Stories, regardless of genre, always need some sort of conflict to be entertaining. Nobody likes reading text books about how to do stuff, don’t lie to me. Considering that RPG sessions are just fragments of a story, the rule still applies. Considering that conflict is the bedrock of everything, sometimes it can feel a little stale and over trodden. Keeping conflict interesting is somewhat of a balancing act throughout the course of a session or campaign. With it being the central piece of it all, it goes without saying that conflict is also incredibly important to the story you want to tell.

It doesn’t take a genius to discover the three types of conflict: physical, social and internal. Physical conflict is probably the most straight forward; it can be with a person or animal, and in some cases even just forces of nature or the environment itself. Sometimes just fighting endless hordes of things that want to kill you can get really repetitive. A well placed villain and his goons are a good fix for that, but making a villain is a completely different art that may be covered in a later segment. Violent and environmental conflict sprinkled together can often times make an otherwise uninteresting physical conflict very complicated and engaging. More importantly, the reason for this escalation to blows is usually the more interesting bit to me. Fighting is more of a blow-off valve to let out some pent up emotions. Reflecting that in a game is a very interesting thing to explore, and sometimes the reason why people even game in the first place.

The perfect ramp-up to a physical conflict is a social one. The moment the fighter has had enough of the snooty politician and decides to punch him in the face, the guards carry out their duty and before you know it you have a brawl in the mayor’s office. It creates this endless cycle of conflict. The first is the social with the politician, the second a physical with the guards, the third a physical with being in jail and the third might happen amidst the jail as an internal conflict on whether or not they should have done that. Social conflicts are basically the meat and potatoes of most games I run, simply because it’s harder for it to be so black and white. It’s the middle ground and segue to both internal and physical conflict, whereas the latter two are the climaxes of a build up. It’s noteworthy, however, that all these conflicts can stand alone without much of a problem, which is extremely interesting to me within this analysis.

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Social conflict can deescalate all on its own and can sometimes relieve tension in a way where physical conflict doesn’t. The politician aiding the PC’s upon seeing some newfound reason, the BBEG surrendering upon threats that the PC’s clearly can back up. They make for memorable moments and also help prevent a severe case of murderhoboitis. What makes social conflict rich is taking into consideration how people deal with these sort of things in the real world. It often has a hell of a lot to do with what the character does with their life, the environment that character may have grown up in and/or what a character has to gain or lose. The reaction to the social conflict is everything, and can be a really awesome and subtle way to characterize an NPC.

So physical conflict can be just plain fun, allowing a player to release some frustration, social conflict can add tension to a situation and makes people think about the possible outcomes. What about internal conflict? It’s easily the most nebulous and difficult to obtain out of the three, simply because you have no control over it. Too many times have I attempted to instill an internal conflict into the mind of a player and blatantly failed. It can come from some of the most unlikely events, however. That’s the funny thing about role playing, honestly. Everybody at the table comes away with something different, everybody leaves changed in a different way. That’s why I think that internal conflict can be some of the most interesting bits of characterization that happen at the table.

Sometimes laying out a seemingly benign adventure hook can send a player character down this spiral of self doubt, uncertainty and frustration. Not in a bad way, of course, but it spurs some thoughts that may have otherwise never popped up. Whereas the choice to pursue a goal or adventure can be almost insignificant on the GM’s side of the screen, it can entirely change the way a player sees their character’s outlook on life. The beauty of it is that if you’re lucky, you can read all this stuff happening on someone’s face.

Internal conflict is the stuff that leads to unlikely decisions being made, internal conflict takes control of the rudder of the boat that is your campaign or game session. I feel like it’s something that is so often overlooked, along with the relationship between the three types of conflict and how they intermingle with one another. If you sit down and think, you’d be amazed at how complex and interesting your story can be.

What do you think?

Stay Metal \m/