The Known and the Unknown in RPG Conflict

First post of the new year. I’m focused right now on building this new game I’ve been working on. Some initial feedback has led me to believe that it’s too complicated in exactly the wrong places. Needs more work. As I contemplate this and try to sort it out, I’m going back to my roots and looking at my inspirations – specifically Amber Diceless – as my standard for “getting it right.” Well, getting it right in the ways that matter to me and what I’m hoping to create.

The focus is on the interplay in Amber of the known and the unknown when facing challenges. In a system where this is very little in the way of chance, it becomes incumbent upon other avenues to create that tension normally generated by a roll of the dice. One of the reasons I gravitate toward diceless (or low randomization) play is that dice rolls don’t generate much in the way of tension for me – they generate more in the way of frustration. But that is a topic for another time.

To generate tension in Amber while still providing players with a comfortable basis to make their own decisions, the game relies on known and unknown information. The ranking system of the players establishes a baseline expectation – you are “X” skilled or capable at any given attribute. This allows players with first and second ranks to have a strong sense of their capability when entering into a contest. Even the baseline “Amber” rank provides a certain cushion of expectation as it allows players to know that their characters have a certain innate resiliency in contests. They might be overwhelmed but it is a function of time and the sheer scale of the opposition.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of unknown information. When a swordswoman approaches you for a duel, she could be a particularly skilled Shadow dweller or Caine in disguise. While this is true in all systems (that such a scenario could be set up) it is often not the case. Most encounters in a typical fantasy RPG are more about attrition than anything else.

While those gnoll-like creatures you encounter may have a trick or two up their sleeves, it is not that difficult for players to figure out that a 12 hits and an 11 misses and that on average, the monsters do about 6-8 points of damage per hit. The mystery of a creature’s capabilities becomes a math problem after a turn or two. Despite my often decrying the “math problem” problem in RPGs, I don’t have a beef with this method of combat – it just becomes predictable very quickly and the vagaries of the dice boil down to percentages (which I seem woefully on the low end of) as players determine their chances of successfully engaging an opponent.

What Amber does is provide a framework where expectations have to be managed much more carefully – in a fairly “realistic” manner. I put realistic in quotes because, of course, we are talking about sword fights on the edge of cosmic abysses and other such unlikely events, but the larger point remains. When you engage an unknown opponent in Amber, the likely response is one of some level or caution, testing, and feeling out the opponent to gauge possible success over simply relying on attrition-based encounter design, dice, and a system slanted in favor of character power. When encountering a known quantity (say a starting PC facing off against Bleys), then it becomes a much more interesting encounter as the player is aware of their powers/limitations and will begin to strategize to accomplish their goals through either escaping the conflict, mitigating Bleys’ advantages, or turning the nature of the conflict from combat to negotiation. Overall, I find this mixture of known and unknown qualities – centered around a fairly loose resolution mechanic – to provide a level of engagement not typically seen in many RPG conflict systems.

To digress for a moment, I also find that this engagement is partially generated by the lack of attrition based mechanics. If you find yourself forced to fight Benedict, you know that you are probably going to die. And soon. You know this going in, your hero is accepting that fact from the outset. So what is worth fighting Benedict and what goals can your character have for the conflict?

Well, deciding what could be worth it is a huge part of what makes a game interesting. If death is the most likely outcome, what are you willing to die for? But more than that – if you know you are completely outmatched, what other goals can your character have outside of “winning the fight?” In fact, it is interesting to ponder that “winning” can take on a whole new set of connotations. In this case, it might be a win if you can delay him for five minutes, or if you can take a killing blow meant for someone else, or any number of other factors. It’s an extreme example but it matters.

The dearth of hard mechanical elements in Amber is also an interesting point to consider. When I think about the combat examples in the books (the game and the novels) it is interesting that small details become important in so many ways. Some other systems do this in intriguing fashion (FATE and “create an advantage” or tags and compels with Aspects) but those systems are often dependent on a currency of some sort and rely on legislating player behavior in some way. For example, it is bad form to keep tagging an opponent’s wound so the mechanical solution is to focus on how to make doing so an unattractive or difficult prospect (you have to spend currency to keep doing it). I’m thinking about Houses of the Blooded here more than standard FATE but the currency principal applies.

Amber avoids that and simply folds such concerns into the larger picture of a conflict. You have a wound? Well overall, that just tips the balance a little bit which matters more and more the closer in skill the two opposing forces are. It’s this focus on allowing the narrative details to inform the back and forth between GM and players which fascinates me so much. It’s devilishly clever but also difficult to see when you are not actively engaged in the play of the game.

Having run so many sessions of Amber, I’m amazed by the ability of the system to create tension, engender strong play, engage players, and avoid the more obvious traps of a system that relies on a much empowered GM position. Many people would probably point to Amber as an example of a system that “does it all wrong” from a design standpoint but it has consistently surprised me over the years with its ability to create fascinating, emergent play while also making players feel empowered to make decisions.

Overall, this known and unknown tension, along with the strictly narrative gameplay, is one of the most engaging models of resolution I have ever encountered in my time as a gamer. I am still struggling with how to create that same emergent experience in my own design while also holding on to certain other elements which I typically find lacking in Amber (despite my enthusiastic appreciation for the system I still have holes I wish I could fill).


As always, thanks for reading.


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