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Building Conflict from Start

July 21, 2020

A lot of games use smart design to create conflict and momentum early on in play and I want to talk about these a little.

Charged Character Roles

One of the easiest tools is to pick a specific role for characters as the concept to the game or campaign itself.

If the game is about spies, spies naturally have conflict built-in – they are trying to hide their identity and get information – they are already at risk. If the game is about demon hunters… well, you hunt demons.

Where games usually fall down is if they attempt to go too broad in types of character roles that can fit, without giving tools for helping a group align or choose a subset that will work well together.

Factions and Splats

Another old design trick is factions – each faction has history, an outlook or values they support, and goals. The factions might be totally at odds to “mostly allied but with strong rivalries and fractures along values”.

Again, this requires a clever bit of thought in setting-building to make sure the factions actually have enough reason to work together/not avoid each other. I’ve seen some games have the “mystic” faction which is described as reclusive and not interested in politics…. which inevitably creates characters who are not well “aimed” at the other factions and situations.

Obligations, Values, Goals

Some games set up either default obligations, values and goals or have a step where you answer questions to create them as part of play. Primarily the difficulty in creating this is making sure these are relevant in scope and immediacy.

Usually this works best if these things are tied to a reward mechanic around relationships or pursuing said things like many Flag mechanics tend to do. If not, there’s the risk that these things fall by the wayside in play.

Charged Starting Situation

Mostly the smaller indie games tend to use this tool, since it has a specific starting point, but it works amazing for getting play going right away.

You have stuff like Poison’d where the pirates find their captain has just been assassinated, they need a new captain and the Royal Navy will be showing up soon, or Lady Blackbird where the protagonists have to get out of their cell and escape.

These charged situations require immediate action and direction and give you conflict right away.

Baked into the game vs. homemade

Naturally, any GM or group can set up these ideas in a game, but the reason to have it in the game itself is that it lets the group focus on other things and gets play moving right away.

I tend to prefer running and playing in games where the characters have a role that includes a direct mission structure or goal; it means things get moving quickly and there’s a lot less “what should we do next?” time lost. Mind you, this is not to say the characters are bound to follow the mission goals alone; they might veer from it quite hard, but at least when you start with the idea they generally want to do them, you can get immediate direction and momentum in play.

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