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.