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Ways to Play


by Chris Chinn
Apr 01,2003


by Chris Chinn

Welcome back to the second installment of Ways to Play! Today, we cover one of the most useful tools for setting up a campaign, conflict. Last time, we covered a general overview about protagonist play, or roleplaying without a predetermined plot. This time, we cover conflict, which is an incredible tool for this style of play, and also great for predetermined play as well. Setting up a good conflict at the beginning of a campaign will save you hours of work later on... so read on and enjoy!

What is conflict good for?

Players always have a good idea of "what to do" next, since they always can look at their character and just think, "What fits this guy?" Well, conflict is the same thing for GMs. Conflict is what you can look at and say, "What would be interesting that could happen because of this?"

Conflict is your cheat sheet for "What happens next?"

Conflict allows you to come up with interesting situations and events without having to prescript everything, although if you do use a predetermined plot, a good conflict will help you write a better plot. Conflict is sort of the cheat sheet for improvising. Too many people freak out and think that improv means having to figure it out all alone. Nope, you've got a conflict, a cast of interesting characters, and you can take a minute and whip up anything. Take your time, come up with a good conflict before your campaign starts, and you'll see how it just pays itself off, over and over.

What is conflict really?

Conflict is when two or more people cannot agree and are taking action.

This happens because all sides cannot or will not compromise, either because the situation makes it impossible, or they simply choose not to compromise for whatever reason. The second key component is that they just won't let things be.

Conflict is made of people! People!

The conflict is only as interesting as the characters in it.

Conflict is an interaction between characters, it isn't a "thing" by itself. It only exists because you've got characters in disagreement doing interesting things. Different characters will produce a different conflict, even if its over the same thing. Conflict is made up of the people in it. Therefore, make the main characters in the conflict just as interesting as the protagonists. Always focus on "why" a character is involved in conflict.

Player roles in conflict

An important decision that needs to be made is whether the roles of the player characters is going to be made before actual play begins, or if its going to be made during play. Will the "sides" the player characters take be decided before the game actually starts, or will it be left open for the players to decide during the game itself?

This question is very important, since the first option, limits the options of the players significantly, and works well with predetermined play. The second option is unpredictable, and works well with protagonist play. Either way, this decision should be discussed with your group ahead of time.

Creating Conflict

I like to start simple and work my way up.

Create two or three characters in conflict, why they're conflicting, and what they're doing (or just about to do) to change the situation.

The idea that has come to mind for me is:

Darius has arranged his daughter, Alena, to be married off in a political alliance. Alena, on the other hand, wants to elope with her true love. Darius is the clan leader, and hopes to secure a solid place for his people with the new leader through this marriage. Alena has much of her father's fiery temperament and hardheadedness from his youth. Together, they spell trouble...

If you're unable to come up with a concrete situation to apply, I have 4 methods that work well to kick start ideas.

The Power Balance

The idea behind the power balance is to pick one of the following 3 situations that describes a power balance that leads to a crisis and conflict. Note that power balance is very closely linked with the idea of Stakes(see below).

No one is in power

Either the person in power has recently been removed(killed, disappeared, exiled, retired, fired, illness, madness, etc.) or else the stakes has just recently been introduced to the situation(discovered, created, found, etc.)

Someone is in power who shouldn't be

Whoever is in power is either abusing their power over the stakes, incompetent, neglectful, or unable to fulfill their duties. Whatever the case, this person's grip on power will be contested, leading to conflict.

Someone wants power that shouldn't have it

This person either will abuse their power over the stakes, or is incompetent or unable to fulfill the duties of that power. Since this person lacks ability or judgment to hold the position properly, they will be forced to resort to underhanded or unorthodox methods to acquire it.

From the example given above, the struggle is over the power over who will decide who Alena marries. Right now, since its contested, nobody is in power.

Groups in Conflict

Come up with 2 or more groups that are in conflict, for whatever reason. Examples include:

-Political groups(parties or actual rebels)
-Religious groups(religions, heretics, cults)
-Military groups(army, militias, city guards)
-Ethnic groups(majority, minorities)
-Criminal groups(organized, small-time)

Two or more groups are in conflict, and the characters who are part of those groups are brought into conflict as well. It's important to note what groups are in power, which groups were last ousted from power, and which ones are up and coming to take it. Also come up with a few characters who either work all sides, or oppose a group from within.

The Jerk

This is one of the easiest ways to create conflict. Jerks create problems all the time in real life, and have done so in stories around the world. Just create a character who is a jerk. Then give them power.

Most likely, the jerk is either in power, or is manipulating/blackmailing someone who is in power and for that reason, no one can give them their just desserts. This character may be the antagonist, or simply someone who makes the real conflict worse.

It's not hard, just think of any abusive asshole you know in real life, and just make them more so, with power, screwing up things that are important.

In the example given, I haven't created a jerk character, although to add one, let's say that Alena's fianc, Sen, is a jerk with an ego. Even if she does elope, he'll probably cause some major problems.(It also justifies why she doesn't want to marry him).

The 3 Fallbacks

Finally, if you're still stuck for ideas, I have 3 basic scenarios that you can always call on, mix, match or alter to fit your needs. These three are pretty universal, and always seem to do the trick:

-Love affair(triangle or taboo relationship)
-Power struggle
-Injustice(current or old)

From our example, Alena's situation is a mixture of a love triangle and a power struggle.


So you've got a basic idea of people in conflict, the next part is to pick out the stakes, or what are they fighting over. Conflicts are always about control or power over something.

control over
-a person/people
-a place, object, or resource
-an event

Notice that stakes can be on multiple levels or about more than a couple of things. The two most important things to be aware of with the stakes are:

-Who does it affect?
-What does it mean to them/How far are they willing to go?

From the example above, the conflict is about who Alena will marry, in other words, control over Alena's life. But, since her father has arranged a political marriage, who she marries also affects her clan and that of her betrothed, raising the stakes to control over a people.

Other examples you can use:

-Love triangle
This is about control over who gets to have a relationship with who, or a control over a person.

This is about control over one or more pieces of evidence that either conceal or reveal the truth

This is about control over a person, or people, who have been wronged, and those who have committed the crime.

This is about control of a person or people

-War/Political struggle
This can be about control over a people, land, or resource

Expanding the conflict

So now you have a conflict between two or three characters, and maybe that's enough for you. But more likely, the conflict needs to be a little nastier to really get things cooking. You can expand the conflict like a web, drawing lines from each of the characters in the conflict outward through the rule of opposition:

Everything is opposed by somebody, somewhere.

So how does this work? Easy. For each of the characters involved in the conflict, create someone who opposes them, for whatever reason, whether they're allied to someone or simply have their own reasons, real or perceived, noble or selfish. Then create oppositions for those characters. And oppositions for the ones you just made up, etc., etc. until you have a big nasty mess that is to your satisfaction.

Not everyone needs opposition, and not everyone needs it equally. You don't need to distribute opposition equally, although all "sides" of the conflict will have some. What this method creates, is viable sub conflicts and subplots which may, in fact, during play, turn out to be more interesting or fun than the initial conflict.

From our previous example, Alena and Darum are in conflict over her future marriage. Naturally her betrothed, Sen is vitally interested in the outcome, and opposes her wishes, but for different reasons. He's got a big ego, and feels that he already "owns" her and is entitled to her. He'd lose face if she ran off(it'd show that he's not in control of everything). Alena's true love, Marcus, supports her and opposes Sen and her father. Marcus is opposed by Sen's toadies, who hope to get a better status if they manage to bring him down. The toadies are opposed by Graham, a forest hermit who's had troubles with their gang for a while and is friends with Marcus. This thread of opposition runs all the way through both clans, you can keep extending the conflict as far as you want...

If you're having a hard time expanding the conflict, just follow this list:

-Who's in conflict?
-Who's allied/opposing someone in conflict?
-Who's affected by the outcome?
-Who's allied/opposing someone affected by the outcome?

What am I aiming for?

Immediacy & Momentum

Good conflict needs to be happening right now. It's a problem now, and is probably going to get worse unless someone does something immediately. This is the kind of problem that you can't sit on, or wait on, in any fashion. You can make this come forward in play by having active NPCs or by setting up scenes that push the conflict forward, by accident or design of the characters involved.

High Stakes

Good conflict has stakes that matter. The outcome of the conflict affects more than just the immediate characters in conflict. This is what draws in other characters, including the player characters.

Desperate people

Good conflict is about desperate people who are willing to go to extremes. Whatever is at stake, is important enough to risk yourself, or even others as well. It's important enough for some to lie, cheat, steal, or even kill for. The combination of the immediacy and the stakes creates desperation.


Dysfunctional relationships drive people to desperate measures either to maintain them or to escape from them. These relationships either create conflict or else cause people in them to overreact to conflicts. The very basis of a dysfunctional relationship is unreasonability and uncompromisibility, creating the same kind of people who are perfect for conflict.

Getting Emotional

Good conflict plays off of the players emotions. The characters involved in the conflict must be emotionally involved, and this draws in the players. If the characters in the gameworld don't care, neither will the players.

Next time

Well, thanks for coming back for a second round of Ways to Play! Hopefully this batch of tools will give you something to work with, and help you create the sorts of great conflicts you need for your game. Next time, we dig deep into character, the other half of conflict.

Go Play!


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