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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’.