Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Conflict vs task resolution

I'm having fun exploring role-playing games and their concepts and mechanisms. I'd forgotten how much fun they were. Fun to play, fun to read about, fun to criticise, and fun to create (to play an RPG is to create one).

The topic for today? Conflict vs task resolution. I’d seen mention of these terms, especially from Burning Wheel fans. I didn’t really understand what they were talking about. To paraphrase: “All he’s interested in is task resolution, that’s why he doesn’t like Burning Wheel.”

So I looked up what these terms mean. From RPG Theory Glossary:

Conflict resolution

A Forge term for a resolution mechanic which depends on the abstract higher-level conflict, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict. For example, one might roll to get past a guard -- regardless of whether you bluff, sneak, or fight your way past him. When using this technique, inanimate objects may be considered to have "interests" at odds with the character, if necessary.

Task resolution

A technique in which the resolution mechanisms of play focus on within-game cause, in linear in-game time, in terms of whether the acting character is competent to perform a task.

Reading that, one must conclude that task and conflict resolution are the same thing. No-one is going to attempt to model a world along reductionist lines, you'd be talking about the movement of atoms rather than the blow-by-blow conflicts of RuneQuest or the more distant conflicts of other RPGs. Therefore, all so-called task resolution mechanics must also be conflict resolution and vice-versa. It's merely the level of detail that your interested in that counts. That interest in detail changes from moment to moment within any RPG. Seconds, days, years, millennia can go by in game time with only moments of our time. Do RPGs that are labelled "task resolution" games involve cooking, defecating and brushing your hair? None I've played, but they could, if you were interested in that level of detail.

A better example:
All combat is a matter of taking thinking about time, space, kinetic energy, potential energy, material sciences, anatomy, willpower and distilling it into a natural reaction which requires no real thought, is mostly muscle memory and instinct. These principles cross all imaginary separations and divisions, thought becomes action without actual thought.

In game terms there are a ton of skills which people don't normally think of as contributing toward combat, which are really useful as a basis for real combat skills. For instance Lore (Animal, Mineral, Plant), these are essentially Anatomy, Chemistry, Botany. What do they tell us? Where to hit, what I can use to hit with, what might be useful as a poison, what is safe to move over etc. Perception is the basis of situational awareness, not walking into ambushes, knowing where attacks are coming from is vital to protecting yourself. Athletic and Acrobatics aid your movement over terrain, Evade is necessary to tactical movement keeping the enemy in each others way, Persistence and Resilience provide the mental and physical endurance to persevere and win in battle. To be a good warrior already requires a multitude of skills. Faelan Niall
If interested, the same sort of discussion is had on the gaming philosopher blog.


  1. I have found that people want something that is simple and abstracted. With Synapse, I went deep with the design and broke down combat into second-long phases where people could act with lightning speed like Jason Bourne (if they had the stats). In general, muted reception. Most commentary was that it was too cumbersome to manage.

    People like simple, even if it means disconnection from the reality of what is going on and abstracting it out to a level that may have some logical inconsistencies.

  2. I'm not entirely certain I agree. Generally, where task resolution tells you not only whether or not a character succeeded, it also heavily implies, if not outright dictates, how. You do six points of damage to the orc, you pick the lock, you bluff the guard.

    Resolution mechanics generally hand around authority for deciding what actually happens in the game world. Winning a resolution mechanic only tells you that you get the upper hand on the orc this round, that you get passed the locked door, that the guard allows you to pass, but you get to decide exactly what happens: "I throw up a flurry of thrusts and slashes that forces the orc back into the puddle of spilled oil" or "I find the key to the chest hidden in a book beside the bed" or "I saved the guard's life in the Troll Wars; recognizing me, he lets me pass."

    That sort of thing strongly influences how the rest of the game works. For myself, I prefer more "authorial authority" in the hands of a single GM, because I think you get more interesting worlds and events that way, but that is strictly a personal preference.

  3. Someone can inject any level of description that they want with so-called task resolution. You bluff the guard? But how? Pretend that you are someone else? Try to confuse him with complex explanations that wouldn't make sense if he had a moment to think about it? Threaten him? Explain the consequences if he doesn't let you in? Thus the "task resolution" can become a "conflict resolution." The details may or may not be important, it changes from moment to moment within any game.

    It sounds like your description of a conflict resolution captures intent rather than method. Task resolution assumes intent but it describes method. Surely intent and method are great things to capture in a game. Whether you use specific rules depends on the situation.