Tuesday, 4 October 2016
Inner Worlds #6: Conflict and Agency
Role-playing games have always dealt with the expectation of violent conflict, being tied almost inextricably to the sorts of genres that depend upon violent resolution, "heroic" tales if you will. And given the origin of role-playing games as extensions of miniatures wargames, it makes sense. I remember when I was in my early-mid teens and fascinated with role-playing games, every time I bought a new game, I would flip to the rules on character creation first, to see what sort of character you could play, and then straight after to the combat rules, because that was how I'd know how well the game worked, because these things would be central, right? These things were what the game was about. Then, if it was a game with monsters, I'd be checking out the monsters.
I digress. The point is, the non-combat systems would be one of the last things I'd look up, because pretty much anything mechanically important would have been covered by the combat systems.
Which right there gives us your most basic assumption of most role-playing games, that they don't just concentrate on combat, they exist in its context. Even those games that have, mainly in the last decade and a half, worked as comments on that, or which have tried to find ways around that, the simple fact is that they're finding ways around it. They're operating in that context.
I'm not alone in feeling discomfort with the idea of the mechanically expressed characteristics of characters, social skills in particular, being something expressed in games using terms of violence and power, even when they're not necessarily even things that require conflict.
And of course now, the fashion in game systems is to extend the system you use for combat to everything, social interactions, crafts, everything. One interesting point made in a conversation I had recently was that actually, 80s AD&D had really good social mechanics, in that they were based upon a reaction of a person to who you are and how charismatic you are; that guys working for you were their own people who liked or didn't like you on their own terms; that in fights, the losing side got scared and ran away more often than not, and all without you bludgeoning them with the force of your personality, and without you engaging in rounds of "social combat".
I suppose I've touched on this before, but I wonder how non-combat mechanics would work without conflict, but which preserve agency. Part of the fun in a role-playing game is having a character who does stuff, who has this agency by engaging actively with the story, and you experience that through role-playing and through using the mechanics of the game.
And that's a tricky balance. You go too far in one direction, you have a character for whom every attempt to convince or fool someone is a hard-fought and complex battle with moves and damage. You go too far in the other direction, and you never do anything at all, standing passively while people react to you (and other people roll the dice).
I mentioned in my first post that perhaps most of it is in the framing, that perhaps if, for example, a Diplomacy roll is framed in terms of the ways you engage with a person you meet, it makes it somehow more reflective of the way people react. So for instance it's not that you force someone to capitulate with the power of your Diplomacy, it's that you remember lessons learned, cultural details, points of language, and acquit yourself well.
Or perhaps – and I'm thinking out loud here – you could base your social system on give and take, perhaps having a set of tokens that you give and take depending on how much you want to stake on the conversation, how much you want to give. So the social give and take becomes a symbolic give and take.
Hmm. I'm going to have to write that system now.