Reliquary Game Studios

Conflict in Clockwork: Empire, pt. 1

This is the first of a short series of design posts discussing different aspects of the conflict system in Clockwork: Empire.

All stories rely on conflict. Without the clash of arms and struggle of ideas and ideals there is no risk, and no point.

Many people have written and thought as much, and that’s hardly an unique insight when it comes to games. Most games are at their heart specialized conflicts between players: the rules are there to make the conflict safe. At their best, role-playing games can blur the lines between real and imagined conflict and build real passion and spirit into meaningful, memorable experiences.

Exploring what conflict does in a game is very meaningful to us because dissatisfaction with how other games handled conflict was one of the first motivations we had for designing the rules and mechanics that grew into Clockwork: Empire. So many games present incredible settings and have the potential to play host to amazing and memorable stories but have rules that make systems for conflict solely into systems for combat. Disagreements, persuasion, and opinions are often either left out entirely, or they and anything else approaching social are solely the subject of GM fiat. Those few systems that do include mechanics for social interactions almost always reduce it to a matter of a single die roll or limit it to a momentary bluff or distraction. I’d prefer not to dwell on any that have social “hit points.”

That isn’t to say that we don’t like other games: quite the opposite. With decades of combined gaming experience, everyone at Reliquary has played games of all sorts with each other, and we’ve laughed and cursed in equal measure at fickle dice and fantastic, unlikely success. What pushed us to look at conflict differently was that so many of the memorable moments had nothing to do with the “story” of a combat but depended instead on a good or bad random number. We wanted to change that.

With Clockwork: Empire, we wanted to build mechanics that supported a story, and gave players real options to meaningfully impact the game that depended on their plans and improvisations in the thick of things, rather than on a particular bit of math or a special rule for their character. We wanted players to make characters that can actually talk themselves out of (or into) fights. We wanted a system where thoughts and opinions mattered just as much as bullets and blades. The critical design goals we kept in mind were:

  1. One unified conflict system to cover both physical and social conflict
  2. Mechanics that let players have real control over how they chose to participate, and for their choices to matter
  3. Conflict needs to stay fluid and support storytelling
  4. No hand-waving; work on it until it works.

In the next few weeks we’ll have a series of posts to look at those design goals in more detail, social conflict in the game, and antagonists. If you have any particular questions or aspects you’d like covered in detail let us know in the comments or on the forums.