Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Goals in RPG Conflicts: RPG Modeling (Part One)

Hollowpoint was nominated for three ENnie awards this year. It’s a great game and one I’ve talked about before a couple of times. In the last couple of years I’ve read three games- Hollowpoint, Microscope, and FATE which impacted the way I’ve run. Or at the very least, they’ve made explicit for me some of the things I do or want to do at the table. In particular, Hollowpoint’s made me think about the way we go about defining concepts- actions, skills, powers, flaws- in tabletop games. In particular HP approaches any action as what you’re attempting to accomplish, paired with a narrative about the means you’re using to accomplish that. So instead of saying that you’re “take a shot at X,” you say you’re spraying the room with fire and trying to cut down the opposition to neutralize their effectiveness. Hollowpoint models actions and options at a higher level of detail and effect than most classic games.

In part that’s about objectives- and setting those out clearly for the players. Some versions of FATE put that clearly at the front of a conflict: what’s at stake? What goals do each side have primarily? I’ve certainly been in and run many combats over these years where players found themselves uncertain or even arguing about what they intended to accomplish in the fight. That’s great for certain kinds of games or situations perhaps- where chaos, uncertainty, or fog of war rule. But where that’s no important to the genre or story, these kinds of arguments can slow things down, waste actions, or lead to rw tension.

There’s a parallel in boardgaming which might serve as a counter-example. I like co-op games, in theory. For example, I really dug Pandemic the first couple of times I played it. However, that game as with many co-op games lends itself to Player Leader problem- where a single player issues orders and the other players have to follow or things break down. You can go off the reservation, but might be blamed for losing. And, frankly, because you opt to head in another direction, you increase the chances that you’re going to blow things apart. The Player Leader problem drains a game of fun- and certainly Pandemic’s not a game I really want to play that often.

Most tabletop rpgs combats are, in many ways, simply a co-op game. Many systems shift scale and approach at this level- many build the game around these interactions. So why don’t I often see the Player Leader problem, with one player ordering the others to do X or Y? I’ve seen players assign a leader or a combat leader, but even then, the “orders” tend to be fairly open ended. Something, I suspect arises from what constitutes victory conditions. The players may have goals and stakes at the start of a conflict, but a good GM will shift and change that situation changing up the victory conditions. At least I try to do that- especially if the players have tightly defined what they want to accomplish. If they haven’t then, I take a more hands off approach- their own uncertainty and cross-purposes creates interesting problems. Another reason may be the number and types of variables operating in a situation. In a board game, you can usually reduce the information and choices to a discrete set easily. “We need X by Y turn,” in a good rpg combat, you may have several kinds of clocks and constraints operating. You have the level of social dynamic, the complexities of the player’s characters, the volume of opposition. The narrative and story level not only obscures the information, it creates its own set of needs and goals. Yes, they want to rescue the Princess, but they also want to look cool, have a chance to fight a named bad guy one-on-one, or reduce risk to the associated NPCs of the group.

OK- so what does that mean? When I ran Hollowpoint, it felt strong in part because the game requires the GM and payers to define goals- and to state when a scene is about to deal with one of those goals. I want to try to be better about this. When I set up a conflict, I want to get the players to define their goals. I can set some of the stakes, but I want to get them to verbalize those before we go in- even if just the broadest approach. I need to make sure that I also define the circumstances well. If there are clocks ticking on a conflict those need to be clear. So to take an example from a game I ran last week: you want to capture these power armor dudes; they’re wrecking the docks and you want to stop that; some of them seem to be destroying particular targets; and there’s a fire burning in these two zones here. I also need to make clear what’s not at stake- for example, most of the dockworkers seem to have fled clear of the current combat zone.


  1. Your' post popped up on one of my RSS feeds. I want to say thanks for a refreshing take on encounter/session design. I have never heard of HP but the concept sound interesting. I have added you to my home page as a separate feed and look forward to further posts.

  2. With regard to co-op board games, if you haven't already, give Arkham Horror a shot. It's co-op, but there's plenty of scope for individual actions and going off the rails as often as you like. When we play there does seem to be someone who tries to keep things together, but sometimes what's best for the character you're playing, isn't what's best for the whole game.

  3. @Brian: Thanks for the kind words. I really like HP- it is a great pick up game system, easily adaptable to many settings.

    @Shortymonster: I think you're right about Arkham Horror. The number of variables, randomness, hidden information, and different strategies means that it suffers less from the Player Leader problem. But on the other hand, that means significant set up and play time. I really enjoyed the game the first several times I played AH- but strangely became less enamored of it as we played more. I still haven't figured out why that it.