Designing a Setting for Maximum Conflict (part II)

Earlier, we talked about the importance of conflict and two types of conflict for your setting.  Now for the other kinds of conflict: person vs. nature, and person vs. self.

Person vs. nature conflicts are a staple of roleplaying games.  Think of all the traps you’ve defused, all the rocks that have dropped on you, and all the trackless deserts you’ve crossed.  “Nature” doesn’t have to mean “outdoors” either – whenever a character finds it harder to get what he wants because of a thing not a person, that’s a conflict with nature.  Classic Dungeons and Dragons style dungeons full of traps are an excellent example.

Traps also show the trap of person vs. nature conflicts.  While they’re interesting, most stories need people in them to carry them along.  You can’t bargain with nature and you can’t lie to nature.  Even normal animals only stretch this a little – you can outsmart the bear, but you aren’t going to apply social pressure to the bear’s family to blackmail it into not eating you.  If you have an adventure based mostly on exploration or survival, throw in some person-heavy adventures before or after it, or include some touches of humanity (or dragonity, or robotity, or whatever passes for sentient in your setting).  If the PCs are exploring a lost temple, throw in some frescoes, statues, and inscriptions to give the place a touch of purpose.  If the PCs are lost in the desert after a Roc flew off with their caravan, make getting to town – and characters – a goal.  Your mileage may vary, just don’t overdo it.  One hidden pit trap is fun, two are okay, twenty is just silly.

For more conflicts with nature, fill your setting with interesting environments.  Rivers and oceans to cross, the depths of space, floating islands of rocks where rare herbs grow, and jungle ruins to explore all give you the chance to oppose the player characters with animals, traps, and the weather.

Person vs. self conflicts are completely internal, which makes them hard to play.  If you and your players aren’t careful, playing up these sorts of conflicts can lead to boring scenes where one player monologues about his inner torment.  Yet a good conflict of this nature can elevate a game and create the sort of stories that gamers tell each other for years, so don’t write it off.

This is the most group dependent sort of conflict.  Some groups ignore it, some groups love it.  Accordingly, it’s harder to structure a setting to push person vs. self conflict – but not impossible.  Internal conflict comes from doubt, over what’s right or what’s true.  Make a setting where there are multiple good guys (or bad guys) that are opposed, so the players aren’t sure who to help.  Set it up so the players can benefit by helping their enemies, and actually make it worth it.  Create mysteries, so the players can wonder what’s true and who to trust.  Should Luke stay with the rebellion or become a Jedi?  Is becoming a Jedi going to turn Luke into a monster like his father?  Luke needs to work out the conflict the different setting elements cause in himself, and it’s a long time before he can fully come to terms with his decision.

Internal conflicts are much, much easier to do in fiction, if you’re thinking along those lines.  One character hogging the spotlight doesn’t matter as much in a story as in a game.

How many sorts of conflict should you have in your setting?  If you’re making a very focused game, like a one-shot adventure, you might want to focus on one or two sorts of conflict.  If you plan on running a long campaign, or if you want your setting to be used beyond your group, you should have opportunities for all four types of conflict.  You might focus on one type over the rest, but people should have support for running games about conflicts with people, society, nature, or the self in your setting.  There’s something to be said for a tight, focused setting for a shorter game, but for the most part a long-running campaign is like novels: you need variety and depth, and you won’t be able to sustain that with just one sort of conflict.

We know what conflict is, why it’s important, and how to structure a setting to push conflict.  Next time, we’ll see an example from the first podcast, and find out how you avoid the trap of a boring setting with conflict.

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