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Conflict conflict, who's got the conflict

That illustration is just about exactly perfect for my character, Zocchi Scurlato. (artist is Nicholas Kay)

Petteri, Paul, Santiago, and I continue with our saga of the golden dragon-man in the city of commerce, whom Zocchi is more or less planning to murder, depending on whom he runs into next. This session is noted for two things that feed right into my priority for consulting in this case: how people process the text as they learn-and-play the game, with one hand holding the book open. First is that we ran a scene without conflict, therefore in which the “world doesn’t change,” but the protagonist still gets voted on regarding Flame and Shadow. Second is that we ended the session in the middle of a turn, raising the question of whether and how that relates to narrator status.

If you’re here for the theory, the session begins with a little bit of debate concerning the all-important conflict rules. They run in a strict order:

  • Traits set the initial dice pools
  • Grains add to the dice pools
  • Roll
  • Add Shadow if you dare [edited for the correct order; see Petteri's note below]
  • Burdens reduce victors’ successes
  • Spend Flame for re-rolling

The question is whether and how to discuss relaxing this order, e.g., rolling and then deciding to add Shadow, or pulling in a Grain later, or anything like that as fancy strikes. This is distinct from whether it’s “allowed” or not, and specific to that bolded phrase above.

The session also ends with some debate about conflicts and scenes … briefly, how tightly linked are being the current narrator, identifying and conducting a conflict, and finishing the scene. In the video, I’m advocating an almost free-play approach in whatever happens happens, and whoever gets conflicted just does, basically uncoupling the three things. But now, I find myself agreeing more with Paul, who remained less convinced that a Spione-like Flashpoint technique fit this game.

I ran into a little bit of file corruption, which forced me to truncate the final bit of discussion, in which Santiago wanted to understand the rules for identifying the protagonist of a scene, especially when we’d found that multiple player-characters were often included. I’d like to follow up on that in the comments.

... in fact, that ties into the first point, so this post is more coherent than I'd thought. Basically, is or isn't the scene about the initially-named protagonist? What if another player-character is involved and events conspire such that he or she has a conflict instead? Does the named protagonist still get voted on for Flame and Shadow? Similarly, what if there are several player-characters in a scene, and no one has a conflict, and the narrator decides the turn is over? Do they all get a Flame/Shadow vote, or just the initially-named protagonist?

I do like the idea that play is not completely rigid, such that one narrator gets one scene with one conflict in it, only and always. But i think we may have hit the limits of just how fluid it can be allowed to get, or came to a point where those limits were visible.



Santiago Verón's picture

Loved the Zocchi picture.

I'm not such a fan of your discussion (to me it's yours, of the three of you) about the order of the conflict rules. To me it seems like they're pretty much the game; I wouldn't think about changing them as nothing but a big hack. They're precisely in the right order to get that "crushing coal into diamond" effect, it seems to me.

What it does make me wonder is about diceless systems. This is a tangent: I remember reading Fred Hicks' PACE, a diceless RPG, and how it said it was a dice pool system in disguise; also reading author notes on Fudge that said it was a perfectly balanced game to play without dice, you just had to not roll them. I wonder - I realize this is a very basic question, but what is the gain of having rolled dice as opposed to points? It seems like it could easily be "you have X points for your Traits, plus Y for Grains, but your opponent has Z+Y+1 points in total, you better add Shadow if you want to win, or spend Flame". What does the randomness bring in? More bounciness, in your terms, Ron? I'm going to say this, my favorite part of the canonical order is precisely hinging on randomness, which is that you can find yourself adding Shadow before a roll and after rolling realizing you didn't need to, you'd have won either way. I looove that feature.

About our truncated discussion, I think I would gain a lot from having it all laid out. With more Stuff On Capital Letters. When we're starting a Scene, we have a Narrator; we also have an Operator of course, as always. We have a Least Played Character (could be more than one), a Protagonist of the scene, and later we'll have a Conflict - but we can end the scene before it appears. Whether some of these are the same or not is everything, I think. In the following, whenever I say "character" I refer to player characters:

  • The Operator is in charge of the rules of the game, the Narrator is like the "GM" of the scene.
  • The Narrator is forced to start the scene with the Least Played Character, but can choose time and location.
  • If there's more than one Least Played Character, the Narrator can choose to only bring one, he isn't forced to bring them all.
  • Conversely, he can bring in more than one Least Played Character without having to ask permission to their players.
  • The Narrator can bring his own character to the scene.
  • The Narrator can bring other players' characters: but I'm not clear whether he has to get the players' permissions or not.
  • Does the scene have a Protagonist? I'm not sure.
  • Apparently, the scene is considered to be centered around only one character, from the start, even if it starts with two Least Played Characters side by side. So there's also a Centered Around Me character.
  • Conflicts end Scenes. Right?
  • The Narrator can end a Scene when he wants, even before a Conflict has appared.
  • But he cannot continue the scene after a Conflict, then having another one, and so on.
  • Any character can enter a Conflict, called by either its player or the Narrator. The other party can back out of the conflict, though. But then, this means the Centered Around Me character may not be the one that enters a Conflict and ends the scene. So there's also an Into Conflict character.
  • I'm multiplying entities with all of these, because we could assume that these are all one and the same, and would certainly be in a scene with only one character: Protagonist, Centered Around Me, Into Conflict. But it seems to me they can decouple when more than one character is present. So, who's the "Protagonist" of the scene? Is it the character the scene's centered around of, or the one who enters a Conflict in the end?
  • When the scene ends, we vote for Flame and Shadow of all player characters involved? Or just the ones who were Into Conflict? Or just the ones that were Centered Around Me from the beginning?

I realize I'm repeating some of the questions Ron already made, but, well, let it be in the name of toroughness.

Wow, that does seem hellishly complicated when put that way. I'll address the issues Santiago raised here later on, but first I wish to clarify a small error: the shadow is applied after the initial roll is made. This is how it is supposed to work and I'll bet we have played it that way also. The idea is that shadow is an effort of the one who is losing, to up the scale. This always leaves the door open for the rest of the players to apply their character's shadows as well.

So the order is traits, grains, roll, shadow, burdens, flame. Then there are the follow-up procedures of changing the grains, applying burdens and narrating fiction.

A note of the randomness and surprise it gives. I am overly fond of randomizing and dice in general and thus I enjoy systems with "volatile" dice. That is, if the premise is that both of the sides can win the conflict, then they both must have a reasonable probability to do so, even if the other is entering with a massive advantage in dice. This is the "gamey" side of things for me, if the dice are rolled there should always be an anticipation and uncertainty about who is winning. It is the department of the players to set up conflicts that can go either way in fiction.

I'll handle Santiago's list in a different post later when I have more time, but I'll add a quick snippet that could prove helpful: The status of the Least Played Character is there only during the selection of the character around which the scene is built on. After the choice is made, then there are only that character and other characters.

Let's say that I'm narrating and both Zocchi and Llietti have the least amount of scenes played. This means I can choose either one. I choose Zocchi. Now there is Zocchi that must appear on the scene, and there are other characters that can appear on the scene.

Then there is an issue of voting for flame and shadow in the end of the scene. I feel that players usually have very clear feeling whether a vote should be made for a character that was involved. If it needs a strict rule, then all the characters that appeared on the scene get the vote. Usually, if a character is only a tapestry there, doesn't do anything and so on, they get zero flame and zero shadow, which mechanically is equal to not being voted at all. I have seen this happen on an occasion, sometimes I then leave that character out of the scene counting as well because he didn't really make an impact. It means that this scene wasn't really centered around him and we probably need another, a different one to focus on that character.

Ron Edwards's picture

I see two questions, right? The first is more mysterious to me, as my position is to preserve the textual work-order of conflict and not to go "organic" with it. I think Paul, Petteri, and I are generally agreed on that. (I am also not happy with the naturalism of that term I put in quotes, which implies that the alternative is contrived, artificial, and forced.)

The second about dice/-less, is a good topic. I do think you've answered it; we're talking about Bounce, or as Petteri describes it, surprise. The idea is that one's use of Grains, Traits, Burdens, and even the optional spending-points of Flame and Shadow can only ever influence the outcome, rather than determine it. The dice are going to play a much greater role in that than any character is going to like. The fictional space ("world") of Tales of Entropy is much like that in Sorcerer - it will fuck you over sometimes for no reason.

The tight family of games represented by Fudge, Pace, and Fate have a very different philosophy: the dice exist to find/promote the most likely thing possible given everything we know. Fred realized that the dice' potential to deviate from that outcome was, if you will, off-message, and thus Pace point-spending seems to me to be the core of Fate resolution, with the dice taking second place in contributing a modifier of how many points it will cost to swing the outcome to the perceived best/likely/desired.

The dice in Tales of Entropy don't do that. In regard to the immediate conflict, they are ruiners, devastators, trouble-makers, world-changers in defiance of what was ordinarily or sensibly likely to happen. They're even more malevolent than in Sorcerer (or in Dogs in the Vineyard, where the equivalent dice are sensibly described as "demons," with or without magical elements in a given instance) You can be steamrolled by the opposing dice or betrayed by your own, and unlike Fate, you don't just "get" the spending/modifying currency points back for merely being yourself. Furthermore, the dice outcomes affect more than the conflict at hand; they change the world and they indirectly but definitely alter your character's literal status, ultimately his or her presence, in the fiction.

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