Conflict Resolution is Indie Gaming on Hard Mode

We started playing Nathan Paoletta’s Imp of the Perverse last week. It’s a funky, specific horror game that evokes Edgar Allan Poe vibes in 1830s-1850s Jacksonian America. Playing the first session reminded me about how hard I find conflict resolution games. Imp of the Perverse is squarely in that camp of design.

Conflict resolution is where the entirety of a “conflict” gets resolved at once, typically a single roll/draw/pull/moment of fortune. The relative inverse is action or skill based resolution, where each resolution re-positions objective elements of the fiction (somebody is hurt, a spell is cast, you jump over a hole) but doesn’t address the “conflict.” It’s a deep rabbit hole, and folks have argued (stridently!) about what “a conflict” is. There are lots of specific ways games go about resolving a conflict. The interesting/aggravating commonality is how resolution always revolves around the table arriving at a common understanding of the “conflict.”

Conflict resolution is indie-style roleplaying on hard mode.

Why It’s Hard

I’ve played conflict resolution games on and off ever since the first ones showed up, games like Dust Devils, Sufficiently Advanced, and more modern designs like Goblinville, The Clay That Woke and Primetime Adventures. Old or new, they feel hard to me in related ways: you need to think critically and abstractly about every scene, you need to carefully frame scenes based on that evaluation, you have to know when to engage the system, everyone has to be on board with the difference between authoring and advocating, and everyone has to be transparent. And all this happens with very few check-ins from, or with, the system itself.

Any one of these elements feels like it requires advanced, 400-level experience just to execute, much less to make fun. So let’s unpack them all and see if the work:fun ratio makes conflict resolution worth it.

Abstract Critical Thinking

Actually a pretty good breakdown!

This is the hard one, and it’s been hard ever since the earliest days of indie design: what is the salient point being argued over in this moment of play? Roleplaying is a conversation, and disagreements are where the conversation gets interesting. Sometimes those disagreements are around the details of a shared understanding of the game state, which is easy. We all agree the Stormtroopers got the jump on us, but do we get away? But sometimes players disagree about the premise of the conversation itself.

The game design may or may not have a specific idea of what “conflict” means for itself. Is “conflict resolution” just large-scale abstract action resolution? Totally fair and reasonable interpretation! A game might totally view many small moments as adding up to “a conflict.” In those games, the GM needs to apply critical thinking to the question of how much can one resolve in a single moment. The game might have guidelines to how much one can resolve, but I’ve never seen a system put hard limits on that. There’s always the need for authoritative human evaluation, which is laborious relative to, say, players reaching for abilities to resolve actions, or moves to resolve fictional triggers.

Another necessary critical thinking skill is being sensitive to the “about-ness” of the scene. Why is this scene happening? What’s at stake? A scene might be happening because prior fiction mandates it, or because the players are excited by the implied uncertainty of it, or because someone wants to make an aesthetic or ethical statement. And each of those scene types need a different evaluation of their about-ness.

I don’t have a good formula for any of this. But I know that, when I’m playing a game with conflict resolution and/or “very abstract resolution,” I need to spend a lot of juice thinking about every scene’s about-ness, so I know how to guide the players toward a common understanding.

Scene Setting as Sales Pitch

What will it take for you to buy that this scene’s actually about the romantic tension between …

The next step to applying one’s critical thinking to the about-ness at stake is that the GM needs to set really clear scenes. And this needs to happen not only because everyone’s at the table/Zoom meeting/chat and are eager for things to happen, but because scene-setting is the GM’s primary sales tool.

When the GM has a clear sense of the themes, disagreements, metaphors, or stakes, the way they explain their sense is via how they set a scene. In a lot of cases the GM might not know what’s at stake, and has to work it out as a scene plays out. Also legit. But the scene as a facilitator (or fellow player, in a GM-less conflict-resolution game like Durance) initially framed it is still preparing the eventual sales pitch. Call it marketing if you want: you’re creating a fertile field for future sales.

This is all pretty instinctual, I fear. I’m just highlighting the fact that if you want to bring players onto the same page in a conflict resolution game, it starts with how you set scenes.

When To Pull The Trigger

I mean, who doesn’t?

There’s always a tricky balance to strike when you’re playing a conflict resolution game: how long do we keep talking, and when is it time to stop and resolve the conflict?

This bit is especially hard on me, personally, because I greatly prefer to keep the action grounded in the fiction. I prefer to keep players in-character than let them slide into a planning fugue. I actively dislike the tendency for argumentative/competitive players to avoid engaging with the system (i.e. uncertainty) by sidestepping it in the just-talking step.

Old-style conflict resolution games like Dust Devils (second edition came out in 2006) typically included a whole essay about what “conflict” entailed in this specific game. Dust Devil’s very short version is: “Conflict is any point in the game where at least two players (and usually more!) have different ideas about ‘what happens next’ in the story.” As a practical matter, though, there was always a lot of talk leading up to that moment. To be clear: Dust Devils is one of my favorite-favorite indie RPGs! But nailing down exactly when to stop talking and start drawing cards is a skill I needed to learn.

Sometimes conflict resolution-type games, like Imp of the Perverse and The Clay That Woke, provide the trigger. But they’re still quite abstract relative to the precision of a PbtA style fictional trigger.

Imp first says “Whenever your protagonist takes risky action or engages in struggle,” and later “When your protagonist imposes their will upon the world.” But then there’s an admonition to not roll merely when an outcome is uncertain. So when do you roll? It’s up to the GM, ultimately, to decide what risky entails. And if they’ve sold the scene correctly, there should be something clearly at risk in a scene. It’s pretty good, and more explicit than many “to resolve a conflict…” type language in older games.

Clay is a bit more specific, calling out four “inflections:” dangerous situations, violent conflicts with beasts or NPCs, unnatural encounters, and interpersonal disagreements with NPCs. Cool, pretty specific, but there are still several paragraphs further clarifying when and how to engage the game’s resolution system (a chit-draw, set-building minigame called the Krater of Lots), with the most actionable-yet-subjective advice being “You know you’re using it too soon if your situations don’t feel dramatic.” So, really, hit an inflection and wait within that moment for it to become dramatic. Fair, but subjective.

Player Authorship vs Principled Character Advocacy

Will is my fursona.

Because of the necessary abstract thinking needed for the GM and players to engage with conflict resolution (and/or “very abstract resolution”), I’m always sensitive to the players being pulled in different creative directions. On the one hand, the abstraction can help you shape scenes in a very authorial way: this scene is about the two brothers’ longstanding rivalry coming to a head, this scene is about whether the Bandit King drives the old regime out of the castle, this scene is about the impact of a long journey on the fellowship. Conflict resolution is a great way to give players a lot of authority over a scene, in no small part because there aren’t so many smaller moments that may derail their vision for the scene.

But there’s something to be said for the immediacy and investment of advocating for What Your Character Wants. Or if you’re feeling iffy about the player/character split, What You Want For Your Character. It’s exciting and competitive and sometimes it just feels good to embody a character’s drives. It can also feel good in a pattern-completion way to watch a well-designed character’s needs play out in the fiction.

I’ve found those two impulses frequently hard to reconcile: player-as-author and player-as-advocate. If you’re constantly authoring scenes with an eye toward advocacy, are you really making an interesting story? Is “interesting” even on the agenda?

Radical Transparency

Last bit, mostly an issue for trad/conventional players being introduced to conflict resolution or “storygames” in general: if you’re going to even begin the conversation about the about-ness of a scene, what you or your character want out of it, everyone needs to be very transparent. No playing close to the vest, no trying to outsmart each other. It’s a very collaborative play style, in contrast with an adversarial-GM play style and adjunct at best to an impartial-GM play style. Old habits can be really hard to break, is all I’m saying.

System As A Validation Tool

Game design in a nutshell

My theory about players interacting with systems: Each interaction is a validation for the player that they’re on the right track, that they’re adding something tone-/canon-allowable, that they’re reinforcing and meaningfully enlarging the table’s common understanding of the fiction. It can be reassuring to do a small thing, earn a small currency perhaps, or see a small shift in the fiction. It can feel less fraught to make some progress toward your goals, action by action, than have everything ride on a single moment of uncertainty. When a player resists engaging with a conflict resolution system, their desire for system-validating moments is something I feel out.

Three Conflict Resolution Tips

These are all pretty old conversations if you’ve been in storygaming spaces for a while. But if you haven’t, here’s some advice:

  • Have a firm sense of what meaningful conflicts look like in this genre, setting or situation. Meaningful, in this case, being “the fiction takes an assertive new direction.” Sometimes your instinct about meaningful conflict disagrees with when the game tells you to resolve: this is the designer’s opinion, their take on the subject matter. Followup: frame scenes really hard, ideally with more than one player character, with a conflict-rich situation already in mind. Don’t preprogram the conflict! But think about situations that can (probably) only be resolved by eventually going to the game’s system. Many conflict resolution games have external economies that rely on engaging the system at some point, so you can’t bop along freeforming forever.
  • Say yes an awful lot more than you’re accustomed to. Conflict resolution games are, I think, very freeform most of the time. That means the players need a clear sense of their own agency most of the time, because there’s no validation of their choices coming back to them (see above). The only way I’ve come up with, as a GM, is to say yes a lot. It also means gently, conversationally redirecting if a player suggests something that’s off-tone or violates what I feel like is the shared understanding of the game state. There’s still a need for facts to become part of the game’s permanent record even when we’re not invoking the system. And everyone needs to agree that the fiction can be positioned outside of the system.
  • Be uncomfortably up-front about what’s at stake, win or lose, in this conflict. Well, I mean: maybe you won’t personally be uncomfortable with that level of transparency. But if this is a new thing for you, expect discomfort. Talk about not only what Your Character or The Situation stands to gain, but describe your own understanding of what Your Character or The Situation stands to lose. Make sure both sides of that equation feel equitable to both parties.

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