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Saturday, February 04, 2006

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.

How Big?

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.

Strong Points

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!

Read before commenting. Thanks!


Linnaeus said...

Wow! Another amazing post, Chris. I'll be getting a lot of use out of this.

11:11 PM  
Joshua BishopRoby said...

This sort of thing -- both your Flag Framing and this Conflict Web -- can be tooled for specific games. Town Creation is one good example in Dogs in the Vineyard. I look forward to the day when this sort of step-by-step procedural recipe takes the place of the inane "Where do you get your ideas?" segments in the GM Sections of all RPGs.

4:57 PM  
Frank said...

Joshua - definitely.

Thought tumbling through my this type of thing out for my Troll Slayer project. I really don't see any reason this couldn't be part of a tactical wargamey gamist design. And as dogs shows, you can still have at least a semblance of a "party" and have this kind of flag/relationship driven conflict. Of course one could also set up a more cuthroat gamist game, I just tend to favor a general sense of "party unity."


6:08 PM  
Bankuei said...

Hi Joshua,

Yeah, both were outgrowths from the lack of such advice in traditional games, which is why they're pretty useful all around in that regard.

Still though- I'd rather simply go with the whole group making suggestions to scene frame rather than shoulder the burden alone as a GM.

The major problem that both of these techniques is that if you lack Flags, or some other mechanic for players to input into the game, you might just end up prepping, praying, and hoping to get buy-in.

7:19 PM  
Bankuei said...

Hi Frank,

Both of the techniques I've described do jack squat for helping get a good challenge. They do a great job of setting up neat and dramatic justifications for a conflict, but nothing in terms of making it balanced, challenging or fun.

Totally different purposes, man.

7:21 PM  
Ben said...

Hey, Frank --

Here's my million dollar question right now: What's the Gamist equivalent of Flags?


4:28 AM  
Troy_Costisick said...


What's the Gamist equivalent of Flags?

-Is there an "equivalent" or are they the exact same thing in two different applications? I mean, take for instance a character in a narrativist game has a trait of "Abused as a child." Say that comes into play in scene after scene in a game as a bonus to ecnourage that trait to be explored as a theme. Conversely, take a character in a Gamist game that has the Trait "Abused as a child" and it comes up in scene after scene as a bonus die to help the player win his contests.

-These mechanics are almost exactly the same. It's the creative agenda of the players that are different. I don't see Flags as tied to one agenda or another. All three can use them, IMO.

-I have no problem envisioning a near clone of Dogs in the Vineyard where the object is not to explore thematic play/morality but to "win" each town the player-characters come to.



5:45 AM  
Linnaeus said...

Funnily enough, I got to thinking about frank's question independantly after digesting the thread cited at the beginning of Chris's last post (that I initiated). I eventually came to the conclusion that Cool Powers are gamist flags.


In D&D/d20 Feats are flags.

In gamist-drifted TSoY (for the sake of another example), Secrets are flags.

In Victor Gijbers nascent gamist design the class abilities that the players choose would be flags.

The gamist equivalent of Flag Framing would be designing the encounters in such a way that it allows each player to show off one of his character's Cool Powers by making it a clearly superior way of overcoming an obstacle that has been designed into the situation.

Alas, I don't have a clear example I can give of how this would work, but maybe someone else can take this idea and run with it.

6:08 AM  
Linnaeus said...

I'm going to create a thread on Story Games>story-games to discuss the idea of Cool Powers as gamist flags so we don't hijack Chris's blog.

Should be up soon.

7:00 AM  
Matt Wilson said...

This is very rad. It should go in all games, like for example mine. IN FACT I'M STEALING IT RIGHT NOW!

2:43 PM  
Joshua BishopRoby said...

I'd rather simply go with the whole group making suggestions to scene frame rather than shoulder the burden alone as a GM.

Ain't nothin says that it's got to be the GM's job to do this; I just said it replaces the limp-wristed bullshit that currently occupies the GM section.

In fact when playtesting FLFS, I was very impressed with how well the Situation-Creation mechanics worked when performed collaboratively, with everybody at the table joining in. Especially with clear step-by-step procedures, a GM is not necessary to create a situation.

3:27 PM  
Ben said...

Feats are bad flags. Why? Because if you are constantly in a situation where your feats come up, your success is more-or-less assured.

For Gamism, we need to not think in terms of resources, but think in terms of challenge.


5:09 PM  
xenopulse said...

Yeah, I'm stealing this too. This is great stuff, Chris. I read Well of Souls a long time ago, but it slipped my mind that you were one of the two writers.

8:53 AM  

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