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Conflict, Flags, and Communication

January 8, 2019

We’ve been playing a Universalis game, and we’re about 7 sessions in so far, and the game clearly has legs for a lot more, if we wanted.  One thing that occurred to me is that we’ve always managed to do a good job finding the juicy conflicts we all enjoy, without the need for a Flag mechanic in the system.  Which got me thinking a bit more about what is happening differently here?

Flag mechanics in action

Flag mechanics are used a lot in Narrativist focused games where protagonists are controlled by a single player, and circumstances of fictional conflict around that protagonist is created by someone else (usually the GM, though other players often can contribute as well, through other characters’ actions and dialogue, if not authorial level mechanics).

What the Flag does, is allow the player controlling a protagonist to say “Here is where I think the fun conflict is for my character” to everyone who can bring that conflict into play.  You can take the same character – “Master Swordmaster” and have very different games and stories depending on whether their Flag is:

  • “Face my rival and take back my Sifu’s school” or;
  • “Let go of the path of killing”

Both could be really fun and interesting – but again, very different.

Alternatives to Flags

Other games have different means of getting around this.  Ben Lehman’s Polaris, for example, uses the antagonist player’s declarations and the bargaining mechanics to allow people to hone in on what conflicts are actually meaningful rather quickly (if a player isn’t fighting back against the conflict, it doesn’t matter to them.).

Universalis, takes a very different approach – everyone can be the generator of character motivations, declarations of success/failure, and circumstances that create conflict.

You don’t need a Flag because there’s no separation of who is the one controlling character motivations and who is the one creating conflict throughout the game – you only make the division potentially within a specific scene, and, often enough, we might take up the side of characters we don’t actually WANT to win the conflict, but in order to just see the most interesting thing happen.

For example, if I want to see two brothers end up in conflict, I could, simply spend points to set up motivations that are at cross odds.  Because this is happening in front of all the players, and everyone has the potential to challenge or block me, it’s not like I need a singular Flag to point it out – people go “Oh! I see where you’re going!” and either stand aside or drop more points in to further cement/twist that situation, or oppose it.

Underlying Play Structure

Ultimately, in all these Narrativist games, we’re basically looking at the classic story formula:

(A Character) -> (Has a Motivation) -> (Takes Action towards that) -> (Thing in the way of the Goal) -> (Outcome, potentially with costs) -> (feeds back into Character to change or stay true to their current self).

So the question is, where and how do your mechanics help the group walk through each of those steps?

Flags fit well for games with traditional player/GM roles because they tell everyone the Motivation (sometimes which Actions might make sense or not) and also allow the GM to come up with fitting Obstacles and Outcomes in that chain of events.

In the case of Universalis, however, every single step in that chain can be passed around the table, so players are not stuck trying to “throw messages over the wall” to the GM, but can, take direct action and give traits/facts to characters producing Outcomes as well as changes to the character leading all the way back around.

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