Thursday, April 9, 2009

Hyphen Con, The Importance of Making Concessions, and RIP Dave Arneson

So! Hyphen Con was once again a lot of fun. "Four Weapons and a Funeral" went well, thanks to a crop of four great players who were enthusiastic about running with the idea. I ended up using very little of what I'd planned (but mark my words, one of these days, in some game or other, there's gonna be a fight inside an astronomical clocktower) because the players basically took control of things right from the get-go and took things in their own direction. And that was awesome. All I had to do was compel some aspects to keep them from agreeing with one another too readily or unconditionally. I spent about two hours mostly just listening and adjudicating some rules.

The gimmick -- that the four PCs disliked one another but had to come to a consensus somehow -- resulted in a lot of great roleplaying, and at least one extended social conflict. That, in turn, led to an issue being brought up that's been on my mind ever since.

Here's the situation: The PCs are discussing who's going to take the place of their dead master. When they reach a stalemate, it's time to pull out the dice and start rolling Humanity (the "SotF" equivalent of both Rapport and Intimidation) vs. Spirit (the "SotF" equivalent of both Resolve and Endurance). Everybody gets in on the act, spending Fate Points and everything, and pretty soon everybody has a Minor mental consequence of some kind (Ashamed, Embarrassed, Infuriated, etc.). The late master's daughter, in whose house they're arguing, shouts, "Enough! Get ouf of my house!" This is another Humanity vs. Spirit test with two PC targets, White Crane and Tiger Jin.

(Incidentally, the way I handle mutiple targets in this sort of situation is this: Everybody rolls his or her relevant skill. The attacker's effort is applied against the defenders' higher/highest effort. Any shifts gained over that defense can be split between the two defenders, so if you have two targets with defenses of Great and Fair, you'll need a Fantastic effort to get enough shifts to affect each of them. Tagging a target's aspects or consequences only gives you shifts for that target for that target only, so if, in the example above, you have a Great effort and tag one target's consequence, you still can't distribute the resulting two shifts between your two targets.)

Each PC is in a position to take a consequence -- but I also remind them that they can make a concession instead. That is, they can continue to stay in this argument and try to win it, or they can leave the conflict by walking away and say, "Fine, I'll leave." (Or "You're right," but since she's giving them a very specific command, there's really only one way to both comply and leave the conflict.)

White Crane's player objects to this. He only has one Fate Point left, and the daughter has three shifts on him (she tagged his untagged Minor consequence of Infuriated to get to three), so even if he spends it he's still taking a consequence. He doesn't like the option of making a concession, either, because "normally in Spirit, when something bad happens to you you get something in return." This is true -- if I'd had to have spent a Fate Point to tag that consequence, I probably would've given it to the player, but since it was still fresh no Fate Points traded hands. Similarly, I could've compelled that same consequence to make White Crane just storm out of the house, and I wouldn't have had to pay a Fate Point to do it. The player would've had to give up his only Fate Point to refuse, though. This is one of the reasons why you don't want consequences. Tough, but fair.

Anyway, as Tiger Jin's player said, "It's not a choice between good and bad -- it's a choice between bad and worse." And he was absolutely right. If you'd rather take another consequence instead of leaving the conflict (i.e., surrendering), that's up to you. Neither option's really that attractive, but you got yourself into this mess, and now these are your options. It was interesting to work through this, but instead of seeing this as a problem I see it as a feature of the system, if anything. As social conflict mechanics go, I think it's pretty great.

However, there's another issue at work here, and one that both White Crane's and Tsai Lung's players brought up individually. It's essentially this: If you already have consequences on you from a social conflcit, progressing to a physical conflict is that much more dangerous, since odds are good that you'll be taking more serious consequences. That actually dissuaded Tsai Lung's player from kicking it up a notch from argument to blows, even though that's where he felt he should take things next. Likewise, White Crane's player pointed out that Tiger Jin, with his Great Humanity, was in a position to really stick it to someone by engaging them in an argument (inflicting mental consequences with his high Humanity) then forcing them into a physical conflict (which they'll enter with a couple consequences already on them). Likewise, even if everyone's in a physical conflict already, couldn't he just use Humanity to keep tagging low-Spirit suckers with consequences? These did indeed seem problematic.

At first, anyway. First of all, in any conflict, there are one or two skills that deal stress, one or two or three that defend, and some others that maneuver. In a physical conflict in "SotF," Fists and Weapons are normally the only skills that deal stress. Fists, Weapons, and Athletics are the only skills (again, normally) that can defend against attacks. Humanity, in a physical conflict, can maneuver, but that's it. In a physical conflict, Tiger Jin could use his turn to intimidate someone. If he succeeds they'll get a fragile aspect of "Intimidated," but not a consequence. Conversely, in a social conflict, Humanity is the stress-dealer, Spirit's the defense, and other skills can maneuver. White Crane could quote the Te Tao Ching to help make a salient point, using his Scholarship (i.e., Academics) to maneuver a fragile aspect ("Befuddled") onto his opponent, but doing so won't deal any stress. Heck, he can even use Weapons as a maneuver, if he can justify it, with the same mechanical result.

As for the issue of physical conflicts following (or not following) social conflicts, that seems just fine to me -- ideal, even -- thanks to concessions. Tiger Jin's a charismatic guy. He's a leader of a rebellion. He wins arguments because getting into one with him will almost always mean taking consequences. If he says something you don't like, something that pisses you off enough to want to fight, man, start fighting. Like, right away. Make a concession: "I can't beat you in a war of words, so out comes my sword!" It's either that or he gives you a consequence of his choosing. The only reason you'd stay in the argument and continue to take consequences is if you think you can beat him. It's also the only reason you'd stay in a physical conflict instead of running away.

There's an excellent illustration of this in, of all places, last night's South Park. Cartman wants half-credit for a joke Jimmy wrote, even though he didn't do any of the actual, y'know, work. Kyle tells Jimmy to totally deny him anything, and if Cartman argues, fight back. Craig, ever the practical one, tells Jimmy several times to just give in, and be glad Cartman isn't asking for all the credit. In other words, he's suggesting that Jimmy make a concession. Why? Because people who get into conflicts like this with Cartman invariably lose, and lose hard. (Cf. Scott Tenorman being tricked into eating chili made of his own parents, Titus Adronicus-style.)

One more thing, and this is really too important to be tacked on to the bottom of a long post like this: After a long battle with cancer, Dave Arneson died Tuesday night, so now, in a little over a year, we've lost both creators of D&D as we know/knew it. Gygax did the heavy lifting in terms of converting wargames rules over to fantasy wargames rules, but Arneson's the guy who came up with adding actual roleplaying to that. He's also the originator of the dungeon crawl (and dungeons, really), the concept of hit points, and lots of other absolutely integral aspects of OD&D that make it what it is, not to mention Blackmoor. His name isn't as well-known, unfortunately, but his influence looms large over even the latest edition of the game, despite the 35 years or so that have passed since his first letter to Gygax full of ideas that would one day become D&D. As Ken Hite points out, he can fairly be called "the inventor of roleplaying games." We all owe Dave Arneson a great debt.


Unknown said...

RIP, Dave Arneson. You gave me so much. I hope only to help continue and pass on the energy you gave to the world.

Unknown said...

BWAAHH!! I finally re-read the whole post, and ran across this...

"but mark my words, one of these days, in some game or other, there's gonna be a fight inside an astronomical clocktower"

...Actually that ended up being a critical scene of my current campaign's first adventure!

An astromonical clocktower was the background of a martial arts showdown between the NPC villian, a Scarlet Brotherhood Monk named "Raker" and my PC (ex-Scarlet Brotherhood Assassin). It began with the PC inside the clockworks and hearing the phrase from somewhere amongst the gears, "So you wish to have a lesson in Selinshan, little brother? I am more than happy to oblige..."

FYI: Selinshan is the name of the S-B monk's martial art.

It was awesome--the PC kept using the clockworks to try to evade the monk's attacks (he would have never survived a stand-up fight with the monk) until he could get his iron whip around the monk's neck and using the gears to haul him up and away...

Good times, good times.