Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck

May 7, 2013

2: Conflicts – Because Nothing is Ever Easy

Every encounter begins by posing a dramatic question and ends when the players know the answer to that question. But a dramatic question alone does not make for a good encounter. If the players can just answer the question any way they want, the encounter isn’t exciting. That is why we need one or more conflicts.

In dramatic, literary, and role-playing-gamery terms, a conflict occurs when the heroes are prevented from achieving their objectives. Obviously, monsters and NPCs can be sources of conflict, but so can traps, hazards, and obstacles. Capricious gods and intangible forces of the universe can also be sources of conflict, like fate and nature. A state of mind or a disagreement within the party can be a source conflict.

But notice that I called those things sources of conflict. That’s because conflict occurs between two forces, usually the heroes and something else. A spider in a room is not a conflict. It is not even a potential conflict by itself. And mistaking a spider in a room for a conflict is another reason why your combat encounters suck.

Why Your Combat Encounters Suck (Part 2)

“The heroes are traveling through a cave, trying to reach some Underdark city with an unpronounceable name to deliver medicine. Suddenly, a giant spider drops from the ceiling.”

What is the source of conflict in this scene? I don’t know why I’m even asking you. You didn’t even give any thought to the dramatic question. As the scene is presented, there is NO source of conflict. The spider is in the way of the party. What keeps the party from walking around the spider and continuing their trip? You might decide that the answer to that question is that the spider intercepts the party and tries to kill them and I would expect that kind of c$&% at this point. But you still don’t have a source of conflict. All you have is a mess.

“The spider jealously guards its lair, attacking anyone who sets foot in its cave.” That? That is a source of conflict. “The spider is protecting its egg sac and will attempt to kill anyone who gets too close to it.” That is also a source of conflict. So is “the spider is desperately hungry and will attempt to devour any living thing it becomes aware of.”

Why does a conflict occur? Because the party wants to walk through the cave and the spider wants to attack anyone in its home. The party and the spider both can’t have what they want. The party can’t walk through the cave as long as the spider wants to protect it. The spider is not protecting its lair if it lets the party wander around in it. Like Voldemort and Harry Potter, neither goal can live while the other survives.

Now, you might say it doesn’t matter for practical purposes. Right? What is the difference why the conflict occurs? Well, if the spider is the “protecting the lair” spider, once the party leaves the cave (accomplishing its goal), the spider no longer cares about them. The conflict is resolved. The “protecting her eggs” spider might let the party skirt the edges of the room as long as they don’t get too close, resolving the conflict. And the starving spider will chase the party into the tunnel, delaying the answer to the dramatic question.

That is why you have to understand the difference between a thing (a spider), a source of conflict (the spider’s desire to protect her lair), and the conflict itself (the spider’s desire to protect her lair vs. the party’s desire to walk through her lair).

You also have to understand that DMs do not create conflicts, they create sources of conflict. A good encounter is a trainwreck. But DMs don’t wreck the trains. They just put the trains on the same tracks so that, once the party starts driving the trains around, they are going to crash. But, not in a railroading way. I don’t mean railroading. Damn it, this metaphor is a trainwreck.

Once you learn how to set up conflict properly, you can run, build, and improvise better encounters. You won’t just drop a monster in front of the party and make them fight. Unless you want to. “The monster wants to kill the party and is willing to die trying” is a perfectly valid source of conflict, just as “can the heroes survive the battle” or “can the heroes kill the monsters” are valid dramatic questions. As long as you purposely chose them.

The Motives of Brainless Things (And I Don’t Mean Players)

Conflicts occur when desires and objectives clash. But I claimed that all sorts of things could be potential sources of conflict. How can a door have a desire? Or a trap? Or a river? Or nature itself? Well, we have to be willing to personify a little bit.

A locked door, for example, is a physical manifestation of someone’s desire to keep everyone without the key out of room. If the heroes want to get inside the room, they are going to come into conflict with the door. A trap is likewise a manifestation of a desire to hinder, injure, kill, entrap, or provide a warning. Now, you might say that all of that amounts to the same thing as just dropping doors and traps in the way of the party, but it doesn’t. When it comes to traps, especially, forcing yourself to think about why the trap exists and who built it for what purpose will lead you to create better traps that make good sense. Again, you will run a better game.

A river is a source of conflict because it will not bend its course for anyone. If the river is in your way, you cannot appeal to its mercy, its kindness, or its desires. And if you plunge yourself into it, the river does not care who you are. It will sweep you away. Or drown you. A river is actually a manifestation of the force of nature, which cannot be controlled or dominated, lacks sympathy or care, and kills those who do not respect it without guilt or shame.

You can write more powerful, more interesting games once you understand conflict in terms of motives and desires and begin ascribing them to abstract concepts and inanimate objects. Consider Athas, the setting for the Dark Sun campaign. In that setting, depending on the DM who is running it, nature is impersonal and indomitable, killing indiscriminately or it is outright vengeful, attempting to kill anyone anyone ventures beyond the cities in revenge for how the civilized races ravaged it. Some of the most compelling aspects of Sigil, the city at the heart of Planescape, was the city’s desire to maintain its status as neutral ground and to keep itself free of the influence of the gods.

Death and Other Ways to End Conflict

As long as the heroes attempt to fulfill their goals clashes with some other force trying to fulfill its desires, and both the hero and the force are free to act, a conflict continues. Once the desires, motives, and goals of the heroes and other forces are no longer in opposition, the conflict is resolved. Alternatively, once one side loses the ability to oppose the other, the conflict is resolved.

So, if the heroes kill the spider or if the heroes get safely out of the room, the conflict is resolved. Likewise, if the heroes stop trying to get across the room or get killed by the spider, the conflict is resolved. If the heroes break the lock on the door, the conflict is resolved because the door can no longer oppose them. If the heroes dam the river, the river is no longer in their way. Likewise, once the heroes build a boat and row to the other side, the conflict is over. If Fate accepts the hero as the Chosen One and allows him to take the Sword of Omens, the conflict is over. If the goblin loses the will to fight, the conflict is over. And so on and so on and so on.

It doesn’t matter how a conflict is resolved. Once the clash of desires has ended somehow, the conflict ends. And if there are no further conflicts, the dramatic question is answered and the encounter is over.

Multiple Conflicts: Opening More than One Front

In a simple encounter, a single source of conflict is all that is needed. But you can get creative and throw multiple sources of conflict into a scene. You can also create sources of conflict for your sources of conflict.

Imagine the party is traveling to a distant city through the woods and you decide it is time to have some fun with an encounter. So, you start by posing a dramatic question: “can the heroes continue their journey safely.” For a source of conflict, you put in “a warband of hungry orcs that want to kill and eat the party.” But then, you also add “a rainstorm that makes it difficult to see and used ranged weapons.” And then, just to add some hilarity, you add “a forest fire that sweeps across the fire consuming everything it touches.”

The orcs want to kill the party. The party wants to survive the encounter. The rain wants to blind everyone and prevent missile combat. The fire wants to burn everything it can reach. The orcs and the party are in direct opposition. The party wants to live; the orcs want them to die. Now, presumably the orcs also want to live, which brings both the orcs and the heroes into opposition with the fire that wants to burn everything that touches it. The rain is not in opposition to anyone just yet. But the moment someone needs to see clearly or tries to use bow, regardless of who they are. the rain is going to oppose them. So orcs vs. heroes, orcs vs. fire, heroes vs. fire, archers vs. rain.

That is an exciting scene! Maybe too exciting. But no matter. It’ll be fun to watch how it plays out. When you design an encounter, you can add as many sources of conflict as you wish, and more complex encounters need multiple sources of conflict. But you need to think about how your sources of conflict might come into conflict with each other. And you need to think about something else. Because there is actually another conflict in that scene that hasn’t been mentioned. Two, in fact.

Internal Conflicts: It Had to Come Up Eventually

In the Thunderstorm Forest Orc Encounter above, the heroes want to continue their trip but they also want to not die, right? And presumably, the orcs want to be fed, but they also want to not die. So, what happens if the fire threatens to overwhelm the orcs if they keep fighting? We have a new conflict: the orc’s desire to kill and eat the party vs. the orc’s desire to survive. Likewise, if the heroes are in danger of being overrun, will they give up their desire to continue their journey in favor of survival?

These conflicts are called internal conflicts because they happen entirely inside of some force in the game, either the heroes or some external force. Internal conflicts occur because any given thing might have more than one desire, purpose, motive, or goal and, sometimes, those goals clash. Like the paladin who has to choose between doing the just, lawful thing and kind, merciful, good thing.

When an internal conflict arises, the thing experiencing the conflict has to make a choice. Technically, every time anyone at the table, player or DM, has to make a choice, they are resolving an internal conflict. “Do I attack the orc or heal my friend?” Internal conflict.

You (the DM) should never dabble in the heads of the player-characters. That is to say, players are always free to resolve their own internal conflicts. That is what freedom of choice is about, right? Which isn’t to say you should never create sources of internal conflict. When you get skilled, you will learn how powerful it is to plan the seeds of internal conflicts.

I only mention it here to (a) acknowledge that internal conflicts are a thing and (b) to warn you not to become so entrenched in setting up encounters based on sources of conflict that you forget that living, sentient things often want more than one thing at a time. In fact, when I get around to talking about building social interaction encounters, I am going to tell you how vitally important it is to plant internal conflicts in the heads of your NPCs.

For now, just avoid falling into the trap if turning your things into mindless robots that single-mindedly pursue a single motive to the exclusion of all else. Think about the sources of conflict for your sources of conflict.

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18 Responses to Four Things You’ve Never Heard of That Make Encounters Not Suck

  1. JohnnyBravo on May 8, 2013 at 12:04 am

    Another excellent contribution in an already engaging series of articles, Angry.

    It made me reflect on my last session so specifically. I actually had a “three hungry trolls ambush the PC’s” encounter simply because I thought… they should fight three hungry trolls. Keeping the drama in the dramatic question will satisfy players more than anything, at least (I can fortunately say) with my group.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

  2. thehydradm on May 8, 2013 at 2:30 am

    This reminds me of the things I had learned all from disparate sources.

    Microscope RPG tells you to ask questions when you do scenes – as soon as the question is resolved the scene is instantly over. If you thought it should keep going? Obviously a new question needs answering and that’s just a new scene. Swap scene for encounter? You’ve got your article right here, at least part of it.

    Dungeon World, too, teaches you to ask questions and then use the answers in a more general way. But a question could be “how will the players get to the tower of doom past all these orcs?” as easily as it could be “what does the archwizard’s staff do that’s so special?”, and again we’re right back to scene questions that need an answer.

    I’m wondering what sorts of questions you could use within this methodology, though, to deal with “the encounter as a resource drain” as epitomized by whatever old school D&D thing is the new hotness these days. It’s obviously rather gamey to have an encounter specifically for the purpose of taking the wind from the party’s sails, but it seems like you can run a good RPG with encounters of that kind, while this methodology makes it seem like it’d be hard to manage that. Any ideas there?

    • TheAngryDM on May 8, 2013 at 12:11 pm

      You’re dead on the money… an encounter that exists solely to drain the resources of the party is a sucky, sucky encounter. Just not for the reasons you think.

      There is nothing inherently WRONG with encounters that drain resources. After all, it does create a meaningful choice – how many resources does the party expend to deal with the current encounter and how many do they save for their future plans. But DMs screw that up any number of ways. First of all, they forget to make it a choice at all. It is interesting to create an encounter the party WANTS to confront but doesn’t WANT to spend the resources on. It is less interesting to create an encounter where the party just has an encounter jump on them and can’t avoid it. It is even less interesting when they are trapped in the encounter because the DM has decided it must be a combat played to the end and so it will be a combat played to the end.

      Remember that, when the party is trying to acheive a goal in a given amount of time, their goal is to waste as little time as possible. If their goal is to defeat something powerful, their goal is to be as strong as possible when they face it. That means, a smart party will want to avoid all distractions and attrition. A smart party will be looking for ways to avoid or evade those encounters. The DM who drops a combat in front of the party to bleed its resources needs to consider that the party probably wants to engage it as little as possible and allow them to find ways to avoid or circumvent it. The dramatic question becomes “can the party continue their journey safely” not “can the party kill the thingy.”

      But even if you acknowledge all of that, you still can’t run a good encounter without a dramatic question and a source of conflict. Many “attrition” encounters are about fighting something because it is there. And those are BAD encounters. There is nothing wrong with an encounter that is makes the party decide how many resources to waste, but the party still needs a reason to care about the outcome and the DM needs to understand the party’s real goals and leave it up to the party to decide how to handle it.

      Now, all of this is a little above encounter design. This is now getting into adventure design: how a DM strings encounters together. And I’ll get there. I promise. But when I do get there, I am not going to ever say it is okay to ignore these four things. Even an encounter that basically just wastes some random number of resources needs to be a good encounter.

      I mean, look at it like this: you have a choice of using a good encounter or a bad encounter to waste resources. Given the choice, which would you rather populate your game with?

  3. Alphastream on May 8, 2013 at 3:13 am

    Excellent stuff. I am curious what you are considering when you describe ‘structure’, and whether you favor any particular approaches.

    This sounds overly simple, but I tend to use the word “story” when I think about the structure of a scene. I try to think through the possible narratives and what would help create that. Movies such as Indiana Jones are great examples… you have these insects (or green slime) all over the release lever for the trap, a reason to split the party (maybe that key they need is slowly sinking into a vat of green slime), a death trap (spikes from the ceiling on the group not trying to get the key), and maybe an interesting monster. I like to think about how the scene could start, draw in PCs, create those nail-biting conflict, and get resolved in various ways. I also include in this things such as terrain. Having a secret door or a hill as a vantage point can create a nice narrative for the PC that uses that terrain to influence the encounter.

    With skill-heavy scenes I like to also tell a tale. In a city, searching for information, there might be a choice of factions that could provide the information. The choice drives the next event, plus conflict with one or more other factions, creating other events. The structure starts to feel like chapters in a book, though some chapters might not be visited and the order (or participants) can change. It keeps things exciting and provides a variety of experiences.

    I’m not sure if this resembles what you were considering for structure.

    • TheAngryDM on May 8, 2013 at 9:56 am

      Thanks for the response. No, I don’t favor any particular structure. In fact, favoring a structure is dangerous. Because the structure is only as good as what it has to model or do. So, DMs should feel free to invent new structures as they need them to perform specific tasks and the structure will be based on the DMs tolerance for complexity and managing moving pieces.

      You and I aren’t really thinking any differently. A scene really is the smallest thing that can be considered a complete story. It starts with something that has to be done, fixed, resolved, solved, or whatever (a dramatic question) but between the heroes and the resolution is one or conflicts that have to be dealt with. A scene deals with a single question and the conflicts in the way of that resolution. A novel (like an adventure) has many scenes and many questions that all add up to resolve one big honking issue. What you are thinking of in terms of terrain and slimes and trapped gates, I call sources of conflict and decision points. And the reason I do that is because if you start using terms like terrain, obstacle, monster, or whatever, you start to forget all of the other things that can serve the same purpose. In a social interaction scene, the fact that the NPC is important and powerful and will respond poorly to being insulted serves the same purpose as a pit or wall in a combat. Dark Sun would not be the campaign it was if not for the acknolwegdement of the intangible force of Nature as something that can be vengeful and drive conflict.

      And yet, despite all the literary terminology, I do not use the word “story.” And I don’t for two important reasons. First of all, DMs cannot write or plan stories. A story encompasses the actions of the protagonists, which the DM cannot plan. At best, the DM can plan a plot, a sequence of events.

      Secondly, I do not use “story” to remind myself that, as much as a good D&D game might, in the end, resemble a book or movie, the differences between the two media are quite significant. A lot of things change when you assume, for instance, that the audience for the story are also the protagonists in the story (as the player-characters are) and that the story itself is being built up organically. Certain story tools become less efficient or impossible to use. If interactive storytelling is going to mature as a medium (in RPGs and video games, for example), we need to start building our own rules and structures instead of piggybacking off books and movies.

      But that is me making a semantic mountain out of a molehill. After all, even if I refuse to use the word “story,” I’m still talking about the same ideas and structures you are. In the next part (and the part thereafter) of this series when I start applying these tools to encounter building, I hope you’ll see that.

  4. The Story Game GM on May 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Very systematic approach. I like it. I wish I’d read this a year ago, but sometimes lessons must be learned by screwing up.

    It also makes me wonder if you’ve found the definition of a “story game”. You can run many games very badly while still following all of their rules; most story games integrate a part of what you’ve written here and about Actions into their DMing advice or even the rules, like the dramatic questions required for a front in Apocalypse or Dungeon World. So a story game would be a game that you cannot play as written without following at least a few of your rules.

    I respect your reasons for wanting to avoid the term “story.” I do wonder, though, what a game would look like that was structured so as to mandate following your advice. Admittedly, nothing is foolproof.

    What books had the greatest influence on your thinking here, if any?

    • The Angry DM on May 8, 2013 at 11:26 pm

      Story games, at least as you’ve defined them on your site, are not my cup of tea. I have nothing against them as occasional diversions, but they are not where I want to spend my time developing longer, deeper stories. I own Dungeon World (both the initial release that was at GenCon 2011 and the Kickstarted one), but I haven’t run or played it, so I can’t judge it except to say that it really didn’t grab me.

      Personally, I am not sure I would want to play a game that mandated the use of these ideas and built them into the rules. I think they belong firmly in the place of advice about world and story building, not in the mechanics of the game. That said, I think it is a major flaw that many RPGs do not discuss these concepts and I think a lot of mainstream RPGs could do a much, MUCH better job of helping new DMs figure out how to run and build games.

      • The Story Game GM on May 9, 2013 at 4:29 pm

        I agree. I have nothing to compare the 4E Dungeon Master’s Guides to, as that is the only game with an explicit “Dungeon Master’s Guide” book that I’ve ever run. It helped me immensely. But it did emphasize proper usage of the rules over “how do you run a roleplaying game?” information.

        Was there a previous edition Dungeon Master’s Guide or another book that helped you organize your thoughts this way, or is this primarily the result of years and years in the trenches? People talk about the 3.5 DMG being very good; I wouldn’t know.

        You’ve already got a PDF, but once you get through Adventure Design and Campaign Design, you’ll have a genuine ebook. Might be worth getting it edited, laid out, and sold. I know I’d give a copy to anyone who I knew was starting out as a GM – and there’s plenty that veterans might not have thought about explicitly.

        • Mediaprophet on June 27, 2013 at 8:59 am

          Believe it or not, Dungeon Master for Dummies (crazy, I know!) is actually a decent book. I’ve been running various games for decades, and it wasn’t a lot of new information, but it really covers the basics well.

  5. Mediaprophet on May 20, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I posted a discussion on this to Run a Game. I added a little about transparency for the players, and broke down the different steps.

    The “I Win” button is a system problem more often than a GM or Player problem. One — perhaps the main — reason I like 4e over 3rd edition is that 3rd edition D&D or Pathfinder comes with “I Win” buttons at every spell level. Murder mystery? Speak with Dead. Treacherous cliff? Spider Climb. Missing maguffin? Locate object. 4th edition has them, too; but they’re rituals and not as common or powerful; and they cost money — meaning the PCs will try other solutions before pressing “I Win” even if they have access to it.

    I agree that the GM just has to roll with it, but it’s not the only option. Another valid alternative is to step out of game and ask the players. “OK, your character wants to solve the problem in one fell swoop, and has the ability to do so. But do you as a player want to play out the situation, or just get on to the next thing?” Or to ask the table “Which would be more interesting to you guys? Magically solving the murder in the time it takes to cast Speak with Dead or going through finding clues, figuring out what they mean, interviewing townsfolk, and so on?”

    • The Angry DM on May 20, 2013 at 8:09 pm

      No, these are not system problems, except insofar as that any system that includes magic or supernatural powers breaks the rules of reality (which is the point of them). In fact, all of the problems you just cited, are all created by a DM who does not understand the system he or she is running.

      If the players have access to Speak with Dead and the DM decides to run a mystery in which the murder victim’s body is accessible and can identify the killer, the DM wrote a bad adventure. If the DM decides to build an encounter around a cliff and the cliff is all there is when the party has spider climb, the DM planned a bad encounter and better throw a treacherous storm or a winged flock of death harpies or something. And if you, as a DM, cannot deal with that stuff, you need to run a different system because you don’t know how to work with the one you’ve got.

      A murder victim is like any other witness. Maybe he didn’t see everything. Or maybe he doesn’t remember properly. Or maybe he says something the party doesn’t understand until after they’ve investigated further. You have to be pretty close to locate the object, so maybe that only helps near the end of the mission after the players have tracked the stolen object to the right neighborhood. Whatever.

      Stepping out of the game to say “yeah, you guys figured it out but let’s pretend you didn’t for the sake of a more interesting story” is, in my opinion, awful advice. I’m sorry if that sounds a little heavy-handed, but I am not good at sugarcoating. It is like the director of a movie stepping on screen and saying “yeah, I screwed this scene up and we all know it so let’s just pretend I didn’t and move on.” Worse, it sends a message to the players that when they really do come up with something clever and outsmart the game and the DM, the DM is going to take that away from them and force them to find the solution the DM wants to see. That is saying their cleverness doesn’t matter and that their victories will not be rewarded. At that point, why should your players even try?

      Long story short: (1) A DM should know what the players are capable of in the system he or she is running and if he/she can’t keep up with that, he/she needs to pick a different system. (2) A DM should absolutely never, ever step out from the behind the curtain and rob the players of a victory for the sake of telling a more interesting story. That DM is better served letting that story conclude with the players cheering and high-fiving, learning from the experience, and starting a NEW, interesting story.

      • Mediaprophet on May 20, 2013 at 9:49 pm

        Tomato, tomahto. If I have to bend all over to run a murder mystery in one game but not another, it is not a DM problem.

        Sometimes the four other players at the table wanted to play out a puzzle, but the guy with the wizard wanted to steal the glory with a spell the dm forgot he had. Is that the dm’s fault? Yes. He chose the system, so he should deal with it. But can he ask the other players if they want to have an OOC say in how the story goes? I think that’s fair.

        • The Angry DM on May 20, 2013 at 11:46 pm

          If a DM insists on running a game system which makes the types of games he and his players want difficult – when a DM continues to try to pound a square peg into a round hole – there is a problem with the DM. The DM is missing key brain lobes. And I have no sympathy.

          Saying a system is broken because you are trying to do something it really doesn’t handle well is like using a microwave to remove fleas from your cat. I’m sorry your cat is dead, but I really can’t point any fingers at the microwave.

          And, as far as jumping out of character to invalidate an “I win” button? If you want to run your game that way, it is your game. I can’t stop you and I won’t try. But I will not call that good advice and I don’t want people walking away from my site thinking it is. I think it is a very bad precedent to set.

          At this point, we will have to agree to disagree.

  6. Carl Klutzke on June 27, 2013 at 5:06 am

    Excellent stuff. Thank you for writing this. I eagerly await the promised article on encounter design.

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