Threats and Promises

Remedy this situation, restore spice production, or you will live out your life in a pain amplifier.

Spacing Guild Representative to Emperor Shaddam IV

Conflict in RPGs is king, and identifying conflict is the keystone to successful implementation. Without conflict there is no challenge and no drama.

So of course there’s conflict in a roleplaying game. All of our game subsystems are geared to managing, measuring and resolving conflicts of one kind or another. This can be detailed or simplistic depending on tastes, system familiarity and priorities, but I think it’s fair to say that combat gets a disproportionate amount of attention in most games.

Furthermore, most complex combat systems focus on the minutiae of procedural combat skills — fine in a dungeon where everything you meet attacks on sight, not so interesting for any game with a bit of negotiation or social contact (i.e. most games). All the really interesting social stuff happens before it gets to a fight is usually muddled through with a mixture of freeform roleplaying and the odd charisma check.1

Outside the actual combat procedure, conflict includes:

  • Ideology (why two sides are at war)
  • Territory (what they’re fighting over)
  • Threat and Consequence — i.e. if you cross the line, what are the consequences
  • Target prioritisation
  • Escalation, as in what happens if the above threat and consequence isn’t enough to satisfy both sides.

All of these are decisions made by the monster (I’ll use that as a generic term for potentially threatening NPC). Some of these decisions will be obvious to the GM (who has decided what their ideologies and territories are beforehand) and some will even be obvious to the players. But these are not easy decisions to make, especially on the fly — and yet we rarely have any support for such a decision making process in games. Usually the best we have are essays about “making your villains real” and “making scenes dynamic” tacked onto the end of a 300 page manual that mostly concerns itself with combat procedure, spells, equipment and setting colour. Is it any wonder that the most common decision for a monster is to attack?

One of the goals of City and Square is to telegraph this decision making process for the benefit of both players and GM. CRPG’s use Aggro, something I have discussed before. I’m still refining the procedure, but for now I want to consider three things:

  1. Attributes in the domain of the player that influence the conflict
  2. Attributes in the monster’s domain (In City and Square this is provided by the location)
  3. Escalation Counting.

The PC domain attributes that may influence the conflict could be

  • status/notoriety (people know who you are and will either acquiesce or otherwise behave favourably)
  • a disguise or some other means of blending in to avoid attention
  • a contact who can vouch for you
  • history or background with the social group
  • something to offer or sell

Situation will determine the usefulness of each, and the strategy employed by the PCs. Clearly a situation that demands a disguise is not one where notoriety can be employed. These attributes are fairly passive and will tend to affect the base response of the environment to the PC’s presence. Collectively I’ll call them Belonging.

Once in the scene, as the tension begins to mount the PCs may be required to take active steps either to stop themselves accumulating aggro, or to draw the aggro away from other team members. Collectively I’ll call them Defending.

The attributes in the Monster’s domain will include

  • the scale of the threat
  • the type of threat (which will indicate what sort of Belonging is applicable)
  • escalation decisions for when a Threshold is crossed (questions, physical violence, threats, social humiliation, etc.)

Escalation Counting relates to both the Scale of the Threat, and the Decisions the monster will make if the PCs pass a Threshold.

Let’s say you have a scale of 1 to 9, with thresholds at 3, 6 and 9. When a PC accumulates enough aggro they trigger the Threshold. Such thresholds might be defined as

  • First Threshold (3 points): questions, verbal threats
  • Second Threshold (6 points): being ejected from the location, being followed
  • Final Threshold (9 points): violence, incarceration, damage to personal status

(Possibly three levels is too much; two levels may be enough to differentiate between awkward questions being asked and actual action being taken against the party.)

PCs can accumulate aggro individually, or the players may have a single aggro counter. I prefer the former, as it creates a need for team interaction to divert attention away from members (e.g. the classic tank soaking aggro from another party member).

Additionally since aggro is a game currency and is transferrable between party members one can imagine other means of transferring — for example if one character’s cover is blown, the immediately distribute their aggro points to the rest of the party, causing trouble for everyone.

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1. A couple of notable games for their treatment of conflict:

  • Burning Wheel scripts both social and physical combat, although the latter is more complex with all of the medieval martial stuff.
  • Dogs in the Vineyard features escalation of conflict.
  • Hollowpoint abstracts conflict to include multiple different kinds of actions from different team members in the scope of one conflict.
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