dramatic conflict resolution "rules of drama"

edited February 2011 in Game Design Help
(wow it took me 5 minutes to find the 'start a new discussion' button.

Hi, Im fleshing out a game that concentrates on the dramatic style of conflict resolution. My def of that is that 'fiction reality' guides the players in what is possible and what is important to conflict resolution rather than whatever mechanical laws of cause and effect might be baked into a game that uses 'physical reality' to guide conflict res.

The game can be downloaded from here:


Id like some help/feedback on dramatic resolution. My assumptions are that the players facing a challenging situation will set a couple of goals they want their characters to achieve , and that the GM uses these goals as the focus of any dramatic resolution in the scene, probably just narrating through parts of the scene that dont revolve directly around those goals. To my mind, thats what dramatic pacing is about -- not dwelling unduly on every opposition/conflict that the character faces, but only those that are tied to goals.

So Im thinking of the scene for a particular character as a path/map from his current situation, leading towards his goal, and naturally the path will not be straightforward and clear.

With the above in mind, the following is an excerpt from my system -- Is it enough? can anyone think of other types of complications besides roadblock, detour and dilemma?or just general thoughts on 'rule of drama'? cheers

Knowing when to call a roll a conflict and when to simply narrate is probably the most significant skill for a GM. In general, the GM only wants to break out the dice when there is a significant consequence riding on an intended action. Fortunately, player set goals are like red markers for the GM as they show what is most important to player characters in the upcoming challenge. Try to center rolled conflicts around parts of the challenge that directly result in a player goal being achieved or not. Other parts of the challenge may involve rolled conflicts, but the GM should think hard about it before picking up the dice – sure, someone or something may be opposing the characters intended action, but is the potential conflict an example of a pointless test or a situation with only one viable outcome?

Example 1: Pirates attack! A player’s pirate character has the stated goal of killing the opposition captain during a raid. To do so, he first has the intended actions of boarding the opposition ship and fighting his way to confront the captain. Obviously the battle with the captain should be a dramatic rolled conflict scenario, but what about the other intended actions? Roll or narrate? Generally, these would be examples of low drama tests – where is the fun in the character being put out of the contest by failing to board the ship or being beaten by a nameless mook before even having a chance to confront the captain? (and having to roll for battle with each of those mooks would be boring). It would be a disappointing result, achieved by a repetitive and tedious process – the opposite of a fast-paced, dramatic action sequence. Far better to either narrate the character chopping through hordes of mooks to reach his target, or maybe classify the situation as a rolled conflict with only one viable outcome – that the character does manage to cut through the mooks -- but roll to determine how the viable outcome occurred (at what cost). i.e. does he do it in fine swashbuckling style, or is his progress delayed in such a way as to give his ultimate opponent some kind of advantage, or perhaps he sustains an injury, etc…

Goals should not come too easy. It may be the case that an goal could easily be resolved one way or the other with a single roll, which can be a little anti-climactic. When this possibility arises, the GM should consider introducing a complication – something that ratchets up the tension by presenting the character with a detour/obstacle on the way to their shot at goal resolution. The complication should not, however, result in failure to have that shot at goal resolution, although it could put the character at an advantage or disadvantage going into the deciding contest.

The best kind of complication forces the character to make a choice that will have consequences beyond the immediate challenge phase.

Example 2: Another player’s character has the goal of successfully overseeing the pirate’s gun batteries such that they fire in perfect synchronization. This could be a simple test of the character’s relevant background – they do! Or they don’t… riding on a single roll. Either way, it’s hardly dramatic. A solution is to mix in a complication: one of the gun crews is hit by an explosion of splinters, seriously injuring one man and leaving them short-handed. Without an extra person manning that gun -- which the PC could easily do -- it will be much harder to achieve the performance the goal rides on (-4 disadvantage applied to the resolution roll), however the injured man desperately requires someone’s assistance… How the character reacts affects not only his chance at achieving his goal, but also his ongoing relationship with fellow crew members.

The two examples above show two different types of complication standing between a character and his goal – the first being a Road block and the second being a Dilemma. Its helpful to be able to categorize complications so you can recognize them when they occur.

Road block: This is an unavoidable obstacle standing between the character and their goal. i.e. In order to reach the enemy Captain, the pirate must first fight through the crush to get to him. A point to note is that too many Roadblocks usually turns out to be boring, because the player doesn’t get to make any strategic decisions – only tactical decisions about how to defeat the Roadblock. If you are having too many Roadblocks, consider just narrating the characters progress through the roadblock without picking up dice. A second point to note is that a roadblock has the capability of preventing the character from even having a chance of attempting his goal, which is usually unsatisfying. The best way to handle a roadblock is to make the conflict not about if the character passes the roadblock, but how. The character may perform very well, giving some advantage going into the next conflict, or perhaps do badly and go in at a disadvantage.

Detour: This is a more satisfying Roadblock, because its multiple choice. You can fight through the crowd to reach the captain, or you can climb the rigging and swing across, but you have to choose one. Each one is a different flavor of Roadblock with its own advantages and disadvantages for the player to contemplate. Whenever the player makes a choice, it is nice if the GM can attach some consequences that extend past the immediate challenge. If that isnt possible, at least try to make the choices not so clear cut. i.e. A character that is good at combat might naturally prefer to take the fighting option, but perhaps time is an issue, and swinging across, while riskier, will certainly be quicker.

Dilemma: A dilemma is a choice about how to resolve either a roadblock or a goal itself. The second example, above, is a dilemma – does the player man the guns himself, or tend to the wounded crew member? Each choice has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the more far-reaching the consequences of the decision, the higher the drama. A particularly vexing dilemma might force the player to choose between continuing the goal or abandoning it in order to pursue something else entirely.


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  • Seems to me all your types of opposition resolves around the "roadblock", and none of them allows for active opposition. This is, possibly, a weakness of the dramatic style you're after; the focus on player characters and their goals is total, with nothing "disturbing" that focus. The danger may be that you end up with the setting as a stage set, and miss out on the chance to transform the setting into an engulfing fiction.

    But that may all be avoided (if it is a danger at all), by introducing some active opposition, possibly some fiend which are allowed to stalk the characters, a random figure that crosses them, or a trusted servant which betrays them ...
  • Hi. The nature of a roadblock is only that it is unavoidable . Exactly what it is active or not doesnt change that
  • edited February 2011
    Maybe it's just the way you describe it ...

    - both in regards to the nature of it, active and/or passive; the active element does not surface in your description. And I'm not sure you should mix them; there is a lot of dramatic/narrative difference to passive and active opposition.

    - and in regards to how "detour" and "dilemma" are different types of opposition, not merely variations of the "roadblock". I suspect it to be so, but when you refer to "roadblock" in your description of them, it is easy for the reader to perceive them as variations of it. It may confuse the message ...
  • Thanks. this is useful. The important point about a detour is that it is a choice between complications, not roadblocks. The important thing about a dilema is that it is a choice about how to solve a complication.

    The important thing about classifying them is that, dramatically, roadblocks should never stop progress towards a goal, only potentially hinder it.
  • I think I am confused. The important thing about a roadblock is that, if it is not passed, the character may no longer proceed towards their goal. Whether it is unavoidable or not is irrelevent. Some complications, if you fail, you can try something else. So maybe roadblock is a bad term. Whats a road based term for that?
  • Stepping back a bit, the main idea behind a dramatic res style is to try to mske the player, and hopefully all players, go YEAH!! When they roll a dice and win, and ARGH!!!! In a good way, when they dont.
  • edited February 2011
    Well, that's generally what players do when they roll the dice in a classical game; YEAH! if a success, and ARGH! if a failure ...
    Posted By: stefoidI think I am confused.
    I have to agree with you. ;-)

    Don't give up, though; confusion often arises when we try to formulate new ideas. Keep to the road less traveled, and you may come to some insight.
  • yes, because the game captured their imagination and the player is emotionally invested in the outcome of the contest and thats what I want to happen here.
  • Posted By: stefoidyes, because the game captured their imagination
    - or due to the simple thrill of a die-roll?

    Capturing the imagination is done by narrating effectively, either as a storyteller, or in a dynamic dialogue, or (preferably) both.

    Good luck!
  • Stefoid, a good place to take these game design questions might be the "Game Design" section of the forum. You can find the link on a tab in the upper right corner of the page.
  • tomas, I think you arent following what im trying to day. What do you think im trying to say? There is no such thing as the thrill of a dice roll without context.
  • The thrill of a die-roll may be had with next to nothing in context. We all remember how easy it was to be entertained by the simplistic rpgs of our youth. Nowadays we need more. You are proposing to give us more, Steve, but have difficulty explaining how you will do it. I am sympathetic to your stated intent, but would like to see some refinement to the thoughts you have presented here. By focusing on effective narration, I hope to point you in a fruitful direction. :-)
  • The dice rolling does not need to be tied to dramatic storytelling to be thrilling.

    My son and I like to play simple dice games. Shut the Box. Threes. Pig.

    A little chance plus a little strategy equals lots of fun, if you like that sort of thing.

    And no, it's not something completely different and off topic. It's central to what is identified as the Gamist creative agenda or play style.

    Or, in terms of the list of player motives I posted in another thread, it's a way of satisfying the Competition motive.
  • It does seem off topic to me, but then again, I started the side track.

    My aim is to formulate some rules of dramatic conflict resolution. Whether driven by character or situation, the characters arrive at a 'challenge situation' in which they have formally set goals. I want these challenges to be resolved according to the 'rules of drama' rather than straight logic. What writers might call poetic license I suppose.

    Like a player says "My character tries to do 'this'", and the GM (there is a GM in my game), has some decisions to make if the action seems opposed in some way.

    1) is the action closely related to achieving a character goal?

    If not, the conflict probably does not have to be resolved with dice etc..., it can probably be narrated.

    if it is closely related to achieving a character goal, then we go to the formal conflict res and we move to (2)

    2) How does the GM frame the conflict? Some outcomes wont be viable for dramatic purposes, so are we resolving what happens, or how the only viable outcome happens?

    3) It may be in this situation that the character is in a position to achieve their goal 'too soon' for dramatic purposes, so the GM may be able to mix in a complication to try to apply more tension and force the character to make decisions rather than just rolling a dice straight up.

    So what other 'rules of drama' can you think of? Imagine that the character is in a rather good action movie (one with interesting , decently acted characters). A new scene is starting and the character is trying to achieve one or more goals in it. What advice/rules can you give a GM?
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