Friday, June 24, 2005


As I have often said. Great art requires conflict. The only sort of art without conflict is that which you find bolted to the wall in a hotel room.

Great gaming also requires conflict. But here is something I am coming to understand about the nature of conflict.

Conflict is a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum you have everything being resolved with violence. On the other end, there are slowly simmering resentments and hatreds that make for sniping and character assassination. Both have their place. Both ends of the spectrum are useful and all points in between.

In many games I've been involved in, Violence seems to be the first option of most players. If the game is designed that way and if the GM has trained them to that style of gaming then that's what they'll do every time.

Training is important. Gm's train players all the time. Some GM's train players never to split up or explore then unfinished part of the dungeon. Some train them that if they pull their guns they've already lost and others train them to believe that all threats need to be beaten with a stick until it stops moving. These approaches have their place but in the end the GM ends up trapped by the training that his players have received. Sadly, these approaches can make a tabletop game or larp go in bad and undesired directions. By sticking to one level of conflict you can keep a game from being its best.

Case in point: Jenna (my Occasional Co-GM) is a master at weaving a tangly web of interpersonal relationships and in-character angst. She loathes and despises combat. (which is a shame because she's better at running it than she thinks.) As a result, At times, a truly satisfying beatdown of the antagonists is usually not forthcoming and this can be frustrating. Conversely, my style tends to be more slam bang action movie style and the various relationships of the characters can get a bit of short shrift.

I participate in a larp where the ST staff for the longest time ran all manner of antagonists as NPC's. As a result, the players sort of got into video game mode in terms of dealing with threats. Now, snubs are met with extreme violence and trouble devolves into huge running gun battles every session.

I am in another larp that is only now finding it's way to using conflicts from both sides of the spectrum. In a good vampire larp you should have room for brujah to beat on one another and for Toreador to pepper one another with veiled insults.

This is why I am not a proponent of Monster of the Week problems in a larp.

if you're playing a investigator type of some sort of social bee type then you have no business mucking in with the gun bunnies and combat monsters when the ST decides to have the bad guys show up with a monstrous War Ghoul in tow.

Which means you either go anyway and get your ass beaten in for you or you'll not go and be bored out of your tiny mind if the ST's have nothing else going on.

Multiple levels of conflict are a necessity. They also tend to make for additional texture and dimensions in both TT and Larp.

Let's take a look at various types of conflict and how they can made to work.

Man vs Man (or whatever)

A Hero is only as good as the villain he finds himself up against. So it behooves GM's to create suitably horrifying villains and make them very bad indeed. Naturally, some care must be taken to keep bad guys from being too god-like or players will get discouraged. The Antagonist must be a challenge not a mallet to beat players down with.

Now, good guys and bad guys are very simple and easy to put together and everybody understands them. Black and white morality is good for the movies but not always for games (Depending on the tone of the game. A pulpy game requires it. a film noir style game needs it's antithesis.)

But what about a situation where each and every faction has a portion of the truth and is committed to being right and true. Take an average Vampire Larp:

On one side you have powerful Camarilla elders who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They want to keep violence at a minimum, they take proprietarial pride in the cities they control and have no respect for anarch who demand rights and concessions in a city they didn't help build. They try to create an orderly and relatively safe existence. They may be a bunch of evil old bastards but they keep the chaos of the Sabbat at bay and try not to damage the world of mortals more than is strictly necessary. They remember what happened during the Inquisition and how the humans reacted and they know it could happen again.

On another side, you have the Anarchs. All they want is to be left alone, to be free of the oppressive hand of vampire politics. They want the Camarilla's gerontocracy to fall apart so that vampires may govern themselves without the draconian laws of the evil old bastards. While they may share certain ideas about freedom with the Sabbat, they haven't cast aside their humanity and don't generally treat humans like cattle. They may even believe that the Camarilla is lying about damn near everything but they still don't side with the Sabbat because as bad the Camarilla is, the Sabbat is an engine of chaos and destruction.

Then of course is the Sabbat. They know the lies the Camarilla have promulgated over the centuries. They know the real threat that the Antediluvians present to all of vampire-kind. They have forged themselves into a lean mean fighting machine built to destroy the powerful elders (read = tools) and they have made themselves into a powerful religious crusade in the name of freedom from slavery. If they have had to cast aside their humanity in the quest to stop them, then so be it. At least it's more honest than the Camarilla vampires trying to pretend to be something they aren't...Human. And if the Anarchs are too weak or stupid to see they share common cause, then they are merely another obstacle to be overcome.

Now...Here's a telling question. Who is the bad guy in all this? Who wears the cape? Who wears the black hat and the Simon Legree mustache?

Isn't it more interesting to have everybody to be right? Or is it more interesting to have one group be the definite bad guys? Each group can have it's idealists and it's crapweasle pragmatists. Each group can have it's soldiers who believe in the cause and it's scumbags who will sell out for a wrinkly dollar. That may not make for straightforward play but it can make for much better DRAMA.

Let's take another direction. Say that you get involved in a situation where it seems very clear as to who the bad guy is and who the good guy is. But it turns out that you are dead wrong.

Take the television show "Alias" for example. Here you have a young Sydney Bristow who gets false flag recruited by SD-6. She thinks that she's working for the CIA but she's actually working for a cabal of creepy old gits who are trying to take over the world. It's only in discovering who the bad people are and how she's been aiding them all along that you have the real drama. Cyberpunk and Shadowrun and Delta Green are full of these sorts of conflicts.

Man Vs Nature

Nature is a powerful force. In fact, it's more powerful than you. It's *always* going to be more powerful than you. I don't care if you've got a trenchcoat and Katanna and you're a lesbian stripper ninja master. If you go up against a hurricane, you are going to LOSE.

Natural events are unpredictable and potent and affect everyone in their path. When Nature goes wild, the wise try to keep low or preserve what they can in the face of it.

Natural events, by themselves can make the simplest of actions into a major operation. An ice storm can cripple an entire city for weeks at the height of winter and it can make it impossible to drive 4 blocks without an accident.

Natural events can be serious trouble in urban settings too. A massive power outage can cause major chaos and in the aforementioned vampire larp could be seen as both a disaster and a major opportunity. Major Earthquakes and urban fires however are going to be scary to both vampires and humans and hysteria is as contagious as biological weapons.

Not only are meteorological phenomenon a possibility but anybody who's watched long stretches of Animal Planet on cable may have a few ideas about a horrific adventure or two themselves. Take three groups of adventurers looking for a lost relic in darkest African bush. They may compete at trying to find the relic all they like only to find that once they get near the place where the relic is supposed to be, they've walked squarely into a situation straight out of "Leningen and the Ants". At that point the adventure stops being about relics and competition but about surviving a natural onslaught with the help of former competitors. If you're especially cruel, you might decide to mix in a dash of Cthulhu mythos in that mix and that is some serious shit. In fact, one could make a case that the entirety of the CoC game is an example of Man Vs. Nature.

Man Vs. Himself

This form of conflict requires work. It requires work on the part of the Gm and on the part of the players and that is why it tends to be the rarest form of conflict seen in gaming. Literature and film are full of examples of a character dealing with some sort of internal trouble. It requires a certain knowledge of the character in question in order to create situations that the character has to respond to. It requires from the player a certain amount of flexibility in terms of being willing occasionally to allow his character to be vulnerable. The phrase "But my character would never get into that situation." kills more story possibilities than it helps the character.

Let me create an example: Say you have a character who is a decent fella. Heroic in his own way, but maybe in a high stress situation or unable to deal with pressure for some reason. He may be competent in his field and helpful to his teammates. He might even be able to keep it together for long stretches of time...At least, until he has an opportunity to get himself very drunk. And then he falls apart.

This sort of situation requires the knowledge of the GM of the PC's problem and the ability to work in situations where incipient alcoholism comes into the main storyline. The Gm may be able to get to the point in gaming where the character is in a high stress situation and simply say to him. "You got a bad case of the shakes and serious cottonmouth." and leave it to the player to deal with the fact that his character wants a drink so badly that he'd sell a kidney. The player, conversely must realize that taking disadvantages in any game system is not mere point engineering. It is taking on a responsibility to behave in certain ways in certain situations. Don't do it unless you can actually manage to live up to those responsibilities.

You should also consider the consequences of resolving internal conflicts. If you create a character who is wound up tight in his quest for vengeance against the people who killed his family, what will you do when you finally manage to achieve your revenge? Will you have any motivation to do anything after that? What happens if you finally find the man responsible for the death of your family only to discover that he's repented his sins and only wants to find peace from his past transgressions. What if your revenge becomes hollow?

These are the sort of things that both GM and Player have to consider.

Man vs. Himself storylines are rarely wrapped up in a neat package nor are they dealt with quickly and easily. There are situations where the stuff of heroism comes out of a character facing a phobia of his in order to save someone else. In which case, you should play it for all you are worth. (whether you are GM or player.) This sort of play is definitely for the advanced group but it is rewarding in the extreme.

Sono Finito


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