Sunday, June 12, 2011

How to have interesting extened conflicts

I have been thinking on how some parts of rpgs never seem to turn into the drama intended, but devolve into endless rolls of the dice without any of the buy in and excitement I had hoped for. Lucky for me, the guys at the Narrative Control podcast have been thinking on this as well. A mashup of their ideas in show #65 and my own follows.

Everyone have probably tried to run a game where one guy suddenly is the focus of everything, and the rest is sitting idle. Maybe the thief is checking for traps and picking locks or maybe the netrunner is hacking a computer system. In both cases the rest of the players do nothing. While shared narrative control and kibitzing can help somewhat (like I talked about in my last post), maybe some rule support to keep everyone involved would be a good thing.

Here are the things you can do, and import in your game as rules supporting more engaging play.

  1. A Unified Mechanic - One way to make even climbing a cliff or a trek through a snowstorm engaging is to have it use the same game mechanic as the players. Stat up the snow storm, and let it have an AC, attack rolls and defensive maneuvers. Yeah, I know it sounds daft to have the door you are trying to break down or pick the lock have an attack. But, imagine how it "attacks" your concentration as you pick the lock. Maybe the door attacks you and as a result pearls of sweat forms on the forehead of the thief giving him -1 to his picking because his will is strained? The cliff might not maneuver away, but that beast you are trying to rescue up that cliff might be climbing higher! What I'm saying is, let the whole challenge act as more than it's just sitting there. Make it an active participant in the challenge. It sure helps if you can use the same mechanic that you have used since fifth grade while killing orcs, right?
  2. It's Not Over Until It's Over - In the marvellously cool game Wushu, everything you as a player say is true. Yes, you can say in the first volley of melee that you strike the villain through the heart. As long as the Threat Rating (I don't remember the specific term) is not down to 0, anything goes! When inventing cool moves is part of the game, everyone listen up just to hear what outrageous stuff their friends is inviting.
  3. Let Everyone Pitch In - Closely tied to the last point is the idea that everyone should be able to chip in. If you think the NPC made a lame move, suggest something cooler to the GM! Listen up, game masters! When someone is trying to make your job easier, let them. It's just more engaging for everyone if everyone is engaged. Right?
  4. Make It Measurable - There is one thing among all this loose and woozy stuff that I'd suggest you add some crunch to. In order to have tactical options, and in order to make informed choices, the players need information. If you need to figure out the big trap in order to stop the doomsday device, don't just reduce it to a bunch of skill checks. Here is where I differ from the guys on the Narrative Control podcast. I think the skill challenges in D&D4 bores me to tears. With a skill list that short it tales all of two seconds to figure out one skill you need, and a backup. Instead, toss the skill list or make it far longer. Better is to have the players just speak their mind. Whatever they say that sounds cool, investigative or proactive, give them a +1 or an extra die or whatever. Then let them go at the doomsday device. Now for the interesting part. Have a tally of their progress, and make it public. Make them see what made the scales tilt in the preferred direction and what did not. Actions should count, not rolls.
Some of you might think this is just bogus, or maybe newfangled ways to beat down open doors. More power to you! If you have an un-engaging game, try some of these ideas out, or think them over and tell me what worked for you.

I love these ideas.


  1. Neat post. Thanks. :)
    --I look forward to reading others' reactions.


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