaranteed to fail at the conflict. However, since you initiate the task without knowing that, we now have a different conflict: do you knock him unconcious so he doesn't raise the alarm."

"Well, I guess we'd better resolve that conflict instead, then."

Which I guess gets us back into who controls the unknown, and also the possible advantages of Schroedinger's world design for producing fun story.

Also, I guess you did say that the major goal was to let the GM off the hook of having to do psychotically overdetailed prep.


38. On 2005-01-11, Vincent said:

Yeah, pretty much. That GM doesn't want to collaborate. As far as I'm concerned, fuck 'im.


39. On 2005-01-11, Charles said:

Yeah, probably, but maybe not. Maybe the GM wants to collaborate on a story that involves you failing at certain points. Maybe your characters are trying to break into a place that bascially can't be broken into by force, and the best that you can get out of your attempt is learning that its security is incredibly tight and that you need to try a different method. Maybe it is the player who is not co-operating.

I've played (and fairly recently) with someone who required that their character's plans would almost always succeed, who hated even minor setbacks. Maybe the player is attempting to force the existance of the key so that her character gets to win yet again.

But, yeah, there is definitely some kind of expectation clash going on there. Either the player should be saying (as one of your examples above did), "I want to knock him unconcious so I can search him for a key to the door," or the GM should be saying, "Okay, lets see if you succeed." And if there are rare occaisions in which a clash occurs, I don't personally see much wrong with the result I described above. It has a bit of the stink of FatE's "I knock him unconcious and take the key. Oh, I fumbled. I guess I don't," but its not as bad.


40. On 2005-01-11, Vincent said:

That's called "whiff" at the Forge, by the way. "I hit him! ...I mean, I whiff!"