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Discovering RPG Conflict in Unexpected Places

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Salutations, nerds! I’ve written about tabletop roleplaying games and what it means to be a Game Master in terms of scenes and what goes into making one. I’d like to touch on a brief recap regarding conflict in RPGs. The only metric that matters in terms of what makes a great RPG scene is if everyone involved in it enjoyed themselves. Some players are perfectly content to roleplay shopping scenes with no conflict. They’ll enjoy the conversations when the time to do so affords. These players are blessings and should not be taken for granted because they make a GM’s job easy. But there are those who won’t be satisfied with these circumstances and don’t mistake me — this doesn’t make them bad players! Conflict is the life blood of the RPG experience. Often the difference between a good story and a boring one is the good story understands a scene really begins when there is a conflict and ends when this conflict is resolved.

Conflict is an RPG Game Master’s best friend

Sometimes, like in those moments when GM prep time is short, it’s okay to gloss over things. Some RPG players don’t like this but for example if there isn’t reasonably going to be any conflict when the party visits the old woman who won’t give them any new information (or she will but it’s easily obtained) it’s okay to tell the players, “You go to the old woman’s hut and this is what you find out.”

In contrast it’s entirely possible players are breezing through the content. There’s three hours blocked out for the session you’re running as the GM, it started a half hour ago and the players are almost halfway through the plot. You need to stretch. You might need some conflict from an unexpected place.

Remember what each character wants

Wherever the characters find themselves they almost certainly came to this particular place for a reason. They came to shop for an item. They came to talk to an NPC. They’re in transit across town, even. These are the moments when you want to think about how to challenge them from achieving their immediate goal. The players say, “We’re going to the Gilded Lion and when we get there –“

“No, no,” you tell them, holding up a hand. “What route are you taking to get there?”

And they’ll tell you. If they’re cutting through alleys then they get jumped. If they’re keeping to the main streets then they are stopped by guards. If they are for some ill conceived reason jumping over the rooftops like mad men (or bat men) then they are accosted by a mysterious figure in a cloak with an entirely face concealing mask who gives them no answers but tells them they must reckon with something in their pasts. Then you take the next week to figure out what the Asmodeus you were talking about when you ended the session on a cliffhanger.

Sometimes goals are as simple as traveling from point A to B. Always be on the look out for places where you can halt the characters’ efforts and give them a little challenge to overcome.

Keep skill checks handy

Sometimes you can’t run an entire RPG side quest. There might not be time for a lengthy endeavor but you need to stretch the session out for another 10-20 minutes. Consider giving them a side conflict requiring a skill check. Two people are shouting at each other on the side of the road and arguing about who actually owns the lamb that got out of the pen and somebody needs to go over there and check their Insight to get things straight.

(Admittedly you might have a smart ass character who tries to pull a Solomon here. Without diverting too far from the point I think suggesting cutting the baby in half was stupid in the first place because the plan is predicated on the idea the woman who stole the baby would be fine with cutting a baby in half. If it’s a lamb you might end up with the opposite problem — half the meat is better than none. Both farmers might be fine with this.)

A cart crashes and a character makes an Athletics checks to dive out of the line of fire. Maybe the party finds a burning building with a couple of olds in it who need rescuing. You get the gist.

The point I’m getting at, nerds, is RPG scenes don’t all have to do with the main plot. As long as there’s a clear goal and some conflict stopping them from achieving it then it’s going to be a fun time. And gods! Be clear because RPG players are notoriously bad at guessing what to do next. Of course, I always want to hear your stories so please comment if you’re inclined or tweet me @Pyrosynthesis and as always, stay nerdy!

*Featured image — Conflict can come for an RPG character anywhere at anytime. If you thought a simple visit to the outhouse was safe Friend in Need aims to make you think again! [Illustration by Kim Van Deun]

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Robin Miller

Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Robin Miller lives in southern Ohio where they keep mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. They have a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and they are happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Their fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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