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Extended conflict resolution vs. combat resolution

Started by Tor Erickson, November 18, 2007, 10:17:45 PM

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Tor Erickson

We kicked off Charnel Gods last Thursday and the body count is already climbing into the triple digits.  Naur Tier for us is a desert world based on pre-mohammed Arabia with lots of visual references from North African desert tribes and tattoos courtesy of the Pacific Islands.  Fell Weapons are 'Katala' in this world, and the two players created a couple of monsters.  Lots of cool stuff going on in the game but I wanted to post some thoughts about the extended conflict rules and how they relate to combat.

One of the PCs, Khalif, fears for the safety of his tribe and races across the desert to find them being massacred by a wandering death cult.  Raising his Katala in the air he races down into the thick of the fighting to save his people.  The way I played it was to have him face off against 4 death cultists at first and see how that went, and then see if he could rally the troops and push back the invaders.  I was playing it cinematic, giving the cultists a single roll of 4 dice (rather than 4 individual rolls), but even so the battle turned against Khalif and eventually he went down with a massive amount of lasting hits.  Cut to the other PC for a different scene, and then back to Khalif who regains consciousness in a pile of bodies, his entire tribe slaughtered, the surviving cultists having moved on.

In retrospect I would have played it differently.  The fight against the 4 cultists bogged down a bit and didn't feel that important compared to what was at stake, which was 'Will Khalif save the village?  And if so, at what cost?'   What I think would have worked really well was this:  Khalif's stated action was to ride down the hill into the thickest fighting.  Fine.  Simple roll of Stamina vs. average cultist Stamina, giving Khalif all the usual options for extra dice (in particular how he puts his Power 7 Katala to use).  Then roll bonuses/penalties over into the next phase which might be Khalif squaring off against cultist leader (this next round would be based on Khalif's stated actions and GM input).  Then taking results of that, single, die roll and making a third roll, perhaps Khalif's Past of 'Warrior/Protector' vs. cultist's past to determine exactly how the mass combat played out.  This last roll would represent rallying the troops, tactical decisions, etc.  The results of that final roll would determine how successful the Khalif was at saving the village, ranging from total victory (all cultists dead, tribe intact, cultist leader captured for questioning) to total defeat (basically what happened to Khalif as we actually played it).

It seems like this would have kept the scene conflict-oriented and maintained Khalif's protagonist status (of course he's going to decimate those original cultists he charges into!  He's  a Charnel God, for chrissakes.  Only question is, how much will they slow him down from protecting his tribemembers?). 

Has anybody played combat like this before and what were their experiences?  Is there any reason you have to play all combats out using the combat rules in the main book? 

I think I might be on the verge of some major realizations about conflict resolution in Sorcerer and I thought I better check in to see if I'm on the right track.


Ron Edwards

Hi Tor,

The thing is, Sorcerer combat isn't built to deliver "I wade through a squad of wanky foes and butcher them like sheep." Combat by the rules, especially if each character is treated in full, is best described as "My hero might get his ass kicked six ways from Sunday, because this is a fight."

Now, when I wrote that book, we didn't have terms like conflict resolution. We didn't have squat.

Discussing all this regarding Sorcerer, in particular, is tricky - is it revisionist? Am I re-writing the rules and concepts in this forum? The answer is not simple. The fact is, I only understood conflict resolution in abstract terms after playing tons of Sorcerer. I basically wrote a game that was five to ten years ahead of my own understanding and skills in role-playing, despite a few key steps I'd already taken in the right direction. I knew how to do conflict resolution in practice, but had only barely managed to get into the habit of focusing on it during play without getting distracted by older habits and standards.

So I'll use modern terms, which isn't time B re-writing time A, so much as time C re-stating what time A was not able to articulate about time B.

The best way I can put it is this: if you're going to have a fight in Sorcerer play, then it better be about a conflict of interest which really matters to you. If you go into a fight with the idea that "I shall now enjoy my character's Color for a few minutes," then the rules will not help at all.

I spent a lot of time going over fight scenes written by Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Karl Edward Wagner, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and many others. I found that each author stuck to a very, very defined distinction between "bathe in the blood of unfortunate mooks" vs. "fight like a bastard with desperate consequences in the balance." I looked at when the former applied - and you know, not once, in such instances, was any personal conflict operative for that hero. That stuff happens when he's on the way to getting somewhere else.

I like to point out that in The Scarlet Citadel, in the famous beginning scene when Conan is the last man standing on his side, surrounded by foes ... that we did not see the battle. In the terms of that particular story text, he did not fight it - his prowess in killing his foes up to that moment was Color, not conflict.

In many cases, the character does face personal conflict in a battle scene against multiple foes ... and you know what usually happens? He loses!! That's right, just like in your game. (Fanboy culture always forgets how often Conan loses, or how often Howard points out that he was scared, desperate, or had given up hope before winning.)

All this is to say, I think you're almost on the right track with your suggested approach, Tor, but I also think you're still going to run into the trap of Color vs. conflict.

I do think you're on the right track in thinking that the combat rules are not necessarily to be applied "because my guy's in a fight." Full disclosure: in my games, I tend to stick with the older way of looking at it, such that if he's in a fight, then we use the combat rules. But I think we can reconcile this disclosure with the right-track thinking through the following example. The idea is, when it's a fight in the sense of actually desperate and risky conflict, then use the rules - otherwise use the "does it / cannot do it" dichotomy from the extreme ends of the table in Chapter 4, to get through a bit of exposition.

I suggest that once the hero's goal was established "to save the village" (or at least, from this particular attack, right?), then we could hop right to the point in the battle when that really matters. Perhaps when he's up against the chief, or perhaps at a key strategic moment - it depends on how the player describes the hero's participation. Everything up until that point can be narration, or better, a set of conflict rolls which set up possible bonus roles, but if they fail, don't inflict damage. Then the situation at the moment of truth becomes a desperate, crucial, by-the-rules fight.

What do you think?

Best, Ron

Tor Erickson

Hey Ron,

I love it.  Frikkin' thanksgiving and families and stuff getting in the way of session two this week...

So what I'm thinking is this:  Khalif charges into the village, engages a cultist or two in desperate swordplay.  His tribe is being slaughtered!  (roll STA vs. STA).  Now there's a lull in the battle and he moves to high ground, dragging the tribal totem so that his warriors will rally around him (roll PAST vs. PAST).  Finally, at last, he's face to face with the cultist leader, and applying the bonuses/penalties from the past two rolls (to the whole combat? just to the first roll?), we play out the entire combat between these two characters using the full combat rules, and the results of THAT combat determine the fate of the village.

This sounds awesome to me.

But it raises a question I've been wrestling with: in the above example, who determines what the next round of action will be?  The player?  The GM?  In other words, once the Player has stated his action to try and save the tribe is it railroading if the GM proposes the various steps that need to be taken to arrive at a resolution?  And who decides how many intermediate steps there will be before the deciding dice-roll?  This same question came up for me while reading the the section on dice diagrams in Sex and Sorcery.  Who's call was it to Zz'skt's Power vs. Zochat'lan's Power would influence Nasua's Will vs. Zochat'lan's Will?



Hey Tor, we had a lot of crazy roll-overs in a "Dictionary of Mu" game over the summer.  The way I handled that as a GM was:

* announce the actual conflict at hand, from my POV; see if anyone disagrees or can refine it.
* remind everyone that the dice gods in Sorcerer are fickle and unfriendly, and you might want to scheme for roll-overs
* first few sessions, suggest obvious rollovers - priming the players, basically, to think in these terms - but it's on them to go for it
* after that, let them brainstorm among themselves.

I generally handled rollovers as full rolls, with narration, tactics, craftiness, and even feeder-roll-overs, allowing players to create the elaborate sub-scenes, often involving newly created plot-points.  In principle, this was a way to do some Director Stance action on the player's part.  ("Oh, right, the Sword of Jubba-Jubba, of course you need that for sorcery.  Duh!")

If I really wanted to, I would have felt comfortable nixing these sub-scenes for reasons of pacing, but that's probably grounds for waving way the conflict as color anyway.  If it's worth dicing over, it's worth making it a big, sweaty, shouty bit of the story.

Ron, can you clarify something for me, about when a conflict really is a conflict?  I'm totally down with your post in this thread.  But I seem to recall in a couple of other threads on this topic--my connection's slow, can't find them now--in which you strongly advise roll whenever your character, rather than you the player, winds up in a conflict of interest.  Which I always read as, "Oh... Conan's fighting these mooks, I'm not too enthused about that as a player or GM and might jump past it, but I guess it's dice time.  Man, Ron's crazy."

Is this a bad understanding on my part?  Or a misreading due to changes in terminology?  Or simply that "conflict of interest" means something other than, "something that interests the people sitting around the table"?   (I guess another way of phrasing my question: is there a limit to what can be hand-waved in Sorcerer if the players/GM don't really care about the outcome?)


Ron Edwards

Wait a minute, I just figured out who I was talking to! Tor Erickson!! Hey! Welcome back!

Those two posts have a lot of stuff in them for me to address. Some of them are going to be easy, and at least one is going to be really painful. Although for whom, I'm not sure.

Tor, the answer to your most important question is "the GM." Roll-definitions and what might best be described as conflict-definition stops with that person, mainly because it has to stop somewhere, and the conflict-framing is rightly considered a subset of scene-framing, or an emergent process within a scene. In Sorcerer, although pre-play creative tasks are best understood as a back-and-forth process, most especially the translation of Kicker into prep, during-play tasks are best understood as modular subsets within the role of GM or within the role of player. (As you know, Trollbabe works differently; that's on purpose.)

Regarding the roll-over rules, remember, you cannot do A and B and C as independent modifiers all aiming at roll D. It's always a linear chain, which is broken with a failed roll. Similarly, a given dice bonus, once achieved, does not persist over a number of rolls; it's a one-use item.

So in your example, if the first roll against the villager(s) was successful, its victories become dice in the second roll to rally the warriors. Then only if that second roll is successful do its victories turn into dice for the first roll against the enemy leader.

Whew. OK, that didn't hurt.

James, we have to start with the phrase "conflict of interest," and I think it is going to hurt. Basically, never at any time I've used the term, have I ever, ever meant it to be "something that interests the people sitting around the table." I've relied upon that phrase for years in the apparently mistaken belief that it has an unambiguous meaning in our language, and I've always specified, as carefully as I can, that it applies to in-game, within-fiction characters only. By "conflict of interest," what I mean is that two characters are directing their actions in such a way that both of them cannot possibly succeed. That's a conflict of interest. It applies to the characters, in the fiction, only.

I suggest re-booting anything and everything you ever thought about my use of those terms, because that's the single and only thing they've ever meant.

Now for your example of Conan (or whoever) and the mooks. To understand this, we have to go through at least a year of Forge dialogue, some of it quite agonizing, involving a stupid horse Vincent made up whose name kept changing, and ultimately winding up with the useful term "furniture."

I lifted the following from a post of mine in a Dogs thread, First question - resolution without people:

QuoteBasically, divide up everything the characters deal with into "people" and "furniture." The tricky part (to a gamer) is that sometimes things like "the door" or "the pit" or "the mountain" are people, and sometimes things like "the soldier" or "the messenger" or "the chambermaid" are furniture.

But once you have that distinction down, then it's easy: when a player-character has a conflict of interest with a person, then it's time for dice, or more properly, for resolution.

"We must get past this terrible mountain" is not a conflict ... unless the mountain is a person. Do we ever call it a person? Nope. But if it plays that role in our minds, then you're going to have great conflicts. If the conflict of interest with it can be thought of in human terms, as in "this mountain is a dreadful, ruthless place," then great! Or more subtly, if the mountain's features prompt what is called, in Primetime Adventures, character issues, then we're all good to. In play, you (we, I) should be asking the same questions of ourselves regarding the local lord in the local castle.

But if the mountain is furniture? Then it doesn't matter what you roll, how many times, or what risks to the character sheet's numbers it poses, applying the resolution procedures is horrible and boring for everyone. The same applies if we're talking about the local lord in the local castle - because he might be furniture, and if so, then I'd rather go wash the dishes or clean out the shower trap than spend one minute applying the resolution procedures to interacting with him.

If you're ever unsure about which might apply in a given situation during play, simply do a little Color for the relevant person or thing, and see what the other people at the table say. Their responses will tell you, straight-up, with no ambiguity.

Click on the thread and see the subsequent responses and my dialogue with Neal; it rounds the issue out nicely, especially the part about "how do you tell."

James, in your example, if the two mooks are furniture, then there is no possible conflict of interest, and hence no roll.

Best, Ron


Ron, it didn't hurt a bit and I suspect we're talking past each other through the curse of internet semantics. 

Quote[An inanimate object or condition may be a "character" if] it either (a) has priorities of its own, like a gate of a beseiged city seems to have in some stories; or (b) brings up issues for characters, as with starvation or similar. . . This is a group activity. You find out whether the storm is a character by first presenting it as such, and then seeing whether they agree.

You seem to be saying that the "interests" involved have nothing to do with the players, and instead arise out of character intent--but what counts as a "character" is a function, at least partially, of group excitement.  If that's what you're saying, we're just assigning player agency at different points along the track.

Tor Erickson

Hey Ron,

Good to be back. 
Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 20, 2007, 06:35:21 PM

Tor, the answer to your most important question is "the GM." Roll-definitions and what might best be described as conflict-definition stops with that person, mainly because it has to stop somewhere, and the conflict-framing is rightly considered a subset of scene-framing, or an emergent process within a scene.

Stops with the GM, but open to player input along the way, right?  So how it plays out is this (in chronological sequence).  1.  EITHER the GM or Player proposes the next dice generating action.  The GM can overrule the Player at this point if he sees fit.  2.  The GM decides what opposing attributes will be used and grants bonus dice based on role-playing and situational modifiers.  Also, AT THE SAME TIME, the GM decides if this will be the final link in the conflict chain, or one of the intermediate links, and communicates this to the Players.  3.  Roll dice, the GM and Player narrate results, and the conflict is either resolved based on what was decided in step (2) or return to step (1) again.

Regarding the roll-over rules, remember, you cannot do A and B and C as independent modifiers all aiming at roll D. It's always a linear chain, which is broken with a failed roll. Similarly, a given dice bonus, once achieved, does not persist over a number of rolls; it's a one-use item.

So in your example, if the first roll against the villager(s) was successful, its victories become dice in the second roll to rally the warriors. Then only if that second roll is successful do its victories turn into dice for the first roll against the enemy leader.

Whoa! Okay, this is a point I managed to completely miss.  So you don't simply apply a failed roll as a penalty to the next roll?  What do you do?  I was thinking in the Khalif example, that if he failed his initial roll when he charged into the cultists, what that would mean was that he simply took longer to deal with them than he hoped, so  that by the time he gets around to lugging the tribal totem to a high spot to rally the troops he's at a disadvantage (expressed in a dice penalty) because his tribemembers have been getting jacked by the cultists for that much longer.  Instead you're saying the chain is broken in a sudden death sort of way and the village is lost?


I'd be really curious if you could remember a specific conflict that you guys dealt with and how you treated the rollovers.  I'd be particularly interested in how your various bulleted points played out, in terms of who (player?  GM?) announced what, what was rolled, how it was narrated and by whom, and how it applied to the next action.  Maybe one you thought worked out really well.

Thanks for the responses,

Tor Erickson

Hey James,

Okay, so I just (somewhat randomly) stumbled across your Dictionary of Mu postings over at and read all five pages in a single sitting.  Wow.  I feel very inspired, and very glad I'm involved in a Sorceror game right now.

I'm writing this here because one of your player's, Jon, answered my question about how you played out an extended conflict.  He sounds like a Sorceror pro, milking his descriptors and working in cool tactics to get bonuses (of course it sounded like he got hosed at every turn, but that's how the dice fall, I guess).  So, since he had already answered my question for me months before I even asked it, let me rephrase a bit:  what was your side of that combat?  What was your input that helped it play out the way it did?

Also, how did the whole 'dice wrangler' concept work out?  (for those of you who haven't read James' Actual Play postings, and  I suggest that you do, a dice-wrangler is a Player who's character isn't involved in the current conflict, but whose job it is to come up with cool ideas to  garner bonuses for the character who is).  I might try something like that in our next Charnel Gods setting.

You know, hell, I might just send the players a copy of Jon's posting.

Looking forward to hearing from you,


Hey Tor, that game was a blast to play and really made the Summer for me, I'm glad you liked it.

Regarding Jon's big combat scene:
  • Jon played Nimrote the Hunter, the sorcerous PC in that scene.
  • Scott played Thak, the NPC Albino Primite (who apparently had 4 arms in Scott's narration though I missed it at the time)
  • Eric played a Chimera, one of the NPC demons.
  • My job was ringmaster/facilitator/adjudicator, with incidental narration thrown in.
  • Everyone suggested tactics and rollovers at first, but it became clear that Jon knew exactly what he was doing.  His use of "introspective" rollovers was inspired, and totally matched the source fiction.  Most impressively, however, he was doing all this introspective flashback stuff in his first scene, so even as the dude is fighting for his life, the "audience" gets to learn what kind of man Nimrote is, and what this fight means.  Thus, the scene was way cool but also served a structural purpose.  Jon's good!

It seems like there are three different ways a pair of rolls can affect each other in Sorcerer:
  • First Roll is completely independent of Second Roll.
  • First Roll is a "feeder" roll to the Second Roll, but has little significance in its own right.  An example would be invoking your Past to get a bonus in a combat round: even if you fail that Past roll for a bonus, you've still got to roll your Stamina in combat.  Jon's "introspective" rolls were of this type.
  • First Roll is a prerequisite for making the Second Roll.  The Contact - Summon - Bind chain is of this type: if you mess up in the early stages, you'll never get to the last one.

Ron, I've got a question for you, if you please!  In the message boards, and in several of the rules texts, you describe the rollover mechanic as a way to get massive advantages.  When I read such statements, I'm picturing something like three or four chained rollover events, somehow snowballing into a titanic victory.  But my experience with the game is very different! 

IME, a typical conflict in Sorcerer usually has the sorcerer's chance of success somewhere between 40 to 60% - maybe as low as 30% or as high as 70% in unusual situations.  And the margin of success is usually 1-2 dice. 

So let's imagine a Contact - Summon - Bind where the chance of succeeding at each ritual is about 50% after RP & tactical bonuses but before rollovers come into play (4 dice vs. 4 dice).
  • The Contact Roll - 4 dice vs. 4 dice - has a 50% chance of success, and for the sake of simplicity let's say the margin is 2 dice.
  • The Summon Roll would be 4 vs. 4, but there's a +2 rollover, so it's 6 vs. 4.  The margin is 1 die.
  • The Binding Roll would be 4 v 4, but there's a +1 roll over from the Summon, so it's 5 vs. 4.
  • Your odds of getting to a favorable Bind would be 50% times 60% times 55% = 16.5%.  Right?

A single rollover stands a pretty good chance of helping you out, especially if you're really working the RP/tactics.  But yikes, going for "massive" rollover benefits by risking multiple rollovers is generally a bad idea, unless you can somehow recover from a "sudden death" scenario, either by banking some of those earlier victories, or by figuring out a really clever way to bounce back from a failed roll.[/list]

Ron Edwards

Hi James,

I'm not sure that I've really pushed the idea that one reliably gets a massive advantage through rolling-over victories. I'm usually thinking in terms of "every little bit helps," with the possibility of an occasional shocker.

Sorcerer resolution is built for uncertainty, as you know. Getting a die or two as a bonus isn't going to reduce the uncertainty of the next roll, but it will, over many instances of doing it, increase one's chances of success on the average, or at least, in comparison to what it would have been without the technique.

So that's two things to look at: (1) looking across many conflicts instead of just this one, and (2) increasing chances of success but not locking-down success in the sense of a monster combination of feats/Magic cards or whatever.

Does that help at all?

Best, Ron

Tor Erickson

I'm totally cool with the idea that you might only end up with a 1 or 2 die bonus after a couple of roll-overs, but maybe more to the point, if you're making 3 roll-overs prior to a deciding roll, and all 3 are 50/50 odds, and you are carrying both successes and failures on to the next roll, well, then, why go to the effort of the roll-overs?  They don't increase your chances of final victory at all.  Maybe if there were a rule that said only successes were rolled over...  or am I missing something?

Ron Edwards

Hi Tor,

I missed my chance to correct that point in your earlier post; I got distracted by James.

Failures don't carry over unless damage is involved. When speaking of roll-overs, think only of successes.

So yes, it's worth one's while.

All that said, there's a difference between (1) the exciting, even joyous appearance of a bonus due to a spontaneous increase in the attention to the vividness of play and (2) grubbing for "one more die" by hunting around for something else to mention, or by launching into a long boring description. I discussed that in some detail in [Sorcerer] Role-playing bonus dice.

Best, Ron

Tor Erickson

Thanks for the ideas and clarifications, Ron and James.  I'm going to put this stuff into practice straight away and will post towards the end of next week with Actual Play results.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!


Tor Erickson

Played session 2 of Charnel Gods on Tuesday.  I went into play with a note on the top of my list of Bangs saying 'CONFLICT resolution'.

I did just what we talked about in this thread, generally narrating until the moment of crucial conflict and then rolling.  Being Charnel Gods this generally meant combat but there was also one extended conflict as Khalif pleaded for aid with a hill tribe. 

It worked out really well and brought to mind the feeling around the table last time I played Sorcerer (about 6 years ago!) when the dice would come out.  That is, everybody leans forward, eyes glittering with anticipation, waiting to see what the fates will bring.

Gameplay was tight, exciting, and produced some very interesting and unexpected results.

To be fair, I did put in another 15 hours of prep between sessions 1 and 2, and that helped a lot, as I tried to build most of my NPCs as potential bangs, so that whenever I needed another boost in play I could just throw another character into the mix and the action would pick up a notch.

I think I've said it before but I'll say it again:  I'm pretty stoked to be playing this game right now.  If the in-game conflicts continue to escalate at their current rate, we're going to be dealing with some seriously explosive material by the end of the run.  Yum.

Special kudos to Jon Hastings, of James Nostack's Sorcerer group.  I took printouts of his extremely readable and informative AP report on a Sorcerer combat and we read it out loud before Tuesday's session as both a how-to guide to Sorcerous conflicts and an inspirational spur to story-building via stat descriptors and dice-rolling.


Ron Edwards