Conflict Dial

March 7, 2015

A good situation for your game is one that immediately suggests all kinds of problems, complications and conflicts that can come up.  Making interesting events appear in play won’t be hard when you have a good setup for your situation.

I’ve written previously on the idea that good situations are full of conflict, that they can deal with clashing goals and loyalties, logistics, personal drama, magical causes – but what I want to talk about here is a method for putting those into context for play.

The important thing to remember is that conflict comes of desperate and/or unreasonable people who push the situation with increasingly drastic measures.

A situation exists at one of three stages of conflict:

Powder Keg

A powder keg situation hasn’t become a problem… yet.  It’s extremely dangerous and on the edge of becoming something terrible.  There’s two ways this happens:

a) No one realizes it’s a problem, yet.  But one wrong move, and they’ll find out the hard way. (“What do you think he meant when he said the standing stone was a seal?  Sealing what? I’m sure he was just talking nonsense.”)

b) Everyone is avoiding it.  (“A dragon lives there, stay away, don’t make it angry.”)

Powder keg situations aren’t usually good conflicts by themselves – since they are, by nature, not yet a problem.  They make excellent ways to complicate an existing situation.  They’re also tricky – if you have the players stumble upon one of these, it can feel like a “gotcha” moment.  It can also be fun if the player characters find out about the situation and are trying to stop it from going bad while no one believes them.  (“I am telling you, do not open that chest….”)


Smouldering situations are great if you want to have a nuanced or political struggle between groups.   A smouldering situation is a problem, just not a big enough problem to get everyone involved.  It could be something like injustice, a series of murders, or a vampire preying on a group of people – in theory, if everyone worked together this problem could be solved quickly – but people aren’t working together.

Reasons the authorities or some of the local people might not get involved:

a) “It’s not my problem.  Besides, I hate those people.”

b) “Well, it’s not REALLY a problem.  These things happen.”

c) “Why WOULD I change it? I benefit from this happening.”

The conflict in these situations are not just the source problem, but the inaction or support of the group that isn’t impacted.  And of course, eventually either the problem itself becomes a bigger problem, or the people involved decide to start escalating because they have no options.

Raging Fire

The problem is out of control – everyone is affected, and everyone is taking action to protect or further their own interests.   This could be a city that is besieged and the food supplies are running out, a dragon is burning down the town, zombies have overrun the city, the Emperor is ordering executions left and right with little regard…

Whatever it is, the problems are immediate and constant.  The problem is clear, though solutions may not be.  The benefit to this kind of situation is that you’re immediately thrust into action and stakes are high. It’s really good for a one shot, or if you want to play a short run of a few sessions but don’t want to waste much time.

The drawback is that it tends to go melodramatic and lose some context for your characters.  If you see what characters are like before this point, you can make some interesting judgments about when/where they cross their personal lines.  If you only catch them at the height of crisis, it can be hard to judge what kind of characters they are or how much anything means to them, necessarily.

Setting up situations and improvising

As prep, what you’ll do is write down a few sentences describing the problems and what’s going on – so you can look to it as inspiration for what kind of scenes and conflicts to create.  If I wanted to make a “moderately complicated” scenario, I would put two of these together.

For example:

The king has become increasingly paranoid, and a few people have been arbitrarily exiled or imprisoned.  What’s happening is that the various noble houses under the king have been trying to play this to their benefit – each has been pushing to make themselves appear loyal and the others disloyal – and this back and forth game is becoming increasingly dangerous. (Smouldering).

What no one knows yet, is that the king has already pledged his soul to a demon for his safety – if he is directly attacked and harmed, he will transform into a nightmarish beast determined to shed blood.  The king believes himself immortal, and is becoming more and more bold and bullying because of it.  (Powder keg).

Two problems that intersect… Obviously, I’d be tailoring this to whatever setting we’re working with, coming up with some of those noble houses, major players in them and drawing up their petty issues with each other and their desperation.  And statting up whatever the king can turn into that’s a threat on it’s own.

What’s nice is that I have several “trouble levers” I can use in play.  The noble houses are at each other’s throats – I can have NPCs from any of the houses turn up the pressure, framing each other, getting more an dmore desperate.  The King might just start imagining danger or become increasingly violent and abusive.  Anything the players might do is probably opposed by someone else, or interpreted as an attack or threat to themselves and responded to accordingly.

What you’ll notice I don’t need to do, is write down every single possible outcome, or try to plan specific scenes.  Between the type of problem I start with, and the characters involved (PCs’ goals, NPCs’ goals) I can come up with problems on the fly and play out the situation getting worse and worse without trying to force the players into a specific path.

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