RPG Theory: Creating conflicts

A band of adventurers armed with sword and spell venture underground to kill monsters and claim treasure. That was the original dungeons and dragons concept and it’s propelled the hobby for the subsequent forty years. But games don’t have to be about violence, and, there are lots more ways to set up a good conflict.

The good news is any kind of conflict, whether it involves violence or not can be summarised in the following form

  • I want …
  • I can’t have it because …  and …
  • If I succeed… but if I fail…

The appeal of violence in role-playing games is straightforward, a fight provides the essential narrative elements in condensed form. You’ve got a conflict, you’ve got stakes, you’ve got motivation, all of it right there in the time it takes to say ‘there are five goblins in the room’. If your story isn’t going to feature violence it still needs those things. So let’s look at them one at a time.


I want something, but something else is preventing me from getting it. That, right there, is a conflict. Let’s take a really simple one.

I want a jar of marmalade, but the shelf is too high.

Delicious marmalade
Photo by Calum Lewis on Unsplash

There are a lot of ways to think about this conflict. I could be in conflict with…

  • My environment
  • My own limitations, be that a lack of height or a fear of heights
  • Whoever put the marmalade up there

You can generalise these conflicts to being either the environment, an internal opponent, or an external opponent. We can also add some constraints to make the conflict more interesting. We can add…

  • A hazard – there is lots of clutter in the room
  • A handicap – I’ve been blindfolded
  • An opponent – a hungry raccoon with a taste for marmalade

These constraints are basically just new conflicts added to the original one and come in the same three flavours of internal, external and environmental. Adding a single additional conflict is usually enough to make a situation much more interesting.

He wants marmalade.
He wants marmalade. Image via wikimedia


A conflict requires stakes. What will you win and what will you lose? The classic five goblins in a room setup makes these clear. If you win you get treasure. If you lose, you’re dead. Those are the stakes. But there are lots of other things that could be stakes. Think about putting the following things at risk

  • An ideal
  • Community
  • Comfort
  • Faith
  • Friendship
  • Information
  • Loved ones
  • Pride
  • Physical safety
  • Reputation
  • Romance
  • Status
  • Wealth

Retrieving the marmalade might just be a matter of comfort. But it could have to do with something else, and what that something else might be is probably closely tied to my motivation for trying to retrieve it.


Why am I trying to get this marmalade? I could have an intrinsic motivation (I’m hungry) but there could be other things going on. Maybe my boss wants a marmalade sandwich and my job is on the line. Maybe the marmalade is the only food left in the prison I’ve been trapped in for the last two weeks. Maybe my children want the marmalade and they’ll be really upset if they don’t get it.

The interesting thing about motivation is that it determines the stakes. The reason I want something explains what I lose if I don’t get it, and how I’ll benefit if I do.

Put it all together

So let’s put it all together. My boss wants a marmalade sandwich on his desk by 1PM and has made it clear that my ongoing employment as his assistant depends on it. However the receptionist is out to replace me and so has put the marmalade on a high shelf, removed the light-bulb in the store room and opened the window to let in a hungry raccoon.

That’s one hell of a conflict.

Still, this is an article about conflicts for role-playing games, and we need to boil all this down to something that can be done quickly. So let’s go back to our conflict structure in three statements.

  • I want …
  • I can’t have it because …  and …
  • If I succeed… but if I fail…

Fill in the blanks and you have your conflict.

Layering conflicts

It’s pretty obvious that some conflicts are big and can contain many smaller conflicts. The incident with the receptionist and the marmalade sandwich is clearly part of an ongoing workplace rivalry. The impending conflict with the raccoon is an even smaller part of that.

Here’s a more classical conflict, seen from the antagonist’s point of view

  • I want the ring of power
  • I can’t have it because I don’t know where it is and my enemies are working to stop me finding it
  • If I succeed I will rule the world in darkness, but if I fail I will be destroyed

This is the animating conflict that drives everything which happens in The Lord of the Rings. Even little conflicts like this one

  • I want to join in the dancing
  • I can’t because it will draw attention to me and Gandalf told us to be discrete
  • If I succeed I will be happy for a moment, but if I fail we will all be in more danger

Next week I’ll get back to what was going to be the original subject of this article, running games that don’t feature violence.

Update: Here’s Non Combat Encounters, Hazards and Contests and More on Non-Combat Encounters

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  1. Pingback: Non combat encounters : Natural hazards and contests | Amazing Tales

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