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
Supporter
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.
 

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.
 

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