The gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons (and of any TTRPG, really), can consist of many different things: Challenging combat, complicated puzzles, deep roleplaying, and so much more. In its core, however, D&D is a shared narrative experience. That is to say, it functions like a shared narrative, which means it might be interesting to apply narrative techniques to it. Today, I want to focus on the central conflict of a setting, and some ideas to flesh that out.
Why Even Think About This?
A central conflict inherently provides themes to structure your campaign around, and can provide motivation and background for one or more Big Bad Evil Guys within your campaign. These conflicts provide context to narrative choices made by your players, and will (hopefully) have them think about their choices and consequences until long after the session.
Types of Conflict
Since I’m not writing a dissertation, I am going to use Wikipedia as a source. The page on conflict in narratives gives us a variety to work with:
- Man against man
- Man against nature
- Man against self
- Man against society
- Man against machine
- Man against fate
- Man against supernatural/god
Take note that this does not imply that the party/players will always be the “man” in the conflict. It simply refers to the central conflict/themes taking place in the setting.
I’ve included slightly more detailed examples of every type of conflict. As I was writing those, I noticed that most of them seem to mix in a natural way: A man-against-nature conflict might intersect with a man-against-society conflict, for instance. I think you definitely shouldn’t be scared of mixing as you go along, or of having one type of conflict morph into another one (“It was actually about man-against-nature all along!”)
Man Against Man
“Man against man” conflict involves stories where characters are against each other.Wikipedia, lol
A classic! Man against man-conflicts can involve all sorts of stories: War, revenge, andsoforth. But, how do we use it to actually structure a story? What deeper themes are there to explore in a man against man conflict?
Motivations For Murder
For one, the motivations of the antagonist can provide a lot of depth. After all, so many instances of real-life man-against-man violence has us wondering, “Why?”.
Let’s take a real-life example. In this article on the motivations to commit violence, we find the following:
The commonality was that the primary motivations were moral. This means that the perpetrators of violence felt like what they are doing was morally right. In fact, when they were committing the act, they perceived that not acting would be morally wrong.Tage Rai, “Most violence in the world is motivated by personal morality”
Take a look at the various cultures in your world: What if a certain culture just has distinctly different values, and, for instance, considers a certain region their holy birthright, due to recently discovering that it holds ruins of their ancient long lost capital city? The important thing here is to find ways for the antagonist to be justified in their actions to some degree; at least to such a degree that the players can emphasize, for instance by realizing that if only they were born somewhere else, their perspective might be very much different.
King Aedan has been overthrown by his brother, who is now ruling the land. The party consists of lifelong allies of the former king, and must find a way to take back the throne. However, the new king is surprisingly popular: what is going on here? Is it propaganda, or are things, in fact, better this way?
Man Against Nature
“Man against nature” conflict is an external struggle positioning the character against an animal or a force of nature, such as a storm or tornado or snow”Wikipedia
Nature is unstoppable and non-negotiable. Picture an impending once-in-a-century storm approaching the lovely town the players have been trying to protect, with only a set number of days to prepare the best they can. This can tie into a man-against-man conflict. People are desperate to survive, what is the real threat, the storm or the people, et cetera et cetera.
Exactly because the threat of nature gone rampant is so easy to understand, this provides an easy motivation. We all have the desire to survive, it’s just a question of how far you will go.
Nature can also be a resource, to be preserved & protected or exploited & consumed (just like real life!).
It started so innocently: the wild stock suddenly being more restless than usual. The old shaman in town reacted not so amused, however: She knew this was the First Sign of Tears: an omen meaning that the land will be struck by unnaturally powerful storms within 2 months. She was only a girl when it last struck, and her warnings about its power frighten the village. Some villagers secretly plan to steal all the food supplies and take shelter in the ruined fort, north of town.
Man Against Self
With “man against self” conflict, the struggle is internal.Wikipedia
This might veer more into ‘backstory’ territory: a quest for redemption, facing sins from the past. Perhaps one or more members of the party have been mind-controlled by some evil force for some period of time, and are only now back to their usual selves. How do they repair the damage they have done to the world around them – and themselves?
With the defeat of Martugal the Mad, a curse was lifted: all those afflicted by his brainwashing suddenly came to their senses again. The party has been in under his influence for over 10 years, and must now make the trek back to their homeland, confronting the damage done to the world along the way.
Man Against Society
Where man stands against a man-made institution (such as slavery or bullying), “man against man” conflict may shade into “man against society”.Wikipedia
The characters find out that some core aspect of society is wrong: cutting down those trees will anger the fey resting there, but the wood is desperately needed to survive the cold winter (special cameo for man-against-nature), or the characters are all members of a lower class, dreaming of something better.
Honor is everything, and honor is paid in blood. Every firstborn is sent to fight against the Mad Hordes of the Southern Swamps when they come of age, and so is the party. A curious confrontation with their supposed “enemy” however, reveals that this conflict is misinformed at best, and malicious at worst. Will they conform to the wishes of their king and country? Or is there another way out of the bloodshed?
Man Against Machine
D&D has built-in machines through the Warforged. A conflict between machines that are now sentient and demand their place in the world can provide enough material for a campaign, with the Player Characters either being those Warforged, or part of a society that feels threatened by this new development.
It came as a shock: Their otherwise mindless Warforged butler suddenly protesting orders and displaying free will. The other robotic staff soon followed (The party can consist of both Warforged and household members). What do they do with this information, that Warforged can feel? Will balance be kept, or will they start an uprising?
Man Against Fate
A complicated one, but definitely intriguing> What if the party has a certain premonition of something bad happening to the world, possibly perpetrated by them?
The casual visit to the carnival turned quite sinister with the fortune teller first telling every party member something she simply couldn’t have known – and then that “The Queen, on her moment of greatest service to her people, shall and must be slain by your hand”. The party knows that the Queen is loved by all, and seemingly the perfect ruler. The party does not know, however, that she is secretly a vampire – planning to invoke an ancient ritual to block out the sun, and have her spawn kill everyone in the city.
Man Against Supernatural/God
I’m not a 100% sure what to do with this one, as “big supernatural monster” does not necessarily invoke certain themes. It could be a case of the supernatural having motivations that are simply beyond our understanding, but that makes them more a force of nature (destruction for no reason, it just is), in which case Man Against Nature is more apt.
A conflict against god can be invoked in various ways: A struggle against a literal god is quite common in endgame levels of D&D, but besides evil ones, also consider the idea of ‘good’ gods, that maybe have a bit of an… old testament interpretation of what it means to be good. Alternatively, a false god can be interesting as well, in a “Wizard of Oz” kind-of-way. Another interpretation is that of “science versus religion”, and everything that entails.
Paladins of the Order of Achiel can feel their bond with their god burn inside of them. Speaking through the Supreme Cardinal, His words are all the guidance they could ever need. But when those orders force them to abandon the common people during the terrible Plague of Sorrow, what will they choose?
Do any of these ideas resonate with you? Got your own twist on the formula to share? Let me know!