A game without conflict

edited December 2011 in Story Games
I have been listening to the astounding podcast series from Nathan Lowell (Tales of the Solar Clipper), beginning with "Quarter Share". If you haven't listened yet, I strongly recommend you do. Quarter Share.

This got me thinking of how a game could even try to emulate that particular style of narrative. It's a coming of age story at it's heart, where the protagonist tries to chart his path into the future. The issue is that there is very little conflict in the story. There are important decisions to be made, but no real conflicts per-say. I know that our medium excels at examining conflicts and without that framework, I can't find anything to latch onto.

How would you design a conflict-free roleplaying game?

Comments

  • For a start, I'd look at Do, though Daniel says it's not a role-playing game. But it's not conflict-oriented. For that matter, neither is Fiasco.

    It's very possible. Drama goes from conflict to conflict, but storytelling needn't.

  • I'm not entirely sure, seeing as I'm stuck wrestling a similar issue with Jonathan Walton's Metrofinal - I can't figure out how to make it last a whole session with it really just being collective storytelling without a lot of structure to say what should be happening. Maybe I'm being a bit thick about it, but I thought it worth mentioning.

    My real purpose of posting is to say thanks for posting that great link, the series is indeed pretty astounding!
  • "How would you design a conflict-free roleplaying game?"
    I would say, start looking for collaborative goals. People don't need to all want the same thing, but if they want variations, they can start to find compromises and build things up from there. I think that conflict turns up as an 'activity' in roleplaying games because it's easy to define to the players, but that exploration/experiential/relationship type plot lines can be just as gripping, if not more. Get people involved in world building - I've run some games where the central premise wasn't conflict, it was building up a shared fiction, and I think they worked well. And avoid the temptation to give people points or tokens or awards for 'good' roleplaying - I think that encourages people to start keeping score, which rouses their competitive instincts again.
  • Witch Quest.
  • Not at all what you're looking for, but everyone should know (not necessarily play) Lady & Otto. It is not a game without conflict though, not really.
  • Uffe, I've played Lady & Otto only once, some years ago. I liked it a lot. What are your thoughts on conflict in that game?
  • The conflict is not in the fiction, but instead in the meta-level of the game. But the reason for this conflict is the lack of conflict in the fiction.
  • Posted By: kobutsuFor a start, I'd look atDo, though Daniel says it's not a role-playing game. But it's not conflict-oriented. For that matter, neither isFiasco.It's very possible.Dramagoes from conflict to conflict, but storytelling needn't.
    Uhh, Do is very much conflict oriented. Most of the problems being solved involve some sort of conflict, and the troubles the Pilgrims get into are also conflicts. Though maybe you mean that the mechanics aren't conflict oriented, in the sense that in theory you could substitute 'getting into trouble' and 'helping somebody' with other things, and then you're correct.

    I also think that games which are heavy on experiencing something can work without conflict. When the idea of the game is less to actually GAME something, but to get into somebody's shoes, to immerse into a certain situation. Nordic LARPs come to mind, or table-top games which try to achieve the same goals. Lady and Otto is sort of an example of that, but not really (because that, like many Jeepforms, is more of an experiment on people than a game).
    I also once played a game which was essentially one big philosophical discussion in a thin veneer of role-playing - which is fun if you like that sort of thing.
  • I do, in fact, mean that the mechanics aren't conflict oriented. And for what it's worth, play needn't be conflict oriented; I've played a very "this is what happens" game, rather than a "they want this, I want that, I draw the right stones and convince them!" game.

    Even trouble needn't be about conflict, in Do. Someone else can use their draw to get you out of it, and that can be narrated in a very non-conflict-oriented way.

  • I'd take a careful look at games that combine firm narrative arcs with the conspicuous lack of rules for creating or resolving conflicts, like Montsegur 1244. What you don't put in your game is as much of a player prompt as what you do.
  • I think a lot of exploration-oriented games (even if played with D&D or whatnot) really involve minimal conflict. We want to see what's happening over here, over there...what, someone's trying to stop us looking over there? Hm, interesting, we'll come back later. After all, finding out they're trying to stop us is just as interesting as anything else, maybe more so!

    Oh, and a lot of those play-by-forum games I've mentioned over in the other thread don't have conflict.
  • So it really depends on what you mean by "conflict."

    Roleplaying games, for ages and ages, have used inter-player conflict (over mechanical resources, over who succeeds and who fails) to drive narrative tension. I feel very strongly that this is a crutch in game design that we would benefit from having alternatives to. "Conflict resolution" is often viewed as the core of game design when it's really just one aspect of what's happening. So, yes, you can definitely design games without formal conflict resolution. It's super easy, in fact! It just isn't done all that often yet. This will probably change over the next 10 years or so.

    If you're talking about mimicking stories that don't really have any narrative tension at all (like, um, Goodnight Moon, for example), that's something else, but it's related, I think. It's definitely possible to structure interesting narrative content in a game-like fashion without relying on inter-player conflict, fictional conflict, or even narrative tension or mechanical tension to drive play. There aren't a lot of games that do this yet, but I expect we'll see more of these too, over time.

    Since Max mentioned my game Metrofinal, I consider it an early, rudimentary effort to push in these directions. It's fun and interesting, but it's just a gesture at something that we'll eventually get a lot better at doing, with any luck.
  • "Happy Birthday, Robot" comes to mind...
  • Posted By: WilhelmWitch Quest.
    To expand on that a bit, the publisher of Witch Quest and the designer of Golden Sky Stories describe both games as being part of a genre they call "everyday magic," and both juxtapose everyday life with cute, fantastical elements. These games are fairly traditional in their basic rules structure, but basically on every level they are geared towards nonviolent resolution of relatively simple, ordinary problems. These games don't lack any conflict of any kind, but they do avoid grand and desperate conflicts in favor of things like helping friends reconcile and clearing up misunderstandings.

    For a while now I've been wanting to make a game based on slice of life manga like Azumanga Daioh, which would need to be more about characters interacting and reacting to situations and scenery than any kind of conflict per se, and I'm still trying to work out how exactly to go about making such a game.
  • edited December 2011
    I've found that regarding games as a form of childrens play for grown ups, makes it easier to design in the field of conflict-free drama. Games are by tradition perceived as competitive, and that makes conflicts the beating heart of most games. So designing for "playing around" with no conflicts is easier without the "game"-idea lurking around. In my view it is still a game, but in a more modern and un-traditional sense.

    The Sims is a game that comes to mind, letting people play around in a kind of ordinary alternate reality.

    MineCraft is popular with my sons, and there is little conflict in romping about building things in that game. There are some monsters, but my impression is that those monsters soon became uninteresting/irrelevant. building beautiful, big and/or complex structures seems to be the big thing in the game. A bit like lego, in my view.

    Both these games being vastly popular makes me think that similar directions of design in role-playing games, is a challenge with the potential of great games laying in wait.

    It's still a tall order, of course. Finding a theme that draws enough interest to be worthy of play, and unlocking the potential of such a theme, is a great challenge. Designing such a game demands as much skill and intelligence as any other game-design, and a will to choose the road less travelled in present design-culture.
  • I notice a conspicuous absence of Mcdaldno's Ribbon Drive from this thread, which is nonsensical.
  • Posted By: TomasHVMThere are some monsters, but my impression is that those monsters soon became uninteresting/irrelevant. building beautiful, big and/or complex structures seems to be the big thing in the game. A bit like lego, in my view.
    I've played many games of D&D that turned out this way! (Not intentionally, though. We just didn't have the tools to go in another direction.)
  • I have enjoyed the Traders Diaries for years and have always thought that there had to be some way of playing out those sorts of stories in a roleplaying setting. I think the key may be hidden in the choices that Ish has to make himself in the books. They are all about his internal conflicts about where his life is going. Does he want to be a trader? Does he want trading to be all he is? Does he want a life companion? Does he want to help his friends succeed? Does he want to do the 'right' thing dispite the potential dangers? All of these questions and more are the conflicts that surround Ish throughout his journey. Much of the books are about building up relationships with the other characters and trying to help them through their own internal struggles. You see how Ish helps Sarah, Pip, and others whom he takes under his wing. It is by building these relationships and then forming groups out of these relationships that those around Ish are able to see his issues and help him deal with them.

    Quick question for OP: are you looking to build a game that does the Traders Tales specificly or are you just looking to tell that kind of story regardless of setting?
  • What's the challenges of a game?
    - it don't have to be a conflict, to be a challenge to the player/s
    - meeting a challenge is ... uh ... challenging
    - "challenge" may be something that provoke some kind of though or emotion in the player
    - exploring a strange world may be challenging
    - walking the shoes of a strange being may be challenging
    - floating about in a surreal scope may be challenging
    - petite interaction may be a great challenge
    - etc.

    There's lots of phenomenons to be created by interaction, with enough of a challenge to engage a player group. It's a very interesting challenge to design games like that; a bit outside the box, revealing and redefining what a game really is, playing on the side of what most players expect ...
  • Posted By: RafuI notice a conspicuous absence of Mcdaldno'sRibbon Drivefrom this thread, which is nonsensical.
    Agreed!
    Posted By: Jason Pitre
    This got me thinking of how a game could even try to emulate that particular style of narrative. It's a coming of age story at it's heart, where the protagonist tries to chart his path into the future. The issue is that there is very little conflict in the story. There are important decisions to be made, but no real conflicts per-say. I know that our medium excels at examining conflicts and without that framework, I can't find anything to latch onto.

    How would you design a conflict-free roleplaying game?
    Jason,

    You should check out my game Ribbon Drive, which I first published in 2009.

    It's about a group of people going on a road trip, each with ideas about what the future holds for them, ideas that get revisited and potentially abandoned over the course of the game. It tells coming of age stories. I designed it because I wanted a roleplaying game that wasn't about conflict, but instead about letting go.

    Everyone makes mix CDs and music is a driving force in the game.
  • Posted By: kobutsuI do, in fact, mean that the mechanics aren't conflict oriented. And for what it's worth, play needn't be conflict oriented; I've played a very "this is what happens" game, rather than a "they want this, I want that, I draw the right stones and convince them!" game.Even trouble needn't be about conflict, in Do. Someone else can use their draw to get you out of it, and that can be narrated in a very non-conflict-oriented way.
    In that case, Penny For My Thoughts fits the bill.
  • JBMannon, I brought up this topic because I found the Trader's Tales stories incredibly captivating. They were excellent stories and I realized that I had _no_ idea how anyone could develop an RPG that would model those narratives. That puzzled me and led to some interesting introspection, so I thought it would be worth discussion. I'm not actually trying to model that particular series, but rather I wanted to broaden my skill set and knowledge base.

    Joe, you are right. I really must check out Ribbon Drive. I was unaware that it was a conflict-free game and Ribbon Drive intrigues me.
  • I've been reading some really fascinating stuff about Eastern narrative theory. There is a genre of story originating in China and Japan centuries ago that contains no conflict. It's called Kishotenketsu.

    A Kishotenketsu story consists of four phases:
    1. Introduction, in which the setting and characters are brought to light (just like in a European three-act drama).
    2. Development, in which the initial situation is added to to develops into a new situation.
    3. Twist, in which a radical change in focus or sudden twist is starkly presented.
    4. Conclusion, in which the story wraps up by tying together the twist and preceding developments into a nice bow.
    Notice that nowhere did I use the words "conflict", "climax", "stakes", or "problem". That's because those things are absent or even non-existent in a Kishotenketsu story. The emotional impact comes from exposition, contrast, and unification of elements rather than conflict and escalation.

    This is especially interesting because this narrative structure pervades modern Japanese works. A "4-Koma" (four panel) manga uses this structure with each panel corresponding to a phase. You can find an excellent and cute example of Kishotenketsu and it's differences from the three-act structure here.
  • edited July 2012
    Hey, kishotenketsu sounds interesting. That example comic is very illuminating.

    It reminds me a bit of the concept of reincorporation - taking something that happened before, and bringing it back into the story (thus adding a feeling of meaning/planning/coherence to the story).

    I could definitely see a mini-game (role-playing poem) designed around the four-panel structure, just as an exercise to try this out.
  • edited July 2012
    Very interesting, that kishotenketsu.
  • Definitely. As someone who was raised on the dogma of "You can't have an interesting story without conflict", it's refreshing and exciting to know that there are other avenues to consider.
  • Graham Walmsley is writing a game called The Tavern at the moment which is a conflict free collaboration about the staff and clinetele of an inn. While some conflicts occur accidentally in the fiction, players are expressly asked to avoid them. Ask Graham for more info.
  • Is this conflict strictly interpersonal? Does man vs himself or man vs nature count?
  • Graham Walmsley is writing a game called The Tavern at the moment which is a conflict free collaboration about the staff and clinetele of an inn. While some conflicts occur accidentally in the fiction, players are expressly asked to avoid them. Ask Graham for more info.
    Yes, Joanna and I are writing a game that deliberately avoids conflict. It's fascinating. It's about employees at a tavern.

    When people play it, they often want to know what happens when one player wants one thing and another player wants another thing. So far, our answers have been:

    * Just talk it out.
    * Whoever holds the highest card wins. (In The Tavern, you're always holding a card, so this means you just go straight through the conflict without it becoming a thing.)
    * In a conflict, whoever doesn't back down gets fired.

    I like the last rule best.


  • * In a conflict, whoever doesn't back down gets fired.
    +1
  • I love that last rule, but I would want to know one more thing: how long do you have to back down? It becomes, potentially, a game of chicken if you can go a variable amount of time not-backing-down before one or both of you are kicked out. And if you can get what you want by sticking it out just a bit longer, before it crosses the threshold of managerial notice, well.
  • edited July 2012
    I love that last rule, but I would want to know one more thing: how long do you have to back down.
    You back the fuck down. You give up on that thing you wanted (and, incidentally, welcome to the world of employment). It's like the opposite of Let It Ride: when you give up, the giving-up carries forward.

    Well, maybe. We haven't sorted out the details yet.

    But, to get away from our game and back to topic: I think, rather than considering non-conflicty games in general, we might consider them in fictional context. Ribbon Drive's mechanisms work in context; so do Polaris' mechanisms; so do those of Breaking The Ice. But I think you get those mechanisms by being faithful to the fictional context.
  • For the German example of conflict-less storytelling that parallels kishotenketsu, see the work of Charlotte Birch-Pfeiffer.

    Her plays are adaptations of popular novels and historical figures' biographies that remove as much conflict from the narratives as possible.

    Basically, how they work is:
    --antagonists are presented first, and as horribly misguided human beings
    --innocent protagonist sweeps in, all eloquent and hopelessly naive, and everybody recognizes his/her innate goodness
    --at the same time, this protagonist recognizes that he/she cannot immediately have what he/she wants, and so acquiesces to the power of the antagonists – usually this means getting locked in prison or put in an obviously unsuitable marriage, etc.
    --by acquiescing to the antagonists, the protagonists are afforded infinite power over reality – the antagonists suddenly see the error of their ways, illegitimate lovers go off to unceremoniously die in Padua, society does whatever it can to get the protagonist back on track
    --the ending is an inspiring little message to everybody, even though nobody really came to real blows or confrontations

    Birch-Pfeiffer was the German equivalent of J.K. Rowling in her day – wildly popular.

    Read her Elisabeth von England to see what I mean.
  • I'm not super comfortable with how the article portrays this structure in culturally essentialist terms, saying that this is an Eastern storytelling technique that's been overshadowed by conflict-centric Western narrative styles. That seems a needless distraction from the overall point, especially because the style it's talking about apparently originated in very short poems and there's plenty of Western poetry that generates interests in ways other than conflict. Also, since this original thread is 7 months old, maybe we should start a new one?
  • @J_Walton I'd agree with you, the cultural ranting was the only thing I disliked about it. Also a new thread might be a good idea.
  • Ja, the ranting is a distraction, and a negligible point.
  • Has no one mentioned Talk/Find/Make yet?
  • edited July 2012
    games, I have no clue, but story I got ya. Noh.
    It's mostly about revealing implied secrets. Like the Sixth Sense or a murder mystery, sometimes without a murder. The conflict happens before the story takes place. Is that still conflict? Is the conflict just ongoing? Is internal longing, pain, conflict?
  • Completely randomize the game so it lacks player intent. You'd have designer intent then, instead of player intent. I don't fucking know.
    Like, at some point don't games like Flux lose any sense of conflict?
  • edited July 2012
    Noh looks interesting, I'll have to do some research.

    I think a lot this discussion could benefit from someone attempting to step up and define conflict in a narrative sense. So allow me a moment to clean my pretentious theorist glasses. *wipe*

    Conflict is a tension between two or more possible, defined outcomes.

    In the typical protagonist-antagonist setup (and I do mean protagonist/antagonist, not hero/villain necessarily), we have two characters who's goals are at odds with each other. It's conflict because we know what they want but don't know who will get it.

    Just a protagonist with a clear goal, and no real antagonist is also conflict, because he might not get what he wants. There's your two possible, defined outcomes, right there.

    All the examples I've given concern themselves with goals, but that's still not the only kind of conflict. Like, if you have a story where the Earth might be hit be a meteor, and the protagonist isn't doing anything to stop it, that's still conflict.

    The kishotenketsu structure doesn't have conflict built in because the impact comes unifying two previously discordant elements. The satisfying wrap-up doesn't come from knowing which of multiple outcomes wins out, it's from figuring out how the story all fits together.
  • So maybe "A Taste For Murder" has both types? There's pre-game conflict which is only revealed during play ("oh, so YOU had a dark motive as well?"), and in-game conflict along the way ("why don't you go marry the Major's widow? don't want to? let's roll dice!")
  • edited July 2012

    The kishotenketsu structure doesn't have conflict built in because the impact comes unifying two previously discordant elements. The satisfying wrap-up doesn't come from knowing which of multiple outcomes wins out, it's from figuring out how the story all fits together.
    Right. The elements are "finding each other," so to speak. The game is to be found in the emotions one has by just going through the motions to discover that which has already been resolved anyway.

    No need to frame it as an anxious situation; it's more like an anticipatory situation.

    Fireworks don't have conflict, but we watch them with rapt attention anyway.
  • Yes and yes!
  • I've been thinking about a generalized structure of narrative that is ambivalent on the inclusion of conflict. It goes like this:

    image

    A narrative goes through four stages:
    1. Stability: The introduction stage, when the setting and characters are being revealed and the plot set into motion.
    2. Discord: An event occurs or is revealed, and the story is in a state of discord - a state that is at some level displeasing or alien to the audience.
    3. Surprise: An unexpected twist occurs that resolves the discord.
    4. Stability: The surprise renders the story stable again.
    The beginning stability may be skipped depending on the story, but the ending stability may not.

    There are multiple ways to achieve the Discord stage:
    • Conflict: A tension between two or more projected ending stability stages.
    • Confusion: A juxtaposition of two or more clashing world-models; a disharmony between what the audience has been taught and what is occurring.
    And each of them has a way of being resolved by the Surprise:
    • Conflict is resolved by Cessation (a projected fact being disproven).
    • Confusion is resolved by Unification (clashing world-models being assembled into a coherent whole).
  • For recent conflict-free games, you might check out Jackson's "Silver & White."
  • @Jon_Shepherd

    I totally agree with you in principle, except then we're going to have to deal with questions of duration... the main generator of suspense.
    For example, Twin Peaks is all about who killed Laura Palmer, but the resolution of 3 and 4 can't happen until the end of Season 1... which the audience knows and intrinsically accepts.

    There are short-term, medium-term and long-term nodes of conflict (or conflictlessness) and corresponding suspense.
  • @Evan_Torner

    Oh, totally. Long-form narratives, especially serial narratives, are going to cycle through the stages a bunch of times in different areas. Like, a webcomic might have a long term cycle for it's overall story and a mini-cycle for each page.
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