101 Days of D&D: Setting stakes and conflict resolution in D&D

There’s a great thread on The Forge right now about setting stakes for conflicts in RPGs. Getting a good handle on setting stakes for conflicts in roleplaying can help any group get the conflict and excitement levels of their games cranked up a few notches so that things really sing. D&D players (and I lump GMs in with non-GMs here) often think more about task resolution than conflict resolution. Play becomes about rolling dice to see if an action succeeds not if a character succeeds at his goal.

Ja’el struggles with the lock on the door. The trio of hobgoblin mercenaries are charging down the hall, screaming and slavering, intent upon hacking Ja’el into tiny little wet bits. Ja’el’s task is to pick the lock. BUT, the conflict isn’t between Ja’el and the lock; it’s between Ja’el picking the lock before the hobgoblin’s get there. What’s at stake isn’t that Ja’el doesn’t get the door open; it’s that Ja’el doesn’t get the door open in time to get through it and down the stairs to safety before the hobgoblins arrive. [editor’s note: apparently, I stole this example (more or less) from the BW Revised book. I didn’t realize that until I saw a related message pop up on the Forge thread linked above. I carry a LOT of BW around in my head, I guess.]

By outlining stakes based on task resolution instead of conflict resolution, a metric assload of tension is inserted into the scene. It’s a seemingly little change, but it gets the players focused on what’s really going on in a game.

A lot of the more narrativist games developed in and around the Forge (you know ’em: Primetime Adventures, Dogs in the Vineyard, Burning Wheel, etc.) are often more about conflict resolution rather than task resolution (almost always, actually). D&D is typically NOT about conflict resolution. Tim Kleinert defines the differences between the two on the Forge:

Task Resolution is when the dice (or whatever) decide the success of an action, independant of of a meta-game goal.

Conflict Resolution is when the dice decide whether a character/player’s interest is realized, most often in contrast with another character/player’s opposing interest.

The question — as is relevant to this blog series and my own current game — is “how can you apply conflict resolution concepts to task resolution-based games like D&D and use those methods for setting stakes to crank up the intensity of your D&D game?”

D&D is a strongly task-resolution oriented game right out of the box. But, I think it’s fairly easy to use conflict resolution models for D&D play just as it is in narrativist games. What becomes important is not what the character does (pick the lock) but the ramifications of either succeeding or not succeeding (does he pick the lock before the hobgoblins get there).

Out of the box, D&D is about opening the lock. You can make it about opening the lock in time, though. Settings stakes helps you define what the outcome of a die roll means to the player.

Instead of setting the DC for Ja’el’s open locks skill check based on the arbitrary difficulty of the lock (though that can be a factor), make it an opposed test against the fastest hobgoblin’s running check (i.e., a Strength check), adding modifiers based on things like the difficulty of the lock, things in the path of the charging hobgoblins, etc.

Think about what’s at stake every time you roll the dice, and keep those stakes high.:

Player: Ja’el picks the lock on the door.
GM: He needs to get it unlocked before the hobgoblins get there or something wet will happen. (stakes are escalated by the GM with an evil grin)
Player: Maybe so, but if Ja’el opens the lock before they get there, he can slam it shut and escape down the stairs, getting away with the dragonshard he stole from them (Player escalates!)
GM: Roll!

Setting stakes and conflict resolution vs. task resolution are definitely things I’m going to be thinking about during my D&D session this weekend, which may be the last session we have until after Christmas, due to players having holiday things to do the following two weeks. I’ll continue to update this series, though.

One thought on “101 Days of D&D: Setting stakes and conflict resolution in D&D”

  1. Timely post for me. My group is taking a between-arcs break from a game that’s been going for a year and a half. (This group has been playing together for two years.) We started experiencing incoherence about a year in, as the group dynamic began to solidify and my own DMing style finally started to mature (after 5 years).

    So I have been discussing CA with them while trying to avoid the required reading on the Forge, and we’re settling into a consensus that we want Story Now, with some opportunity to Step On Up or Dream, which is basically flipping D&D on its head. But people aren’t always immediately willing to jump immediately to a new paradigm, and there is still fun in D&D. So, rather than jump directly into BW, TSoY or DitV, we are exploring the idea of adding conflict resolution to D&D might work.

    I’ve explored a few approaches, starting with replacing certain mechanics, which ultimately didn’t appeal because it amounted to more of a system change than the group is ready to accept. So what I’m looking at is providing an option to use conflict resolution instead of task resolution. My current pass at this is to adapt DitV conflict resolution to the d20 character sheet, granting traits and relationships according to the well-balanced background. The reward cycle for conflict resolution will also follow DitV rules, creating a potentially interesting positive reinforcement for using that method.

    But there are a lot of pitfalls and unanswered questions. Will it be too complicated. How will this affect the value of the character sheet? Will players care less or will they want dice for skills? What about spells? What about class and race distinctions? It seems if those questions come up then it’s probably time to shift system entirely. Or, the many warnings against mixed-system gaming could be realized and result in utter failure.

    In the end, I don’t think that matters because we are beginning to explore and that cannot be a bad thing. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll change it and try again. We’ve dropped house rules in the first session they were used because they did not make the game more fun, and this experiment will be no different. The important thing is that we as a group are beginning to recognize that we don’t have to accept frustration in our game, and are taking responsibility for making the game fun.

    The game is in our hands.

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