Reliquary Game Studios

Conflict in Clockwork: Empire, pt. 2

In the last design post about conflict we discussed some of the inspirations and goals we had for the conflict systems when we started building the rules for Clockwork: Empire. To recap, they 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.

With this post we want to dig into those points in more depth, particularly the first two. At first blush, those ideas look like they might fight each other, as the vast majority of rpgs out there have very deep and sometimes quite complicated systems to cover physical conflict, and handle social activities with one or two abstract tests that work or fail based on a single test. We wanted to avoid that lopsidedness to give players meaningful options to resolve (or start) conflicts in either or both areas. Also, if you build a character that’s a silver-tongued schemer they should have a chance to shine and face real challenges in their chosen arena just as much as the army officer engaged in fight against a deadly foe.

The basic test mechanics were easy enough to keep equivalent, but looking at how we would find parity between convincing someone and wounding them was a bit trickier. Early versions of the rules had physical Guard and social Guard exactly equivalent: starting Guard was calculated from a trait combination and was then worked down, and once it was down the target could be wounded (physical) or convinced/persuaded (social). Although that system worked to an extent, we saw a lot of lopsidedness when folks that were more physically focused could be quickly convinced of things, which doesn’t track to reality. So, per rule #4, we went through a lot more playtesting and refined things down to the Disposition mechanic. The fundamental rules are the same as working through Guard in physical conflict – choose a trait combination and test against the target’s social defense – but rather than having a static Guard, allowing players to set their own starting Dispositions allowed the opportunity for players to give a mechanical expression to their characters’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. With that one tweak, we were able to keep an unified approach in a way that supported roleplaying, and, moreover, gave more weight to characters’ positions and provide creative players with lots of considerations for possible conversational approaches to use in conflict that might help set better starting Dispositions. Letting characters set their starting Dispositions and requiring multiple tests to successfully convince/persuade a target also made sure that narrators weren’t robbing players of agency: it required real, concerted effort to change their minds, and on the flip-side, it would require real effort to change the minds of npcs.

Having met the goal of rule #1, we took a hard look at how those systems could give players options since the mechanics were equivalent. One problem we saw in other systems that we wanted to avoid was that characters who were more socially focused often suffer disadvantages or become sidelined when they’re involved in physical fights. As with many other problems, the answers came by looking at reality. In physical conflict situational awareness and threat assessment are critical in keeping yourself safe – keeping your Guard up – and distractions and feints can both work through your Guard and leave you vulnerable to the real heavy hitters. Feinting lets you mix a social Attribute and a physical Skill, such as Presence + Fencing, to get your opponent in a bad spot by leaving themselves exposed. Purely social attacks such as Presence + Command allow you to distract an opponent and drop their physical Guard, or even change their Disposition to surrendering. This way every character has a range of options in physical conflict and can make a difference in the outcome.

One of the greatest moments at our GenCon games came in the final scene of Idle Hands when the player running Sgt. Matheson and the one running Ms. Ramsay (both brand new players with no prior experience in Clockwork) cooperated in a series of three successive social attacks to convince one of the antagonists to surrender – even though they hadn’t yet been wounded. The parity between the systems gave people more tactical options and multiple ways to resolve the fight, and a realistic way to wrap up conflict without requiring everyone on one side or the other to wind up dead (that does tend to go poorly with the authorities, after all).

The next article will cover Clockwork: Empire’s unique initiative system and fluid play options. Until then be well and have fun, and keep an eye out for some very important announcements in the next few weeks.