Friday, July 27, 2012

Conflict, Tension, and Character Goals

It seems that every time I am coming up on my housemate's L5R game that my head starts turning to character goals. Not surprising, especially when you consider just how quiet the character is. Today I want to take a different approach to discussing character goals though. I want to discuss how you can use them to expand on your character and make for a better story for everyone involved in the game.

Conflict Breeds Drama
One of the rules of writing and story telling is that you need conflict in your story. Conflict, wether it be emotional, mental, or spiritual, is what drives the story forward and keeps the audience hooked. If you ever have someone curious about "and then what happened?" you've done a good job of hooking them with the conflict and tension in your story. Done right, it creates a need to see more of what is going on, and that need can pull people into a game in some very strong ways.

Because of this, it can be good to give yourself some character goals that will put your character at odds with something or someone. This doesn't have to necessarily be a player, but it should be something. For example, a goal to be the best thief in the world will naturally create conflict because to be the best thief in the world you have to steal things. This puts you at odds with the local authorities, as well as with the people you are stealing from directly.

Conflict Defines Us
Even better is that conflict, especially large and powerful conflicts, have a way of defining people and changing them. How you react under stress, what you sacrifice to get away with your goals, and just how far you will go to get something done are all things that define you as a person. They also define our characters for us. Ever have a PC who didn't have limits on how far they'd go to get what they were after? I have, once, and the character is still spoken about as a monster - a beloved monster but still a monster - by the group that played with him to this day, nearly 4 years later.

At the same time what you're not willing to give up will come up when you create conflict, and that will also help define your character while making more drama of its own.

Conflict = Action
And of course, the best part of all this is that conflict is action. It is something to be done that is interesting enough to warrant screen time. Take for example two characters in the L5R game that I am talking about. The first character is mine, the second is her brother.

Sasayaki's goals are to become a better samurai, bushi (warrior), and duelist. She also is a bit of a hedonist and likes to have a good time. As such, the typical response as to what she is doing is practicing (either an art or fighting), or looking for that next good time. There's not a lot of conflict in any of that and as such Sasayaki hasn't done much on her own. Sure, she has been there to help. She is a great support character, but currently she has no conflict that is really driving her forward.

Sakebi on the other hand is determined to get out of the marriage that was arranged for him. As such, he is competing for the hand of the winter court host's daughter despite the fact that he is already betrothed. When the Phoenix show up (he is betrothed to one of them) with his fiancee in the party, he further has the option to discredit his fiancee to the point that the match is null and void. Between the two he is in conflict. First, he is in conflict with the other invited (he wasn't invited) to the court, as he is competing with them for the "prize." Second, he is in conflict with his fiancee because he wants her out of his life and not to marry him. These two conflicts have had Sakebi as a major driving force to the game. Enough so that the GM has jokingly asked the player "Ok, so what are we doing today?" when game starts on more than a couple of occasions. Only, it's not much of a joke when the player actually does then choose what happens if someone doesn't derail them.

Starting With Goals
Now, neither of these characters are bad characters. Sasayaki is a good person and people at the table seem to enjoy her. However, Sakebi is a lot more fun to see in action while Sasayaki is a lot more quiet and withdrawn. Her time may come, both me and the GM are skilled enough that her goals not breeding conflict won't last forever, but I would be lying if I didn't mention there are times where I wish I could find something in character and more involving for the character to do. That lack though is my fault, not the GMs, because I didn't put any conflict into the character's goals.

Which, of course, means I just need to find some goals that'll give me some conflict. Right?


  1. My games seem to breed conflict. In some games it's inevitable as the character creation process gives everyone a flaw, and these can be used as ammunition for the other characters when trying to accomplish their own goals. Sadly, it can sometimes lead to player on player homicide, or on one stunning occasion, suicide.

    This has in turn led to my worst GMing call ever. two characters locked in a fight that could easily see one of them dead, with a gun drawn, one man goes down. The bullet is in the chamber, the barrel of the gun is at point blank range, and I still asked for a to hit roll, as I was concerned that otherwise it wouldn't be fair. In that situation, the odds against missing were astronomical, especially as the prone party was doing little to dodge.

    It would have been a better call for the prone party to die, but in my head, i couldn't see it as a good thing at the time, as it's hard to keep distance sometimes, and I thought a lot of the blame would lie at my feet as GM for allowing the conflict to reach this point. Both of the players had entered into it willingly though, and both understood the consequences of their actions when engaging in a fight with another character.

    So yeah, conflict's great, but it pays to keep an eye on it, and be prepared to see it through to its often bloody conclusion.

  2. Definitely Shorty, especially when it comes to PvP. The point of this was more for putting some source of conflict into your goals to help get the player moving. Still, your point is quite valid.

    Rule calls during PvP can be rough. I'm lucky in that my group is pretty chill with each other and prone to calling things against themselves rather than the other way around. Still, when it comes to PvP you kind of have to go by the book, unless the party that gets the worse end of the stick is ok with otherwise.