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:
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.
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.