Prepping for conflict as a GM

pemerton

Legend
The most recent RPG sessions I've GMed have been Torchbearer, and I'm hoping to GM another one soon.

I've got a general idea for the next session: the PCs have learned that the Elven Ranger one of them wants to rescue is in their enemy's house, in the same town where the PCs are staying. So I anticipate some sort of assault on, or investigation of, the house. Of course that opens up the possibility of a direct confrontation with the enemy.

I also have another idea for the session: one of the PCs is under the influence of a cursed, dream-haunted Elfstone. In mechanical terms, this means that the character's Belief slot is filled by a Belief about protecting the gem from being stolen etc. In my imagination - I don't know how far the other players share this image - the character, a somewhat dark Elf called Fea-bella (who is rather fiery, like Feanor) sits at night brooding over her gem, going over in her mind the dreams and hopes of the petty-Dwarf Mim that flow from the stone into her.

Now the information about the kidnapped Ranger came to the PCs from a new friend, a bitter Dwarven bandit named Gerda, who was working for their enemy but whom they tricked into coming over to their side. They tricked her by, in part, playing on the ancient rivalry between the Dwarves and the Elves. (The enemy is an Elf.) And so my other idea is that Gerda will try and take the Elfstone from the PC, on the grounds that a jewel like that should be in the hands of a Dwarf, not an Elf.

This has led me to think about how, exactly, I want to frame these conflicts.

Some of the best advice I know on this comes from Vincent Baker's In A Wicked Age (p 11 of the rulebook):

Playing with conflict
Like a movie with only action sequences, it’s a poor game – a one-tone game – that drives relentlessly from one conflict to the next.

To rush up to a conflict: Choose two characters who want to do harm to one another. Arrange circumstances so that one of the characters has a sudden, momentary, immediate advantage – act now and seize it, or hesitate and lose; and furthermore that if she should leave her enemy capable, the advantage will dramatically reverse. . . .

To circle a conflict: Choose two characters who want to do harm to one another. Arrange circumstances so that they have to interact, but so that neither of them have any upper hand, and in fact so that if one should attack the other, she will do so at a significant disadvantage. . . .

To draw a conflict out: Choose two characters who want to do no harm to one another at all, but whose interests don’t mesh well or overlap. Arrange circumstances so that one has the opportunity to pursue her interests, but only by threatening the interests of the other. Also arrange it so that the other will see her do it, or have evidence that she’s done it, or have some reason to blame her for doing it – so that the offense is unignorable.​

This advice rests on assumptions about how scenes are framed (p 10):

GM, it’ll mostly fall to you to open and organize scenes. . . . However you start, once you’ve established who is there with whom, and where, and what’s up, turn it over to the players. “What do you do?”​

Torchbearer isn't quite as flexible in its approach to scene-framing, but there are certain moments of play when the GM does get to significantly reframe the situation: when a player fails their dice roll for a declared action, the GM can introduce a "twist" - which I'm thinking, if the PCs are exploring/assaulting the house, may include the enemy turning up. In Baker's language, I'm thinking of this in terms of circling a conflict, although I'm not 100% sure how to do this yet - I think playing on the fact that it's in town, and the PCs are burglars, but the enemy a kidnapper, might be the way to go.

With the gem, I'm envisaging rushing up to the conflict - an attempt by Gerda to take the gem in the night, while Fea-bella is sleeping - but in terms of the game's rules I'm not sure yet how I will frame this. It will likely depend on what actions the Elven PC's player declares during town phase, in the lead up to the house adventure.

How do other ENworld GMs think about framing into conflict in their RPGing?
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
These are two quite different situations in one respect - in the house scenario the PCs are taking the conflict to the opposition, while in the Gerda scenario the opposition is bringing the conflict to the PCs.

The former is IMO fairly straightforward: in broad strokes, the PCs proactively do what they do and the enemy - if alerted (this would be the "twist") - reacts as it naturally would. Put another way, the PCs almost set the scene for you by their declared actions.

The latter, however, can be tricky; in that here it's an NPC being proactive and the PCs have to react as best they can. I don't know Gerda's capabilities or personality so it's hard to say how she'd approach the theft; but if she's been following or observing the PCs in order to learn where they might be at any given time, maybe the PCs have a chance to notice her or hear about her through the underworld grapevine (you did say the PCs are burglars, right?). Failing that, as you say it might come down to on-the-fly framing and-or narrating based on whether the Elf (and-or allies) declare they're keeping watch during the night or not; and if not, whether any of the PCs wake up before Gerda makes her getaway.

As for the more general question at the end of your post, personally I find the more I think about and-or plan for things like this - as opposed to just letting them happen as part of the flow - the worse they often work out. When the PCs are the instigators it's easy. When it's an NPC that's the instigator, the main thing I have to keep telling myself is to think like the character(s) - i.e. not like an omniscient GM - and use only what the NPC(s) would know when determining their actions and-or approaches.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
As for the more general question at the end of your post, personally I find the more I think about and-or plan for things like this - as opposed to just letting them happen as part of the flow - the worse they often work out.

So, he's not asking about planning. He's asking about framing, which in the lingo of some games has little to do with planning.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
So, he's not asking about planning. He's asking about framing, which in the lingo of some games has little to do with planning.
@pemerton can correct me if I'm wrong, but in the OP he's asking for advice on how to frame a couple of scenarios; I read that as implying there's forethought going into how those scenes might be presented. In my eyes that counts as planning.
 

pemerton

Legend
@pemerton can correct me if I'm wrong, but in the OP he's asking for advice on how to frame a couple of scenarios; I read that as implying there's forethought going into how those scenes might be presented. In my eyes that counts as planning.
The OP shared some thoughts on framing conflict, with reference to some examples.

Advice on those examples is welcome, though it would have to be consistent with Torchbearer.

But the OP also invites others to share their thoughts on how they approach the framing of conflicts. This may or may not involve planning/prep.
 

pointofyou

Adventurer
If I need game-type stats for a conflict I make sure I have those. Sometimes that means finding them in a book. Sometimes that means otherwise determining them.

If I need to know the oppositions goals or limits or tactics I make sure I have those. Since I'm probably running in a homebrew setting that is likely to mean deciding on what those goals or limits or tactics are.

If and when the time comes to make the conflict happen at the table I do so.
 



Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but are your players okay with knifing one another over a cursed stone?

Anyway...

Some of the stakes I would consider is that open strife in the town itself may risk access to the goods and rest the town can afford. Does the enemy know of the PCs? Meeting publicly on the street or in the tavern can ratchet up the tension. Will either risk a "first shot" and thereby also risk alienation of the town? I'm thinking of scenes from Westerns where the two main characters just "circle" each other as they go about their business; the good guy doesn't have the evidence, the bad guy isn't immune to consequences, each waiting for the balance to tip somehow.

Does the ranger expect or even hope of rescue? Since the ranger is an elf, would there be a chance that as the elven ranger is being rescued the cursed elfstone may want to leave the PC and go to the elf? Can they prevent the complication of the willful magic item bringing the attention of the bad guy?
 

pemerton

Legend
Maybe I'm misinterpreting, but are your players okay with knifing one another over a cursed stone?
Gerda, the Dwarf who might try as for take the gem, is a NPC, though a friend (ie an established relationship) of one of the PCs.

Does the ranger expect or even hope of rescue? Since the ranger is an elf, would there be a chance that as the elven ranger is being rescued the cursed elfstone may want to leave the PC and go to the elf? Can they prevent the complication of the willful magic item bringing the attention of the bad guy?
What the ranger - also a NPC and a friend of a different PC, the one with the gem - knows hasn’t been established yet. The cursed gem doing a “one ring” - whether that is tempting the ranger, or calling to the enemy - us something that might follow from a twist. Though I’m thinking of Gerda rather than the ranger as the target/victim of the gem, because I think it might be a bit unfair to further attack the position of the player of the cursed PC by also going after the ranger friend.
 


Gerda, the Dwarf who might try as for take the gem, is a NPC, though a friend (ie an established relationship) of one of the PCs.

What the ranger - also a NPC and a friend of a different PC, the one with the gem - knows hasn’t been established yet. The cursed gem doing a “one ring” - whether that is tempting the ranger, or calling to the enemy - us something that might follow from a twist. Though I’m thinking of Gerda rather than the ranger as the target/victim of the gem, because I think it might be a bit unfair to further attack the position of the player of the cursed PC by also going after the ranger friend.
That makes sense. I didn't realize the same player had ties to both NPCs, and that Gerda was also an NPC.

I guess, in an attempt to be helpful, I would need to ask
  • Is the villain aware of a possible rescue attempt?
  • Do you specifically want to have or avoid the villain be present at home when the rescue is attempted?
  • Do you have a pattern of activity for the villain that the PCs might be able to exploit? Either to avoid or confront him?
In order to frame a scene, I would need to know an underlying pattern to know what scenes are available. I could certainly arbitrarily decide that the PCs are going to encounter their foe at Swinson's Dry Goods. That seems counter to how you prefer to run your games, however. The guidelines you mentioned are certainly interesting, and food for thought.
 

pemerton

Legend
It sounds like what you are doing is preparing without deciding. At least deciding as little as possible.
Torchbearer is an interesting experience for me, because it relies more heavily on GM prep than I am used to, but also incorporates Burning Wheel-ish scene framing techniques (in the application of twists on failures). There's a sense in which this should be no surprise, as the game is an adaptation of BW (via Mouse Guard) to deliver a Moldvay Basic-esque experience. But this is still a new thing for me; and I was never very good as a Moldvay Basic-type GM.

I think the mindset I'm moving into is similar to that of Apocalypse World fronts: the idea of the prep is to give me interesting things to say when the system requires me to say them, because it calls on me to establish a twist.
 

pemerton

Legend
I guess, in an attempt to be helpful, I would need to ask
  • Is the villain aware of a possible rescue attempt?
  • Do you specifically want to have or avoid the villain be present at home when the rescue is attempted?
  • Do you have a pattern of activity for the villain that the PCs might be able to exploit? Either to avoid or confront him?
For the first one, that is also something that would be part of a twist. There is a sufficient basis for that in the fiction, because the PCs befriended Gerda by persuading her away from the other bandits she was hanging out with, who were themselves the kidnappers of the ranger under the instruction/payment of the enemy. So it is possible that - in the time that the PCs have taken to return to town with Gerda following their encounter with the bandits, and then in the time that they will spend in town phase before they start their next adventure (which I am assuming will be the rescue attempt) - the other, still loyal, bandits will have let the enemy know about developments.

In relation to the second, I have drawn up my map and notes for the enemy's house, and have deliberately not put him there. I'm keeping his possible return reserved, as a twist for an appropriate failed action. (Eg if the PCs fail in trying to open a particular door that is boarded up, I might narrate this as them spending a long time heaving and grunting without success, and then lo-and-behold the front door opens and who should come in . . .)

The third thing you mention doesn't fully apply in Torchbearer, or at least not I think in the way you're thinking of. There aren't really patterns of activity at that level of abstraction (as opposed to, say, details of movements of a character on a dungeon-level map). The players could declare actions in town phase - research-type actions, or social-type actions - that might lock down some relevant fiction about where the enemy is. But what I think is actually more likely, given that (i) the PCs are broke and (ii) actions in town phase generally generate a lifestyle cost, is that the cursed PC - who is an Elven Dreamwalker - will fail some or other action where dreaming is salient, and I will be able to use the resulting failure narration to foreshadow the threat of the enemy (who is also a Dreamwalker) in some or other fashion.
 

pemerton

Legend
This thread kind-of turned into a how am I going to do my Torchbearer game thread, so I thought I'd report back.

The conflict with Megloss the enemy Dreamwalker happened: the PCs were in his house, a player failed a test, and so as a twist he turned up. The players initiated a Convince conflict and - despite the NPC's huge advantage due to being an enemy (a quasi-mechanical category that gives +3 to disposition in Convince conflicts against the PCs, meaning he had 10 points of disposition to their 6) - they won, due to a very lucky open-ended roll. So, using their knowledge of his hiring of bandits to kidnap the Ranger friend, and threatening to reveal him as a kidnapper to the town authorities, they persuaded Megloss to hand over the kidnapped Ranger.

The conflict around the Elfstone has been set-up but not crystallised. At one point, during town phase, the Dwarf PC wanted to buy a pry bar, to help with breaking into Megloss's house. The check to find one for sale had succeeded; and he, the other PC and his NPC friend Gerda went off to try and close the deal. Mechanically, this was a Resources check by the player of the Dwarf, with the other two characters helping. The check failed, and so I opted for a twist: the vendor (a common townsperson) decided in the end not to go through with the deal; but when she got home, Fea-bella found that her Elfstone had been stolen from its place in her belt pouch!

Fea-bella's player (and Fea-bella) are convinced that Megloss is behind this theft. Neither player seemed to work out what the most obvious twist is here: Gerda took the Elfstone, thus complicating things both for Fea-bella (whose Belief is all about protecting the stone at all costs) and the Dwarf PC (who has Gerda as a friend and is trying to get her accepted into the town's Alchemist Guild).

For anyone whose interested, this also shows how mystery can work in a "story now"-type RPG.
 

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