Magical Cause & Effect conflicts

August 4, 2012

One of my favorite types of situations are the conflicts which come about when you have conflicts that spiral out from the magical and the mundane tied together.

This tool is aimed around that, mostly from a fantasy/historical setting, but there’s no reason you can’t change some of the words and make it modern or futuristic. And while this posits a magical world and how it ties together, you could also use it to create what a cult might believe to be true, and how they’re rationalizing actions they take (“Abortion caused this earthquake, so we’re going to have to firebomb the clinic!”)

The Chain of Cause & Effect

There’s basically a circle of events that go like this:

– People Problems
Conflicts between individuals, groups, clans, families, political alliances, etc. cause violence, injustice, and actions that cause people to start…

– Breaking Magical Taboos
Accidentally or intentionally breaking magical laws, ignoring required duties or sacrifices, angering magical beings causes magical repercussions which range from creating curses, bringing divine wrath and retribution, to curses, which cause…

– Community Crisis
Natural disasters, threat or loss of food supplies, or other things needed to survive, which puts hardship or threat upon many, if not everybody, creating desperation which then creates… (go back to People Problems)

Note that you can start anywhere in the chain – you don’t have to start with People Problems.

List of People Problems

– Theft, Slander, Abuse, Violence, Rape, Murder, Broken Agreements, Betrayal, Exploitation, Slavery, Power vacuum, Blood feud, Abuse of laws/power, Framing, False Punishment, Imprisonment, Stolen Land, Inheritance struggle, Succession struggle, Raids for resources, Warfare, Hate crimes…

Broken Magical Taboos

– Entering forbidden areas, desecration, theft of holy items, deeds of evil, forbidden relationships, breaking traditions, forgotten sacrifices/incorrect sacrifices, apotasy, disrespect to magical beings, violence against magical beings, destruction of holy sites or relics, deliberately calling upon curses or evil spirits, spirits in need, spirits acting out of desperation, spirits which have been warped or twisted in behavior and nature

Community Crisis

Each category lists things to threaten, damage, or destroy and then ways in which these things can happen.

– Crops, fields, herds, livestock, grazing land, fishing, hunting, foraging, water supply
– Disappeared, burned down, stolen, dying, drying up, not enough, disease, vermin, poisoned

Survival Resources
– Shelter, medicine, firewood, clothing, boats, roads, bridges, tunnels
– Falling apart/disappearing, not enough for current need, broken, collapsed, flooded

– Sickness, mudslide, flood, earthquake, fire, drought, snowstorm, tornado, hurricane, heatwave

The Cause of The Conflict

You’ve set up your community, culture and setting where things are happening, and you’re setting up the problem in the Chain of Conflict and what started it, and what it has caused to happen as a result.

It’s important to realize that sometimes the whole problem can’t be fixed until the root cause is removed, and other times, removing the root cause still leaves you with all the other problems still.

1. Us/Neighbors/Strangers/Nature

Who caused the problem? If it’s “us” then it’s within the community and one of the members who lives there. If it’s neighbors, it’s a neighboring community with whom you are not enemies to. Strangers are either literal strangers, like a group your community has never, or rarely interacts with, or else folks your community considers enemies. If it’s “nature” then there is no specific cause and that only really makes sense when the problem starts with a natural disaster of some type.

2. Accidental/Negligence/Intention

Did the problem start from someone who didn’t even realize they started it? Did it start as a side effect from negligence or another action that kicked it off, but the parties involved decided not to fix? Or was it deliberate and intentional?

While it may end up being the same in results when someone accidentally spills wine on the altar vs. someone deliberately desecrating it, it’s really important to know what the motivations of the characters are and how things came about.


Tied in the whole way with this is all the various NPCs motivations and goals. Easy motivations to consider:

– Protect myself & my loved ones more than anything else
– Protect myself & my loved ones at the cost of others
– Get revenge on the people I THINK are responsible
– Take advantage of the situation to get power
– Use the situation to bring down another group or person
– Use the situation to hide/cover up an unrelated crime/deed I have done/will do
– Hide my culpability as the cause of this situation
– Hide the culpability of another as the cause of this situation
– End the problem, but ignore the cause
– Attack the (perceived) cause but ignore what will solve the problem
– Support solving the problem, as long as it doesn’t cost me too much
– Support solving the problem, no matter the cost

You’ll see pretty easily how most of these easily create more People Problems or exacerbate existing ones. The Seven Types of Antagonists work really well for this kind of conflict.

With the immediate problems, you can see how it’s pretty easy to come up with everyone’s motivation or angle on things, and when you have that, it is also easy in turn to improvise NPC actions and choices – everyone wants something and because many are not willing to make a compromise or do what is right, the conflict will persist and probably escalate.

Games to look at

Dogs in the Vineyard’s Town Creation pretty much does everything here in a clean, focused step-by-step method which works great. Other games that fit well with this, but don’t have the clean process are Hero Wars/Heroquest, Exalted, World of Darkness, Unknown Armies.

This kind of thing also works well for most systems that have some kind of Flag mechanics- Burning Wheel, Riddle of Steel, Shadow of Yesterday, etc. at least in the sense that it’s easier to improvise when you have PCs and NPCs with clear motivations.

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