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Conflict in RPGing

pemerton

Legend
In another recent thread, @Campbell pointed to this blog post: Walk, Don’t Run To Conflict

Here is what I think is the key passage:

play can be about “driving to conflict” without every single scene having a conflict in it. Indeed, for conflict to occur characters must have things over which they conflict. . . . {In] good solid story building role-playing . . . the scenes without conflicts point towards what conflicts will arise later. These non-conflict scenes establish key beliefs, priorities, loyalties, and passions which later elements of the narrative will threaten. With out scenes that first establish and then later update and develop these character elements “conflict” is essentially a meaningless term.

When you let go of the “must have conflict NOW” urge then play progresses much more smoothly and much more naturally. Establishing scenes becomes more about feeding curiosity, “I’d like to see how X and Y interact” or follow up action, “Given what’s just happened I’d like my character to do X.” The play skill involved becomes about identifying conflicts when they occur.​

How long should these establishing aspects of a RPG take, in play? Also, in the absence of conflict, how do we show (eg) what a character's key loyalty is? In a film this might be done via scenes that show the character engaging with the thing they care about in an everyday fashion. But how do we do this in RPGing? Do we play through these "establishing" scenes? Or do we imply them - eg in the way that is done via statements of Beliefs and Instincts in Burning Wheel. I think one relevant consideration is that in a novel or film the audience has to be introduced to the protagonist(s), whereas in RPGing each player knows at least one of the protagonists rather intimately.

I think my default approach is to use subordinate/orthogonal conflicts and obstacles to do the establishing, gradually building up to the "real" action.
 

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How long should these establishing aspects of a RPG take, in play? Also, in the absence of conflict, how do we show (eg) what a character's key loyalty is? In a film this might be done via scenes that show the character engaging with the thing they care about in an everyday fashion. But how do we do this in RPGing? Do we play through these "establishing" scenes? Or do we imply them - eg in the way that is done via statements of Beliefs and Instincts in Burning Wheel. I think one relevant consideration is that in a novel or film the audience has to be introduced to the protagonist(s), whereas in RPGing each player knows at least one of the protagonists rather intimately.
Brindlewood Bay handles this in an interesting way, by having players do "cozy" scenes--usually engaging in their character's main hobby in whatever location they've chosen as their cozy place--in order to clear negative conditions they've taken. Those scenes aren't front-loaded, the way establishing scenes in a movie or book might be, but they happen regularly throughout a campaign.

But the game's other relevant mechanic (that I like even more) is when you put on a "Crown of the Queen," meaning increase your success level on a roll by picking from a list of flashbacks that you narrate, such as "A flashback of your fondest memory with one of your children" or "A scene in the present day showing a burgeoning romance." These are non-conflict scenes, usually unrelated to the current investigation, intended solely to flesh out your character. That they happen as the game progresses, often as a way to avoid failures or consequences, seems pretty ingenious to me.

Also important--there are 7 of those flashbacks to pick from, and you check them off as you go. So at some point your character is essentially done being established, probably around the time you hit the end of the campaign, which is also where you're suddenly more likely to die, or at least go from cozy mysteries to a Mythos (or similar) encounter.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
The Between uses very similar mechanics (as you might expect since it's Carved in Brindlewood and by the same author). I really like the way it folds unveiling backstory and connecting PCs into the structure of play. There's a mechanical reason to engage in the scenes, which is necessary, but the real benefits (IMO) are on the roleplaying side.
 

The Between uses very similar mechanics (as you might expect since it's Carved in Brindlewood and by the same author). I really like the way it folds unveiling backstory and connecting PCs into the structure of play. There's a mechanical reason to engage in the scenes, which is necessary, but the real benefits (IMO) are on the roleplaying side.
I really need to pick up The Between, especially after hearing Cordova on the What Would The Smart Party Do podcast talking about how he started The Between first, but then stopped and wrote Brindlewood as a way to work out the investigation mechanic. I think I'm less interested in the premise because of its total faithfulness to Penny Dreadful (which I liked until I really didn't), but I'm sure it's worth playing.

And since I'm already on a pointless tangent here, I might as well take it all the way--on that same podcast episode he announced that they're planning to do a Brindlewood Kickstarter in January, for hardcovers of the two current books, plus an in-game cookbook with a mystery scrawled in the margins. I'm excited to see how that goes.

EDIT: To try to make this post slightly on-topic, I'd add that The Between modifies Brindlewood's approach to establishing scenes/flashbacks by stating that players shouldn't reveal anything about their back stories to other players, or to the GM, except during those flashbacks. It's meant to reinforce the prestige TV (and again, maybe even specifically Penny Dreadful) feel and pacing, where the main characters are ostensibly working together but suspicious and withholding.
 
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pemerton

Legend
Brindlewood Bay handles this in an interesting way, by having players do "cozy" scenes--usually engaging in their character's main hobby in whatever location they've chosen as their cozy place--in order to clear negative conditions they've taken. Those scenes aren't front-loaded, the way establishing scenes in a movie or book might be, but they happen regularly throughout a campaign.

But the game's other relevant mechanic (that I like even more) is when you put on a "Crown of the Queen," meaning increase your success level on a roll by picking from a list of flashbacks that you narrate, such as "A flashback of your fondest memory with one of your children" or "A scene in the present day showing a burgeoning romance." These are non-conflict scenes, usually unrelated to the current investigation, intended solely to flesh out your character. That they happen as the game progresses, often as a way to avoid failures or consequences, seems pretty ingenious to me.

Also important--there are 7 of those flashbacks to pick from, and you check them off as you go. So at some point your character is essentially done being established, probably around the time you hit the end of the campaign, which is also where you're suddenly more likely to die, or at least go from cozy mysteries to a Mythos (or similar) encounter.
In Agon, during the voyage phase (ie the end-of-session phase, when the PCs leave one island and sail to another), each player (as their hero) has to answer a personal question posed by another player (as their hero).

I don't think it's a huge success, as this character stuff doesn't really fold back into the core of play.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
The Penny Dreadful bit isn't as limiting as it might seem. The game does Victorian monster hunting and paranormal whatnot quite well without that particular faithfulness. Even just some poetic license with the playbooks in terms of character framing moves you away from that, and with some of the other available playbooks you can sidestep it completely.
 

In Agon, during the voyage phase (ie the end-of-session phase, when the PCs leave one island and sail to another), each player (as their hero) has to answer a personal question posed by another player (as their hero).

I don't think it's a huge success, as this character stuff doesn't really fold back into the core of play.
Stonetop, a PbtA fantasy game that Kickstarted a little while ago, but is still in development (and that's really cool, IMO), has an activity that players can do during expeditions called Keeping Company, and asking each other questions is one of the choices.

I loved it as a way of capturing that sense of sitting around campfires and being both bored but also maybe bonding through oversharing, etc. But as far as I could tell there was no mechanical component, so no real incentive to do it.

In the Shadowrun 5th edition game I'm currently running that's veered into a quest into a fantasy-style plane (long story, not the actual SR setting) I decided to adopt Keeping Company, but turn it into a way for PCs to recover Edge points--SR5's metacurrency or rerolling or adding extra dice to tests--while camping in a dangerous wilderness setting. Normally you get a Edge back for every full night of sleep, but I got all GM pushy and said that a bunch of New Yorkers taking watches and sleeping on bedrolls in monster-filled woods did not constitute a restorative night of sleep. So players could choose to get one Edge back per night if their character told a revealing story (a secret or similar) about themselves before bedding down.

It was awkward at first--we're still a very trad group in most ways--but they got into it pretty quickly, and it's helped them flesh out backstories, including inventing formative scenes and details on the spot, but in a confessional way, that (I hope) makes sense in the context of trying relieve stress and regain confidence after harrowing travel encounters. And some have since said it's their favorite house rule, because of the way it opens up the narrative.

Anyway, this is an overly long way of agreeing that, without some sort of mechanical teeth, enforced (or even just encouraged) sharing or establishing scenes don't feel as effective.
 

pemerton

Legend
Anyway, this is an overly long way of agreeing that, without some sort of mechanical teeth, enforced (or even just encouraged) sharing or establishing scenes don't feel as effective.
In Agon, that Fellowship phase does have a mechanical consequence - each of the asking and answering heroes gets a bond with the other; and at the end of the phase all heroes regain their lost Pathos (combined hit points and action points, kind-of).

But the answers given don't feed into anything else. Compared to, say, a BW relationship which supports framing, or establishing Hx in AW which provides material for the GM to work with in making their moves.

This is because the action in Agon happens on Odyssey-style islands, and so the personal histories and hopes of the PCs really don't make a big difference.
 

I'm quite fond of allowing my players copious personal plot time in the Downtime phases of my Blades in the Dark game. These sometimes result in my players' favourite sessions.

And games like Delta Green and Cthulhu Deep Green also have "at home" scenes to let players show their characters at rest with loved ones. Sometimes it's good to just let players take their time and let them vibe with a cozy scene.
 

I’ve come to really appreciate when games have some manner of design around these kinds of scenes. Not that they must have mechanical impact in some way, although they may, but when there is a proper place during the cycle of play for these to take place.

So the Downtime/Freeplay phase for Blades in the Dark, or the way The Between handles Flashbacks, or Anchor Scenes in Tales From the Loop. I feel like just that bit of established procedure tends to help focus those scenes so that you get to the meat of it quickly, with the intent that this will inform play going forward.

Without that procedure, I feel like people try and find places for these kinds of scenes, which can disrupt other modes of play. They also tend to be a lit less focused.
 

Without that procedure, I feel like people try and find places for these kinds of scenes, which can disrupt other modes of play. They also tend to be a lit less focused.

I guess this is a horribly obvious point, but I think the mechanical or at least procedural effects also apply some much-needed pressure for everyone to do at least take a swing at these types of scenes, including players who would never do so without that push.

I'm sure there are players who aren't interested in that sort of pressure, but to me it's not much different from presenting players with a particularly dangerous combat situation. It's just "Ok, what do you do?" in a more social and improvisational context.

(Plus, not sure if this was already brought up, applying mechanics or procedure reduces the risk of that one player unintentionally going hog-wild with consecutive roleplaying scenes while everyone else starts to drift)
 

I guess this is a horribly obvious point, but I think the mechanical or at least procedural effects also apply some much-needed pressure for everyone to do at least take a swing at these types of scenes, including players who would never do so without that push.

I'm sure there are players who aren't interested in that sort of pressure, but to me it's not much different from presenting players with a particularly dangerous combat situation. It's just "Ok, what do you do?" in a more social and improvisational context.

(Plus, not sure if this was already brought up, applying mechanics or procedure reduces the risk of that one player unintentionally going hog-wild with consecutive roleplaying scenes while everyone else starts to drift)

Yeah, for sure. That last bit you mentioned about going hog-wild is part of what I meant when I said they disrupt other modes of play and are less focused.

And I think if everyone knows there will be an appropriate time for that kind of stuff, they aren't as likely to try and shoehorn it into some other scene that has nothing to do with it.

I think your idea of putting pressure on folks is a good one. It's those moments that seem more likely to actually reveal something about a character rather than feeling like a prompt for a player to recite their character's backstory.
 

Although I haven't played many of the games mentioned in this thread, I like the sound of how they implement these character-focused scenes. I've played at tables where we introduced play traditions around starting or ending sessions with flashbacks or other characterization. The only mechanical effect I've seen was attaching a bonus character point to it in GURPS. You could opt out if you weren't feeling it, and then you didn't earn the extra point. I often enjoyed the scenes, but didn't find the mechanic very satisfying.

I don't play much D&D, but I wonder if one could add a system to the long rest to implement this to some degree. Perhaps regaining your HP (something people love to debate) is connected to these "campfire conversations" somehow.
 

Bluenose

Adventurer
One thing I've done in Pendragon games is get a player to tell the story of why they're particularly (Energetic, Chaste, Sword-y) in the Winter Phase. Plenty of games have "downtime" periods, which are a great way to get flashback moments or emotional moments into the game.
Though I think I don't entirely agree with the initial premise of building up to the key conflict of a session. I'd at least put it slightly differently; you should build up to a Crisis. Sometimes that might be a conflict of some sort; sometimes it's before the conflict when you realise someone you thought was an ally is on the other side, sometimes it's afte that conflict when you discover something about your own side, and there's a reason people remember the phrase, "I am Lovuyus of Borg" is a phrase people still remember and misquote/adapt. It's worth occasionally using The Conflict as a setup for The Reveal.
 

pemerton

Legend
I feel like just that bit of established procedure tends to help focus those scenes so that you get to the meat of it quickly, with the intent that this will inform play going forward.
It's that inform play going forward bit that I feel is a bit undeveloped in Agon.

What is an interesting feature of Agon is the way three bits of play intersect:

(1) At the start of the campaign, and then during every Voyage (= transition, downtime etc phase) the players take part in a simple contest to determine who will be the leader for the next island. The leader (ie the player of that PC) gets to decide how the group of heroes will tackle any given scene/situation - though another hero can spend a Bond with the leader hero to "advise" them, which is to say that player can make the final decision instead.

(2) As the heroes approach an island, they see/experience the Signs of the Gods. To explain what this looks like, here's an illustration from the island I wrote up for the Not the Iron DM thread:
Signs of the Gods
Demeter (Goddess of Law): Her sign is the seal - promises made and obligations kept.

Hephaistos (God of Crafting): His sign is a star-shaped brooch wrought out of tin, the imposition of form onto the chaos of the natural world.

Zeus (Lord of the Sky): A storm rages and torrential rain is falling as your sailors dock your vessel.
The idea is that the scenario that follows implicates or in some way pertains to these signs - either literally, as in the storm that is raging as the heroes arrive at this island, or the agreements and debts that come to light later on in the scenario; or metaphorically, as in the role of industry and craft vs wild cultists and raging storms in this scenario.

(3) In the Voyage that follows - after the island scenario has come to its conclusion - the GM and players fill in the Vault of Heaven, which is a stylised star-chart and records the way the heroes pleased or angered the gods. Pleasing the gods helps the heroes find their way home - the system's endgame - and also earn various elements of character improvement or "fate point" style resources; angering the gods arouses their Wrath, which gives the GM bonus dice to include in appropriate opposition dice pools (this is the system's version of "levelling up" the opposition as the heroes "level up" on the player side). Filling the Vault of Heaven is collaborative, and the player who was the leader plays a key role in this, because it should reflect how that player interpreted the Signs of the Gods and then applied that interpretation in leading the heroes on the island.

So whereas play doesn't really make it important (in my experience so far) that a hero has Penelope and Telemachus waiting at home, it does centre what the heroes (as played by their players) think the gods do and don't want from them. (And some other aspects of the game further reinforce this.) Which I think is quite interesting.
 

@pemerton Have you checked out the Chamber and Storm Furies playsets? I don't have a great grasp on Paragon, but looking at them, I'm having trouble figuring out how (or whether) those elements work in those. Asking in part because Agon's setting doesn't appeal to me, but those other two really do.
 

pemerton

Legend
@pemerton Have you checked out the Chamber and Storm Furies playsets? I don't have a great grasp on Paragon, but looking at them, I'm having trouble figuring out how (or whether) those elements work in those. Asking in part because Agon's setting doesn't appeal to me, but those other two really do.
Your post is the first I've heard of these things. I am now switching tabs to do some Googling!

EDIT: OK, so I've just learned that Paragon is a thing!

I had heard of Agon years ago in its first incarnation, and downloaded but never played it. (Maybe it was free to download?) I picked up the 2nd ed in hardcopy at my local games shop, and so hadn't realised there was this whole culture of Agon hacks.

I guess the challenge in a hack is to frame the random wandering coherently, and to set an overall endgame/success condition that parallels the Vault of Heaven: so achieving "wins" (ie pleasing the gods) in ways that are not arbitrary but make it hard to pile up all your wins at once (in Agon this is achieved by having 12 gods, whom you can't please all of all the time; but you have to fill 3 stars for each of 3 gods to find your way home) and also creates the possibility of Wrath.

I would assume that in Storm Furies all the wrath comes from the Forged? The description suggests that instead of Divine Favour there is Expressions which are passions/drives - so instead of pleasing gods, you have to make (sometimes hard) choices about which passion to cultivate and which to set aside? I'm not sure how Bonds with gods would work in this version (in Agon, a Bond allows you to include the Bonded character's name die in your pool, which is d6 to d10 for a PC or NPC, and d12 for a god).
 
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It's that inform play going forward bit that I feel is a bit undeveloped in Agon.

What is an interesting feature of Agon is the way three bits of play intersect:

(1) At the start of the campaign, and then during every Voyage (= transition, downtime etc phase) the players take part in a simple contest to determine who will be the leader for the next island. The leader (ie the player of that PC) gets to decide how the group of heroes will tackle any given scene/situation - though another hero can spend a Bond with the leader hero to "advise" them, which is to say that player can make the final decision instead.

(2) As the heroes approach an island, they see/experience the Signs of the Gods. To explain what this looks like, here's an illustration from the island I wrote up for the Not the Iron DM thread:
The idea is that the scenario that follows implicates or in some way pertains to these signs - either literally, as in the storm that is raging as the heroes arrive at this island, or the agreements and debts that come to light later on in the scenario; or metaphorically, as in the role of industry and craft vs wild cultists and raging storms in this scenario.

(3) In the Voyage that follows - after the island scenario has come to its conclusion - the GM and players fill in the Vault of Heaven, which is a stylised star-chart and records the way the heroes pleased or angered the gods. Pleasing the gods helps the heroes find their way home - the system's endgame - and also earn various elements of character improvement or "fate point" style resources; angering the gods arouses their Wrath, which gives the GM bonus dice to include in appropriate opposition dice pools (this is the system's version of "levelling up" the opposition as the heroes "level up" on the player side). Filling the Vault of Heaven is collaborative, and the player who was the leader plays a key role in this, because it should reflect how that player interpreted the Signs of the Gods and then applied that interpretation in leading the heroes on the island.

So whereas play doesn't really make it important (in my experience so far) that a hero has Penelope and Telemachus waiting at home, it does centre what the heroes (as played by their players) think the gods do and don't want from them. (And some other aspects of the game further reinforce this.) Which I think is quite interesting.

I haven't yet played Agon, but I have read it. It's definitely a game I want to play, but I did remember feeling that some of the elements were a little disconnected, so I'm not surprised by your assessment. I have watched a bit of live play with Harper, and that gave me the impression of a bit more cohesion than just reading the book gave me (which is typically the case).
 

pemerton

Legend
I haven't yet played Agon, but I have read it. It's definitely a game I want to play, but I did remember feeling that some of the elements were a little disconnected, so I'm not surprised by your assessment. I have watched a bit of live play with Harper, and that gave me the impression of a bit more cohesion than just reading the book gave me (which is typically the case).
I think the intricate intersection of the various resource/advancement tracks is intriguing. They include:

* Pathos (both hp and a type of fate point; recovered fully during every Voyage, a bit like a modern D&D long rest);

* Divine Favour (both hp and a type of fate point, earned during the Voyage via the Sacrifice phase and also via the Vault of Heaven);

* Fate (both emergency back-up hp and a type of XP but on a one-way track to "death" of the PC);

* Glory (the main type of XP, earned by succeeding in contests, which are the main action of play);

* Bonds (a type of fate point, earned with other PCs via in-play decisions -including hanging back in a contest and providing support rather than participating - and also the Fellowship Phase; and earned with gods via in-play decisions and also the Vault of Heaven);

* The Vault of Heaven (an over-arching success track, which propels the game towards the endgame and generates Divine Favour, Bonds with the gods, and PC advancement independent of both Glory and Fate on the way through; as well as Wrath ie divine adversity).​

They generate real decision points in play, both mechanical/optimisation, but also fiction-oriented (both exploration/interpretation - Should I use my Divine Favour with Poseidon now, given I don't think I'll have another ocean-oriented contest on this island? or How will calling on a Bond with Ares at this point affect the Vault of Heaven - and also pro-active - How can I make this fight with a giant serpent into a contest of Craft & Reason, so I can spend a point of Pathos and bring my Craft & Reason die, which is bigger than my Blood & Valour die, into the contest?). And there is a healthy element of player-vs-player contest in the decision to spend Bond to assert leadership - because then you can shift the terrain of a contest onto your favoured terrain - and to get full Glory for a contest you have to not only succeed against the DC, but you have to be the best of the successful heroes.

So far, the only bit that has fallen a bit flat is the question-answer aspect of the Fellowship phase.

But in typing this I've had a little bit of a breakthrough!

One aspect of PC build is Epithet (which has a die rating) - eg a hero might be the Swift-footed (d6) Achilles. When departing an island, a player can change their hero's Epithet to reflect any change that occurred on the island - and in our last session one of the players did this. An aspect of character advancement is also gaining a second Epithet, which is a power-up because you can only include your Epithet in your pool if the fiction makes sense (eg being Swift-footed can help when running or in some fighting, but probably not in talking or performing a ceremony).

As presented in the rules, the decision about changing an epithet is made before the Fellowship phase. But it might make more sense to have it afterwards, so that the discussion in the Fellowship phase can feed directly into the sort of self-reflection involved in thinking about a change to one's epithet.
 

So far, the only bit that has fallen a bit flat is the question-answer aspect of the Fellowship phase.
I do agree with you that the GM is expected to tie together many of the AGON pieces to make things more coherent.

My reading of the classic Greek mythologies indicates that there really should be quite important effects on the story based on the character's history, so I did a couple of things:
  1. I modified islands quite significantly to incorporate character histories. One island invited one hero's help; another had ties to the family .. that sort of thing
  2. I would note down the personal answers players gave and try to incorporate that into sessions.
My final session (when the heroes arrived home) was almost entirely based on notes I had taken from the players and their actions. The basic plot was that sea raiders (inspired by the characters' earlier actions) invaded the homelands of 2 of the characters with pillage and destriycion on their mind. The other 2 characters were involved by their deity connections.

But none of this is in the book -- not even advice to do so. It's very much left up to the GM
 

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