Conflict vs. Conflict

November 1, 2009

There’s been this interesting debate going on about whether every scene in a game should have a conflict.

It occurred to me today, while prepping for play, that the two camps really mean two different things when they have this discussion.

The thing that I’ve been doing is writing down a list of all the NPCs, and a sentence or two about what they want to do about the current situation or how they feel.

Some of these are probably going to lead to dice roll conflicts, some of these are either foreshadowing for probably conflicts later on, and some are fallout and consequences from previous conflicts. For me, this is all conflict – the groundwork for, the decision/action point, and the results of.

“All scenes should have a conflict”, is not an injunction that everything has to be “Make an UBER decision. Make another UBER decision. Make ANOTHER UBER decision”… What it means is that scenes need to provide context and meaning that leads towards or from those decisions, and makes them possible. Context must be built for these things to have meaning.

It doesn’t help that the word “conflict” is used interchangeably for both immediate mechanical conflicts AND the larger narrative term.



  1. So to keep the interchangeable definitions from being melded together, would it be better to refer to one or both of them as something different? Like say “clash” for immediate conflict and “tension” for what’s to come later. That is sometimes how I categorize my notes when it comes to a matter of “conflict.”

    Though you also still have the “conflict” often being considered as something physical or involving force of some kind. So I guess that’s about four definitions for one word. =/

    • A lot of game systems use “conflict” specifically when dealing with the mechanical dice rolling way of solving things, which is where we usually see the problem. The larger, narrative sense of conflict is usually lost on a lot of gamers, specifically, because they usually consider that last definition you put forward (force, violence, etc.)

      But basically, the post is clarifying the statement – I’ll leave it to individual designers to figure out if they even need to deal with the name game or code in that sense of foreshadowing, conflict, climax, consequences into their rules in other ways.

      • Catching up on your entries last night, I was reminded to read Willow’s blog earlier today and came across the brief discussion on how many road trips stories tend to lead towards a conflict rather than away from conflict. And when that form of story telling is repeated and replicated it then seems the conflict and following clash itself becomes synonymous with story as opposed to part of a story/narrative, as you’re pointing out.

        By-the-by, thanks for the facepalming “it’s so simply ingenious why didn’t I do it earlier” idea of what each character would want out of a situation. I’m currently in an RP where 2 1/2 camps, though allies, could wind up in a skirmish because of pride and xenophobia. I’m figuring out ways of getting us to resolve, deflate or change the conflict without the use of force.

        • Our culture tends to really emphasize dominance (and hence, conflict) as the primary form of protagonism. Self exploration seems to only happen as a step towards achieving dominance. Roleplaying, even moreso, in part from wargaming roots, in part from appealing to 12 year old boys, and in part from a poor understanding of how stories work, and just as much, how they work for the specific requirements of roleplaying.

          The big trick to non-violent solutions is this: do the players know it’s a viable option? Players often don’t realize that you can win arguments or cut deals because they’re used to the GM using NPCs as railroading walls/obstacles that never change their minds. You have to be clear that you don’t necessarily have a predetermined expectation and also show cases where social choices have power. (This is actually why I tend to prefer games where you have social mechanics- it lets the players know they can have a solid recourse and it’s not “Mother May I” with the NPCs.

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