|The Big Model|
Imagine that you are playing a game, a very ordinary RPG, nothing special or fancy about it. You have a character and this character has a big sword. There is a wooden pole set in the ground in front of the character. You say that your character swings his sword to cut that pole. We will assume for purposes of this explanation that this is, in-universe, physically possible for the character to do.
Now we split into two possible approaches to this situation.
Task Resolution: Always, forever, no matter what, you must roll or apply a given game mechanic of any kind to see whether the character cuts the pole successfully. Or perhaps this "always" exists in vague range of difficulty as judged by the GM, but still, inside that range, the mechanic must be applied.
You consider whether cutting this pole is opposed by any other character or character-equivalent. Does any current action or pre-established action (even in the GM's notes) act as an opponent to this action? Does the timing of this action play a relevant part in some other circumstances in play? If yes, then you apply the relevant mechanic. If no, then you don't, and the character simply cuts the pole.
The first is task resolution. Tasks are resolved (mechanically) in the presence or absence of conflicts. A given conflict is resolved only if the cumulative tasks involved finally and eventually add up to its resolution, and this is an opportunistic outcome.
The second is conflict resolution. Tasks are only mechanically interesting (i.e. mechanically resolved) insofar as they are relevant to an existing conflict of interest, and that conflict of interest will be resolved through the application of the mechanics, no matter what tasks are or are not involved inside it.
The difference is enormous. It is not trivial, and there is no spectrum between these approaches to play and to rules. This is a binary and real distinction that applies to any role-playing rules ever written and played. All of the above statements that "it makes no difference" or that "once you learn it you can forget it" are false.
It has nothing to do with the scale of the resolution, i.e., how much time or effort or how many tasks are involved. It has nothing to do with whether the potential results are pre-stated ("stakes") or emergent.
In the game Sorcerer, once the dice begin to roll, whatever problem or confrontation was in play will come to some kind of relevant outcome, and that problem or confrontation will at the very least undergo a profound change. This is what the dice are for. The various actions inside that conflict are not trivial, but they are not considered units of mechanics usage. Or to put it a little differently, this is why you do not roll dice in Sorcerer when your character decides to fire a bullet into a tree for fun when he rides by it.
Many people have arrived at conflict resolution in practice when using task resolution rules, simply because they informally avoid using the system unless a conflict of interest is involved. This is a serious change from the written rules to the in-play (real) rules, for that group. The fact that they do not realize they are doing it, or if they do, they merely call it "playing right," does not mean the change is not real.
Here is one example: the character is cutting the pole with his sword, because this pole is part of a magic ritual that desecrated the grave of a saint. Because of this desecration, the graveyard’s occupants have become ghouls, who attack and devour the living. The character is cutting the pole to disrupt the magic ritual and to restore the power of the saint over the graveyard. It also so happens that a number of these ghouls are charging at the character.
This is why timing becomes important. Cutting the pole is a single action, but it matters very much whether the character can cut it before the ghouls reach him. It also might matter if he can still cut it after one or more of them reach him.
Here is another example: several characters are struggling in a cabin at night, lit by a lantern on a table. Let’s say … Rebecca is trying to stab Joseph, Joseph is trying to leave the cabin, Samuel is trying to shoot Harriet, and Harriet is trying to knock over the lantern. Let’s focus on Harriet – her goal is actually to help Joseph by reducing Rebecca’s ability to see him.
In this case, timing is absolutely crucial. If Harriet can knock over the lantern before Rebecca can try to stab Joseph, then Joseph has a better chance to escape. But if Rebecca is faster, or if Samuel is faster, then her attempt to knock over the lantern might be stopped.
In both examples, the action in question is very simple: to cut a pole, or to knock over a lantern. If we were to stay too focused on the single action, then the game system might not be able to handle the consequences in the conflict in a meaningful way. (In fact, I suggest that only a small minority of role-playing games have a system capable of handling the above situations in a fun way, without GM intervention.) But if the game uses conflict resolution instead, then the above situations can indeed be resolved, whether by encompassing the details in a big narration (Primetime Adventures, Dust Devils) or by including timing as a dynamic mechanic for smaller-scale actions (Sorcerer).
This is why I included the concept of timing, which is to say, the relevance of the single action within a context of numerous other actions. I hope it makes sense.
A Technique in which the mechanisms of play focus on conflicts of interest, rather than on the component tasks within that conflict. When using this Technique, inanimate objects are conceived to have "interests" at odds with the character, if necessary. Contrast with Task resolution.