Some Thoughts About the Conflict Rules

My crew has been playing Torchbearer somewhat consistently (weekly-ish, with a month off here and there) since it released. Recently we brought some new players in, and they are really enjoying it, but they’re still somewhat befuddled by the Conflict system. As I found myself explaining away the system, it revealed some of my own reservations about Conflicts and their effects on the game.

As a nod to the meta-discussion in the forum, it should be noted that my group culture is one that adheres to the rules as much as possible. We have quite a few veteran rules designers in the crew, including some who work in games professionally (electronic, but still) and experience has taught us that the fewer changes the make to the game, the better effects you get out of well-considered house rules.

Some time last fall, a discussion between the various Torchbearer GMs arose organically during a binge session. We all agree that the adventure-phase procedure is damn near perfect, but that we tend to lose players focus and engagement during Conflicts. We started brainstorming solutions, some invasive, others less so.

The Perceived Issues
All of the GMs in my group agree that Conflicts are a valuable way to run extended scenes without inflating the grind, and that the actual mechanics of the mini-game are quite charming. So why are we losing player interest during conflicts?

One thing we all agreed on is that the three-action volley is at odds with the spirit of “Description Forward” as it appears on Page 6. It is difficult, although not impossible, to adhere to that protocol while engaging in a tactical mini-game that locks you in for three actions, since the context tends to change between the first action and the last. (For those of you with advice on how to integrate the two, bear with me.)

The dissonance between the tactical crunch in the Conflict system and the Description Forward procedure tends to create a “screen tear” effect, where it suddenly feels like you’re playing a very different game. Granted, this can be a good thing, but in our experience players who were enjoying the adventure phase suddenly feel cut off. To some players, the Conflict rules feel arbitrary; and let’s be honest, there are some arbitrary elements.

This is made somewhat worse by a lack of explicit rules support for non-combat Conflicts. While non-combat Conflicts are theoretically well-liked, the burden of translating the actions into meaningful fiction can and does paralyze even our veteran GMs. I’ve only found it to work when I have the time to plan the entire conflict and all action interpretations for both sides out during prep, which is a luxury to be sure. As a player of both Mouse Guard and Torchbearer, I can’t help but feel that non-combat Conflicts were better supported in the former. Especially with regard to the weapon tables for these Conflict types, and the incredibly important rules for asymmetry and type-selection, there’s something unfinished-feeling about the Torchbearer implementation.

Lastly, over time conflicts have filtered into two types:

  1. There is a reasonable level of engagement on both sides and the rules hit a sort of equilibrium. If both sides are doing a good job of managing disposition, the Conflict tends to drag on – third round, fourth round, fifth round. The longer the conflict runs, the more difficult it becomes for the players and GM to describe the events in line with the demands of game’s mechanics. Some players find this challenging to be begin with, especially in non-combat Conflicts where there’s not a whole lot of guidance (What’s a Feint in an Abjure?, etc.) This causes players to check out, unless they’re really interested in the rules themselves (there are some), as the fiction is lost.

  2. Nuking the conflict with Nature. Once rewards are in the picture, the Nature rules allow savvy players to decimate the opposition in key moves. This is the opposite problem of the above, rather than too long, conflicts become pointlessly short – it feels like they would have been better resolved as simple tests on the Grind. (Honestly, this is almost a separate issue concerned with the efficiency of Nature, but it tangentially affects any conversation about Conflicts).

Attempts to Address the Issues
Limiting the Frequency of Conflicts
We’ve had some success just restraining the use of Conflicts. We find that if they occur only once or twice a session, or not at all, then the lack of repetition can make descriptions more natural. I’ve discussed this with other players (on Google+ I think) and there seems to be some resistance to this, but it has worked well for us. The main question we ask, before starting a conflict is: “How long would this scene be in a movie, and what would the pacing be like?” If we’re about to do a flee conflict, we ask: “Is this a chance scene or a relatively quick shot of an escape?” For an argument, we ask: “Is this simple dialog, or are there reveals and plot twists in the offing?” Simply taking a moment to ask “should this be a conflict” and appeal to the entire group’s dramatic sensibilities really helps! And it primes people to participate, if the end result is indeed a conflict.

As a result, we’ve found that we use simple tests on the grind for a lot of things that we used to use conflicts for. And honestly it works quite well! Although my group never did master Burning Wheel RPG, it’s the spirit of the “Bloody Versus” test from that game. If a conflict is really just a beat in the story, we handle it as a single roll. Kill Conflicts are for extended fight scenes and the like. It’s totally cool to roll Fighter outside of a conflict.

A Hard Limit on the Number of Rounds
This was one of the first things we tried, and it only sort-of helps. You simply limit the number of rounds to some fitting number, say “three.” It certainly keeps Conflicts from dragging on due to balanced outcomes, and it introduces an intriguing tactical element with the hard stop – Defend becomes more valuable in the last turn, no matter what your Disposition. It also stops the less-conflict-engaged players from zoning out completely, and cuts things short while all of the descriptions are still novel.

Conversely, shorter conflicts give the less-engaged players less time to learn the system (although they do know it, really) and somewhat diminish the utility of conflicts in mitigating the pace of the grind.

It’s a mixed bag, and for better or worse it has been obviated by the Nature-Nuking issue (mentioned above). If players are pretty good at cutting off conflicts in the first round, limits aren’t going to help.

A Concrete Method for Interpreting Non-Combat Actions
One of the roadblocks to a great Conflict scene is the general lack of conceptual support for non-combat Conflicts. These kinds of conflicts seem like an awesome idea in theory, and some GMs are anxious to launch into them at every opportunity, only to have the game strain under the abstract nature of what constitutes what type of action. Some people are probably natural at this, but the middle of GMing a conflict is not the time to “remember” that an Attack actually means running away.

We’ve been moderately successful in creating a taxonomy for various actions. Basically, we define a player goal and an enemy goal. Each side’s goal is accomplished if the enemy reaches zero disposition.

[li]Attack actions work directly toward your goal.
[/li][li]Defend actions undermine your enemy’s goal.
[/li][li]Feint actions utilize your enemy’s goal in some way to serve your goal. (While that’s a mouthful, it is easily the most useful of the bunch to have defined!)
[/li][li]Maneuver actions are interpreted as whatever action they augment.

In the rules as-written, Monsters and NPCs don’t have defined goals in conflicts necessarily (although hey there is that heading “Creatures Always Want Something” so I must not be too far off).

Forcing Description Forward (and Emphasizing GM Weapon Selection)
This is the favored method at our tables right now, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the least heavy-handed. Instead of selecting their own action types, the players describe their actions in the game world, and the GM decides what that action constitutes in the Conflict; just as the normal adventure phase/grind procedure works. The conflict captain then chooses which of the available actions align to which of the three actions in the volley, observing the other Conflict rules.

Because this method severely restricts the ability to plot an optimal round for your team, it is only fair for the GM to telegraph a little more information to the players so that they can make meaningful choices. Accordingly, we have the GM “announce weapons” before the player actions are declared. Furthermore, the GM is encouraged to describe the actions in a somewhat obvious manner, avoiding the actual terms “attack, defend” etc. A special exception is made for Feint, in which event the GM is encouraged to be tricky. It turns out, forcing the GM to create overwrought descriptions of monster actions as a perfunctory matter is really fun and cool.

It also helps to level the playing field if you use some kind of concrete method for interpreting actions (see above), so that when players have a hunch to feint they can actually reliably describe a feint, regardless of the conflict type.

The drawback of this method is that it has lead me to seriously question the merit of the three-action volley. Why three actions? It can seriously interrupt the flow of play if you’re focused on narrative combat. I actually quite like the mechanics themselves, but not when they fail in service of the whole game.

Did you really read all that? Anyway, I’m not arguing that Conflicts are fundamentally broken, but during a good deal of play they have shown to be the weakest part of the game, mechanically speaking. Hopefully some of the above ideas can help people run better conflicts, or at least understand the limitations of the system. I’m also very happy to hear what other people are doing to make Conflicts integrate with the rest of the game a little more cleanly.

I can only comment on using conflicts in Mouse Guard (since that’s the only one of Luke’s games I’ve played):

I consider a conflict to be of titanic scale. Gandalf fighting the Balrog is a conflict. Boromir defending the hobbits from uruk-hai I would consider a series of tests. At least that was the impression I got from the rule book. You could use a conflict for the latter but I find that the whole mechanics of conflicts are designed for a prolonged event that cannot be resolved in one or two tests. I generally run only 1 conflict a session, more would require exceptional circumstances.

The three action system I find very arbitrary as well, but it puts the players in the mindset of committing to a plan and being surprised by their enemy. Three is just enough to suggest commitment to an idea without going into details. I discuss what is happening with the players as we turn over cards, choosing the cards is a matter of abstraction based on their goal. This seems to work fine. We don’t over plan the conflict, we just choose a theme through the actions and then discuss the ramifications.

I agree that non-combat conflicts require prep. It requires some lateral thinking to abstract the actions and it helps if you’ve done it ahead of time. I can only suggest the community pulls together any GM tools they have for those.

Conflict-nuking I’ve seen a lot of. I think it’s dying down, now that the players have depleted their Nature - but yes it does skew the odds, and the GM has no similar tools to apply to their own NPCs (at least none that I’m aware of). The players enjoy those nukes a lot, and I often resort to handing out conditions through other ways in the session. But I agree that it’s an issue I haven’t thought of a way to deal with yet.

Coming into Torchbearer I have spent quite a while familiarising myself with the rulebook and preparing to sell the idea to non-gamers and veterans alike. The most perplexing times I have had in imagining the flow of play has been the conflict mechanics. While I understand the almost inexhaustible ability of the imagination to contextualise the abstractions involved, I do have trepidation regarding the arbitrary nature of the 3 round system and a commitment to what I have heard described as rock-paper-scissors, but what I prefer to see as an elemental versus.
After absorbing as many podcasts, examples and transcripts as I was able, reading your mini essay above finally crystalised a few things for me. Torchbearer is a very structured game which hopefully has more of a trellising effect on roleplay than a confining one - and in that spirit your Forcing Description Forward proposal I believe is an excellent balancing act, whereby the narrative auto corrects awkward or ill-fitting choices by being difficult to describe. An excellent alternative to choosing an action (say Maneuver against a horde of rats) and then attempting to describe how you manage to disarm all of their teeth after the fact. And you may well after a moment decide they “jump on a table where the rats can’t reach” but still suffer that awful sinking feeling of covering for the rules before pulling something out of the hat. That breaks immersion and if it was to continue may devolve into an abstract mini-game with roleplay as justification of outcome.
I am very interested in your ideas on the 3 part round, but unless I am mistaken you haven’t offered up any alternatives. I appreciate the idea of strategic deployment and probably the only change I would even contemplate at my very early stage, is to trial a one shot per member of the party per round. Fortunately for me it looks like a party of 3 so I don’t have to feel disrespectful to the creators of an excellent game.
Thanks for your insights and questions as I found them very helpful.

Thanks for the constructive responses, folks. I’m glad people found this helpful, but there’s also some more brainstorming to be done here.

@Qu4ntum, I have thought about removing the three action round in favor of something more like… Burning Wheel maybe? But this raises a ton of questions and turns out to be a much more invasive solution than I prefer. So we’ve been trying the other measures, mentioned above. If we can hash out how such a system might work, I’ll be willing to playtest it, but there are many questions to answer first.

It’s fairly obvious how things will go with evenly matched team sizes. What happens with asymmetric sizes, though? If I have only one action per round, and I’m fighting a group of 4, am I stuck with one action to oppose all of them? On the one hand, that sounds “realistic” (whatever that means in this context) and on the other hand it would vastly skew the utility of something like Feint when you have the party size to pull it off.

We played a long Kill Conflict last night – it went on too long I think. We opted against nuking the disposition roll with Nature. It happened again as I have described in my first post: we start out with creative descriptions of the actions in a dynamic context… then we reach turn 5 or 6 and it becomes “they attack, you defend.” We’re trying to keep the descriptive element in the game, but I feel like we’re fighting the system the whole way, because the important mechanical decision is not based on description.

When the dice hit something like equilibrium and you’re losing a few points and restoring a few points every round, things start to drag on. That’s when the flaws in the Conflict procedure start to show. In some ways, this reflects well on the mechanical design of the conflict mini-game itself; two players with equal starting points playing equally well and the fight will just go on forever*! But strangely, that’s not optimal for an RPG combat system.

*: Henceforth to be known as “Conflict Ping-pong Championship.”

Another thought from last night’s Conflict:

The GM “chewing the scenery” a bit during the weapon selection stage of the fight definitely helps players to both role-play into their action selection, and to choose the correct action tactically. But one place where this fails (or at least becomes a lot harder to RP for the GM) is when one character takes multiple actions in the round, or if you don’t know who will be taking the action if a defend is played earlier in that same round. Sure, it’s not impossible for a good GM to talk through it, but it is a LOT harder than the relatively straight-forward first action per character.

At this point, I feel like the deficiency in the conflict is that it just doesn’t allow for Description Forward (p6), and so it is at odds with the rest of the game.

At the very least, having each player and monster act once per round would address this, but it’s no magic bullet. It probably creates more problems than it solves.

I just don’t see how your conflicts last so long. We’re lucky if we even see a third round for most conflicts. Not because we win the conflicts easily. (We don’t. We just suffered a total party kill a few sessions back). But, you’re saying “you’re losing a few points restoring a few points every round”. That means playing a Defend action every round. That’s a risky strategy, to put it mildly. Is your GM not using Feint actions very often? There is no way we would try a Defend action every round. Our GM has no problem at all throwing in a few Attack and Feint cards to cancel out our Feint and Defend actions. I’d love to see how a few rounds of conflict work out with you guys, see how it differs from ours.

I’m in the process of figuring out the what we’re doing differently – I put a poll up on the G+ Group and it looks like /most/ people have shorter Conflicts than we do.

My first guess is that it’s because we have played a LOT. We’ve been playing Torchbearer somewhat actively since it came out. Our group can’t really get enough.

As a result, we have a good sense for when to Defend (rarely), when to Maneuver defensively, and when to use range weapon advantages to keep your Hit Points even on the attack. You know, as I was typing that, I felt strongly that it might be the culprit. When I GM next there may be a lot of crossbows now.

We’re going to continue the passive approach and see if there’s an non-invasive solution, but Qu4ntum did get me thinking about the following hack:

Torchbearer with Kinda-Sorta Burning Wheel Fight! Engagement
Instead of a three-action round, every round each character describes their action. This Hack aims to create Conflicts where Description Forward (p6) is not compromised, and where players and GMs don’t have to describe their character taking up orphaned actions during the round, or losing actions to revived allies.

Each round, every player describes their character’s behavior. If there is more than one enemy, they choose the one they wish to engage. Each player may only engage an enemy who is otherwise not engaged until everyone has been engaged. If all enemies are engaged, characters may begin to “gang up”, but the forces must be spread evenly – a third character can not engage an opponent unless all others are engaged by 2-3 characters.

If the players have a smaller team than the GM
The GM describes each enemy’s weapon selection and behavior, without mentioning action type. The GM may describe a Feint as though it were another action, but must have a logical description at the time of the reveal. Then the players describe how their characters respond, and the GM gives each of them an appropriate action type to play.

If the GM has a smaller team than the players
The GM listens to the players descriptions of their actions and assigns them an action type. The GM then describes each enemy’s weapon selection and behavior. At this point, if a player wishes to change their action to Feint, they may do so if the description satisfies all present.

If the teams are of identical size
Make an opposed Commander test, and the winner chooses whether to describe their actions first or second, as above.

After the characters are all engaged and actions have all been assigned, the smaller force reveals their action. They then choose which of the engaging opponents they will deal with first, and that person reveals their action. Resolve Versus and Independent tests as normal. Then, after the roll is resolved, any net successes may be applied to the [i]next[i] engaging character.

For example, if two characters engage you while you’re playing attack, and the first reveals a Maneuver, your successes will reduce theirs as per the Versus test rules. If you should happen to reduce that enemy to zero hit points, any additional attack successes could then be applied to the next engaged character. If that person played an attack also, your remaining successes would become damage to that character, but you will also suffer damage in the attack as per independent tests.

The Might advantage works once for each engaged character.

As you can see, this increases the complexity of things quite a bit. And this isn’t even a complete treatment! I would expect anyone using this Hack would quickly find some major flaws. It’s all in service of getting Describe to Live into Conflicts! It definitely seems more deadly to be outnumbered, but if you have the Might Advantage it should still be easy to hold off Ye Olde Hordes of Mooks.

I’m going to stick to the rules as written for now, but I’ll probably keep puttering around with this on a whiteboard.

Sounds like the GM should opt for Feint a bit more to keep the party guessing. That would make your defensive Maneuver a lot less safe. Also, maybe the GM needs a Twist to get rid of a few crossbows. Fire, thievery, rot… Etc. endless options.

Bows. But yes. Very yes.