Where Conflict and Tension Comes From in 5E D&D

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Salutations, nerds! Today we’re going to be talking about conflict in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. I’m not talking about the big bad evil creature and the general conflict of the campaign, of course. I mean the scene-to-scene conflict. Have you ever found yourself sitting at the gaming table in a scene where everyone was hanging out and nothing was going wrong? It can be pretty good once in a while just to hang out in character and let your party chill together, but if it goes on too long it starts to drag. If you have a conflict in every scene, however, even the minutiae of shopping for supplies can be made tense and interesting.

Conflict and where it comes from in 5E D&D

So you may be asking yourself, where does conflict come from? How can you keep things tense, throw sand in the gears — and in your scenes — to make sure your player characters are always working against something? Part is just what it says on the tin: making sure characters work against something. At its core, conflict comes from one person wanting something, and for one reason or another, not being able to get it.

So your step one is figure out what your characters want in this scene. Someone should want something. If they’re shopping, they want goods and probably to get a good deal on them. If they’re chilling in a tavern, they want to have a good time or to get drinks. How can you stop them from getting those things and therefore keep things interesting?

General unpleasantness

Unpleasant people are a big pain to deal with. When someone is rude to you it leaves a foul taste in your mouth. In real life, we don’t get to turn around and smack those people in the mouth for their sourness, but in 5E D&D that’s absolutely a valid option. Maybe we’re not the kinds of people to start bar fights in real life, but our D&D characters are a good way to express this side of ourselves — the side that wants to — without suffering the real life consequences for it.

Have someone be rude. Have someone condescend to the halfling character. Have someone make disparaging comment about scalies to the dragonborn. Have someone get too drunk and try to start fights with people in the bar or have a shopkeeper refuse to serve the party because they just don’t like adventurers.

(No really, I imagine a lot of locals have the same problems with adventurers many of us do with tourists in our towns.)

It can be incredibly fun to shut a rude person down, and it can add flavor to an otherwise bland “let’s drink at the tavern” or “let’s resupply” scene.

Caveat: Don’t pick something that exists in real life for someone to be rude about. I’m not suggesting you have the bartender start being a sexist pig to your one female character in the party because conflict, for example. We get enough of this in real life and even if you have never done it personally, if your player has ever had another Dungeon Master, they’ve probably had to deal with it before. Pick on the character, not the player.

D&D adventuring party 5E D&D conflict tension
Plenty of conflict and tension in Baldur’s Gate. A D&D adventuring party can easily include the same kind of tension and conflict when one of the party secret works to subvert the others. [Art courtesy Avalon Hill]

Conflicting goals

Of course not every NPC can be unpleasant, nor should they. Sometimes you’re going to have characters who the party generally gets along with but who sometimes show up with a conflict of interest.

The characters want to get a good deal on a particular magic item, but this merchant wants a good deal from selling it. They might end up haggling it.

Shallow example? All right, let’s try another one. Your adventurers need to get some information about the Duke of Cornberg. Lady Grace doesn’t want to give it to them because she doesn’t want to get the Duke of Cornberg in trouble, or cause him any sort of fuss, but they have to convince her to tell them anyway.

The adventurers need to get into this exclusive party and the bouncer wants to keep his job.

The adventurers need someone to decode a treasure map but the wizard they usually hire for this sort of thing is incredibly busy right now and not having it.

These things are small conflicts that can spice up casual interactions. You’ll notice none of them are serious enough to make a whole session out of, but we’ll call them stumbling blocks to the road of adventure.

Be warned, though, characters tend to be really entitled. I don’t know about you, but my players tend to wrack up a list of vendettas against anyone who ever tries to tell them no, so be careful about which NPCs you try this with.

Uncertainty

Someone else gets into a bidding war with the party over an item they want at auction. Suddenly they are not certainly walking out with this item. There is doubt. That uncertainty gives conflict.

This is where the conflict of a romantic arc comes from as well. The “will they or won’t they.”

Again, it comes down to paying attention to the things the characters want. If they want something, leave it in doubt as to whether or not they’ll get it and it will create tension where no obvious tension is there to be found. After all, there’s no point in playing 5E D&D if you win easily at every single thing you try to do. Sometimes there should be resistance, and often just the presence of someone else who could obtain the thing you really want is enough to make that resistance felt.

Do you have a favorite source of conflict and tension aside from the obvious? Any tricks up your sleeve for when things are starting to drag a bit? A good story of when a DM ran something for one of your characters along these lines? Please let me know in the comments below, and as always, stay nerdy.

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Follow Megan R. Miller:
Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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