You use conflict when two people (two characters or two players) want something different to happen and you need to figure out who gets their way. Your cards, character talents and story-tokens help you win conflicts; the winner gets to decide how things turn out. Each conflict should include at least one protagonist. The opposition is usually played by the GM, though protagonist vs. protagonist conflicts are also possible.
Simple conflicts are resolved with one round of card play, using the following steps:
- Set Stakes: The participants choose their desired outcomes for the conflict.
- Play Cards: All participants play cards face down.
- Set Bonuses: Use talents and story-tokens to increase card values.
- Reveal Cards: Reveal cards, with higher card values beating lower values.
- Narrate: The losers and winners narrate the results of the conflict.
When you participate in a conflict, you must decide what you want to happen if you win. This is your stake in the conflict. In a two-person conflict, stakes must be opposing. In a conflict between cops and robbers, the robber may want to steal money from a store and the cops may want to capture the robbers. The winner of the conflict gets his stakes and the loser does not.
The stakes for the conflict should resolve the entire situation for the current scene. You should not break down a situation into lots of little conflicts, each with separate card-play. Don't play this way:
- First the robber has a conflict to sneak past the cops.
- Next the robber has a conflict to quietly open the door to the shop.
- Next the robber has a conflict to open the safe and get the money.
- And so forth.
It's much better to resolve the entire situation with a single conflict. Everything else is details that come out during narration.
Multiple Stakes: More complex conflicts may have multiple sides, some opposing and others allied. In a three-way conflict involving cops, robbers and the storeowner, the cops may want to capture the robbers, the robbers to get away with the money and the storeowner to protect the store. The robbers' stakes oppose the cops and the storeowner, but cops' and storeowner's stakes are compatible. The end result of the conflict depends on who beats whom:
- If the cops and the storeowner both beat the robbers, the robbers are captured and the store is saved.
- If the robbers beat both the storeowner and the cops, the robbers get away with the store's money.
- If the storeowner beats the robbers but the robbers beat the cops, the store is saved but the robbers get away.
- If the cops beat the robbers but the robbers beat the storeowner, perhaps the robbers trash the store but are then captured. Alternately, the robbers manage to get the money to their getaway car, which escapes, but the rest of the robbers are captured.
If it isn't clear what will happen if various participants win or lose, you may want to clarify the stakes before the conflict begins. If the results are still ambiguous at the end of the conflict, the participant with the highest card value decides how things work out.
Allied Stakes: Some allies may have very similar stakes. For example, the government agents Diana and Kit may both want to capture some criminals. If Diana's result is better than Kit's, she has a more positive result than Kit:
- If the criminals have the lowest result and are captured, Diana would be more responsible for the capture than Kit.
- If the criminals have the highest result and get away, it would be due more to Kit's mistakes than Diana's.
- If Diana beat the criminals and the criminals beat Kit, perhaps Diana captures the criminals but Kit does not contribute. Alternately, Diana could capture one criminal but Kit lets another criminal get away.
It is usually better for allies to have different but compatible stakes to make the conflict more interesting. For example, Diana's stake could be "capture the criminals" and Kit's stake could be "keep the criminals from shooting anyone". This way, different things happen depending on who wins and loses. If Diana wins, the criminals are captured but could still shoot someone. If Kit wins, nobody is shot but the criminals can still get away.
GM Stakes: The players' stakes generally represent the goals of their protagonists. The GM stakes can be more abstract. If the heroes are trying to disarm a bomb, the GM stakes could be that the bomb explodes. The GM can define any set of stakes necessary to provide opposition to the protagonists' goals.
The GM may have multiple stakes for different NPCs (or groups of NPCs) who oppose player goals. The GM may never more stakes than the number of players participating in the conflict. If there are more NPCs than players, some of them should be organized into groups with a common goal. A single GM stake may be opposed by multiple protagonists, possibly each with a slightly different emphasis.
If there are multiple GM stakes, each player must chose one opponent and set stakes accordingly. Any unopposed stakes succeed automatically, so it is generally in the players' interest to arrange for someone to oppose each GM stake. Similarly, if there are multiple protagonist goals, the GM should define opposing goals appropriately, so that each protagonist is opposed by no more than one stake.
Cards, Bonuses and Winning
Participants in conflict play cards face down. Before the cards are revealed, you may use talents and story-tokens to add bonuses to card values. Simply put your story-token or talent-marker on top of the card you want to add the bonus to. There can be multiple tokens on the same card. There is limit to the number of bonuses you can use:
- Players can only use one talent but may use any number of story-tokens.
- In a simple conflict, the GM may use at most 1 story-token plus an extra token per player participating in the conflict. In a 2-player conflict, the GM can use no more than 3 story-tokens.
Bonuses can be applied to any card in play. To add a talent-bonus to another person's card, your protagonist must be in a position to help the other character and your talent should be relevant to the situation. You can always add story-tokens to another person's card, even if your character isn't present. Other players may ask you for help, but cannot reveal what their actual card value is.
Once everyone has set down cards, markers and tokens, you reveal the cards and determine the winner. The highest card value wins, with each story-token and talent-marker adding +3 to a card's value. In a multi-way conflict, the highest total does the best, the lowest total the worst and other values fall in between. More specifically, higher card values win Narration Rights over lower card values. Narration Rights are discussed in more detail in the previous chapter.
Large Conflicts: In large conflicts with multiple GM stakes, each protagonist has a specific opponent. Winner and losers can be determined just by comparing direct opponents.
Story Tokens: Story tokens spent by the GM go into the pool. Story tokens spent by the players for bonuses only go to the GM if the player's card color matches the GM's card color (Jokers match any color); otherwise they go out of play. In large conflicts, compare the player's card color to her immediate opponent to determine whether the card goes to the GM.
Once cards are revealed, you must narrate the results. Each participant gets a chance to narrate, but the loser's narration cannot contradict the winner's victory. Generally losers narrate before winners, but you can vary this order if it makes more sense to do it another way.
Both losers and winners may narrate. The loser may narrate his own defeat to put a better spin on his failure. Winners narrate their part of the conflict's outcome, either building on the loser's narration or narrating the entire outcome if the loser chooses not to narrate. The winners have Narration Rights over the losers for this particular conflict.
In complex conflicts with multiple stakes, some participants may be both winners and losers, getting some but not all of their stakes. You should negotiate the exact outcome of how the stakes work out based on the order of card totals. This tends to flow naturally from Narration Rights.
There are limits to what you can narrate, even for the victors. Your narration must be consistent with your stakes. You cannot narrate a result that is outside the scope of the current conflict and is a significant addition to your original stakes. That would require another conflict and possibly an entirely new scene.
The following examples illustrate how the conflict rules should be used in play.
A Simple Conflict
Bob's character Kit has been casually flirting with his co-worker Amanda, played by the GM. Kit screws up the courage to ask Amanda out on a date. Bob and the GM role-play out the interaction for a bit and then play cards to see what happens. Bob wants the date to happen and plays a 10 from his hand. The GM doesn't have anything particular in mind and plays a card randomly from the top of the deck, which turns out to be a Queen. The GM wins.
Bob declines to narrate for Kit. The GM describes how Amanda politely refuses, telling Kit she already has a boyfriend. Kit is crushed.
A Conflict with Bonuses
Susan's character Diana needs the personnel records of a suspect she is investigating, but can't get a warrant. The situation is urgent enough that she decides to steal the information. Susan and the GM role-play Diana's entry into the facility up to the point where she nears the record office. At this point, the GM calls for a conflict. The GM sets stakes that security guards will find Diana and capture her. Susan sets stakes for Diana to evade the guards, get the records and escape.
The GM lays down a card and a story-token, saying that the guards are especially alert. Susan uses Diana's "clever investigator" talent, laying down a card from her hand and a talent-marker for the bonus. She considers adding an additional story-token, but decides against it. Susan reveals a Jack for a total of 11 + 3 = 14 and the GM reveals a 5 for a total of 5 + 3 = 8.
It may seem strange that the GM's card was so low after spending a story-token. Maybe the GM had a crummy hand or maybe the GM wanted the conflict to seem tough to tease out some high cards or tokens from Susan. This kind of bluffing is important to the game. Players can bluff too.
The GM narrates first, describing the guards coming around the corner, with flashlights sweeping. Susan narrates Diana cleverly keeping to the areas that they had already checked and sneaking behind them into the office. This narration is consistent with the "clever investigator" talent she used to win the conflict.
The story-token spent by the GM goes into the pool. Diana keeps her talent-marker for future conflicts, but checks off one use of the "clever investigator" talent. This also counts towards her 6-use limit of talents in this game session.
A Multi-Way Conflict
Agents Diana (played by Susan) and Kit (played by Bob) are arguing with their deputy director (played by the GM) about whether they can continue an investigation. The director wants them to drop the investigation, because it has become a political hot potato. Diana and Kit want the investigation to continue, but Kit thinks he should head the investigation while Diana thinks she should be in charge.
The GM and the players make their arguments on behalf of their characters. After they have all had a chance to put their ideas forward, they decide to use conflict to resolve the question. All three lay down cards. The GM plays a 5, Bob a 9 and Susan a King.
- The GM describes the director grudgingly giving up and saying, "You'd better not mess this up or there will be hell to pay".
- Bob describes Kit thanking the director saying, "You won't regret this, Sir. It's a vital issue of national security".
- Susan has the director says "You are a loose cannon, Kit. There is no way I am leaving this in your hands. Diana, this is your investigation. At least you have a level head about these things."
Susan can speak for the director after winning the conflict because he is an NPC. Susan has more Narration Rights than the GM in this situation and may narrate actions for that NPC consistent with her victory. Because she also beat Bob, she can narrate actions that adversely effect Bob as well.
The extended conflict rules are for large and complex conflicts, most particularly for combat. Extended conflict is resolved in a series of rounds, with each round resembling a simple conflict. Participants who win more rounds than their opponents win in the entire extended conflict.
The steps in an extended conflict are:
- Set Stakes: As with simple conflicts, but stakes apply to the entire extended conflict.
- Each protagonist must choose one opponent for the conflict.
- You should also decide on the length of the conflict (typically 3 rounds).
- Play Rounds: Each round plays out like a simple conflict.
- Play Cards, Set Bonuses and Reveal Cards as in simple conflicts.
- Narrate Round: Narrate the action for each round, from low value to high value.
- Keep Victory Cards: If you beat your opponent, add your card to your victory pile.
- End Conflict: The conflict ends after the designated number of rounds.
- Determine Final Victory: Compare the final sets of victory cards.
- By Largest Set: Sets with more cards beat sets with fewer cards.
- By Highest Value: Break ties by comparing highest card-values in sets.
- Each participant may give one victory card to someone else, changing the totals.
- Final Narration: Losers and winners narrate the final outcome of the conflict.
If you have 4 or more players in an extended conflict, you may want to split the conflict up into sub-conflicts, discussed later in this chapter in the section on "Managing Large Conflicts".
Extended conflict stakes are always multi-way and complex. Stakes are set as for simple conflicts, but apply to the entire conflict. Each round, conflict participants can work towards their goal, but they cannot conclusively win or lose their stake until the end of the conflict. Since there are likely to be multiple NPCs and GM stakes in the conflict, each protagonist must choose an opponent for the conflict.
Extended conflicts typically last 3 rounds, though especially important or climactic conflicts may last longer. If you beat your opponent in a round of conflict, you track your progress by adding the card you played for that round to a victory pile. If you have more cards in your victory pile at the end of the conflict than your opponent, you win.
GM Stakes: In extended conflicts, the GM usually has more than one set of stake, generally representing the goals of the characters opposing the protagonists. The GM stakes can win and lose independently of each other. The GM's stakes cannot oppose each other; they must oppose the protagonists. Each protagonist may only oppose one of the GM's stakes, though several different protagonists may cooperate against a single opponent.
The GM may not have more stakes than the number of participating players. If there are more opposing NPCs than there are protagonists, some of them should be put into groups with a common stake. A conflict in an action-heavy story might involve several "named" villains and one or two groups of lesser minions. The GM may have fewer stakes than the number of protagonists (though less than half as many is a bad idea).
Some NPCs may be bystanders, present but not actively involved the current conflict. You don't play cards for bystanders, but you can describe their actions as part of your narrations.
Each round of an extended conflict is like a mini-conflict. Participants play cards, add bonuses and narrate for the round. Participants with higher card-values do better than those with lower-card values. Each round, the participants should narrate the characters working toward (or failing to work toward) their stakes based on their card totals, but the final outcome cannot be determined until the end of the conflict.
Bonus Limits: Each round, the players can use one talent bonus and any number of story-tokens, as if each round were a simple conflict. For the length of the extended conflict, the GM may use 2 tokens plus 2 per participating player (twice as many as simple conflicts). In a 4-player extended conflict, the GM can use a total of 10 story-tokens spread out over the 3 rounds. If the conflict lasts longer than 3 rounds, add 2 tokens to this limit per extra round.
If the GM starts the conflict with fewer tokens than his limit, he is limited to the number of tokens he started with, because tokens gained from the players during the conflict go to the bank. The GM may choose to use fewer tokens than his limit, especially in early conflicts.
Winners and Losers: Each round is broken up into winners and losers. Protagonists win if they beat their opponent. The GM's stakes win if they beat any of the opposing protagonists. Each winner adds her card to her victory pile for determining final victory. The losers discard their cards. If the GM has multiple stakes, they win and lose each round independently of each other and have their own victory piles.
After the round, story-tokens and trait-markers are removed and no longer affect card values. GM story-tokens go to the pool. Player story-tokens go to the bank (if their card color matches their opponent) or out-of-play (if their card color does not match their opponent). In future rounds, you play new cards on top of your victory pile, so that the top card is always your card for the current round. Victory cards from previous rounds have no effect on winning the current round; only the current card does.
After the designated number of rounds, the conflict ends. Skip the round narration and go straight to the final narration of the conflict's outcome. The final winners are determined by comparing the value of each set of victory cards. A set with more cards beats a set with fewer cards. If sets have the same number of cards, the high card-values in each set determines the winner.
You cannot use story-tokens and talents for bonuses during the final narration. Use only unmodified card values. Like multi-way simple conflicts, extended conflicts will have multiple winners and losers and different participants will get different parts of their stakes depending on who the beat and are beaten by in the final victory.
Before final narration, each participant may give one (and only one) of his victory cards to another participant. This lets you sacrifice some of your success to help someone else. If you give away a card, you must indicate in your narration how you are helping that other person. You can only give away one victory card, and only your own cards, not one given to you by someone else. Once you have narrated your outcome, you may no longer give away victory cards.
Example Extended Conflict
The government agents Kit, Diana and Jason have cornered Vinny the snitch and are interrogating him in a bar. Suddenly, Riso and his squad of 4 goons burst in, guns blazing. The GM suggests this be an extended conflict, since there is a lot going on.
The GM declares separate stakes for Riso and his goons.
- Riso wants to gun down Vinny and then get away.
- The goons want to protect Riso and rough up the agents.
The players declare stakes that oppose the GM's characters:
- Kit wants to capture Riso.
- Jason wants to keep Vinny safe and not let him get away.
- Diana wants to protect the bar patrons and take down the goons.
Everyone agrees Kit and Jason are opposing Riso and Diana is opposing the goons. Vinny is a bystander in this fight, has no stakes and plays no cards. The same is true for the bar patrons.
In the first round, everyone plays conservatively, saving tokens and traits for later rounds. The GM plays randomly for the goons (they are mostly cannon fodder) but uses cards from his hand for Riso. Diana's player uses a low card to be in a better position in later rounds. The cards played are:
The goons got a lucky draw this round. Kit, the goons and Riso win this round and keep their cards as victory cards. Jason's and Diana's players discard their cards. The narration for this round goes from lowest to highest card values:
- Diana warns the patrons to get down and draws her gun.
- Jason pulls Vinny under the agent's table.
- Riso opens up with his pistol, blowing some holes in the table.
- The goons move forward to grab Vinny.
- Kit charges past the goons, knocking them aside to get at Riso.
Everyone plays new cards face down on top of victory cards left from the previous round. Things don't look so good for our heroes, so Diana's and Jason's players both put down talent-markers for bonuses. The GM adds a story-token for Riso. Kit's player also adds a story-token to his card. After the story-tokens and talent-markers have been set down, the cards are revealed:
This time the goons got a terrible draw and Jason's player used the best card from his hand and it still wasn't enough; they both discard. Kit's Ace of Hearts (plus token) beats Riso's Ace of Clubs (plus token) by suit, so Kit keeps his card. Riso's card beat Jason's, so Riso keeps his card as well. Diana also keeps her card. The narration, from lowest to highest, is:
- Two of the goons try to shove Kit back to protect Riso, while two more flip down the table where Jason and Vinny are hiding.
- Jason pushes Vinny towards the kitchen, trying to get both of them away.
- Diana pistol whips a goon, knocking him to the ground bleeding.
- Riso takes a shot at Vinny, spraying chips of wood from the wall from the near-miss.
- Kit decks one of the goons, then lunges forward to grab Riso.
Markers and Tokens: Diana's and Jason's talent-markers are removed, but the players keep them to mark further talent use later in the conflict. The GM's story-token goes to the pool. Since Kit's card color (red) doesn't match his opponent's color (black), his story-token goes out of play. Kit's players gives Diana's player a story-token for the cool pistol-whipping description.
Everyone plays their final cards face down on their victory piles. Jason's player really wants at least one victory before the end of the fight and lays down both a story-token and talent-marker. The players for Kit and Diana both lay down one token each (a talent-marker and story-token, respectively). The GM lays down 2 story-tokens for Riso, none for the goons. Kit's player would love to lay down another story-token, but hasn't got any. The cards are revealed:
Riso's two tokens plus his 9 totals 15, which is more than Kit (13), but less that Jason's total (16). This means Jason, Riso and Diana win this round. Since this is the last round of conflict, normal round narration is skipped and the players go to final narration instead. The losers discard their cards and tokens are removed before determining the final winners. The remaining cards are:
Before final narration, the victory cards are:
- Jason - 10
- Goons - King
- Diana - Jack, Jack
- Kit - Joker, Ace
- Riso - Queen, Ace, 9
Jason's player decides he has no chance of beating Riso and gives his 10 to Kit's player (Joker, Ace, 10). Kit is now winning. Jason's player narrates that a flying wood chip cuts Jason above the eye. The dripping blood temporarily blinds him and he loses hold of Vinny.
The GM takes the King from the goons and gives it to Riso, so that Riso is again winning (Queen, Ace, 9, King). He narrates the two remaining goons rushing at Diana, expecting her to narrate their defeat.
Diana's player can safely give her Ace to Kit and still be beating the (now cardless) goons. This puts Kit over the top (Joker, Jack, 10, Ace). She narrates kicking one of the goons in the stomach, taking him out. She then covers the remaining goon with her pistol while crying out a warning to Kit.
Riso is no longer winning completely, but he did beat Jason, who was protecting Vinny. The GM narrates that Riso steps out into the open and shoots Vinny in the chest. Vinny slumps to the ground.
Kit's player narrates his agent tackling Riso to the ground so that Riso's gun spins out of his hand. Kit points his own gun at Riso's face. "You just gunned down a man in front of three FBI agents," Kit says. "Bad move."
Tokens: The GM's two story-tokens go to the pool. Since their card colors matched their respective opponents, Jason's and Diana's story-tokens go to the bank. The players award each other tokens, with Jason getting a token for his clever "wood cut" narration and Kit for his gritty dialog. The GM takes all his tokens out of the bank for use in later conflicts.
Extended Conflict, Alternate Ending
Suppose the previous conflict played out differently, with Jason asking his allies to help him instead of Kit.
Victory Cards: Before final narration, the victory cards are:
- Jason - 10
- Goons - King
- Diana - Jack, Jack
- Kit - Joker, Ace
- Riso - Queen, Ace, 9
Final Narration: Jason's player decides he wants to try to keep Vinny intact. He narrates a flying wood chip cutting Jason's face and the dripping blood blinding him. He then describes Riso aiming directly at Jason's chest to increase the dramatic tension. Jason's player keeps his card and asks the other players for help.
Diana's player gives her Jack to Jason (10, Jack). The Jack she kept is no longer enough to beat the goons. She narrates kicking one in the knee to knock him down but the remaining goon pushing her into the bar, knocking glasses to the ground. As she slumps down, she calls out a warning to Kit, to protect Jason for Riso's gun fire.
The GM lets the goons keep their King. He hasn't got much to add to Diana's narration, so he says that last goon standing helps the conscious goon get to his feet.
Kit's player gives his Joker to Jason (10, Jack, Joker). Since his cards are no longer good enough to beat Riso, he narrates tackling Riso and pushing his gun arm out of the way. This is enough to save Jason without necessarily "beating" Riso. Kit's player adds that he delays Riso long enough for Jason to recover and pull Vinny into the back of the bar.
Riso's cards are good enough to beat Kit and avoid capture, but no longer good enough to beat Jason and shoot Vinny. The GM narrates that Riso elbows Kit in the face, knocking him down, but seeing that Vinny is gone and half his goons are down, he runs out of the bar with his two conscious goons and gets away. This leaves our heroes with the two unconscious goons and Vinny.
In the end, Jason is the overall winner, but he could easily have been shot without help from his friends. He gives Kit's player a story-token as a reward for saving Jason. He would like to reward Diana's player as well, but can't because he can only give away one token per round. Diana's player doesn't mind, because she already got a story-token earlier in the conflict.
How to pass victory cards: These examples describes the players passing as they narrate, but you don't have to play that way. You may find it easier to allocate victory cards before narration, especially if the players have decisions to make about how the conflict resolves. In this example conflict, the final victory cards let the agents capture Riso or save Vinny, but not both.
Additional Conflict Rules
The following rules are optional but can make conflicts more interesting and easier to manage.
Managing Large Conflicts
The extended conflict rules can be difficult to manage as the number of participants grow. Here are some suggestions to make things easier.
NPC Stake Note-Cards: If the GM has many participants and stakes in a conflict, it can be hard to keep track of them all. You can make it easier by noting down NPC stakes on a note-card to represent that NPC. You can then play cards on top of that note-card to make it clear which cards are for which NPC.
Narration Rotation: Narrating from lowest to highest value can be confusing when you have many stakes in a conflict. It may be easier simply to go around the table for narration. Each player can narrate in turn, with the GM interjecting narrations for the opposing NPC based on whether each protagonist is winning and losing. If you use this approach, alternate between clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation so that players are not always narrating in the same order.
As always, you can vary narration order in whatever way makes sense, so long the narrations have the winners winning and the losers losing.
In an extended conflict, you cannot defeat the opposition until the end of the conflict. This generally means that the main villain cannot be eliminated until the end of the fight. The same is true of the protagonists.
The GM may include a group of minor enemies as part of the conflict. These characters are called "mooks" in Kung Fu action movies. The mooks generally operate as a group, with one stake for all the mooks rather than individual stakes for each mook. Unlike the main villain (who has an individual stake), some mooks can be taken out in the middle of the fight, provide that (a) the player taking out the mook has higher card value for this round and (b) enough mooks remain so that they can still plausibly achieve their goal.
In high-action stories, the GM may even include mooks without any stake at all in the conflict. These mooks are just bystanders and can be taken out even if the player got the lowest card total in a round. This way, the heroes always having something exciting and heroic to do during the player's narration.
Hand of Fate
If you and your opponent are exactly tied in a conflict (same card value and suit), something especially dramatic happens. Play an additional random card from the deck to determine who wins; talent and story tokens are ignored for this tie-breaker. The winner enjoys an especially dramatic victory, beyond their normal stakes. The loser suffers a spectacular setback, worse than expected.
In an extended conflict, if you suffer from the Hand of Fate in a round and lose the tie-breaker, you are eliminated from the conflict. You lose your stakes immediately. Your character and all your victory cards are removed from the conflict. This generally means you are badly hurt and cannot continue to fight.
Alternately, you can choose to stay in the fight. You only lose the current round. Your character is seriously harmed instead of eliminated, but you struggle on. This is risky. If you lose to the Hand of Fate a second time in the same conflict, you are destroyed. You character must be permanently disabled, killed or ruined, depending on the nature of the conflict.
If your character is destroyed, you keep all your victory cards and story-tokens. For the rest of the fight, you can spend tokens to help other players. At the end of the fight, you may give your victory cards to other players, describing how your character's sacrifice helped your allies triumph. You may give away all your cards either to a single player or split among multiple players. If you have no victory cards, you can give one random card to another player. Furthermore, you may get another player character to adopt your stakes, so that even though your character is gone, your goals are still met by your allies.
The Hand of Fate is rare; you can play an entire game session and never see it happen. If you want to play a more lethal game, you can invoke the hand of fate any time you tie in card value, ignoring suit. This is appropriate for settings that are especially dangerous such as war-stories. If you use this option, be prepared to suffer disasters regularly.