Role-playing design notes

Random notes on the design of Gods & Monsters, and maybe even Men & Supermen if I can remember what I was drinking when I wrote it.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Conflicts and Contests

Jerry Stratton, January 4, 2013

John Wayne in Conflict: Jean Rogers, John Wayne, and Ward Bond in a publicity still for the Universal movie Conflict.; John Wayne

John Wayne looks a little like Edward Norton here.

Now that I’ve got the final version of Gods & Monsters almost ready, I want to talk about two rules that aren’t in it. I never got a chance to play test these in our current game but I think they’re an interesting idea. These rules make conflicts and contests interchangeable. It’s something I’ve had in mind ever since I separated verve from survival. Because of that change, warriors will not automatically be better than sorcerors at chess, for example, if it’s handled as a conflict.

You can see examples of this idea in rudimentary form in some of the other rules, such as ailments and falling.

A conflict can always be switched to a contest; a contest can only be switched to a conflict once, and not after the contest has been lost. Only player characters can request a switch.

Beat conflicts into contests

At any point in a conflict, a player character can choose to turn their conflict into a contest. If they fail, they lose the conflict and their opponent wins. They are captured, and in the next scene they’re in prison, tied to a spit, or in a sailing ship on the way to America.

They will also be injured, most likely, and will take damage, just as with any contest involving weapons. If their opponent(s) have more than one attack form that they use regularly, add them all together. For example, a dragon that does 2d6 points with claws and 5d8 with breath will cause 2d6+5d8 points damage. Seven of those points will be injuries, and the rest will come from survival.

In contests, the roll is against an ability, with field bonuses and situational modifiers. Usually, combat contests will be against strength, with either agility or endurance as a major contributor and the other as a minor contributor. Each side rolls until one side loses at the same time that another side wins. Then the contest is over, and the losing side has lost the contest. Contests are all or nothing; once a contest has been resolved, there is no backing out.

When handling combat encounters as a contest, a good rule of thumb is that combat is a Very Difficult action. In a fight, the losing side is either semi-conscious or captured or, for non-player characters, routed and afraid to return. Player characters will only be captured or semi-conscious. Semiconscious characters cannot initiate any action except movement. Whether the loser is captured or not is up to the Adventure Guide, and will generally depend on whether the victor would want to capture the loser or not.

Very rarely, depending on the game, the victor may want to leave the loser for dead. A killing attack will only ever be made once. Characters do not know protagonists, and they don’t know the increased chances of survival for protagonists. So, for example, if a goblin army defeats the player characters and leaves them for dead, they’re likely to just leave them for dead. But even if they decide to slash the characters’ throats, they’ll do it once, not enough times to exceed a character’s survival. In that example, the losers are likely to take 1d6 points with a minimum of one injury for losing the contest; and then 1d6 for the killing attack, with one to three of those points as injuries. The losers aren’t likely to be in good shape, but if they’re at least third level they also aren’t likely to be dead.

Experience is awarded for creatures defeated or routed using conflict, not contests. Contests might, however, count as an engagement.

Draw contests into conflicts

The other side of turning conflicts into contests is turning contests into conflicts. This is a swords and sorcery game, not a chess and poker game. The rules assume that you will use conflicts for combat—both physical and supernatural—and contests for everything else. However, sometimes you may want to take advantage of your position in the story for these other activities. You can do so. You can choose to resolve combat as a contest, or choose to resolve a chess game as a conflict. The rules are the same.

Like the previous rule, only player characters may switch from a contest to a conflict. They must have a relevant field and skill in order to handle what would normally be a contest as a conflict instead.

In conflicts, the roll is against 11, with skill bonuses, situational modifiers, and possibly one or two abilities as major and/or minor contributors. As a rule of thumb, if you want to correspond “physical” abilities with “mental” abilities, you can use:

StrengthCharismaAttack and Damage
EnduranceWisdomStaying Power, Stamina

But remember that both Endurance and Agility have mental components. Endurance, after all, remains the major contributor to Survival regardless of what the conflict is.

In conflicts, each side has the opportunity to reduce their opponent's survival. Verve counts toward survival as long as this is an archetypal activity. Players always have the opportunity to attempt to remove their character from the conflict as long as their character is conscious.

Unless the character has some sort of weapon appropriate to the conflict, damage is going to be d3, perhaps modified as a major contributor by one of the character’s abilities—the equivalent of strength in this conflict. The same ability will grant an attack bonus as a minor contributor. (In some cases, you may choose to use a different ability for attack than for damage, similar to thrown attacks in physical conflicts.)

If a conflict maneuver makes sense, the character can use it, translated to the particular conflict taking place.

Survival point losses can be taken from verve if this is an archetypal action. Otherwise they go to the character’s survival or add to the character’s injuries if the character has no survival left. Characters must make the standard rolls for unconsciousness and dying if they gain injuries.

Most non-player characters will concede any conflict that is easy to exit, if they are about to gain injuries.

Different conflicts will have rounds of different lengths, depending on the base time for the contest. A good rule of thumb will probably be, divide the base time for the contest by four, for the length of a round.

Everything in a conflict fights back

If you want to take advantage of your survival, you need to engage in conflict, but everything in a conflict fights back. If you are trying to bend bars or break through a wall, you will normally want to use a contest: make a strength roll. But if you wish, you can engage the bars or the wall in a conflict. This means that your character will run the risk of injury when bending the bars or breaking the wall, but it also means that you can wear away the bars or wall rather than rely on a single roll.

It is up to the Adventure Guide how much survival is involved in what would otherwise have been an uncontested contest, such as bending the bars of a jail cell or jumping across a chasm. The character’s “opponent” in such a case will have some base survival increased according to the obstacle size. Jumping a chasm, for example, the chasm will probably have ten survival times an obstacle size based on one yard. An iron bar probably has d10 survival per obstacle size, with the obstacle sized based on the thickness of the bars in inches.1

The “world” in uncontested conflicts will usually attack with no bonuses or penalties. It will do damage depending on what is being attacked; in the case of bending hard iron bars, the bars will probably do about d8 points damage, whereas a paper barrier might do just d2 points damage. The chasm will probably do d6 points damage.

Verve for the verveless

Non-player characters who do not have verve gain temporary verve per challenge. This verve may only be used strictly for the field that rules the conflict on their end. It is 1d10 for every level they have in the field. For example, a chess player with Logical Science+3 will get 3d10 verve for use in a logical contest. This verve disappears after the challenge is done, and is not recorded; if the NPC needs verve again, it is rerolled.

Conflict pool

When engaging in a conflict that would normally be a contest, the combatants can use their field level and bonuses in a conflict pool just like warriors can use their warrior level and attack bonuses in their combat pool. They can adjust the pool between attack, defense, multiple attacks, and anything else that makes sense in the context of the conflict.


You may be looking at this and thinking that this means your high level character could challenge a chess master to a chess conflict and win, even though your character would have no chance in a chess contest. That’s true. In that sense it’s a lot like the movies—if you care enough about this particular conflict, you can draw upon great reserves, past experience, and secret knowledge, to win the conflict.

In a conflict you aren’t always following the exact rules of the game, and you are engaging in psychological warfare, street techniques, whatever it takes to win. There might even be a musical montage as you pre-actively train for the conflict.

But remember that the chess master has skill bonuses that your character doesn't. That conflict will reduce your survival points, even if you win the match. This will affect later conflicts. If you choose to treat a chess game as a conflict, this will decrease your ability to survive a sword fight later.

You might also be looking at this and thinking, “but this means that if I challenge a rhinoceros to a poker conflict, the rhinoceros might beat me at a card game.” That’s true: it might. The short answer is, don’t challenge a brute to a poker conflict. The long answer is, in a conflict sometimes you have to let the Wookie win.

And yes, using this system you can die from a chess game. There’s a reason that games at the highest levels of play often end in a concession. Like a conflicted marriage, they will otherwise end in death.

  1. This is something that would probably be further codified with playtesting.

  1. <- Falling down
  2. Lulu, Nisus, and Me ->