Framing Conflict in RPGs

In its most basic form, and RPG requires conflict to exist. If you play a game featuring characters content with their lives and unwilling to risk what they've acquired, everyone at the table will be bored to tears by then end of the first game session. RPGs need action and clashing ideologies to bring them to life, so let's talk about conflict.

What Is Conflict?
Conflict is a cool word. It's a noun and a verb, and you can stress either syllable to pronounce it correctly. Versatility aside, the meaning I want to hone in on reads, 
"discord of action, feeling, or effect; antagonism or opposition, as of interests or principles"
Conflict injects chaos into your characters' otherwise-sedate lives. Conflict builds situations for the players to avoid, defuse, or overcome. Conflict lives at the heart of adventure, motivating greatness and inspiring heroes to act. But how can we use conflict more effectively in our games?

As I learned way back in middle school in the early '80s, only four types of literary conflict exist. I've modified the words over the years, but the concepts remain unchanged and very usable in RPGs. Once we understand the types of conflict and where they fit in a game, we can look for less straightforward conflicts and use them to add depth to your game and drive your story to greater heights.

Person vs. Person
Man to Man: Fantasy Combat from GURPSWith most RPGs, the main conflict covered in the rulebooks ultimately boil down to Person vs. Person. This covers combat and skill contests and comprises the meat of most RPG systems. Person vs. Person conflicts drive traditional scenes: they have the Maguffin and I need it so I'm going to devise a way to steal from them / trick them / beat them to a bloody pulp.

I think interpersonal conflicts at the physical level have been covered many times over in many rulebooks, but the social level opens up some new territory. What if you need to recruit allies for a cause? How do you convince someone to join you? Sure, you can model that in a D&Desque skill challenge, but I think "soft" Person vs. Person challenges like this work better without mechanics. I'd love to hear other opinions about rules for resolving social challenges, but every system I've seen leaves something to be desired.

Person vs. Nature
Dark Sun Campaign Setting: A 4th Edition D&D SupplementThese conflicts comprise the "other half" of traditional RPG rules. How do I interact with the environment? How easily can I scale this wall? How long can I survive without water in the Sandy Wastes? You find these questions answered in rulebooks.

But what about at a deeper level? What things can my character never change that will drive the story? My easy answer? Time. Something as simple as introducing some sort of timer to a scene will push it into overdrive as the characters see the deadline crawling ever closer.

Person vs. Nature conflicts also come into play for character backgrounds and characterization exercises. many questions point to Nature conflicts. How is my character tied to the land in which he grew up? What challenges has my character faced in the past and how do those experiences alter his actions today? My favorite expression of this is some sort of natural phobia or curse. Maybe it's never explored in the game, but something bad had to happen to make this brave warrior go fetal when placed in a boat.

Person vs. Society
Serenity Adventures (Serenity Role Playing Game)Another traditional trope, this conflict typically plays itself out through the story rather than the rules. At some point the PCs do something that flies in society's face, and they pay the price. Getting in trouble with the town guard happens more often than you might think, but the fact that the PCs can beat a pile of guards to a bloody pulp while drunk tends to limit the effectiveness of that implementation of Person vs. Society.

Status, renown, and reputation make great motivators for Society conflicts. Social Rank is a stat in Traveller, but I'm not sure we need to create a status score to use status effectively in our stories. Status can feed impossible choices, since doing a favor for one power group often earns you the enmity of a different group. You can't please the entire world, but you'd better be sure to earn some favors with someone who can cover you through bad times.

Person vs. Self
Self-conflict provides hours of roleplaying gold. Setting up some sort of internal conflict expressed through an impossible external choice will hook your players into your game like nothing else. Which prince has the better claim to the throne? Which is more important to me, an innocent child or the stability of a nation? These questions give you insight into the character's mind and soul, exposing them for who they truly are under the trappings of societal roles.

I can't overstate the importance of fostering self-conflict in your game to provide a deeper gaming experience. Phobias [1] and post traumatic stress both fit into this category. Even a quick self-doubt description like, "You don't know if you can beat the champion in the arena" works wonders for giving a scene depth. Once your players latch on to how their characters think and behave, you can dig in and overturn some rocks. If a player comes up with a hangup or something that will bring up unreasonable intense feelings when exposed to a trigger, that's awesome.

One word of caution: talk with your players before springing something intensely personal on them. We're treading into touchy territory, and someone who's not ready for the intensity can have an unexpected reaction and may leave your game entirely. We don't want this, so always take the time to give your players a little metagame heads-up when trying to tap into intense Self conflicts.

How Do I Use Conflict Types?
Conflict types provide some structure to develop your plots. Some conflicts are self-evident; deposing a corrupt duke would have Society conflicts in a more central role. I encourage you to embed different levels of conflict within a straightforward plot. For example, what if the leader of the resistance against the corrupt duke were someone who had betrayed a member of the party? There's a Self conflict that needs to be resolved before the main Society conflict can resolve. What if the duke will issue a banishment edict just as soon as the blizzard passes and the roads are clear? Suddenly you have a race against the clock and a Nature conflict to add some complexity to the main plot.

The Joy of Conflict Resolution: Transforming Victims, Villains and Heroes in the Workplace and at HomeWhen it makes sense, offer a conflict of each type to to each person at your gaming table. Don't be afraid to ask your players for ideas, especially during character creation. If the player comes up with the idea for their conflict, they'll be more likely to play it and keep exploring the depths of what that conflict means to the character. If that happens, you'll need to keep up your end of the bargain and make sure you reference it during play, but that should be an easy choice given the depth that ongoing conflicts add to your game.

Not every game session will feature each conflict type; that's as it should be. Offer a variety and see what your players respond to, then adapt to what your players want. If they continually go back to Society conflicts, you may want to switch gears to more of a cloak and dagger or Robin Hood approach to your game. If they lean toward Nature conflicts, maybe they should explore the wilderness for a while.

Thinking about conflict types provides a template to enable more communication with your players. The feedback you get about which conflicts your players choose will give you insights into what they're looking for from your game. Some "Top Down" GMs like me need mental constructs to add depth and build a better game. Other GMs can make a very complex game with pure instinct and improvisation.

If you manage to get conflicts at each level to come to a head at the same time, then my hat's off to you. I want to hear about how you set up the situation and how it resolved. If you can use conflict types to add more depth to your game and get your players more engaged, then I've earned my keep for today.

As always, thanks for the eyeball tracks!

[1] We already talked about phobias in the Nature conflict section and here it is again in the Self section. Where it fits depends on how you want to resolve the phobia. If it's a personal hang-up, frame it as a Self conflict that the character may eventually resolve on his own. If there's an external reason for it, maybe it can be resolved as a quest. How will the conflict be most interesting for the player to deal with? There are no hard lines between conflict types, which make them infinitely interesting to think about.

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