2006-10-05 : Escalation


So, my question is about escalation, in general. I wish I could articulate this question better. What is escalation, and how do you achieve it? How do you promote it?

For this answer I'm not going to use any jargon whatsoever. These are all natural English words I'm using to mean their natural English meanings. Some games (Dogs in the Vineyard, maybe others) use "escalation" to mean a specific game-mechanical step or move; that's not what I'm talking about here.

Escalation is part of conflict.

Let's say that two people have a conflict of interests. I'm talking about real people - me and my boss, let's say. Let's also say that it's a normal conflict of interest so we start out discussing it. I'm like, "boss, I think you stiffed me out of some health care comp." My boss is like, "oh. Yeah, I did that on purpose."

Having a reasoned discussion is a level of conflict resolution. Maybe I decide to stay at that level. I'm like, "I'd like you to make good."

Now my boss is tired of having a reasoned discussion, but wants her interests to win out. So she escalates: "no. Now go back to work or I'm writing you up." She's invoked her authority as my boss, bringing something new and more powerful into the conflict. Now it's not a reasoned discussion anymore. Invoking authority trumps reasoned discussion.

So now it's my choice. I can cave and go back to work, or I can escalate in turn. "You know, I think I'll bring the shop steward in."

So now she's calculating, right? What's it worth to her to not pay me? "Vincent, I've had enough. This is your two weeks' notice. You're fired."

"Fired? FIRED? Well YOU'RE bad in BED."

See how each time we escalate, we're crossing a line? Each of our moves in the conflict is more consequential than the one before. Eventually one of us will win: one of us will decide that the next line isn't worth crossing and back down, giving the other their way; or else one of us will put the other functionally out of the conflict and therebey get their way. The former: I'm like, "fired? Now no need for that. It's just a couple bucks, I'll go back to work." The latter: my boss is like, "screw the two weeks' notice. You leave now, and this police officer here will help you find your way."

So that's what escalation looks like in a single small-scale conflict of interest. (And that's how Dogs' rules work, exactly: when you're losing an argument, you throw a punch. When you're losing a fistfight, you pull a gun.)

Conflicts of interest can themselves escalate. My boss fires me, right, and a police officer escorts me to the door. One of two things can happen. I can accept it and move on, in which case my conflict of interest with my boss is done, it doesn't escalate, I find a new job or something. Or I can escalate, like "of course you realize, this means war." Maybe I sue her. Maybe I resolve to cost her HER job. maybe I hire a private detective to trail her and take dirty photographs. Maybe I send bomb threats to the local elementary school in her name. Maybe I talk to her boss; maybe I rat her out to the police.

See how that works?

So, escalation is just naturally what people do when they're in conflict and they aren't willing to let it go. If you want escalation in your game, all you have to do is get some people (meaning characters, now) in conflict who aren't willing to let it go.

I welcome follow-up questions!

1. On 2006-10-05, Ludanto said:

Man, you're awsome!

Ok, so really all you need is character/players that really care about what they want and escalation should (could?) occur naturally?  That makes perfect sense and I suppose I knew that already.

So, now how do you make that happen in play?  In Dogs it's retardely obvious in the system, which is one of the things I like about it :) but how, in general terms, do you "escalate, escalate, escalate", assuming for the moment that there are no specific mechanics for that?

I suppose you can just have NPCs start upping the ante and getting vindictive, but how do you promote the same from the player characters?  Is it enough to just "suggest" ideas to the player that they can use to screw with their opposition if they feel like it?  I'm not sure it would occur to them otherwise, at least for players new to the form...


2. On 2006-10-05, Vincent said:

I'd trust players new to roleplaying to escalate before I trusted experienced roleplayers, but that's neither here nor there. The real issue is this: we crave a back door out of conflict. If we can find a way to not draw a gun, we'll take it.

So: really all you need is characters who can't live without it.

The next couple of movies you watch, just notice what the characters need and how they act. Their escalation will be extremely well-founded in their passions. Getting escalation in your game is founded on character creation, not on resolution rules.


3. On 2006-10-05, Ludanto said:

Thanks a bucket-load for your insights.  They are very helpful.  Now I just need to figure out a way to get players to make passionate characters. :)

I can see how escalation works fairly well in a conversation (even if it leads to a fight) but what about less direct conflicts like a car chase or something?  Or would that be an element of a larger scale conflict where the escalation is spread out more and the car chase is just a step up from running away on foot or something?  Maybe I'm trying too hard and not every scene requires constant escalation.  I don't know...


4. On 2006-10-05, NinJ said:

V., I'm going to crib this for a sidebar on what it means to escalate in Shock: (where it's mechanically supported). The curious thing in Shock: is that, at that moment, the non-*Tagonists take control of your *Tag and make you escalate.


5. On 2006-10-06, James Nostack said:

Incidentally, in Robert McKee's "Story," which should probably be a book-thread on StoryGames, he mentions that characters will always choose the most conservative option they're aware of.  Escalation usually happens when one or the other character is backed into a corner, and they can't figure an acceptable way out.


6. On 2006-10-06, David Wintheiser said:

Reading this explanation, I was reminded of the old computer game 'Balance of Power'.

Quick summary for those not familiar with the game: you're the United States, playing against a computerized Soviet Union. You win the game by getting more governments to like you, expressed as a stat called 'prestige'. You can get prestige from a government by helping them out - by sending money or troops (depending on what they think they're most in need of).

Here's where the game intersects with the discussion of escalation - after setting up your moves for a turn, the Russians get to react to your moves. (You get to do the same after their moves as well.) They can ignore your move, or escalate by engaging in 'back-channel discussion'. This is their way of saying "we don't like what you've done here, please cancel that move". If you do cancel, you don't get to make the move, but since it's in back-channel, neither side loses prestige. If you respond by challenging the challenge - excalating, in other words - now the feud becomes public and prestige points start to go on the line. Not many, at first, but as the disagreements escalate through diplomatic speeches up to Def Con 2, the prestige mounts, and the side that steps back loses more the higher the escalation went.

And if you escalate all the way to Def Con 1, the game is over - nuclear war has no winners.

In playing "Balance of Power", there were two ways you could find yourself at Def Con 1:

First, by attempting a move so patently silly that you should never have thought the Soviets would let it fly. Example - sending 100,000 troops into Poland.

Second, by excalating a conflict that, based on your moves in the game thus far, the computer judges as something that isn't in your interest at all and which it determines you'll quickly back down from, but that determinination is, for whatever reason, in error.

When you find yourself escalating to the brink of nuclear war over the fate of $5 million in ecomonic aid to Eritrea, each time asking yourself, 'Why is the computer pushing this so much?' and then realizing that your choice is now to lose the game from international loss of prestige or lose the game by launching the nukes, it gives you an appreciation for trying to understand your counterpart's reasons for escalation.

Anyway, that's kind of a long-winded intro to my follow-up question:

Assuming second-type escalation happens in role-playing, where a player escalates an issue that he thinks is irrelevant to another, and is surprised when it turns out not to be, is this sort of escalation always a sign of dysfunction? (A player taking what he wants in escalation thinking that others won't find it worth the trouble to challenge, for instance, or a character creation system where players aren't allowed to define their characters in terms that allow other players to identify things those characters really care about?) Or is it possible for a well-designed game, with well-intentioned players, to nevertheless have a seemingly innocuous conflict escalate utterly beyond anything expected?


7. On 2006-10-06, Sydney Freedberg said:

Ludanto: "I can see how escalation works fairly well in a conversation (even if it leads to a fight) but what about less direct conflicts like a car chase or something?"

I'm not Vincent, but to offer an answer anyway: Most car chase scenes I remember (and starfighter chases, etc. etc.) tend to go from one crazy stunt to an even crazier stunt, as each driver/pilot escalates to a new level of danger, forcing the other one to match it, crash, or give up.


8. On 2006-10-06, Ben Lehman said:

Escalation works on two levels, I think: commitment and danger.

As in: You get more committed to your side, or you make the conflict more dangerous for the other side.  Usually both at once.

This is nothing more than a "huh" moment for me.


9. On 2006-10-06, Vincent said:

David: Assuming second-type escalation happens in role-playing, where a player escalates an issue that he thinks is irrelevant to another, and is surprised when it turns out not to be, is this sort of escalation always a sign of dysfunction?

No, not at all.

I see three cases:

1) A player escalates against another player outside of the rules. If this ever happens, at all, it's an automatic sign of dysfunction. Players only escalate against one another this way when there's a conflict of interest between them at a social level; this is ALWAYS game-breaking. Game-breaking now or game-breaking later. A player escalating outside of the rules looks like this:

"I stab him!"
"You what? If you do, I'm not sharing my Fritos."
"Dude screw you. I stab him TWICE and pee on his CORPSE!"
"I'm leaving!"
"Fine, go! But don't expect me to call you for that thing tomorrow!"

2) A player has her character escalate surprisingly. This looks like this:

"A little girl runs up and throws a rock at you. 'Go home Dogs!'"
"I shoot her in the face."

3) A player escalates surprisingly within the rules, but out of character. This looks like your Balance of Power example.

These latter two are not a sign of dysfunction. I mean, they don't rule out dysfunction or anything like that, but there's no reason to conclude dysfunction from them. Either of them might be a brilliant moment of revelation instead, for instance, where everyone's rocked back and they all go "ooooh..."

"You'll shoot a little girl over throwing a rock? Holy crap dude, you're HARDCORE." Nothing dysfunctional about that.


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