The Conflict Web
Yesterday I told you how to make Scene Frame on the fly, with an easy tool. Here's another prep tool to make scenarios full of conflict for your games. This is part brainstorming and part R-map.
The first question is how big the conflict is going to be. "Big", not measured by the number of characters, but by the number of potential "sides" and subconflicts that might emerge. If you have armies of millions at war, but there's only 2 sides and no betrayals or secondary motivations- it's a very simple conflict (GI Joe). If you have 3 people with multiple motivations, betrayals and layers, it can be terribly messy (House of Flying Daggers).
You don't need to nail down an exact number of potential sides, but you want a good idea before you get to work, so that you don't end up making an intense multilayered George R.R. Martin level of conflict for a one-shot.
A magic number to go with is 3 sides. 3 sides is enough to make things interesting, but not so many people get confused.
Building the Web
Start with any 2 characters in conflict over something. They haven't taken action- yet, but at least one of them will, and the other will have to respond. Write down their names on a sheet of paper, draw a line connecting the two. Put a triangle through the center of the line. The problem cannot end between the two- it has to drag in other people and affect others.
Now, add a character who has a tie to either one or both of the characters on the sheet. Attach a line connecting the characters, and add a symbol based on the following:
Triangle = Antagonistic
Circle = Friendly
Square = Duty/Power/Obligation
Now, keep adding characters connected to other characters, and sub-situations to explain their relationships, particularly looking to stress other relationships. For example, if Amy and Beth hate each other, and Clarissa is friends with them both, that stresses Clarissa's relationships (and makes good drama).
Feel free to add lines between any characters on the sheet if it would make sense for them to be connected. This is a great place to set up sub-conflicts and crazy love triangles.
If you are prepping for a one-shot or so, you probably want to stop anywhere from 3-6 characters. If you are planning on doing a short run, 5-8 characters is usually good. If you are planning on doing something long, 8-20 characters is usually sufficient (you can always add more later...).
Rule of Two Supporters
For any character who is a figurehead to a particular "side", give him or her two supporters who provide different aspects of that particular side. This is an excellent place to put in extreme views of a particular issue, or contrasting takes on it.
For example, if a new religious leader is trying to gain legitimacy for his movement, one of the followers might be an altruistic progressive sort, who just wants to help society, while another might be an extremist with a chip on his shoulder...
This lets you address the same issue from a few different angles, as well as build sub-conflicts within any side, or even alliances from different sides from the supporters...
How do you use this?
This gives a simple visual cue for motivations and relationships between various characters. It also is a great brainstorming device. All the characters end up connected, not a random assortment of disconnected characters who have nothing in common, plus it makes building sub-conflicts a snap. Take the ideas you get from it, and apply it towards building a Conflict Sheet for Flag Framing, or whatever method suits your fancy.
In play, this doesn't see as much use from me, mostly because it charts highly changable relationships, and becomes a logistical hassle to try to upkeep during play itself. It might inspire potential reactions or motivations, but I tend to use it more to prep play and occasionally muse on things between sessions. Sorcerer's R-maps, which track non-changing relationships are a better tool for in play usage.
Advanced Web building
What happens if two characters have different feelings for one another? If you want to get more complicated, you can put two symbols on each line, the one closest to the character's name representing how they feel about the other character.
For example, if Alvin looks up to his father Bill, but Bill only takes care of Alvin out of social pressure, you'd have a Circle next to Alvin, and a Square next to Bill on that line. Ouch! There's bound to be problems somewhere in that relationship, and it's easy to create conflicts based on that kind of stuff.
This may not be the BEST example, but I used this technique to write up the characters in the HeroQuest scenario, Well of Souls, which I wrote with Peter Nordstrand a couple of years ago.
A Standard Shape
Have 3 sides, give each side 2 followers. Some of the followers will be allied, some will be against each other- regardless of the sides they actually hold. This gives you 9 characters, and a couple of sub-conflicts.
This technique is specifically designed to create the crazy multilayered relationships you see in epics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Heroes of the Watershed/All Men are Brothers, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, Njal's Saga, and more modern fiction like Artesia or A Game of Thrones. I've found that it works really well for HeroQuest games, Riddle of Steel, and similar games where politics might play a large role.
Hopefully you will find this useful to generate scenarios, conflicts, and NPCs for your games. I've been using it for a couple of years, and it's worked really well for me. Give it a shot and let me know what you think!