Thursday, June 23, 2005

Conflict, FLFS Style

A more elaborated version of the short notes I posted before; this is (rather obviously) in draft stage.

Conflict


from Full Light, Full Steam, Storymapping Chapter

If all the characters did was sit around the bridge and look at eachother, the game wouldn't be very enjoyable. Something has to happen so that the characters have something to do. That "something" can be external like a pirate attack on a nearby port, or it can be internal, like one of the characters trying to prove her worth as a soldier. It can be provided by the GM or the other players. Whatever its origin and character, this is conflict, and all conflict has two parts. The conflict must engage the characters' desires and there must be a threat or resistence to the fulfillment of those desires.

Pirates attacking a nearby Russian freighter might pique the character's curiousity, but unless one of the characters really likes Russians or really dislikes pirates, it does not immediately engage them and get them to care. Their response may be -- quite legitimately -- "so what?" Making a British freighter, though, appeals to the characters' sense of patriotism and duty; making the ship's captain someone the characters know and respect appeals to their friendship and loyalty; putting the sister of one of the characters on board the attacked ship really gets their attention. The difference is a matter of immediacy: how close to home does the conflict come? Making conflict personal increases character involvement and player enjoyment.

On the other hand, conflict needs teeth. A player interested in playing out the difficulties of serving as a lady officer will be sorely disappointed if her character is surrounded by people who assume she is as competent as any man. If there is no resistence, there is no conflict, and the players' expectation of playing out that situation is not fulfilled. Giving the lady officer a misogynistic rival gives her something to play about whenever she has to deal with him; making her captain paternally patronizing affects what assignments she is given. If the other players portray their characters as often discounting her abilities due to her gender, the conflict is real and no mere window dressing. Conflict is made to be overcome, and so the rival will be bested, the captain's respect will be earned, and the other player characters will come to value the lady officer. If these victories come too easily, though, there is little satisfaction in winning them.

When creating the Storymap, the GM can find conflicts from two sources: from the characters and from the setting.

Conflict from Characters Players give the GM a list of conflicts they'd like to participate in, often without even knowing it. A character's Thematic Batteries can often be plundered for stimuli that will get an enthusiastic reaction. After all, this is what the character is about -- what better way to make conflict so immediate that it strikes at the core of the character? A character with a "Veteran Pirate Hunter" battery will be engaged when conflicts involve pirates -- either hunting them down as he is used to, or being forced to work with them against a greater threat. The character who is a "Mechanical Genius" will sink her teeth into conflicts where she rehabilitates a derelict ship or shuts down a doomsday device.

Whether the players decide on writing one-paragraph or thirty-page character backgrounds, these are often fertile harvesting grounds for conflict. Old enemies, lifelong friends, and family members can make conflicts personal. Unfinished business, long-held ideals, and lingering regrets not only make related conflicts immediate, but escalate the threat, since no one wants to fail again at something they never quite got over. The general tone of a character's background can also inspire conflicts: characters who are rough-and-tumble survivors will take to challenges out in the wilds, and be challenged by social manuevering in cultured salons; xenophile diplomats will enjoy conflicts which put them between their own culture and those they study.

Conflict from the Setting The Solar System is a complex, dynamic, and especially conflicted place. Nationalistic rivalries, imperial ambitions and the struggles of the colonized, the dogma of proselytizing religion, the mysteries of the unknown -- all of these are laid out for you to exploit however you like.

Moreover, playgroups should feel free to deviate from "setting canon" if they can get a better story out of it. The Solar System is presently at peace as described in this book, but a playgroup who wanted to roleplay through a war need only change a few details to get the martial conflicts they desire. Insectile natives of Mercury, bloodthirsty and cruel, can be added if there is any need for them. The only thing to remember is to make sure everyone is aware of the canon changes that will affect their roleplay -- discovering that ant-people rule Mercury and always have can be rather frustrating when you were expecting a friendly port as described in this book!

Running Multiple and Parallel Conflicts Every story needs at least one conflict; most good stories have more than one. The best stories feature conflicts that conflict with eachother! Keeping multiple conflicts current and engaging can be a difficult balancing act, but there are a few techniques to keep things under control and enjoyable. Limit the conflicts being addressed to something manageable, like three or four at a time. Try to find conflicts that appeal to more than one character, even if they may be on opposite sides. You might choose one to be the "primary conflict" and let the others occupy B-plots that flavor the primary focus. Don't be afraid to resolve conflicts; that just lets you introduce a new one to replace it.

The GM is not alone in juggling conflicts. The other players should also be addressing the current conflicts with their characters. This is almost automatic when the conflict is inspired by their characters, which makes conflicts from characters that much more useful. The GM can communicate what other conflicts are being addressed implicitly by focusing attention on pertinent related events, or explicitly by simply declaring them aloud. Good players will play along, and give useful feedback between sessions.

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