Designing Conflict in play

November 23, 2014

A fun game for me, involves meaningful choices.  There should be some point when a choice comes up, and I really have to think about which way to go.   This could be tactical/strategic, like “Do I use power X, or power Y?” or it can be story focused, like, “Do I support my character’s brother, or stay loyal to the Queen?” and so on.

If you want to build conflict into your game, you can do so with several options, using one, or all together.


Scenario is the specific situation – “You’ve just been granted the title of Champion of the Crown, but your brother wants to go against the throne.”   These may or may not directly come out of established Setting ideas (“Elves and Dwarves hate each other”), but mostly these require some establishing at the beginning of what the problem will be.

Notice at this level conflict boils down to two types of questions: “What do I do?” (morally, such as the example above) or “How do I do it?” (logistically, for example, “The Duke kidnapped your brother, whom you must rescue.”)  The latter type must involve freedom for player options, otherwise it can fall into linear Mother-may-I? railroading and Illusionism.

Although there’s rare cases where you build something like character motivations and that, in turn, builds the scenario, most of the time I’ve seen where the scenario lacks it’s initial conflict, you have a hard time getting the group to gel and push forward towards conflict.  No direction, no momentum.  This is where you see a lot of games taking 3-6 sessions to “find their feet” – in other words, the scenario was lacking direction and the players didn’t build their characters or know how to push for a direction as part of the process either.


Motivations are specific goals for your character and how they conflict with other characters or other motivations the characters themselves hold.  A key component here is that usually players are the ones to establish these.  If the group doesn’t build motivations that force characters to cross with each other, you can often lose the power and conflict that comes out of it.

Part of this has to be a commitment on the part of the group to pursue these motivations – which is why these often end up becoming part of the reward system of many games – giving players reward to do so keeps them on track.

Stakes Setting

Meaningful choices spill out of the scene-t0-scene situations where you have to figure out what’s at stake in the moment.  “The Queen looks to you, and to your nephew, your brother’s son.  ‘The cost of treason is amputation of the right hand.  If the father will not pay, the son will.  You are the Champion, you must enact justice.”

The previous two categories, being larger on the imaginary Venn diagram of these options, are good for driving play towards this sort of thing specifically.  That said, players and GMs have to be on the look out for ways to engineer these situations and get the conflict-meaningful choice payoff as play goes, otherwise you see things flounder.


The mechanics themselves can force these choices.  Probably the clearest example would be the mechanic from Fallen Leaves: You obey your duty or you risk dying.  The evolution of this kind of hardcore mechanic would be The Drifter’s Escape – you let the hostile GMs run over you OR you cut a deal with them and they, in turn, alter your motivations a bit.

But this also can go into a lot of things, including strategic Gamist play – do I do X or Y? can become game critical choices.  The question is whether the meaningful point is put on fiction-based issues (“What kind of person have I become?”) or numbers and tactics (“My odds look better if I…”)

Conflict Avoidance

There’s a subset of gamers who basically avoid these conflicts altogether.  “Let’s pretend to be someone else and really that’s all I want from play, that’s it, don’t make me do anything else” is a valid idea, I guess, though it seems weird to me to bother playing games with rules and and math and crap to track if that’s really your core goal.

These players often find all kinds of reasons they don’t like this game or that game, though it boils down to the fact that what they actually want is pretty specialized and not particularly well suited to tabletop RPGs.  I’ve seen folks like this panic just as much at having to do some basic system mastery for a tactical game as much as having a juicy conflict put in front of them in Primetime Adventures…

I think these players are usually best served by freeform games, a lot of the online RP games, and even “lonely fun” chargen and worldbuilding systems in a lot of games.

Tricks for Raw Narrativism

You can have Narrativist play rather easily without a Narrativist system.  It mostly involves setting up a conflict focal scenario, the players building characters with good motivations that sit within that, and then choosing the scene to scene conflicts and spotlight to focus on those things.  Notice that may still involve things like stealth rolls or lots of combat, but the point is that the context of why and the goal of the group playing is clear and directed.


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