Firefights and fairtyales: thinking about conflict resolution in design

Combat skills: opinions on their place in role-playing games vary wildly, and one’s stance is often taken (correctly or not) as an indicator of your overall attitude towards the current state of games. It’s probably the lack of overtly combat-centered mechanical systems that pegs House of Cards as what one terms a “story game,” a term with no lack of either ambiguity or baggage. It serves, however, since House of Cards descends from a paradigm that arose perhaps twenty years ago as criticism of the “kill them and take their stuff” model of gaming.

After one of the demos I ran at Gen Con last week, one of the groups stuck around to ask questions and give feedback about the game. In the sample adventure they played, the Bearers were faced with a group of minor chimerae undertaking a mysterious task. When the Bearers came into conflict with the dream-creatures, the mostly mindless beings continued about their appointed task unless directly attacked, at which point they tried to flee. Why didn’t they fight back?, one asked. I responded that it was in character for the creatures – in thrall to a Comte and bereft of volition – to act this way, but the scene puzzled the players for another reason, I think: the world of House of Cards operates on a narrative frame closer to fairy tales than other role-playing games, and combat is not considered an optimal way to deal with problems. Think of the plots of the Grimm brothers’ collected tales, and you’ll note that very rarely does violence occur outside the denouement of the story. Instead, stealth and guile are the preferred modus operandi. Jack doesn’t leap forward to put axe to the head of the sleeping giant, but rather waits and uses a cleverly indirect method: chopping down the beanstalk.

To continue the example from our demo session, one of the Bearers used the Evocation power to summon forth a weapon and face off against one of the chimerae. He swung, using a Swords card in hand, and hit; the chimerae had no Pentacles with which to defend, so the creature took the hit and discarded a card. Later, on another swing against a different creature, he again spent a Swords to attack, but the defender had a greater Swords card and so resisted the attack. What was truly accomplished, however? In the former case, the only difference in outcome was that the opponent had one fewer card, but is that really a success? When one considers that a Bearer can spend one card to inspire an entire crowd of mortals to follow a cause or search every book in the world, using that same card to deal one stroke in combat seems downright parochial in comparison.

That’s not to say that physical violence doesn’t have its place – it very often does, as part of the climax of the story. The woodsman does eventually chop open the wolf’s belly with his axe to free Riding Hood, after all. The dramatic confrontation with an ancient chimera or facing down a Comte in its stronghold at the end of a story arc provides plenty of opportunity for satisfying action. But those climactic showdowns are often more a matter of placing a precision strike at the antagonist’s plans rather than its armor; in a way, Bearers fight and triumph by wielding stories, not weapons. The creatures of dreams are perhaps more vulnerable to a satisfying epilogue than a stroke of the blade, it seems, and the Bearer who learns that lesson will never want for cards.

2 thoughts on “Firefights and fairtyales: thinking about conflict resolution in design”

  1. Hmm. Did we have two people with swords? The player with the sun was the one who compilained about the gnomes not fighting

    I’d argue that the ineffectiveness of direct combat is a weakness, not a strength. Sure, “I swing my sword” shouldn’t have the impact of, say, tricking a witch into her own cauldron, but that’s a matter of reward for adding elements to the narrative rather than doing the same thing over and over again. Also, IIRC, the descriptor for the sword suit specifically calls it out for combat and direct action; to keep swords balanced with other traits, its best that this either be expanded (are swords fire or air in the current cosmology? Don’t know if you’re using the Rider Waite or the Gardnerian meanings) to non-combat things. As it is, it seems like water is the favored card type in the current breakdown; you use it for persuasiveness, senses, and more besides.

    1. Hi, Joshua! 🙂 I think you’re right about which of you asked about the non-combative nature of the moss people. I must have conflated you in the post-Gen Con haze.

      Your points on combat are well taken. In thinking about my response, I have concluded that what I think I’m trying to avoid is not physical combat, but the paradigm of blow-by-blow combat. We take it as given in many games that it’s acceptable to, say, condense a social conflict such as an argument into one sentence: “I convince the surly guard to let me pass,” when we could be doing the same with a more direct altercation. Everway (one of my inspirations) handles this in a way that informs what I think I’m trying to do with House of Cards – in Everway, the draw from the Fortune Deck is interpreted as if one were reading the potential outcome of an action a la actual divination, not as the result of any given swing of the blade but as the answer to the question “what will happen if I fight this opponent?”.Actions in fairy tales happen in broad strokes: the prince draws his sword and slays the dragon, and the narrative moves forward; I want to encourage the same sort of thing here, for both the sake of keeping combat and non-combat actions on a more level field, and for nudging players to think of the most creative and efficient ways to use their limited resources.

      As for suit correspondences, I try not to adhere to one specific dogma in the text; House of Cards takes pains to remind readers that it is not esoterica. 😀 I have Wands tied to fire, as that seems to be the general consensus amongst the more knowledgeable people I’ve spoken with. Swords does have other connotations in the game besides physical combat (such as interacting with nobility or solving intellectual puzzles), but that’s the one that will stick with players most readily. If you’ll pardon the pun, the associations cut both ways: one example in the section discussing suits and actions relates how a character might normally use Cups for a social interaction, but in attempting to ingratiate themselves with a group of military types, Swords could cover regaling them with war stories or appearing seasoned and intimidating. This is always subject to the veto of the other players at the table, but is an option.

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