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Narrative Conflict

By Skimble

Narrative conflict is an important element in the creation of drama. Since roleplaying games are in the business of telling dramatic stories that involve rich and detailed characters, it is therefore a useful concept to bear in mind when devising plot hooks or resolving the consequences of the players’ actions.

While combat might be the most obvious type of conflict it is by far not the only one that can arise.  In fact I would argue that it is one of the least narratively compelling forms of conflict.

So what are some of the other types of narrative conflict, and how can they be used effectively to tell dramatic, exciting and interesting stories?

Interpersonal Conflict

I am defining interpersonal conflict as any conflict that arises as a result of two or more individuals having specific differences in the context of beliefs, desires or goals. While this may be expressed as overt enmity there are more subtle interpersonal conflicts that can be explored: Here are a few of them.

Guardian versus Ward

I’ve chosen to start here because it’s a form of conflict which most people will have experienced at some point in life, and yet it may sometimes be overlooked when coming up with story ideas.

This scenario gets used quite a lot in the media in the form of parent versus child – in fact, the conflicts arising from “daddy issues” may be so common that they could accurately be described as  a cliché. However even a relatively healthy relationship of this type can be a source of narrative conflict, such as the overprotective mother who does everything in her power to stop her son from getting involved in risky business (possibly putting herself in danger) to the teacher who tries to challenge his student.

It could be argued here that the key conflict is Long term view versus short term view: Guardians tend to take the long view where their wards are concerned whereas the ward might well be impatient and seeking instant gratification. The guardian knows that the ward will be ready, one day whereas the ward wants to be ready NOW. Alternatively the conflict might arise from Expectations versus reality: The mentor has an unrealistic view of the ward’s progress or potential and conflict arises out of the inevitable disparity.

Another form of conflict that can arise from this scenario  relates to either the ward’s growth as a person or the guardian’s altering perspective. Ideologies may shift, morals may degrade, and over time these two close people may find that they don’t have as much in common as they once did.

Friend versus Friend (versus Friend versus Friend…)

Friendship groups can be rife with conflict, often romantic or ideological in nature. The friendly (or not-so friendly) rivalry has been seen before many times, as has the conflict that arises from one friend trying to prevent another from doing something that they will later come to regret. Less immediate conflicts can arise in friendship groups over matters of morality, especially in the pressurised situations that are likely to come up during roleplaying games. Exploring that kind of issue requires a fine touch and some effective handling on the parts of the players, as what starts as a dramatically interesting conflict over methods and morality can eventually become a player vs player deathmatch in certain situations.

Being aware of personality traits that will cause characters to react differently to a stimulus can allow you as a GM to bring these conflicts to the fore and give players a rich opportunity to play their characters, warts and all.

The Green-Eyed Monster

Envy is a powerful force for interpersonal conflict, although it also plays a role at the political level. There are always haves and have-nots, and conflict between them is very common. Envy doesn’t have to relate to objects or possessions though; it can as easily relate to less tangible fare. Examples include good looks, intelligence, a supportive family, a partner, reliable friends, trustworthiness, a good reputation, a healthy body and so on. Envy is particularly useful for generating conflict with antagonists, but it also very much applies to a character’s friends, family, work colleagues and others, although it will more commonly be an element of flavour in those contexts rather than a major plot hook.

I note that this form of conflict takes on a different aspect when one is playing in an environment where resources are scarce. Where the distinctions between haves and have-nots are magnified by the fact that the have-nots literally struggle to survive, the resulting conflicts will tend to be more frequent in occurrence and far more severe.

Political Conflict

Political conflict is an extension of interpersonal conflict, and relates to the conflicts that arise with organisations and shared ideologies rather than as a result of directly contrasting personal desires, although to be sure there can be a degree of smearing between the two. This is most often seen as individual versus the law or individual versus the government, but it can also be explored in the form of religion versus religion (including atheism as a sort of ‘null’ religion) or individual versus societal norms.

Next time you’re looking at the consequences of players’ actions the last one can be fun to think about. While legal trouble is often the first logical implication that comes to mind, it can be just as entertaining to have a player’s neighbours express displeasure, work to get them evicted etc. This is also an interesting one to explore if characters are of an alternative religion, social group or sexuality. Inverting things, this can also be a good plot hook with which to entice players: Give them a chance to interfere in a scene that is unfolding where they witness conflict of this type. This can be particularly effective if the character finds himself agreeing with the prevailing social norms and yet also feels sorry for the victim, leading to…

Internal Conflict

Internal conflict can be the hardest to roleplay in a group setting, but it is also one of the most powerful forms of drama because it is by definition highly personal to the character experiencing it. This type of conflict arises when the character’s own desires or thoughts conflict with other desires, ideological elements or morality. From the person fighting against same-sex attractions due to his inculcated belief that such attractions are wrong, to the person who tries to do the right thing despite being sorely tempted to take a different path.

The easiest way to generate internal conflict in a character is to provide a course of action that would end in a positive result of some kind for the character, but which also conflicts with what you know of his personality. For example you could offer a law-abiding character an apparently victimless crime to see what course of action he chooses to take, then later build on that by offering gradually more morally dubious activities to see how the character develops.

Weighing up the lesser of two evils is another interesting form of character conflict, and one which can be personalised by providing a bias on one side or the other in respect of the character’s own drives that would not exist for a neutral observer. An example of this would be deciding whether to rescue one person the character likes very much versus a bus load of strangers, though this is a rather extreme case!

Environmental Conflict

The last type of conflict I want to discuss briefly is the conflict that arises when an individual or group faces a hostile environment.

Deserts, mountains, desert islands, being marooned at sea; a lack of vital resources and an environment that can theoretically kill at its capricious whim are the hallmarks of this type of scenario. Requiring more planning than most of the others I have mentioned, environmental conflict is particularly useful when used as a method to encourage the expression of other forms of conflict in the form of an extreme situation that exacerbates existing tensions.

A word of warning

In all of the cases I mention above the conflict is IN CHARACTER. If tensions start to bleed over into real life then it is time to take stock and then do what is necessary to restore the status quo. The game is meant most of all to be fun, and an adverse level of conflict with other players is not fun at all.

Have fun!

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