Monday, 27 January 2014

Conflicts in Torchbearer and Mouse Guard

Monday, January 27, 2014

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I ran Torchbearer for the first time with a new group of players practically unfamiliar with the system yesterday. If you've read any of the games that comes out of Burning Wheel HQ you know that Luke and his partners in crime create games that are very unique and don't really fit into most of the rpg moulds already out there. Yes, BW and its siblings are "indie roleplaying games" in the sense that they are produced by a small group of people who make games because they love it and it has unconventional rules. But if there's one thing I think that modern indie rpgs have in common it's a very light and quick system that is used to promote both storytelling and player agency. And while some of that is true for Torchbearer and Mouse Guard as well, the systems are, while not actually complex, really quite crunchy!

There quite a bit of moving parts which can be overwhelming for a newcomer to the system, but all of the parts are moving in the same direction: pushing you to play the character you created and making sure the story always keeps evolving. I won't be discussing the entire system today (read my Mouse Guard review for a rundown of the basics) but would like to focus on the mechanics of the conflict.

After our Torchbearer session we sat down and discussed the system and what the players thought of it. I think the general consensus was that some parts felt a bit strange and "unrealistic" but that other parts were pretty cool, and everyone wanted to keep going to try and get a better understanding of how it all fits together. One of the elements that felt odd to a couple in the group was the conflict system. I think it's party my fault as I only briefly explained the interactions between the four different actions you can choose but also I'm sure it stemmed from the fact that it's so different from any roleplaying game they have played before that it just felt alien and they had a hard time seeing the point of it. As I was starting to write down my take on the conflict system, and why it is the way it is, in an email I thought I might as well make a blog post out of it.

When you get into a conflict in Torchbearer or Mouse Guard, be it a fight with swords a battle of wits or a chase on horseback you use the same basic system. You roll for disposition as a group. This is basically your conflict "hit points" and side who first goes down to 0 loses. There are four actions to choose from - attack, defend, feint and maneuver. The players and the DM secretly choose three each and who should perform which action, then each is revealed and resolved in turn. The cards interact in different ways and depending on what weapons/tools are used you can modify this interaction in meaningfull ways. If both choose the attack action each side get to test independantly and both are likely to take damage. Attack against defend on the other hand is a versus test where the attacker can inflict damage on the defender or the defender can regain lost disposition, depending on who wins the roll.

Jacob, one of the players, likened it to rock, paper, scissors and in a way he's right - but it's a lot more complex and nuanced than something as simple as that. But being new to the game and not really seeing those nuances (I think the players more or less picked actions at random) I can see why it felt simply abstract, random and slightly frustrating. So why use a system like this? What's wrong with the good old BRP way of rolling under to hit and then the defender can try and roll under to parry/dodge? Well, the way I see it this way of handling conflicts aims to solve a bunch of problems that often pop up in roleplaying games and here is how it works:

All Conflicts Should be Equal.
Every Roll Should Count.
Tactics Should Matter.
It Should be Fast.

Below I'll discuss these four concepts. First just let me say that I will mostly use actual combat as the go-to example when writing, which is ironic considering All Conflicts Should be Equal, but I'm doing it simply because it's easy to picture for most of us. I'm also refering a lot to "traditional" roleplaying games which is just as loose a moniker as indie, but if you think games with an aim to simulate real life as the basic concept you're not far wrong.  So here we go:

All Conflicts Should be Equal
I'm not saying that every conflict should be literally equal, but rather that a conflict where you try to rally a group of frigthened villagers, or when you try to lose the wolfriders that are tracking you, or when you argue with the Duke about the inheritance should be just as important and detailed as a battle with a band of slavering frogmen! In the vast majority of roleplaying games the chapter on combat will probably be one of the most rules heavy, while the chapter on social conflicts are simply... non-existant!

Using the same conflict system for any conflict worthy of that name (that's to say, something larger than a simple versus test) will make sure that an argument carries just as much dramatic as well as mechanical weight as actual physical combat. It's a way of saying that they are all equally important for the game. There are other systems these days that do similar things, most notably FATE, but it still bears mentioning.

Every Roll Should Count
With a background in "traditional" roleplaying games I'm used to systems where combat is divided into rounds and every round you get to do your attack and you roll the die, and the opponent parries or dodges and then the next person rolls and it goes around and around. Nothing wrong with this per se, it's more of a simulationist approach to gaming that is/was very strong in Europe I think. However it tends to lead to combat situations where you roll dice a lot and most of the time nothing interesting actually happens during an attack. In an entire combat sequence perhaps only four or five rolls really have everyone at the table excited and invested in the outcome, while the large majority are of the less interesting attack-dodge-attack-parry-attack-2hp damage-attack-miss variety.

So why not try and distill a conflict down to those exciting rolls that actually mean something?! Most conflicts in Torchbearer and Mouse Guard involve relatively few rolls. It could all be over in just one or two action volleys, although most of the I imagine it being more like five or six. Still, this is far from the dice rolling orgy of many traditional (read simulationist) roleplaying games. This means that every roll is important as a certain victory could turn into bitter defeat at any turn! Basically there is no "combat filler", you cut straight to the juicy stuff - which is very much in theme with the whole Burning Wheel methodology: only roll when the outcome actually matters.

Tactics Should Matter
In a traditional roleplaying game combat (or any other conflict) tactics can be a difficult thing to quantify. Sure, your players can lay ambushes or try and flank the enemy which might give them a bonus here or there but there is still the matter of the GM trying to have his NPCs act in realistic ways to the player characters actions without being influenced by meta knowledge and table chatter. I hear you say that any GM worth his salt should be able to differentiate between player (or GM in this case) knowledge and character knowledge, and I'd be inclined to agree with you. However, how often has it happened in a traditional roleplaying game that you as a player has simply outwitted the enemy through clever tactics and manuvers? And I mean from turn to turn actions rather than starting the combat as ambushers or something. In a game involving projectile weapons I can see it being a little bit easier, but if it's good old stick-him-with-the-sharp-end type of combat it invariably comes down to attack-dodge-attack-parry-attack-2hp damage-attack-miss with no sense of tactical depth beside trying a different attack now and then.

With this kind of hidden scripting it really becomes a contest between the players and the GM. The players need to seriously consider the capabilities of the opposition, their own abilities as well as the mind and machinations of the GM. Imagine a group of murder-hobos squaring off against ten angry kobolds in Torchbearer:
Jimmy: "Hmm... that is a lot of kobolds, and together they roll a lot of dice. But they're only one hit point each so if we start with an attack to try and take out as many as possible in one fell swoop and then defend to recover lost disposition I think we would be in a position to take them out in a final attack!"
Claes: "Sounds like a plan! Give me the first attack action and I'll go at them with my battle-axe."
Jimmy: "Sure, then I'll take the defend action and use my shield."
Jacob: "Are we sure we want to make the last action another attack? I could use my sling with a maneuver to help set up for a strong attack by Fiord in the next round."
Nicke: "Normally I'd agree with you as I'm not that strong a fighter, but I have cast my Eldritch Dart spell and I'm Angry, giving me an extra die... I can handle it. Give me that second attack action."
Claes: "I just hope the GM's second action isn't a feint..."
In most traditional roleplaying games this dimension of cooperation and round to round planning would be missing. Sure everyone would do their little thing to try and kill the enemies but for the most part it would boil down to individual attacks without much coordination. Of course, I'm generalizing here but I think you understand my point.

Caveat: I've never properly played D&D but I'm quite aware that, in later editions especially, tactical combat is pretty much all that is left of that roleplaying game. While I enjoy the added tactical dimensions of the scripting system I think that D&D goes too far and becomes something I would rather play as a board game or at the computer.

It Should be Fast
This goes hand in hand with Every Roll Should Count in that the system tries to make sure conflicts don't take up the greater part of a gaming session. I can remember many times when a combat encounter (it's always combat!), even a small one, has taken two or three hours to resolve, simply because of all the dice that needed to be rolled and how many of those rolls that didn't really have much of an effect. You can get a lot of roleplaying done instead of drawing out a three minute in-game event two two hours!

The first conflict yesterday, against some Tomb Guardians, I think lasted four or five actiond and took all of ten minutes to play through - and yet it managed to be an interesting conflict with meaningfull choices.

That's how I look at the system. It's different from what we're used to and while it's more abstract in some ways it also has a lot more tactical depth to it and it makes sure that every roll is relevant. It's not better than a more traditional approach per se, we're all different after all, but I certainly think it's a well thought out alternative that can be even more exciting and rewarding than the systems we grew up playing.

It's tough just picking it up on a fly during your first session but I think after having tried it a couple of times and now having the chance to read through the conflict rules in privacy in preparation for the next session, future conflicts will prove very interesting! No more handing out actions on the fly... instead thinking ahead and strategizing will win the day. I would love to hear your thoughts on the system and what you percieve as good or bad.

I should have a proper Torchbearer session report up within the next few days...

7 kommentarer :

  1. Excellent post Martin! It highlights nicely the core concepts of conflicts in Torchbearer and why they're designed the way they are. I personally feel the Torchbearer book could have been a little more forward with the intended purpose of conflicts in the game's design. Little more advice on how use them to best effect and more importantly why they're resolved the way they are would have gone a long way in dispelling the slightly "gamey" feel of conflicts. Once you grasp the reasons behind the game design, it's much easier to build a narrative around the mechanics and everything flows much nicer.

    What you say about later D&D editions being closer to board games is partly true as so much emphasis is given to combat. In the rules as written (at least in Pathfinder) combat is very much a game within a game which tens to enforce the meta gaming aspect. Everything else is pretty much handled through skill checks which are actually very rules light when compared to combat.

    One could say that the conflicts in Torchbearer could be seen as a same form of meta gaming in the same way as tactical combat is seen as meta gaming in the later Dungeons & Dragons editions. And it's true but both exist to engage the players to work together or at least towards a common goal and to make encounters more interesting. In my mind Torchbearer works better toward this end as the game structure is more team goal oriented. And Torchbearer proves that you can have deep tactical combat without precise moment, miniatures/tokens and battle grid.

    In the Pathfinder campaign which I co-ran last year, we made a decision very early on to not use tactical combat and rules which advocate its use. Namely attacks of opportunity and feats which depend on their use. Some might say that in a game as combat oriented as Pathfinder, this choice would lead to unbalance. And it might in the long run. But the campaign was more mystery oriented and each session saw very little (if any) combat. Experience was handed for good roleplaying or completing milestones in the story. Which in turn can lead to a lot of GM prep and hammering out details which in actual play don't see much use. If I were to run the same campaign again, I would probably use some other system that has more unified mechanics on handling things. Numenera's Cypher engine or Dragon Age's AGE spring come to mind.

    1. Exactly, at first blush the whole system can seem very gamey and kind of random, but when you actually think about it everything has a reason. In our second session today the players paid a lot more attention during the (only) conflict and did better thanks to it.

      As for D&D, I agree. It's a similar kind of "sub-game" just taken to the extreme. It can certainly be fun in its own way, but I think I might just play Descent or an online MMO to get that kind of kick. Of course, you can still play D&D in a different way but it's probably not what the system is really built for.

      Still eager to try Dragon Age one of these days as the system seems simple but solid and I've heard a lot of good about the written adventures in Blood in Ferelden!

    2. Of course you can play Pathfinder/D&D 3.x without the grid but the rules and many abilities/powers in the game assume that you use it. D&D 4th edition is kind of epitome in this style of play as pretty much the whole combat (and by large the entire game) is build around the use of grid and precise placement. Ditching the grid in Pathfinder is much less crippling to player abilities than it is in 4th ed.

      What I've read from the D&D Next playtest documents, Dungeons & Dragons is heading to right direction. But we'll see when the 5th edition is released later this year.

      While I have many good things to say about Dragon Age, it's worth noting that it isn't without it's problems. The problems aren't game breaking, but in my experience the game tends to work better with lower levels. There's less hit point bloat and personally I'd downgrade the effectiveness of armour to reduce grind in combat. Anyway I'm interested in what Green Ronin will bring to the table with the Set 3.

    3. Some day I'd like to try some variant of D&D just to experience it first-hand, and I do like trying to come up with good combos in board and card games, so perhaps I'd like it despit myself. Hehe!

      Hmm... interesting note on Dragon Age. How did you find Set 2 by the way? I haven't got it yet myself and have read in a few places that it doesn't include as much stuff as you might have hoped for for levels 6-10.

    4. I think the Dragon Age Set 2 was a decent addition to Set 1, but Green Ronin might still have been with the four core box model which they originally planned when releasing box 2. There are quite a lot of options if you're interested in starting a new character with expanded backgrounds and races, like the Quinari.

      For existing characters there's not much else other than picking up a few new talents, branching out into sub classes and generally "just" levelling up. There are no bucket loads of character options ala D&D 3.X, but I don't see it as bad thing. It's actually very much in the spirit of earlier D&D editions.

      There's expanded information on Grey Wardens, the Chantry and a few other factions on Thedas with assumption that the players will join or interact with some of these during levels 5 to 10. But these aren't part of the normal character progression, use of their benefits are purely in the GM's hands.

      The small cracks with the system start come apparent when characters start nearing level 10. Most often they have so many hit points and are equipped with good armour that end up making the combat encounters a grind fest. The momentum of the combat can become a bit boring when the character can easily shrug of blows from scores of lower level enemies but also can't deal great amount of damage due to enemy armour reducing their own hits basically a few hit points.

      We've been using a few house rule to reduce grind:
      1. All the armour values halved, rounding up.
      2. All enemies use stunts in combat unless the GM says they don't.
      3. Every successful attack always makes at least one point of damage regardless of armour.

      These house rules make the game more lethal on the lower levels, but actually make the "just plain" levelling up a bit more meaningful. Even with these house rules I still think the sweet spot of the system is around levels 4 or 5.

      But that being say, Dragon Age is game which relies quite a lot on the GM putting challenges on the players through story elements. Players have too much resources and too good equipment? Steal their equipment and burn down their homes. Players are too powerful? Have them be cursed with a spell or get sick with a disease which'll lowers their hit points and/or stats. Maneuver them into political situations where martial strength is meaningless. The system is freeform enough to handles these kind of situations with out too much hassle for the GM.

      As for D&D, there are so many variants available these days that it can be hard to know where to start. I'd personally, if I were in your shoes, go for a variant that does something that systems you already have don't do. My choice is at the moment is Dungeon Crawl Classics for the sheer randomness and Sword & Sorcery feel it bring to table.

  2. Haha! Right you are. Will fix when I get home. I hope the content was still interesting for you. :)


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