Hack: Story Led Conflicts

I’m a hack addict… it’s a problem


Last session I handed my wife the conflict cards I made and she gave me a look. A look like I forgot our anniversary, her birthday, and left the baby in the car unattended for an hour… it was a look. I don’t want to get that look again guys… I’m scared.

She doesn’t like conflicts. Maybe rock, paper, scissors isn’t for everyone? Or… maybe it’s the fact that you play this rock, paper, scissors game and then have to shoehorn the story to fit the disconnected game you just played… She wants to Describe to Live. She wants to say what her character is doing and see what happens as a result. Other aspects of Torchbearer don’t put mechanics first and make the story serve them, rather, just the opposite. Can conflicts be made to do that for her?

This is my attempt to shove Describe to Live into the conflict mechanics. Most of my hacks up to this point have been thought experiments, just fiddling with the knobs to see what happens. This is something I’m actually hoping to implement in my game as soon as possible. Any feedback or thoughts are even more appreciated this time than usual.

This is probably just a first step toward getting my party of inexperienced non-gamers to buy into conflicts, but, if it works, I think it will be an important and helpful one.

Conflict Type and Disposition

When a conflict starts you still determine the type of conflict and roll disposition as normal. None of that changes.


Conflicts are a story. Initiative basically describes who the primary storyteller is. If the players have initiative then they are telling the story and their opponents are reacting. If the GM has initiative then he tells the story and the players are reacting.

A conflict starts when the players describe acting on or reacting to some entity in a way that would result in a particular conflict. This means the players almost always start with initiative.

After a versus test initiative goes to the victor. If one side could not roll (Defend vs. Feint or Feint vs. Attack) then the other side gains initiative. If the test was Independent for both parties then initiative remains as it was.


The normal rules apply for who may act and in what order. However, you do not select three actions at the start of the volley, instead, follow this procedure:

[li]The side with initiative selects a valid character to act and they declare their weapon
[/li][li]The side without initiative selects a valid character to react and they declare their weapon
[/li][li]The acting player describes what their character is doing. It must be obvious whether they are Attacking, Defending, or Maneuvering.
[/li][li]The other members of the acting side may describe help.
[/li][li]The reacting player describes how their character is responding.
[/li][li]The other members of the reacting side may describe help.
[/li][li]The acting player places a card for the action they described face down or a Feint card face down.
[/li][li]The reacting player places a card for the action they described face down or a Feint card face down.
[/li][li]Simultaneously the cards are revealed, if a character performed a Feint the player may describe how they were feinting
[/li][li]The test is rolled, and the results applied

If both sides have disposition left, repeat the entire process.

Help is described whether or not it is a Feint and applies to the Feint even if the applicable skill changes and the helpers don’t have that skill. At the very least their help will make the Feint more believable, throwing the opposing side off balance and making them more vulnerable to the Feint.

First Action

When a character describes doing something and it starts a conflict, that description is the first action of that conflict and the player that described it is the first one to act. If the GM decided it was a kill conflict because one of the players described charging in with weapons drawn, then the first player to act is that player and his first action is an attack (or a feint). If the GM decided it was a trick conflict because one of the players started spouting lies and trickery then they have the first action and their first action is spouting lies and trickery.


When you describe a Defend action you have the added option of playing a Predict card face down instead of Defend or Feint. Predict essentially means you are expecting the enemy to do something tricky and you don’t react to their initial action. Predict is identical to Defend except that the interactions it has with Attack and Feint are swapped. Attack vs. Predict would be independent for the Attacker and no roll for the Defender while Feint vs. Predict would be versus.

Note: Without this rule it is nearly impossible to lead with a Defend action. A sensible opponent would always Feint. The only reason to lead Defend would be if you know that your opponent is more concerned with avoiding a compromise than they are with winning. As a result leading defend would benefit the GM more than the players. Predict makes Defend more practical as a lead because your opponent won’t know whether a Feint will beat your action or whether an Attack will beat your action. It at least gives you a chance to have that Defend work… if you can predict what your opponent will do.

If the skill fits… (Optional)

With story leading conflicts it’s possible that players will describe something that fits a skill other than one of the proscribed conflict skills. Usually the GM will treat this as flavor and ask the player questions as per Describe to Live until an appropriate action is described and the mechanics can be engaged. Sometimes, however, the description fits perfectly with an action for this conflict type even though the skill doesn’t match. The GM can, at his discretion only, accept that action and skill for this test. This works in the same way as Describe to Live. Players cannot beg for tests using a specific skill, they simply describe their actions until the GM decides they are doing something that requires a test.

In a Drive Off conflict Beren the Dwarf may describe raising his sword over his head and threatening a band of goblins with an immanent and gruesome death. Beren is a pretty intimidating guy (albeit short) and this action is definitely something that might weaken the goblins resolve. This sounds like an Attack! If Beren doesn’t Feint then when it comes time to test Beren will be testing Manipulator as an Attack action. Of course, if he does Feint by, say, taking a swing at the goblins while their sizing up his threat and least expect it, then the test would instead be Fighter as a Feint action.

Too Many Tests!
You may still only mark at most two tests per conflict and only one per skill. If you mark a passed test for Manipulator and then a failed test for Health, and then if you later test Fighter you may not mark it.

Flavor Stalling
If players are spouting more than a few sentences of flavor, they’re stalling. Maybe they’re trying to beg for a different kind of test or maybe they’re just over dramatic. Either way, the GM should say something like “the goblins are starting to move against you” or “the statesman clears his throat as if ready to interrupt” and remind them that they are in a conflict and need to act fast. The player must stop with all the flavor and get down to business picking one of the proscribed actions for the current conflict type.

Switching Conflicts (Optional)

Story led conflicts are more prone to evolving into a different conflict type than a mechanics front conflict where the story is shoehorned into the actions chosen. Consider adopting my conflict switching hack if this becomes a problem.


Does this take too much of the chaos out of the game with all the extra information each side has as they are deciding what to do? Or is it worth the cost to have the narrative drive the mechanics?

Would this slow down play too much since the participants are sizing each other up between every action? Hmm, would that even be a bad thing?

Are there any leading actions that are obviously superior or inferior? Are there any obvious reactions to a particular leading action?

Is it too hard to Defend and get disposition back? Is that even a bad thing [evil GM cackle]?

My problem as well, exactly. Mine and my players’, actually, but I’ve been wrestling with it a lot.

There’s a hack for that called Dungeon World. :wink:

More seriously: It seems like instead of doing full-on lengthy Conflicts, you should be able to do something more along the lines of a Torchbearer Bloody Vs. Either handle everything through a single Test (with everyone helping to the best of their abilities for that one test), or maybe just do a Conflict that ends after three actions are played.

Bear in mind: I have given neither of these ideas any real thought. Just kind of spit-balling here.

I considered it, however there are a few problems with that.

  1. I absolutely adore light, the grind, and the equipment system. I love how they took those abstract things from old school dungeon delving and gave them elegant form.
  2. My players have enough trouble describing how they’re using traits and being descriptive in their actions, could you imagine them spouting lore? They need a world with stable footing to explore, and honestly, I think I do too. I’ve played a little Dungeon World but I’m used to a more GM driven style, I’m not sure I’d do a great job GMing a “-World” type game, particularly not with players who are so new to roleplaying and storytelling.

More seriously: It seems like instead of doing full-on lengthy Conflicts, you should be able to do something more along the lines of a Torchbearer Bloody Vs. Either handle everything through a single Test (with everyone helping to the best of their abilities for that one test), or maybe just do a Conflict that ends after three actions are played.

Yeah, this has been discussed before. You need full length conflicts. It’s where you earn most of your checks and it provides extra opportunities for advancement. The system sort of falls apart without them. Plus, a kill conflict doesn’t just leave you injured like BW, it leaves you dead. A bloody vs is way too much risk to place on one die roll without offering the players any opportunity for strategy or tactics of some kind.

Bear in mind: I have given neither of these ideas any real thought. Just kind of spit-balling here.

spit-balling and brain-storming are definitely welcome!

eta: I’ve also added a new section to the OP: “If the skill fits…”

I changed the procedure slightly. Both players describe their actions before either player puts a card down. Before this change having initiative was nothing but a disadvantage because your enemy would have information about your action but you would have none about his.

I’m also going to make the Predict action an official part of this hack as opposed to an option. It seems like the right way to go.

I’ve broken down and analyzed all of the interactions and it looks like a pretty interesting system. Every lead (A, D, or M) has it’s value depending on your strategy and the status of your opponent. There are some reactions that are better than others, but in no case is there an answer that’s better than all others in all situations. I won’t write out my analysis here because I don’t want to spoil the fun of figuring things out for anyone that might use this system :slight_smile:

I don’t know if it’s just mindset or what, but my players and I didn’t have any problems with conflicts in Mouse Guard – I haven’t gotten to play TB yet, so I don’t know if the subtle differences will make a big difference, but… We just looked at it as: this is my battle plan for this next few seconds or so. Let’s say there’s 2 players versus a beastie. So, first player will fire some arrows to get the beast’s attention and keep it outpositioned for player 2’s quick charge and retreat, again possible due to cover fire from player 1. That looks like a Maneuver-Attack-Defend. Meanwhile the beast’s decided it will position itself for some ferocious attacks on the team. That’s a Maneuver-Attack-Attack. That’s the plan, and it’ll only take a few seconds, really. There’s not much time for improvising. You’re committed to that (or something similar). Then you roll to see how it turns out. The arrow barrage works perfectly (6 MoS on Maneuver!), but this beast recovers amazingly well, and even though you nick him, he swats you to the side (2s for players, 5s for beastie on Attack-Attack). Your archer comes to the rescue again, though, and you’re able to recover, even if only a smidge (1 Mos on Defend vs Attack).

The plans on both sides didn’t work out perfectly, but the narrative from the plan just gets tweaked a little to fit the dice rolls. Again, this transpires in a few seconds; there isn’t time to adjust enough to have a different type of action, just a slightly different execution of that action. (The above example, btw is a slight rejiggering of a 2-teams-on-1 Mouse Guard conflict my players had. To simplify the example, I described it as if it were 1-team-on-1. It happened to need little change.)

Maybe that helps, maybe not. It just seems like your wife is seeing the action selection as a minigame instead of an application of description. That’s how I see it. Part of Describe to Live. Just like everything else in TB, say what you’re doing (in this case, think about it) and see what dice rolls that corresponds to.

Not to just knock on your hack. It has some interesting and intriguing bits. It’s quite different, though. It granularizes the conflict mechanic quite a bit more and takes away some of the frenzy of a conflict. I think it slows things down to the point of being in slow motion, especially with more than one character to a side. Everyone’s not just waiting around for everyone else to act before they start doing something. (Obviously the degree of that depends a bit on the type of conflict and how it’s played out, though.)

Anyway, 2 cents…

DW is mostly GM driven. The whole move structure relies on that.


Interesting. I’ve never played Mouse Guard, but I did have some thoughts about how Torchbearer conflicts compare to BW Fight. I wrote them above but decided to remove them because they didn’t seem all that important to the hack itself. I guess they are, so I’ll summarize them again. My main concerns are two-fold. First, a torchbearer conflict does not feel like a blow-by-blow of a conflict to me, and that certainly isn’t how it’s described in the book. Each action plays out one at a time and involves a fairly non-trivial description of what the acting character is doing and how every other character in the party is helping them. The fact that every member of the party can help with every action, and the fact that spells are cast as part of the action instead of taking several actions to cast, suggests to me that what’s going on here is closer to 6 second rounds per action than it is to the blow-by-blow of a BW Fight. Secondly, in BW the players all script their own moves, and because their script is a blow-by-blow of exactly what they are doing during the conflict (are they swinging their sword at this moment or raising their sheild?), that script is basically the story of what they are doing. In TB each player is not choosing their own action. The conflict captain picks the single set of actions that he thinks will be the optimal strategy to win the conflict game. The other players can offer advice but ultimately the other players don’t have a lot of agency at this point. If the conflict captain picks Defend for them, well, now they have to describe how they are going to defend. They don’t get a choice, and they can’t change the decision or opt out. It doesn’t feel like each player is scripting their story of their character’s actions because that isn’t what’s happening. You could talk about and tell the story up front, but at the end of the day, you’d better be playing that mini-game strategically, and that mini-game isn’t the story of what’s happening like in BW, it’s just an overall strategy for the next three rounds. Once that strategy is set there’s no room for individual agency. There’s a little room for some story telling, but that story telling is constrained by the established abstract strategy. If all of the player’s aren’t really into helping the conflict captain pick the actions, then they will feel totally withdrawn from the conflict instead of immersed. The conflict ends up being led by an overall strategy game, by an abstracted mini-game, instead of being an unfolding story.

That said, I think you’re right. If they could each describe what their character is doing at the start of the volley, and do so with some individual agency, then that would also resolve the issues my players have with conflicts. Unfortunately that’s not the procedure described in the book. I suppose you could modify the procedure from the book like so and still keep most of the original conflict flavor in tact:

[li]Pick weapons as normal
[/li][li]GM chooses actions
[/li][li]Conflict captain picks which players will act this round and in what order
[/li][li]Each of the three players individually describes what they are going to be doing and selects an action out loud, with other players describing help
[/li][li]Once all three player actions are set the GM reveals his choices and the results are quickly rolled and resolved

The players will still probably be shoehorning their descriptions to fit the best abstract strategy, but at least each player feels like they have a little more agency. Still, I think my players prefer to start with the story “here’s what’s happening, how are you reacting?”, and the more old school moment-to-moment conflict system I’m proposing fits that better than the ‘combat is chaos’ scripting model offered by the BW games. It may be a matter of preference. Also, I don’t think the conflict system in TB is the central thesis of the game. I get the sense that the grind, equipment, and light were the main points and the conflict system was just an inheritance (and then optimized for TB). I could be wrong about that though.

Ah, I only played it a very little bit, but when I played it there seemed to be a lot of world building on the part of the players during character creation and when spouting lore. Maybe that was just because I was playing a demo? I thought that was part of the game.

Yes that is true (however on a Spout Lore you don’t get to say what the information is, just where you know it from) but in play itself most action and situations get set up by the GM since they are the one making a move first and putting players into situations.

Finally had a chance to try this hack out. Worked great. Things moved a little smoother than the previous conflicts and everyone felt more involved.

In DW the GM is generally encouraged to ask questions and build on the results during . That’s it for player involvement in world building. Anything else is just the way that GM interprets building on the results.

Ah, seems I had some misconceptions about Dungeon World, maybe I’ll give it another look.