Walk, Don’t Run To Conflict

Fictional conflict is often the centerpiece of game design and as such the texts advocate “getting to the conflicts.” I believe that historically texts have over emphasized this central point from bad play experiences characterized by players spending whole sessions describing their characters shopping or having their characters sitting around chatting about their fictional lives. These kinds of play experiences were sometimes lauded as “incredible” because “we never had to roll the dice.” The central play skill was *avoiding* conflicts so as not to resort to “roll-playing.” These texts were written to show that dramatic confrontations that turned on die roll could be as emotionally engaging as any “pure” role-playing experience.

Unfortunately this idea of “driving to conflict” has been taken to a problematic extreme. What I’ve observed is groups struggling to introduce conflict into a scene if it appears that scene is about to end without one. The central play skill has shifted to *making* conflicts. This leads to all kinds of weird pseudo-conflicts over things like whether or not someone realizes something, or notices something or even feels one way or another or worse whether it’s ninjas or pirates that attack. They feel forced and contrived… and that’s because they are.

It comes down to the fact that play can be about “driving to conflict” without every single scene having a conflict in it. Indeed, for conflict to occur characters must have things over which they conflict. The difference between the kind of role-playing that early indie-texts were afraid of and good solid story building role-playing is that the scenes without conflicts point towards what conflicts will arise later. These non-conflict scenes establish key beliefs, priorities, loyalties, and passions which later elements of the narrative will threaten. With out scenes that first establish and then later update and develop these character elements “conflict” is essentially a meaningless term.

When you let go of the “must have conflict NOW” urge then play progresses much more smoothly and much more naturally. Establishing scenes becomes more about feeding curiosity, “I’d like to see how X and Y interact” or follow up action, “Given what’s just happened I’d like my character to do X.” The play skill involved becomes about *identifying* conflicts when they occur.

Sit back. Relax. Play Passionately.

5 Responses to “Walk, Don’t Run To Conflict”

  1. brandrobins Says:

    Conflict without context and care is simple sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  2. In the Primetime Adventures miniseries I produced a few months ago, I found that the mechanics worked better if had conflcits early. Without them, there were no chips in the kitty for fan mail. In the first couple sessions, I pushed things and conflicts were contrived, so the play suffered. The conflicts weren’t “Do I open this door?” thankfully, but suffice to say, they weren’t terribly motivated.

    I think the miniseries would have benefitted from starting in media res at a legitimate point of tension. This contradicts your assertion of letting things build, but I feel it is the best approach of working within PTA to get meaningful conflicts early so the juicy economy of fan mail can help to drive later play.

  3. I think there’s a slight difference between “starting with a bang” and “forcing conflict.” A lot of TV shows open up with a pre-credits crisis that requires the characters leap to immediate action. That action does not necessarily always lead into a conflict but sometimes it does. If you use that kind of opening, and that kind of opening produces an immediately obvious and tangible conflict then awesome, grab the cards.

    All I’m advising against is contriving a conflict when there isn’t any. That’s completely different then framing a scene directly to a real and legitimate point of tension that is highly like to produce a conflict. I’m against the former and wholly endorse the latter.

  4. tonydowler Says:

    Hi! I just discovered your blog through John Harper’s Mighty Atom blog.

    I heartily agree with your post. There’s a lesson here that gets obscured easily. Driving to conflict isn’t necessarily a bad technique. It was the cornerstone of our play group’s style for over 5 years.

    Then I played a game with someone else. It was a game I’d designed, built around our group’s style, strongly supporting early conflicts. The GM stridently refused to be rushed to conflict. After I got over my frustration, I saw a lot of positive elements emerge in our play and in the game that I had missed. Now I’m tyring to be a bit more patient in how I get to conflict, and it’s paying off.

    • Welcome!

      It’s interesting because I still consider what I’m talking about to be within the scope of “Driving To Conflict.” Consider an analogy from Volleyball. Usually one player hits the ball in the air so that another player can spike it over the net. However, you wouldn’t say, “Well, that first player isn’t really concerned with scoring.” Everything that first player is doing is about scoring, just not immediately.

      You can still be driving towards conflict with the scene’s content. The conflict just isn’t necessarily right here in this scene.


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