the Fairgame Archive

2006-06-30: resolution and escalation
by Emily

I've had this thought rolling around in my head a while now. So, we call task and conflict resolution mechanics "resolution"—why resolution per se? What are the implications of thinking of it that way?  Let's start with definitions: (From the Forge Provisional Glossary)


Establishing fictional events into the time-sequence of the Shared Imaginary Space.

This is the function or the outcome of most resolution mechanics.  I describe leaping into the air, I roll to see if I make it across the chasm.  So what is being resolved? The question of what happens next, of what path the narrative will take at this juncture.  Also, what is resolved is whose vision of what happens next occurs, usually with me on the side of "let's not have me lying in the chasm with broken legs" and the GM on the side of "bring on those broken legs".  A difference in desired outcomes opens a question in the narrative flow that has to be answered in order for the story to continue.

So, let's bring in the issue of a dynamic versus a static situation.

Static Situation = a stable situation that may continue relatively unchanged (a routine, in the Impro sense)

Dynamic Situation = an unstable situation, that has got to change and soon

In play, we set up static situations (I'm running) that turn into dynamic ones (I'm leaping) when they run smack into a conflict (the chasm) and a narrative question yawns beneath our feet.  The we invoke the mechanics, answer the question and a status quo returns.

So, what if instead of resolving a dynamic situation into a static one, instead we had rules that moved you from one dynamic situation into another? So instead of:

GM: As you are running from the pack of wolves, you come to a chasm.

Me: I'm speed up and try to leap across.

Roll/mechanics occur.

GM: You make the leap and land safely on the other side, out of the reach of the wolves.

We'd have something like:

GM: As you are running from the pack of wolves, you come to a chasm.

Me: I try to leap across.

Roll/mechanics occur.

GM: You successfully leap across, and make it safely away from the wolves, however you find that you've leapt onto a ledge occupied by a soldier wearing your enemy's colors.

Mechanics that have "partial success/failures" essentially do this, a mixed success will likely have some kind of drawback or side effect to your actions that can lead to a new conflict.  In Polaris, your Mistaken player is constantly driving you toward new and higher prices to pay for what you want.  The very act of wanting or taking action in the world draws you deeper into a mired pit. A follow up conflict in Dogs in the Vineyard is a new dynamic situation following on the heels of a newly resolved one. One question rips open others.

A danger could be over the top pacing: when do you get a chance to rest from all this escalation?  How reasonable is it to expect situations to get worse and worse? A game could suffer from the soap opera truism of having love affairs give way to stolen babies and amnesia followed by alien invasions and weather machines in the following season.

Some answers can be found by looking at how long running series deal with these issues: in Buffy everytime a character successfully deals with an issue they've been dealing with they get faced with an escalation or reversal of that resolutions (Giles decides he must leave Buffy in season 5 and in that episode she comes to realize how much she needs him to continue to train her, Willow gives up magic to regain Tara and when she gets her back she loses her again and gets tipped over into full-blown super-villaindom).  Long-term character development and pacing of this type exists in Sorcerer kickers and Shadow of Yesterday keys, but most resolution is either just that (it ends the issue) or it is neutral on the issue. If escalation occurs, it is because the GM came up with it—either exploiting a hook they saw in the character or by introducing an external threat to do the trick.  Another option is having players opt for escalation in order to move from one threat to another.

GM: The wolves are baying and rounding on your heels.

Me: I want to get away from them! What can I do?

GM: Escalate!

Me: I see a chasm up ahead of me. I pick up speed and....

2006-07-01 01:11:35 Meguey

Cool, Em.

I think you've nailed the danger: no rest, over-drama. I think your last senario has real possibilities, though. Must think on this more.

After I sleep.

2006-07-02 06:18:09 Judd

Upon reading this I got this idea in my noggin.

You have your solid white die that you get just for being you and then 3 other dice that you can choose.  Let's say a holy die, an unholy die and a mundane die.

And you have to choose one of them to meet the challenge with dice, maybe more.  But they lead to a complication.

GM: You come to a chasm.

Player: I choose to roll the white die and the holy die.

GM: Okay, you clear the chasm but you have angered the Goddess of the Hunt.

2006-07-02 19:28:22 Matthijs

A great example of threat-to-threat escalation would be The Abyss. The escalation is pretty insane; in role-playing terms it might go something like this (if memory serves):

"...and the navy says they need to use your underwater rig."

"...and then your ex-wife comes down and tells you what to do."

"...and then they send down some hyper-tense navy officer."

"...and then there's a storm, and you lose contact with the surface."

"...and then a few tons of scrap metal start falling towards your rig."

"...and then they tell you you're searching for live nukes."


This works for a one-shot - it would be hard to make a follow-up scenario after the climactic ending. So escalation probably needs to be more subtle in a campaign - perhaps there could be different forms of escalation, so that at specific junctures (or when the players needed extra dice?) there'd be total plot-twisting escalations, while during normal play there'd be temporary/minor escalations?

2006-07-04 17:03:15 Emily

Judd: That helped me realize that Otherkind dice bring in this kind of escalation since you have to make tough choices between competing priorities. So Bliss Stage does it (in spades) and Mechaton, too, come to think. I think they descend from Paul's The World, The Flesh & the Devil.

Your die mechanic be a great way to have the player choose the realm of escalation.


perhaps there could be different forms of escalation, so that at specific junctures (or when the players needed extra dice?) there'd be total plot-twisting escalations, while during normal play there'd be temporary/minor escalations?

It could be determined by what's at stake or how wide the scale of the issue is.

In PtA, making the choice to always have the two sides of a conflict have to be some substantial change rather than just "this happens or it doesn't" creates a situation where the Producer is trying to escalate a situation, and the player has to at least escalate sideways, adding or embellishing the situation, rather than just backing out of it and going back to the same status quo.  It makes it a changing situation.

Conflicts in Capes are escalation mechanisms.  Also Opportunities and orders of the Roach in the Shab Al-Hiri, the Levels of Suffering in With Great Power that ramp the stakes up in a game, and of course, Dogs' dice are an escalation superhighway.

2006-07-11 21:34:32 Emily

When are you permitted to add that in Agora? Who gets to?

Cliff-hangers are definitely under used. That's another cool side effect of having dynamic situations be the norm.

2006-07-10 18:58:57 JBR

There's a little bit of this in Agora where, when one player wins a conflict, the other player gets to append a "Cliffhanger" that complicates (but does not invalidate) the victory.  It's very good at maintaining player interest in the 'hang time' when their main PC is not in a scene.  You come back and go, "Oh, and we'd discovered a blood-idol in the wreckage!"

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