Designing a Setting for Maximum Conflict (part I)

On Monday, we learned that you need conflict for a game to be interesting to play. What does this have to do with setting?  Everything.  Your characters are going to be defined by the setting, so your setting needs to help the players create conflicts.  I’ll show you how.

Tigers Fighting by Tambako the Jaguar

What would be the most boring possible setting for a roleplaying game?  Probably a utopia, a perfect society without fear, hunger, or want.  You can see this if you’ve had the misfortune to read any classic utopian literature – it’s terrible.  Why?  No conflict.  If everyone can get whatever they want, there’s no stories to tell.  Good living tends to make bad gaming.

How can you build a roleplaying game setting to have lots of juicy, interesting conflicts in which player characters can get embroiled?  Make sure the setting has plenty of hooks in it for both sides of a conflict: things the player characters will want, and forces that will make it damn difficult for the PCs to get it.

Your characters might want: stuff (coins, gems, art, magic items, alien technology, property), power (political, magical, social), love (romantic, familial, from mentor or superior), revenge (social or physical), equality, social change, to be accepted as a master in their field – anything that real people want, colored by any changes from the real world in the setting.

Something has to stop the player characters from getting the above.  You probably learned the four fundamental conflicts in English class and promptly forgot them, but it’s worth a short refresher before we go on. Since you didn’t even click the link, I’ll summarize: a character can be opposed by another character, nature, her society and culture, or herself.

Most games focus on person vs. person conflicts because these are the easiest to game and the most visceral.  Setting up a conflict where the PCs and some NPCs want the same thing (Indiana Jones and the Nazis can’t both have the Grail), or have directly opposing goals (save the village/ pillage the village).  The main difference between this sort of conflict and person vs. society conflict is that the people the PCs oppose aren’t faceless – they have their own personalities and goals.  If your PCs descend into a goblin warren and slaughter dozens of the little green monsters to stop them from attack the nearby hamlet, that’s really a conflict between the PCs and the goblin society, albeit a bloody one.  If the PCs descend into a goblin warren to stop Warleader Grubstomper from leading the attack on the village, that’s more of a person vs. person conflict, particularly if Grubstomper interacts with the players in a way other than just dropping their hit points.

Keep in mind that the players don’t give a damn about your non-player characters’ hopes and dreams unless they either help or oppose the PCs.  Harsh, but true: players are a distractible lot, and everything should focus on PCs.  No matter how interesting an NPC is, they either help the PCs, oppose the PCs, or are window dressing – more a prop than a character.

To make your setting have lots of person vs. person conflicts in particular, include groups that can produce opponents, and include interesting characters with strong goals that are likely to oppose the PC’s goals as NPCs.  Jabba the Hutt from Star Wars is an excellent character to introduce conflict, as he can work against PCs from all walks of life.  The Empire itself is a group the produces person vs. person conflict, as the various soldiers, politicians, and bureaucrats can all work against the PCs, physically or socially.

Person vs. society conflicts pit characters against social forces that threaten to crush them.  Whether it’s the rebels fighting against the empire with ion beams or civil rights protestors fighting the government for equality with speeches, person vs. society conflicts let you explore bigger social issues in a way that conflicts with other people can’t – and societies provide endless hordes of mooks for more violently geared characters to fight.

There is almost always a person vs. person conflict somewhere in a story about conflict with society, often a character that embodies the society in some way.  Winston Smith had Big Brother as the representative of Oceania, as well as his torturers and the Inner Party.  Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader are characters in Star Wars, but they also embody the values of the Empire: power, hatred, and brutality.

For more conflicts with society,  create social groups that the PCs are likely to oppose and have existing conflicts between different societies in which the PCs can take sides.  If you’re running a movie-era Star Wars game, the player characters will have to choose between the Empire or the Rebellion sooner or later.  Wars and oppressive regimes are excellent elements in any setting, as the PCs can choose sides or try to play both sides at once.

Tune in next time for the other two types of conflict, and an overview of how much conflict you should have.

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