Know Your Conflicts

Posted: January 26, 2012 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Roleplaying Games

Sometimes it’s easy for GMs and players to make the mistake of thinking that Combat is the only form of conflict that can harm characters. While combat is admittedly one of the easiest and most obvious means to inject tension in a game, it always helps to remember that there are other ways by which a game can present challenges that engage players.

Those familiar with the study of Literature have most likely run into a list of the different kinds of conflict before, but I think it bears repeating here:

  • Man vs. Man – This is conflict between two characters of the same kind.  Combat is usually found here, though battles of wits are also part of this.
  • Man vs. Nature – This is the central conflict involved in stories about survival against the forces of nature.  Despite being such a primal sort of struggle, I don’t seem to see a lot of GMs use this sort of thing on characters.  I think many fans of Rangers and other survivalist characters would rejoice at seeing more of these challenges.
  • Man vs. Self – This is the sort of conflict that I would love to see more of.  Among the others in this list, this has to be the hardest to encourage since it has to come from the Player himself.  This sort of conflict deals with a character struggling with an aspect of themselves.  Tough moral choices, as well as crucial life-changing decisions are the sort of things that this form of conflict deals with.
  • Man vs. Society – It takes a special sort of campaign to set up this sort of conflict, as it requires the players to be passionate about overturning the status quo.  Whether they’re rebels fighting against the established order, or a man going up against the apathy of modern society, this sort of game is usually not that common.  That said, this can also be one of the most rewarding once the changes that the player characters are fighting for start manifesting.
  • Man vs. Supernatural – Man against something that he cannot comprehend.  Call of Cthulhu practically owns this sort of conflict, but it can also be used for any genre.  Ridley Scott’s Alien, and John Carpenter’s The Thing are both excellent films that use this.  This is a nice conflict to use but GMs have to be extra careful to not make it so bleak as to make resistance pointless.
  • Man vs. Destiny – Interestingly this is another good conflict to try one time.  Fighting against destiny resonates deeply in a lot of people, and the idea of being able to change their fate is the sort of thing that could be the seeds of an Epic campaign.  Even now I’m seeing this work in a Supers campaign where the heroes are told by some sort of cosmic space god that they’re destiny is the doom of the world… and now the characters have to make sure that never happens.

GMs who are looking to try something new should consider mixing it up by tossing together two or more of these  forms of conflict in a single session.  It may add complexity, but it also adds further depth and challenge that your players may find more interesting than just another fight against a group of monsters.

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