Searching for My Neo-Fantasy: Conflict and Motivation

Posted: August 4, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Campaign Design, Roleplaying Games

Every RPG setting should have some form of conflict.  A game with a perfectly acceptable status quo is one which will fail to provide any motivation to change it.  Conflict may come from a variety of sources and take on a variety of forms, but what is important is that it has to be sufficient to encourage heroism.

Perhaps this is why military conflict is the most common form of conflict in RPGs.  Physical conflict is easy, it’s a primal issue, something hard-wired into our lizard brains.  Something means to cause us harm, therefore we must either face it and defeat it, or find a means to avoid it by sealing it away or otherwise making it impossible to catch us.

That said, the nature of the conflicts in a given setting merits much thought.  Social conflict is interesting, and tricky, it’s the kind of conflict that works best for settings with a strong social aspect to it, such as Legend of the Five Rings, which has tangible effects for characters with low Honor.  Internal conflict is by far the hardest to implement, and while I’m certain there are games that excel at making internal conflict the centerpiece of the game, it’s something that I have little experience with.

That said, let’s look at possibilities that can drive a campaign forward:

  • Patriotism – The Us vs. Them conflict is as old as time.  As long as there are two people in a room, there’s politics, and as long as there are two countries, there’s patriotism.  This is a no-brainer approach for espionage and war campaigns, and is a good fuel for character motivation.
  • We can’t go home – Losing a home is also a good source of conflict.  Whether they be masterless ronin in a samurai game, or part of the losing side of a war (like Firefly’s Browncoats,) the loss generates a strong bond between the survivors and gives them a reason to fight for a way to achieve their lost status or glory.
  • Revenge – This is another no-brainer.  Somewhat related to the above point, revenge is a powerful vehicle for characters who would otherwise not care to know each other to work together if it means getting back at those who hurt them.
  • Survival – Perhaps the opposite of Revenge, survival forces people to work together in order to endure a tormentor or a dire situation.
  • Profit – Just because you haven’t lost anything doesn’t mean that there isn’t far much more to gain.  I don’t often see this particular type of conflict in a game, but urban campaigns involving wars between gangs and cyberpunk games with rival corporations fit this bill rather well.
  • Redemption – This one might be a challenge to those who don’t like to play a lot of internal conflict, but a quest for redemption is an excellent way to kick off a campaign.  Supers campaigns can be interesting with this setup, with reformed supervillains trying to earn the trust of a city that is wary of them.
Of course, each and every one of these is not meant to stand alone.  In fact most good stories come from the various motivations maturing, and a lot of fantasy stories in particular begin with a protagonist with no real motivation.  Luke Skywalker, Garion and even Rand al’Thor started as mere boys that had sudden urges to poke at things listlessly with sticks.  But that said, they were swept up in things and were forced to acknowledge that they had other goals, as their former lives were no longer available to them.
So what does this mean for the campaign setting I’m building?  Well, I need to decide what kinds of conflict I want to focus on.  While games that focus on Patriotism and Revenge are easy enough to do (and now I’m suddenly inspired to see a Fight Club / Kill Bill / The Usual Suspects take on a Summer Court Changeling Motely let loose upon the world with a plan to take on their Keeper for good.) I’m looking at something a little more complex.
It’s a lot to chew on honestly, and perhaps I’ll need to come back to this after I deal with tomorrow’s issue:  Character.
  1. Joshua says:

    Just because adventures need a conflict and characters need a motivation doesn’t mean that there has to be an overarching conflict baked into the setting. Personally I prefer settings that are open to the characters individual motives driving the action.

    As an aside, Profit is the most common basic motive in RPGs… it’s the heart of D&D and Traveller, and makes a fairly large part of most of the ones following, even if it becomes an instrumental goal in accomplishing a larger task.

    • Hey Joshua!

      I actually go with your preference here, I like it when characters have sufficient motive to go out and drive the action themselves, but given my personal experience as a GM, I’ve seen far more players who are content to sit around until the world forces them to shift.

  2. Hikkikomori says:

    External Conflicts are easier to concoct than Internal Conflicts.

    Because Internal Conflicts require Player cooperation in order for it to be fully realized.
    Internal Conflicts rely on a Character’s Motivations and how he will surpass or succumb to it.

    Going either way creates the elusive Character Development.

  3. Loren says:

    I’ve found Georges Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations to be a good source for this kind of thing. You can find it here.

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