Homebrew RPGs 2: Conflict
© 11 May 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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There are many commercial roleplaying games out there, but often the best games are ones you design yourself.


In my previous post I tried to outline the basics of RPGs. Could have been clearer and more succinct, but it’ll have to do for now. In this post I will explore the types of conflict that form the core of RPG play.

Conflict for the RPG

Stories typically are built with relatively short establishment of a conflict, lengthy exposition of the protagonists’ efforts to resolve that conflict, and relatively short discussion of the results of that resolution. In RPGs this is even more evident because the “‍game‍” is in the effort to resolve the conflict.

It is important to realize up front that a good book and a good RPG are not necessarily the same. Players rarely smile at a “‍clever‍” reveal that demonstrates they were acting on misinformation for the last dozen sessions. Likewise, it’s important to have most scenes involve all the PCs and to have each have an important role to play or else the left-out players get bored or annoyed. Every successful RPG campaign has an ensemble cast and, in almost every case, one single narrative involving the whole ensemble.

Classifying Conflict Types

When you ask players what conflict their PCs are striving to overcome, they most often first look at you like you are weird and then list instead the story objective. Destroying the One Ring isn’t a conflict; knowing how much to trust Sméagol is a conflict. There may be as many conflicts as there are stories, but in interest of instruction I will divide them into four classes:

Social Tension

Romance stories: annoying unless all participants are in on the details. The conflict in most romance stories is that the central characters misunderstand something, making an ideal relationship appear undesirable. Once this fact is understood the conflict vanishes. This is a particularly unsatisfying structure for RPGs, as the reveal has the feeling of the GM toying with the players and invalidating their previous efforts. If this structure is desired, all of the players should be fully in the loop and only the characters struggle under misapprehensions.

Politics, etc.: depends on participant personality and acting ability. Other types of social tension, such as politicking, leading a city or army, or handling a neurotic contact can be enjoyable or dismal depending on the aptitude and attitude of the participants. Try it out, see if it works, and if not never do it again.

Missing Information

Gathering information can be enjoyably role-played, provided the players have clear and productive clues to follow. Fun decision points: meaningful, discernible, and open-ended. As a general rule, players should always be given meaningful decisions (two doors should lead into two different rooms) with multiple “‍correct‍” options (avoid “‍wrong, guess again‍” or, worse, “‍wrong, you die‍”) and ability to make an informed choice (if the road forks, give some clues as to what lies on each fork). If open-ended scenes are given (“‍you arrive at the town several hours after your quarry does. How are you going to find him?‍”) then the GM should work with whatever the players decide.

Contests of Skill

Skill contests: usually a supporting rôle. Use them if both results could help the story (not necessarily help the PCs). The use of skill is usually a small-scale element of a larger narration. Only use them if both success and failure could contribute to the story.

A contest of skill is typically resolved by rolling dice. Many RPGs distinguish between opposed tests and unopposed tests, though this distinction usually has little if any statistical impact. It is also common to include some notion of catastrophic failure and stunning success.

The mechanics of skill contests will get its own post later.


Violence: a mainstay in RPGs Partly because of their ancestry in war games, violence has long been the mainstay of RPGs. Whether it’s wizards battling dragons or a simple bar fight, violence is often the conflict that gets the most game time in an RPG.

There are generally three elements of RPG combat that makes the core “‍game‍” element of an RPG. Combat = contest + damage + rules. First, there is a conflict of skill to see who damages whom. Second, there is a technique to tracking damage and its impact. Third, there is a set of rules that give a feel for what can and cannot be done, providing enough freedom to allow the players to make meaningful decision in combat. The conflicts of skill I will address in a later post; the other two elements I discuss next.

Tracking Damage

Damage: 1 or 2 tracks from healthy to incapacitated. Possibly also some side-effects. There is not a lot of variety in how damage is tracked in RPGs. For most games there’s either one or two counters or tracks that range from fully healthy to terminally damaged. If there are two tracks, one marks short-term damage and the other longer-lasting wounds. Additionally, taking damage may result in temporary or lasting penalties in terms of rules, such as knocking a character off her feet or giving a penalty to some of her dice rolls.

Alternative: hit locations. I suppose there are other options too, but the simple 1 or 2 counters seems by far the most popular. There are a few games that utilize “‍hit locations‍” of some sort: each blow lands on some particular body part with different effects on each. My impression is that this technique is losing popularity, but as I have never really used it I cannot speak to it’s virtue.

Rules of Engagement

Assuming that violence is the most common conflict in the game, it is important to provide the players with freedom to influence its outcome without giving them a blank check to write the ending. That means some kind of rules.

Most RPGs use a turn-based combat. Sometimes everyone describes their actions for the turn before any action is resolved; other times each side or even each character gets to act in sequence. RPGs are split on the use of a battle map and miniatures or verbal descriptions of positioning and action. Typically freedom comes from a wide library of options, various bonuses or penalties for high ground, being prone, etc., and from the GMs willingness to run with the player’s outside-the-rules ideas. Some games go blow-by-blow with half a dozen dice rolls per swing; others generalize all the way up to entire skirmishes being decided by a single die roll.

I personally favor fast-paced combat with a minimum of dice and wearing away at opponents. On that note, I’ll close this post with an alternate lyric I wrote for the Garage Song by Weazer back in my AD&D 2E days:

Your longsword does 1d10
+3 ’cause your awfully strong
Oh no, but you missed again
You tossed the d20 all wrong
The battle scenes are awfully dull
As corpses pile in the hall
I’ll skip them if that’s OK
I like it when we just role-play.
Let’s just role play
If that’s OK

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