Conflict Resolution in RPGs, Part 1

Imagine, for a moment, you’re an adventurer, creeping down a hallway towards a treasure just out of reach. Or, imagine you’re defending the last remnants of humanity from an alien onslaught. The only thing in the way is you and your BFG-401K. Perhaps you’re a hacker, preparing to reveal the misdeeds of a corporation who has been slowly poisoning its customers.

In a video game, your skill comes into play. Whatever the situation, you choose your action in the split second – should you attempt a headshot, or aim for the body? You inch as far away as possible from the sleeping dragon and slow your movement. What transpires is, generally, a measurement of your skill and ability to navigate risk. Statistical variables may come into play, but the modern theory of ‘good gameplay’ puts large pieces of the success or failure on the player. Randomness exists, but for flavor and variety.

Contrast this to Dungeons and dragons and other dice-based tabletop RPGs. You roll a certain type and number of dice. You add or subtract a modifier. Your success or failure rests on picking a skill with a high modifier, and hoping you meet the target number. There’s no skill or strategy to this. There’s less ‘game’ here than in a game of craps.

Further impacting the game, a success or failure in one roll has nothing to do with the success or failure of the next. Perhaps a skilled game master will change the difficulty of the next roll (by raising or lowering the target) based on your roll, but the roll for the next action is not materially impacted by the first action – a 20-sided die has a 5% chance of landing on any particular number, no matter what. It’s the bad sort of random. Any tweaks to this system happen because a person wills it so, not because the system accounts for it.

Now, let’s be honest that no one will actually be aiming a plasma rifle during a tabletop RPG, and that these games scratch a far different itch for gamers. But within a setting that is mostly, if not entirely, theatre-of-the-mind, what if we developed a system for interacting with the world in a way that better enabled player strategy and choice, while still allowing for randomness and the excitement of the unknown.

Consider poker, blackjack, and other card games. You can build a strategy, and choose what, when, and how to play your cards. You may have terrible luck, or great luck, with your draws. But you can work within those cards to best your opponent, whether it’s the house or another player. Once those cards are played, they’re done, at least until the deck is recycled.

So, I’m going to attempt something entirely mad: Creating an RPG, using card game mechanics. I’ll definitely explore blackjack as a base, but I will also look at creating a system which borrows elements from various poker elements and other games. I’m going to start with the basic system for player interaction, and then build a world, character generation, and game systems from there – publishing as I go.

Here’s what I have so far:

Users/players: One Game Master + multiple players (target will be 3-4 non-GM players). Some players may not be at the same physical table.

Conflict: Player vs GM, Player vs Player, and Player vs Environment. The basic steps of any conflict are:

  1. Initiation
  2. Resolution
  3. Impact

Actions that bring conflict may be Combat, Skilled Action, or Role-play

The difficult of an action will be impacted by a character’s skill level, whether a player-character or NPC. There will also be generic levels of difficulty for non-character-conflict tasks.

Some actions may be near-simultaneously, so we must have the equivalent of an “initiative system”, which allows for clear decisions on what action/player gets priority.


  • Resolution should allow for some degree of strategy for both the current action and future actions.
  • Players should have significant freedom in strategy. The GM system should be predictable, but all for unexpected outcomes
  • Random chance is not eliminated, but the risk should be estimable.
  • A truly simple action should be easily achievable. A risky one should be “high stakes.”

My goal is, over the next few weeks, to settle on details of this and find a way to move this from an abstract system to a game.