Revisiting Task & Conflict Resolution

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1. History

The Art of Dramatic Writing is a book by Lajos Egri, published 1946. It’s a how-to book for playwrights, and according to our friend Wikipedia, it’s “widely regarded as one of the best works” in that genre. It presents a theory of stories that is, it turns out, quite actionable in rpg form. My paraphrase: Write your play to feature characters in conflict across moral or ethical lines — I believe Egri calls them “passionate,” meaning dedicated to their moral or ethical position, and “fit,” meaning fit for conflict and unable to set it aside. Turn them lose on each other. Follow the logic of their personalities and their circumstances exactingly: they’ll pursue their conflict, develop it, escalate it as they’re able and willing, and bring their conflict to its inevitable crisis and resolution. That’s the story.

Ron Edwards brought Egri’s theory of story to his game Sorcerer, then to the Forge. His innovation is the leap from playwriting to gameplay and game design. My paraphrase, from the designer’s point of view: Create your game to feature fit, passionate characters locked into moral or ethical conflict, unable to set it aside. Create rules for pursuing conflict, developing it, escalating it, and bringing it to crisis and resolution. Put decision-making live into the players’ hands — nobody gets to pre-decide how it’ll turn out — and turn them loose. That’s the game.

Ron called it “Story Now” (earlier, “Narrativism”). It’s inspired a ton of games, including all of mine from Dogs in the Vineyard to Apocalypse World. It’s a fun thing that rpgs can do, and we’ve made a bunch of fun rpgs that do it. You can too if you want.

As an aside, notably, both Egri and we Narrativists saw no possible choice or difference between what a character would do and what’s good for the story. To us, the story IS what its characters would do. Have your character break their own internal logic, and you’ve sunk the story along with it.

Now, before this, in the 90s into the early 00s, “task resolution” was just one of the basic components of mainstream rpgs. Your game had some kind of character creation, GM prep like monster creation or scenario planning, probably an experience system, often a dedicated combat system, its task resolution system, and so on. It just meant, how your game handles it when somebody wants to do something and the outcome’s uncertain. There was plenty of diversity, but the reason it was called “task resolution” was because it often focused on your character’s efforts and skills versus the difficulties of the undertaking, in a straightforward task-oriented way. To lift a heavy thing, make a strength test; to pick a lock, roll your skill.

Egri’s theory of stories, and thus Story Now games, don’t care about tasks. How much your character can lift, or whether they can successfully pick a lock, for its own sake. They care only in one case: when lifting the heavy thing or picking the lock is how your character’s pursuing, escalating, and resolving a conflict. Thus, Ron proposed a new category of resolution systems: conflict resolution, not task resolution.

Here’s what I wrote about it at the time, in 2004: Roleplaying Theory, Hardcore, and scroll down to the “Conflict Resolution vs. Task Resolution” heading. I was grappling with it and I didn’t get it right!

Here’s what I think about it now, two decades later.

2. Task & Conflict Resolution

Tasks & Conflicts

Think of a task in your life. In my life, I’m thinking of getting the trash out to the curb on a Sunday night.

Think of a conflict in your life. I’m thinking of, I don’t want to get the trash out, I want my kids to do it. Conflict is, they don’t want to do it either.

Task resolution would resolve the task. It’s concerned with things like, how much does the garbage weigh? How many bags? Am I going to split a dang bag and spill it out on the front walk like I did that one time? Is it raining? What’s the deadline — Sunday night? Monday morning? What o’clock? Do I have enough garbage stickers?

(In our town we pay trash tax by buying stickers.)

Conflict resolution would resolve the conflict instead. It’s concerned with things like, what forces am I willing to bring to bear, to get my kids to do it? What forces are they willing to bring to bear to get out of it? Who’ll escalate? Who’ll use guilt, fear, trickery, bribes? Who’ll raise their voice? Or what?

What arenas of escalation are open to us, and which aren’t? Which are, but we’ll never ever resort to them, not over something as trivial as this? Or will we?

Task resolution vs conflict resolution asks, how does your game understand and prioritize them? Which does it care about? Which does it model, and how?

…And Both

A lot of games have both a task resolution system and a conflict resolution system. Any game with a separate combat system for fights and a task resolution system for skills and non-combat actions, for instance, going all the way back to D&D number one.

By the way, combat is one of the dead-basic examples of conflict. Resolving it blow by blow, hit point by hit point, may not be the most exciting way to handle it, but it doesn’t change it from a conflict into a task instead. In fact, in the early days of conflict resolution, for some of our games, our approach was simply to fold task resolution into a combat system, making every action essentially into an attack or a block. This is how Dogs in the Vineyard works, for instance.

Or take an early pandemic fave: Among Us. There’s no way to understand Among Us without contrasting its task systems (navigate a path through the asteroids, dump the trash, rewire the panels) with its conflict systems (murder, emergency meetings, voting).

But, “Resolution”?

To Egri, a conflict’s crisis is the play’s climax, and its resolution is the play’s denouement. Throughout most of the play — thus throughout most of the game, throughout most of the working of the game’s systems — conflicts don’t resolve, they develop and escalate.

This means that despite being named “conflict resolution,” some conflict resolution systems actually spend more time developing conflicts, exploring them, discovering their dimensions, introducing twists and turns as they escalate. The idea is to develop conflicts step by step to crisis, to the point where they can escalate no further and must then finally be resolved. Liam Neeson and Tim Roth meet sword to sword at last, or Mandy Patinkin and Christopher Guest do. It took us two hours of action, pursuit and escalation to get here, but now that we’re here, only one of them can walk away.

3. Task, Conflict … Or What Instead?

Non-Conflict Non-Tasks

There are a lot of tasks in my life, and a few conflicts, but most of the things I do, including the most interesting and most important things I do, are neither. When we brainstormed about it on my patron discord a year ago, we came up with half a dozen:

  • Collaborating with someone;
  • Artistic expression and inspiration;
  • Exploring a new place;
  • Researching, discovering and learning something new;
  • Getting to know someone, breaking the ice, falling in love;
  • Teaching someone, child-rearing;
  • Ritual & play…

…Which is plenty for a start. These are ideas, not categories of activities, there’s no need for an exhaustive list.

In parallel, let’s also look at Ursula LeGuin’s list. She says:

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as

  • Relating;
  • Finding;
  • Losing;
  • Bearing;
  • Discovering;
  • Parting;
  • Changing.

I’ve written before about both Apocalypse World’s conflict model, and Under Hollow Hills’ LeGuin-inspired alternative model, so please feel free to read or reread those pieces if you like.

The idea isn’t that these things can’t be framed as tasks or as conflicts. Of course they can: you could frame every phase of my artistic process as tasks, if you wanted. Or the process of research, learning, and discovery: give having an insight a target number based on its difficulty and see if I can beat it on a d20. You could frame parting with someone, or breaking the ice with them, as a conflict, sure.

No, the idea is that there aren’t only these two ways to frame them. It’s that other framings might even prove more fruitful.

For instance, I enjoy cooking dinner for my family. As an artistic expression, I find it engaging and rewarding, but I don’t really love the tasks involved, and if it’s a conflict, I won’t do it. Cooking dinner for your loved ones is the kind of thing that the right game might include — a cozy game about life on the road, maybe; a campfire interlude between deadly adventures; a game about the day-to-day doings of a little independent collective of a space station — but if the game frames it as a task or a conflict, it misses the truth of it for me.

And, as the designers of many romance games could tell us, they’re both pretty poor framings for falling in love.

4. Conclusion

People used often to ask me, “hey Vincent, are PbtA moves task resolution or conflict resolution? Or what?”

The answer is, of course, that it depends on the game. In Apocalypse World, the moves are conflict resolution, because the game’s concerned with conflct. In Under Hollow Hills, the moves include some conflict resolution, but they aren’t overall, they’re relating resolution. The game’s not concerned only with conflict, it’s concerned with the many ways that people relate, conflict among them.

The conventions, bounds, and ideals of rpg design aren’t static. Back in 1999, when I told you I was making a game, you might ask me, “how does its task resolution work?” Sometime in the 00s, in my circles, that changed. Now the question was, “does it use task resolution or conflict resolution?”

They were exciting times! These were new ideas, to me at least. They expanded the field and the scope of my work within it, making it possible for me to find and play games like none I’d ever seen, and to create them myself.

There was pushback and resistance in some quarters, but it didn’t matter. Conflict resolution worked for our games, so it wasn’t going to go away. At the same time, it didn’t threaten or erase task resolution, how could it? Task resolution still existed (and still exists). It’s still what you need in a game about what your characters can do, can’t do, might accomplish, might fail to accomplish. Or in a subsystem of a game.

Today, Conflict resolution still exists. It’s still what you need in a game about characters locked into conflict, unable to walk away, escalating toward their inevitable final confrontation, crisis, resolution. Or in a subsystem — any game which might include conflicts, might need to include rules to resolve them.

I’ll wrap up with the complete passage from LeGuin’s Steering the Craft. The way it reads, she might have been answering Egri direcly:

Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

Thanks for reading!

PS: Three Romances I Watched One Time

I was thinking about this stuff, especially about how poorly games’ conflict and task models serve romance, and I happened to catch three romantic comedies: Somebody I Used to Know, Before We Go, and The Half of It.

Spoilers!

All three are movies where the characters fall in love, but don’t get together in the end. Instead, in the end, they’re better people.

All three start with contrived, over-the-top situations — she goes back to her hometown without knowing that it’s the weekend of her ex’s wedding, that kind of thing. But then they immediately swerve into these characters, these human beings, grounded in how they relate to one another as people, as the situation plays out. Solid stuff, writing-wise.

If what we’re concerned with is conflict:

Conflicts exist in all three movies, but it’s as LeGuin says, they exist within the context of the people’s relationships, along with many other kinds of behavior. They aren’t, contra Egri, the crucial, driving force.

In the first two, whenever any character acts to escalate the conflicts that exist, it’s always a strike against them. They have to back off, deescalate, and make it right, basically before their relationships can continue at all. In the third, there are several conflicts implicit in the setup, but the primary characters avoid escalating them completely.

The crises, when they come, aren’t crises of conflict, they’re crises of honesty, especially self-honesty.

They’re all quite thoughtful movies. Really kind to their characters, without letting them off any hooks. In all three of them, the point is, come clean and face the music. Love and fantasy, they say, are enemies.

So that’s cool fodder for a potential model.

Author:

He / him.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Task & Conflict Resolution”

  • Within this context I think that Robin Laws Drama System is interesting. RL’s breakdown of dramatic narrative (Hamlet hit points) separated procedural conflict and dramatic conflict. There is a good summary for those unfamiliar with the thesis here: https://pelgranepress.com/2011/09/29/introducing-dramasystem/ In this post, we could equate conflict resolution to procedural conflict and relating resolution to dramatic conflict. The system’s goal is to mirror granting or rebuffing of the changed relationship, via the currency of drama points.

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