The Crunchy Bits: External Conflict and RPGs

It seems to me like much of the role-playing universe these days is gravitating between two poles. On the one hand, you have things like D&D and its relatives which follow the standard ‘kill things and take their stuff’ dynamic on one level or another, emphasizing the ‘G’ part of RPG far over the ‘RP’ part. I’ve complained about these games already at length. There are, however, the games on this spectrum that occupy the other extreme, emphasizing the ‘RP’ far and above over the ‘G’. In this we can probably include games like Fate, Hillfolk(which I had the fortune to help playtest recently with John Perich), and some others.

Now, by and large I prefer ‘RPgs’ over ‘rpGs’ (if you see what I did there). Story is of tantamount importance to me, and RPgs produce great stories. They deemphasize external things, like stats and equipment, and emphasize character and roleplaying. This is good, and I’ve explained my reasons why in various places on this blog (here, for instance). I also feel, however, that these games can become too extreme. 

Call me old fashioned, but I feel like this rocket launcher is important.

Pointless Gear

For instance, in Fate, there is no significant advantage granted someone with a weapon over someone without. Their reasoning is that it ultimately doesn’t matter–what should matter is the emotional content of the fight, the ‘riddle of steel’, essentially. While there is much to be said for emotional content and character building, to say ‘guns don’t matter’  is ridiculous. Of course being armed matters! What kind of crazy idea is it to have unarmed idiots charging battle tanks and punching them apart? Many are the RPG gurus running about who might say ‘but if your players think this is cool, what do you care?’

Well (and how can I put this delicately?), I care because the activity is objectively stupid.No, you may not punch that tank to death. You can maybe find an access panel in the back, pry it off, and pull out some key wires or tubes or something, but kung fu Vs tank is a losing prospect. In a game I run, I want rules to make it clear that such behavior doesn’t fly. Does this restrict player choice? Yes, it does. It forces players to come up with alternate solutions to their problems beyond saying ‘I defeat them with my (insert idiom here)!’

The Player is Always Right

This brings me to another problem that I have that I keep running into: there is a sentiment that is permeating role-playing from Vincent Baker called ‘Say Yes or Roll Dice’. The upshot of it is this: if nothing is at stake, the GM should say ‘yes’ to whatever it is the players want. If something isat stake, the GM should never say ‘no’, but rather ask them to roll the dice to see if they can do what they want.  

What do you mean I can't invent the hydrogen bomb? You suck!

First off, there is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy–more wisdom that foolishness by a mile. GMs are in the business of giving players what they want, on some level, and they should definitely say yes far, far more often than they say ‘no.’ There are, however, limits to this idea that are important and should be recognized. Coming back to the ‘punching tanks’ example I provide above, there are instances where ‘no’ is an appropriate response.

For instance, say I’m playing some kind of barbarian and I decide, suddenly, that I want to build a jetpack. Out of sticks. For no reason. The Baker philosophy would require that I set some absurdly high target number for their die roll, reducing their chances of success down to .01% or something, and then let them roll. This, I feel, is a charade. It is obvious to everyone, or should be, that Thag the Barbarian can’t build a jetpack; the player is being a jackass for even suggesting it. Rather than waste time parsing dice modifiers, the GM should just say ‘that’s ridiculous–no’ and move on.  

This can come up more often the more ‘realistic’ the game setting is. In Frontier: 2280, for instance, I’m running a fairly ‘hard sci-fi’ game, in which actual scientific concepts exist, matter, and are important to plot and gameplay. Characters can’t violate physics, because physics is a real thing and you don’t get to selectively interpret it. If someone asks me if they can dodge a bullet fired at close range, I can say ‘no, you can’t’. Do you know why? It’s because it’s physically impossible. Yes, I could set an absurdly high target number for them to roll, but why are we spending the time? I don’t want it to happen because it violates the environment of the game. I don’t want that environment violated just because you don’t want your character to be shot. Get shot; deal with this new obstacle and resolve it. That’s what the game’s about.

I feel that overindulging the Baker philosophy is going to allow players to have great choice, yes, but also fails to challenge them to work with what they are given. If you are an unarmed, normal human and being approached by tanks, there are a wide variety of innovative and interesting solutions to the problem I am totally willing to entertain–a huge number, really. There are, however, a narrow sliver of options I reserve the right to deny. This doesn’t hurt anybody; it safeguards the functional reality of the game. It also pushes you past the first idea to pop into your head; that first idea isn’t really your friend, anyway. Push past it to ideas 2, 3, or 4. You’ll come up with something more interesting, anyway.

Internal Vs External Conflict

Nah, you're right--I'd much rather see this guy chatting with his former squire over his daughter's hand in marriage...

As a final note, I’d like to react to a tendency among indie RPG enthusiasts to emphasize internal (or, as Robin Laws puts it, ‘dramatic’) conflict over external (or ‘procedural’) conflict. As a general rule, internal conflict is immensely important, often de-emphasized, and leads to fantastic storytelling. That does not, however, mean external conflict is somehow boring or uninteresting. Some of these games tend to sideline external conflicts, getting them over as quickly as possible, so we can get back to hashing out our relationships with the other characters.

Sorry, but when did RPGs become soap-operas? Has George RR Martin had such a monumental effect on the gaming Zeitgeist? Guys, fights, chases, traps, and puzzles are cool. They’re fun. They’re why we liked Fantasy and Science Fiction to begin with! There is a certain delight I get in a game at having a well-oiled, realistic, dramatic combat system. Almost every coolest RPG moment I’ve ever had as been in reference to an external conflict, rather than an internal one. I by no means wish to belittle the importance of internal struggle and character development–they are necessary for action to even work, as I’ve said before–but they don’t replace external conflict as a means to generate conflict, fun, and excitement. The two ought to work in tandem and, as it happens, the external stuff is the stuff that needs more rules associated with it, hence why most games have most of their rules in that vein.

Granted, there are fine games that do the soap opera thing (Hillfolk seems to be one of them, and I’d gladly play it again), but let’s all fess up and say we all love a good car chase or rooftop swordfight. We do, don’t we?


Anyway, this has already gotten longer than I intended for it to be. Suffice to say that I like my game with a good balance of crunchy bits (external conflicts, gear, game limitations) and fluffy flavoring (internal conflict, strong relationships, player freedom). Too much of one or the other and we’re playing less than what I’d consider to be a ‘perfect game’.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 7, 2012, in Gaming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Hello! I feel summoned.

    In sequence:

    Pointless Gear

    I think you’re either ascribing to the authors of FATE a viewpoint they don’t hold, or (to borrow language from your first paragraph) you’re examining a very ‘RP’ game from a ‘G’ viewpoint.

    I hate to compare every other game against D&D – it’s the WW2 of RPGs, the source of good metaphors and bad – but it’s easy and I’ve already started. In D&D, a player decides what weapon they want their character to use by investing game resources (GP, feats, powers) in that weapon. In FATE, a player does the same thing; it’s just that the resources are called “Fate Points” and “Aspects.” They do the same thing, just for different purposes.

    It may not make sense to you that a seasoned warrior in FATE is no more deadly with a machine gun than with a fallen tree branch. But it doesn’t make sense to me that, in D&D, a seasoned warrior has the same chance of hitting the tyrant who killed his father as he does an orc guarding a pie. That’s because I’m evaluating the game mechanics through the lens of narrative (what makes the most compelling story?) and you’re evaluating them through the lens of simulation (what strikes us as the most plausible and acceptable within the genre?).

    Now, I know you care about compelling drama, and you know I care about genre fidelity (I’m exaggerating our viewpoints for the sake of argument). In fact, I imagine you’d point out that a D&D battle between a seasoned warrior and the tyrant who killed his father should be more dramatic by virtue of the circumstances, regardless of what the dice do. And that’s true! But FATE is trying to take that drama out of the spoken word and into the interplay of dice.

    The authors of FATE and D&D, and the gamers who enjoy each, want fundamentally different things out of their games. There’s a much deeper gulf between paradigms than I think people get, despite the fact that both are RPGs. If you want a game where narrative concerns trump genre simulation, FATE will suit you better than D&D. If you don’t – and nothing says the narrative focus is superior; it can make for soap-operatic play if taken too far – then D&D will suit you better.

    Gonna break this up into multiple comments to keep it from getting too long.

    • Generally agreed, of course. I’m reacting primarily to the alternate extreme, here. I *also* think D&D lacks a certain something (well, lots of things). If anything, I’m an advocate of a middle ground somewhere–the kind of place where 7th Sea lives, basically.

  2. The more and more I read about all manner of rpgs (big & indie) and the people who make them / play them… the more I realize that we have jumped WAY past the pack due to our training in improvisation.

    All the stuff you talk about– RP vs G, internal vs. external, say ‘yes’ vs. say ‘no’… all come down to trying to get roleplayers to learn to think and react in the manner of scenic improvisation. It’s all BASIC improv instruction. For those with no training, these types of RPGs are their first attempts at doing the skills that the rest of us all take for granted because we’ve been doing improv performance for so long.

    After all… introductory improv classes will talk about the ‘Yes, and’ rule, and how it continually pushes scenes forward, oftentimes in exciting and unexpected ways. But once you’ve done it enough, you finally learn that it is *entirely* possible to ‘say No’ in improv scenes, and STILL push scenes forward (because both performers realize that denying an offer is in fact accepting the offer just in a different way, and they both then build on it). But this is much higher-level stuff that most gamers wouldn’t ever pick up on without actual training.

    And the same way that improvisers have that interim section of their career (like between years 2 and 5) where they have those breakthru moments in the techniques they’ve learned that make them think they’ve broken the code and now others “just don’t GET what true improv is”… RPG players have that same moment when they move on from D&D and onto something like FATE. Suddenly they think “Ah ha! Here’s what TRUE roleplaying is! That D&D stuff is actually crap!”

    It’s only then when they reach like years 7+ that even the “mind-blowing” stuff goes back to being just one more tool in the box– no more “right” or “true” than anything else. It’s just different. And you reach the point in your improv or rpg career where system no longer matters. You adapt to whatever system is in use as a matter of instinct. And playing FATE is no different than playing Champions is no different than playing Fiasco is no different than playing Call of Cthulu is no different than playing Dungeons & Dragons. The games are the games and the scenes are the scenes. The systems are different… but your reaction to them is the same.

  3. Say Yes or Roll the Dice

    I agree with you on this one: that it’s a great idea but not limitless, and it hits its limits at the borders of genre fidelity. Can a barbarian build a jetpack? In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, no; don’t even bother. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, possibly (there’s an S1 episode where a protagonist from an arctic tribe helps invent the modern zeppelin).

    So long as player intention, character capability and genre conventions are clear to everyone at the table, this should rarely be an issue.

    Internal vs. External Conflict

    And this really boils down to a question of taste. Speaking solely for myself here:

    Guys, fights, chases, traps, and puzzles are cool. They’re fun. They’re why we liked Fantasy and Science Fiction to begin with!

    I like fantasy and science fiction because it’s about plausible characters, passionately driven, freed from conventional obstacles thanks to unusual traits (magic, starships, etc), pursuing their values in the face of challenges. I am far less interested in the mechanics of how sorcery or FTL work and far more interested in what a protagonist will sacrifice to get what they want. So it’s not the fight that does it for me, but who the fight is against and what the fight is for.

    Using examples that we’d both recognize: I got a lot more out of Benedict Valeris’s duel with Sahand than I did out of any prior fight, even though it wasn’t the hardest battle he’d been in. I got a lot more out of Valeris’s speech to the Erytherian Council than out of his attempts to weasel out of trouble in Kalsaar, even though the attempts in Kalsaar were harder (his skills weren’t as high). The dramatic import of a conflict is what matters to me, not the thrill of the chase itself.

    Again, this is an issue where taste matters. But until people started considering how to mechanically simulate the narrative arc, there weren’t a lot of games catering to that taste.

    • Taste is certain at the heart of all of it. I know that I very much love “playing the genre” in all that it entails… including the “non-character” stuff. So for instance in Star Trek, I very much looked forward to the technobabble scenes, trying to emulate that style of speaking off the top of my head while creating ‘Star Trek plausible’ solutions to crazy situations… even though the scenes themselves might not have high stake for my character’s motivations and desires at the time. Same thing with any other RPG… half the fun for me is playing into the conventions of the game or genre.

      At the same time, I certainly can understand the tastes of someone like Perich, whose interest in the drama supercedes the genre convention. Layering the conventions on top in the end probably helps flavor the drama (thereby coming at Wants from a different angle than they would in another genre), but the convention is not the reason for playing it in the first place.

      Luckily for all of us, we’re all flexible enough that we can mix and match the different styles of gaming so that while we might not get what we want all the time, we get it most of the time.

  4. Fish has the right of it.

  5. Spot on with this write-up, I truly think this site needs a great deal more attention.
    I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the advice!

  6. The Game vs Story argument has long intrigued me. I started playing D&D about 8 months before AD&D came out. Within about 5 years the 2 groups I played in were using freeform improvisation variants. If everybody agreed, it was so. If your great story/action/combat idea violated the rules – the rules were wrong, things go as described. This generally meant any gaming session lasting past midnight got pretty strange, but that was how we liked it.

    Also freeform improvisation meant no books or dice required so we could and did game almost anywhere.

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