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MEOW: a way of looking at conflict resolution

August 10, 2012

First, to repeat: the easiest mechanic is “You say it and it happens” and every other mechanic has to provide something worthwhile to be better than that.

Ok, in the imaginary events in your rpg, four things will come out of any conflict: Methods, Events, Outcomes, Waste.

Methods

“How does a character try to do what they’re doing? Is there a specific skill or power for it? Does the player even have to describe it?”

This has historically been a big thing in rpg design because characters have different stats for different abilities, skill levels, and tons of modifiers that can happen depending on HOW you’re trying to do something.

Games that especially work close with methods often have lots of different specific skills, or lots of range for modifiers based on how things are being done. Burning Wheel uses lots of different skills, while Hero Quest applies big modifiers on the basis of methods.

Events

“What exactly happens during a conflict? Which specific actions succeed and fail before the whole conflict is won or lost? Are there small setbacks? Is there a breakthrough?”

This tends to be a big thing for a lot of games when it comes to combat – they’ll track each hit or miss, but when it comes to a skill roll, there’s no close-up on events.

Games that have mechanics that produce a lot of events tend to often take longer to resolve – they’re usually iterative and maybe very specific in methods – “What kind of attack, what angle, what order, etc.” Event-producing mechanics can help groups really get a feel for the imaginary situations in play, and feel out what kinds of things fit for the game’s genre expectations.

Outcomes

“Does your game mechanics specify specific results from your conflicts or is it mostly up to the group to decide? Is it negotiated and decided beforehand (Stakes)? Is it decided by the GM after the fact? Is it specific to the rules and situation (zero HP = dead)?”

Games tend to be across the board with this. Historically, we see this mostly nailed down when it comes to combat and life and death, and left to GM fiat in nearly everything else.

Specific outcomes gives significant weight to conflicts, and makes it clear what is on the line. Negotiated outcomes are flexible, but require good group communication and guidelines. Non-specific, non-negotiated outcomes basically forces the group to decide effective and appropriate results, sometimes with better or worse play results.

Waste

“How badly did it cost you? Did you get hurt? Did you lose status? Did someone else pay the cost for you? Did you break your tools?”

You might think this should be a subset of outcomes, but I think it deserves it’s own space, as many games split success/failure and little/great cost in the process. For example dungeon crawling D&D is often pointed to as a game about long term strategy- conserving resources (cost) over several battles.

Much like outcomes, this might be hardcoded into the game system, negotiated up front, or un-negotiated and decided by the GM, or some other method.

Why should we think about these at all?

First, it’s really useful because when you look at how games handle conflict mechanics across these four axises, you start to see where a game starts asking players to make choices, to put in work and to be creative.

Second, you can see where a game forces players to do work, and how. One game might require lots of dice and math and steps, but produces every sword swing and dodge along the way. Another game might have very little but the group has to be creatively up to describing all of those things in an interesting way.

Third, you also can start looking at what makes for the kinds of stories you want to see. Games that hardcode in certain things produce certain kinds of stories. For example, if you find yourself fudging dice results to avoid death in combat, the mechanics you are using are not producing the kinds of stories and gameplay you want to create – what does it do and what could you use differently? Maybe simply changing the outcome (“and now you’re knocked out”) is good enough?

If you’re designing a game, something this division really helps is this: what does protagonism look like for the characters, and how does your game support it? How can certain rules or lack of rules take it away? How does any of these contribute to the stories & gameplay you want to happen? How does any of these get in the way of the stories & gameplay?

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