Flight Papers

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Conflict Resolution


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So, I braindumped into this RPGnet thread on conflict and task resolution. I’m pretty certain that I have a really good handle on what’s meant by the terms, and how they’re useful. I offered to demonstrate how anyone, including Ron, Vincent, and God, is incorrect in their use of the terms if they differed from the ones I was offering.

‘course, I could be wrong. Or it could be that there’s more nuance in the term than I understand. And, in any case, there’s a chance that someone will happen upon this blog, and wonder what the fuck I’m on, so I figure I may as well post the whole slightly-edited thing here, for comment and posterity.

Conflict resolution in this context is the process of arbitrating a dispute between one or more possible outcomes in the story. In the vast majority of cases, each possible outcome is represented by one or more people. The people involved generally come up with the particular outcome they are arguing for, but it does not have to be so. Even when that’s the case, we are not talking about heated disputes over deeply felt beliefs. Nobody is in any danger of having a chair thrown at them. Everybody is actually having fun because of the dispute. A person involved in the dispute might even find the other side extremely compelling, perhaps ultimately more compelling than her own, but she continues to “argue” for her outcome, because that’s more fun and more interesting than easy consensus.

A play group’s conflict resolution system is the way that group (and only that group) goes about the process of conflict resolution. All groups have a conflict resolution system. Your group has one. Even if your group does not have dice, your group has a conflict resolution system. It might be that whatever outcome the GM thinks is best is what happens—that’s a conflict resolution system. You might vote. You might draw lots. You might name possible outcomes as you draw Tarot cards, and accept whatever outcome is spoken as the Fool is drawn.

More realistically, you might roll some dice and interpret their values as an indicator of whether or not a particular character is able to perform a particular well-specified action within the story; then, using her knowledge of the players’ desires, her knowledge of her own desires, and her keen understanding of narrative phrasing and other niceties, the GM determines what effects that action has. That, too, is a viable conflict resolution system for a group to have. And lots of groups have used it in the past, and continue to use it very successfully.

A brief parable:

And one day, someone came along and watched other groups roleplay. And she said, “Huh. There’s an awful lot of stuff happening between when the dice roll and when the story continues. I’d never noticed.” And then, being a game designer, she continued: “Let’s try writing rules for that!”

Why did she think that way? Why did she want to create rules where before there were none? Was she simply annoyed or even threatened by all the millions of different ways people were resolving their story outcomes? Some say it is so, but I don’t believe them. Was it that while many, many groups had very successful conflict resolution systems, some groups had very bad ones, leading to miscommunication, fights, and crummy play experiences? I think that was a part of it, yes. But, really, I think the real reason she wrote new rules was the same reason that any game designer ever writes anything—she wanted to share. She saw groups with really interesting conflict resolution systems, and she wanted to know if should could make that happen for her group, and for other groups. She wanted to understand what they were doing, and make it accessible to people not them. In short, she wanted to write rules where none existed before so she and her friends could try new things.

End parable.

Several Internets later, the designer’s notes and designs have traveled far and wide, and influenced many. And now, there are many, many games which shape the group’s conflict resolution system with their rules.

People who talk about these things say that those games have conflict resolution mechanics. This is a design term, which applies to games, not play groups.

When people talk about “conflict resolution,” they are almost to a one using it as shorthand for “conflict resolution mechanics,” which means that they are talking about something that games can have, and people and groups cannot. Groups can use conflict resolution mechanics, obviously, but they are under no obligation to do so, since games can’t make you play them (yet).

You might have noticed that I haven’t said anything about “stakes” negotiation, narrative authority, or… any of that. That’s because none of those things are inseparable from conflict resolution mechanics. Conflict resolution mechanics do not require person-settable stakes. They do not require negotiation. They do not require player narrative authority.

Conflict resolution mechanics require only one simple thing: the game rules must determine which person gets to establish what fictional facts, and when they can do it. That’s it.

It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of games with conflict resolution mechanics have something like stakes-setting and negotiation. After all, they are taking what used to be implicit social communication, and making it explicit and codified—that the result resembles formal negotiations in a very lose way should not be surprising.

However, each and every one of these games is a bit different. And some are coming out now—and I’m sure more will be coming out in the future—which are even weirder. I’m sure some will be strongly mystery-focused, and some will focus on immersion, and some will focus on bunny rabbit wrestling (personally, I find myself interested in the first and second—and, suddenly, the third).

This is why it’s difficult to get a handle on what conflict resolution mechanics are. Because someone reads Dogs and figures, “ah, it’s about stakes and fallout,” and someone else reads FATE and figures, “ah, it’s about this that and the other,” and yet another poster reads Vincent’s examples and figures, “ah, it’s about player narrative control.”

And none of them are totally wrong. And they’re all making reasonable inferences. All those things are techniques that some games use for conflict resolution, sure. But there are so many other techniques out there, and so many that haven’t been written yet that it’s ultimately harmful to say conflict resolution mechanics are the use of negotiation or stakes or thus or so.

Who establishes what, and when. That the whole of it.

Or so I said then. What’s troubling me, increasingly, is… that’s IIEE. So I am, in this instance, a bit worried that I’m conflating two concepts into one, and one important design element is being squeezed out of my brain.

The alternative, of course, is that IIEE really is an expression of the goals of conflict mechanics—that both conflict resolution and IIEE are conceptual filters on the same subject—authority.

3 Responses to “Conflict Resolution”

  1. Jonathan Walton Says:

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    Hotness. I don’t think that’s what anyone else means by conflict resolution, but cool.

    Traditionally, as far as I know, conflict resolution has implied resolving an entire situation all at once (orcs are trying to kill us!) whereas task resolution focuses on resolving specific actions one at a time (one of them is swinging a sword at my head!). Both seem to be included in the “conflict resolution” which you’ve presented here, which doesn’t sound like resolution to me as much as “how things are determined in play” (which is sometimes called The Lumpley Principle by the Forge crowd).

    Also, I hate IIEE, which is a very confusing and opaque acronym that needs to be replaced by actual words at some point.

  2. violet Says:

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    I don’t think that conflict resolution necessitates a larger scope, hence the distinction here. Vincent’s examples, while crummy, show conflict resolution and task resolution in the same scope.

    And I think IIEE is a pretty crummy acronym, too, but definitely a good thing to think about.

  3. signature Says:

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    Nice to see that other people do read and understand that thread on RPG.net and that our exploration of the concepts has not been wasted.

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