Conflicts handle a variety of pivotal moments in Torchbearer: arguments, contests, and struggles of will, daring chases or escapes, and more. While the rulebook thoroughly explores “Fight”-style conflicts through the rules for weapons, some other conflict types are presented with only simple guidelines. In Part IV of the Master's Manual series, we’ll discuss our process for fleshing out actions in any conflict you can imagine!
Regression to Combat
With embarrassing frequency, we Mordites find ourselves in the middle of a Capture or even a Flee only to begin describing Attack actions as actual attacks. Oftentimes we will begin declaring our weapons as through for a Kill or Drive Off conflict. Sometimes these mistakes make it as far as the actual dice roll!
Maybe you've run into this issue. We call it "regression to combat" and it's certainly understandable. The language of conflicts is grounded in martial combat, and all those cool mechanics for weapons and armor are just begging to be used! But still, it's a failure of the narrative during a game session, and that's not great.
To address this, we've found it helpful to invent subtitles for each action that help to square them with the context of the conflict we're in. For example, in a Flee conflict, we might subtitle the Attack action as "Bolt". We might call the same Attack action by the pursuer "Overtake".
Subtitles really help to put the GM and players on the same page about what actions mean, which in turn can really elevate the narration during conflicts. We don't claim to have the "one true meaning" of actions for each conflict; this is more art than science. However, when the group can agree on the interface between the fiction and the rules ahead of time, it can really enhance gameplay.
Mapping the Conflict
So how do you decide what subtitle to use for each action in a conflict? We're going to work through that process here with "Flee" and you can use that as a model for your own conflicts.
Before working with any conflict type for the first time, it's helpful to ask the following questions:
- What's an Appropriate Scene?
- What does Disposition represent for each side?
- How does each action change disposition?
- What weapons and tools might aid in those actions?
- What does compromise look like?
1 - What's an Appropriate Scene?
- What kind of scene uses this conflict?
- What scenes of this type wouldn't use this conflict?
Not every situation that sees the characters fleeing or fighting is worth a full-blown Flee or Flight conflict. Conflicts are best when there's a chaotic back-and-forth struggle where several characters affect the outcome. Would this be an action sequence in a movie? That’s a good sign that it should be a conflict.
The Master’s Manual I offers some advice on when to call for a conflict, and how conflicts fit into the overall flow of the game. Even if the action suggests a conflict is called for, it might be more exciting to condense it to a versus test and keep things moving forward.
It’s a good practice to ask yourself: “When should a GM use this conflict?” As part of that answer, you should definitely consider: “When should you not use this conflict?” For example, in the Trick conflict blog, we specifically called out that simple one-beat tricks aren’t a really good use for the conflict system.
Appropriate Scenes for Flee
Even when running away, there are times when it's simply a Good Idea. It may be very foolish to dally around a hulking giant, but running away from a slow-yet-dangerous creature may not call for a Flee conflict.
Likewise, simply leaping onto a barge that is drifting away from the dock is more like a simple Health test. If successful, the pursuer may have a harder time catching you, but the scene is over in a single test. It's still risky, but that doesn't mean it's a whole extended conflict.
A good scene for a Flee conflict is one where the pursuer and the runner struggle back and forth to get the advantage! A chase on foot through a crowded city street, or a frantic escape through a labyrinthine dungeon are both excellent candidates for a Flee conflict.
2 - What does Disposition Represent for each side?
- How does each side lose? What if both sides lose?
- Do their objectives differ from each other, or are they symmetrical?
Disposition is the most important part of this process. With a solid concept of what each side's disposition represents, all of the action meanings, weapons, and compromise will fall into place.
When you decided on appropriate scenes in the first step, this probably suggested some important elements in the conflict. Whatever sets this scene apart from from a single test or a Good Idea is probably going to factor into disposition somehow.
Are there different roles to play in this conflict? In some conflict types, it's easy to name the role that each side plays. In Roost of the Condor Queen's treatment on Banish conflicts, we call one side "the exorcist" and the other "the possessing spirit". These kinds of terms can be really helpful in narration.
Consider what it means in the fiction for each side to reach zero disposition. Why does the struggle end? Are they dead? Defanged? Lost? Tired? Convinced?
Both sides don't need to have the same losing condition. In fact, if it's possible to give each side its own meaning for disposition, it's often easier to figure out the meaning of actions and compromise. That's not to say that conflicts can't be symmetrical — after all, Fight-style conflicts usually are — it's just that the interactions between different goals often make for a better story.
Dispositions for Flee
In our Flee conflict, we recognize that there are Runners and Pursuers. Runners tend to lose by running out of energy to continue fleeing, so we'll call their disposition "Stamina". Pursuers only give up the chase when they lack any information to continue pursuit. We'll call their disposition "the Trail."
3 - How does each action change disposition?
Once we decide on the meaning of disposition for each side, the next step is to consider how the individual actions affect those dispositions.
- Attack and Feint Actions affect to your opponent's objectives. These actions might succeed so much that your opponent's objective is lost.
- Defend and Maneuver should relate to your objectives. These actions should lessen the effect of your opponent's actions, and (in the case of Defend) potentially reverse them.
- Make sure both Defends make sense against Feints and vice versa. These are often the most dramatic events in the scene.
It definitely helps to have an intimate understanding of the actions in Torchbearer conflicts when you're mapping out a conflict. When in doubt, always return to the meaning of disposition from step 2.
Try to select language that a narrator (or the characters themselves) might use during the conflict. Be ready to change your mind as the shape of the conflict becomes clear to you.
Action Subtitles for Flee
|Defend||Hide (Rest)||Pace (Gain)|
In our Flee conflict, we've chosen to use language that might arise naturally when narrating a chase. “They tried to cut us off, but we bolted”, “We tried to shake them, but they overtook us”, or “We tried to keep pace but they shook our trail.”
4 - What Weapons and Tools might aid in those actions?
At this point, the conflict should really be shaping up. You can now look at each individual action and think about what, if anything, would aid or hinder those acts in the fiction.
If you're using a conflict listed in the rulebook, you can have a look at the Weapons of Wit table on page 179, and see if your logic lines up with BWHQ's. Don't worry if it doesn't! You have lots of great verbiage to come up with weapons of your own now.
Weapons in Flee
The rulebook offers Locals, Maps, Dirty Tricks, and Right Tools as weapons for this conflict type. Not bad! I think that the +1D disposition for "Maps" only makes sense for the Pursuers in our scheme, but the others all check out.
We can add some new weapons based on our actions, though. I think it's only fair that the Runners should get a similar advantage to disposition, and that sounds like a Head Start (+1s Disposition) to me. A Hiding Spot (+1D Defend) would certainly give the Runners a chance to catch their breath, while a Home Turf Advantage (+1s Feint) would make it that much harder to hide.
5 - What does compromise look like?
If you chose metaphors for disposition wisely, compromise should be very easy to work out. Revisit the meaning of each side's disposition and try to consider how that relates to the big picture. The advice on page 73 of the Torchbearer rulebook is a great guide for this part of the process, but it can help to outline the exact meaning of compromise ahead of time.
This is a good time to include some possible consequences that are a little less obvious, too. Just because you've assigned a meaning to disposition doesn't mean that other twists are out of the question. Making a note ahead of time can help during the negotiation around compromise.
Compromise in Flee
The Runners' compromise could naturally represent the exertion they suffered during their successful escape. If they win without compromise, they didn't even break a sweat. A minor compromise could be as little as Hungry and Thirsty, and a major compromise could be Exhaustion or Injury. They may have also lost or dropped some gear during the chase, or perhaps they've become lost themselves!
The Pursuer's compromise means they didn't catch their prey entirely. Perhaps the runners split up, and only some of them were caught. Or maybe they were all caught, but the evidence of their initial wrongdoing was successfully hidden!
The steps presented above are a deep dive, to be sure. It's not recommended that you explore all of these facets before every single conflict. But if you're a GM who's going into their first ever Convince or (god help you) Riddle, this process is well worth considering.
Contributing author Paul O'Connell
Art by Duamn Figueroa