Transneptune Games

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Transparency in Design

Kit’s been beating the Transparency-in-Design drum lately—explaining the benefits of drawing back the curtain and getting people’s inputs on design. I admit, my instinct when developing something is to hide in a cave and not come out until the “masterpiece” is finished. But frankly, that’s how most design problems occur. One of the unique benefits we’ve had is that there are three of us discussing and playing off of each others ideas. So, here’s an idea we’ve been talking about rather a lot in relationship to Piece of Work.

In role-playing games, systems are loosely categorized into either conflict resolution or task resolution. This division is at least as old as early 2004, when Vincent Baker blogged about it. In task resolution, you attempt a state change in the world—unlocking a door, hitting with an axe, and so on. You roll to see if you succeed at the task. But what happens as a result of that action is up to the GM.

With conflict resolution, you attempt to change the state of the story. You roll to see if the story heads in a particular direction—do you best the guard and get into the castle or does he set you on your heels and deny you entry?—and you often get to narrate some piece of that new direction. But usually these conflicts are broader than whether a particular door is open and the state of the world is left largely undefined. Pretenses of “balance” or “realism” are set aside for drama and story.

We prefer conflict resolution systems. In Becoming Heroes, you narrate in traits by describing what you do with them in the conflict. And after all traits are narrated in, you roll and see who wins. But this generates a story even before you resolve the conflict, which is pretty cool. It works super well for a game intended to model the kind of epic fantasy we’ve grown up with—Lord of the Rings, The Three Musketeers, even Avatar: the last Airbender.

But Piece of Work is a cybernoir1 game. It’s gritty, and technical, and conflict resolution seemed, at first glance, like a bad fit. We tried task resolution, but it didn’t click—there’s too much to model and too many ways to put things together to produce awkward results. So instead we’re using a system we call micro-conflicts.

Micro-conflicts are essentially finely-grained conflicts, resolved independently, that are chained together and treated as one thing. If a player rolls and succeeds, no worries, they get the stakes. If they fail, they fail, but the conflict isn’t over. Instead, after the GM describes how the player failed, the player gets to add an exception that lets them continue fighting.

Let me give you an example. The hacker tries to penetrate a corporate database to find the clients of said company. Dice are rolled, and the player fails. The GM explains how the company firewall is too secure from remote access to get that information, but the player then adds an exception. Say they say add, “…but I gain access to the less secure employee’s directory.” They then might continue the conflict by sending an e-mail with a virus to an undersecretary, hoping that the undersecretary opens it. If that fails, they might add a third exception to let them continue past that.

This leads players who fail to create their own opportunities to advance the story, which is great. But even better is when players create opportunities for other members to advance the story through their exceptions. “…but the senior database engineer is someone who our Face knows personally” sets up another scene with someone else’s character and can add a lot of depth to the story.

One thing we’re uncertain of is how far two actions can be from each other before they’re considered different conflicts. For instance, in the first example, sending an e-mail as part of your attempt to break into a database a different way is clearly the same conflict. However, setting up a social scene with their database engineer might not be. I’m inclined to associate the concept of conflict with a film beat. If you have to change locations to film it, it’s probably a separate conflict.

What do you all think? Is this second situation all part of the same conflict because the same stakes are at play? Or is it a second conflict because the goal has shifted from gain electronic access to a database to gain access through someone specific?

For what it’s worth, our alpha playtest with Kit, Austin, Eric D. and Myself went amazingly well. It’s pretty exciting to see an alpha that runs so smoothly on the first go. (We must be learning something!)

  1. Jeremy Keller is also making a cybernoir game called TechNoir. Our Google doc says we’ve been working on Piece of Work since the end of January. In any case, the timing is awkward but I recommend people check out his game. It has a very distinct feel. []

4 responses to “Transparency in Design”

  1. In regards to the film beat issue and is this the same conflict. It depends on how much narrative agency the players are given.

    While a “but… while shooting at me the gunman exposes himself so my Chromed out buddy can get to him” easily continues that conflict. The situation you describe may be a bit more iffy.

    Perhaps to take a page from your coin trick narrative, as well as Con-game movies such as The Sting the usage of  “flashback or cut-scene” oriented narrative to fictionally position your Face chatting up said d-base engineer to get into his cubicle or home office. In effect you are establishing off stage cooperative  action to keep the conflict moving. Then said Face engenders a distraction to allow the Face to open said virus laden e-mail upon receipt of a text from the hacker.    I could see allowing for this kind of narrative “But…” could allow for some truly interesting teammate setups.

    1. Yeah, it’s challenging, because we want to keep the dangers of combat but toss initiative and combat turns and such.

      I love flashback scenes. But they feel too large scope for what we’re trying to accomplish, which is specifically to have a series of small conflicts that dovetail into each other. If you will, a task-resolution gamer’s conflict system.

      I do like the idea that how interruptible the conflict is can determine whether it’s the same conflict – if it’s possible another issue that’s completely unrelated might come up before the conflict is continued, then you’ve essentially ended the conflict at hand.

  2. I like the idea of the film beat divider and Eric’s comment as well, but I might divide the conflicts in terms of player agency.  As in, any action that is handled by the acting player and a simple die-roll is the same conflict.  So, getting the Face involved is a separate conflict not because of a change in scene or goal, but because while the acting player might set up the meeting, and a die roll might determine if the database engineer shows up, for the meeting to result in actually gaining access to the system is going to depend on the interaction between the Face and the engineer, neither of whom are the acting player, which is potentially too complicated to resolve by die-roll.

    1. Basing it on player agency works except in combat, which is, I admit, a whole ball of issues.

      After having played it once, I can say I really enjoy watching players continue each others conflicts. But as you suggest, complexity also plays a role in whether something is really part of the same conflict. How much, versus interruptibility or stakes, I don’t know.