Monday, January 01, 1990

Storymap Preparation--State the Conflict

The very first step is to decide on the basic conflict for the chronicle. This can be very simple (defeating the dragon cultists that are threatening a village) or complex (roleplaying a war between the Citadel and Ark, including various characters on both sides as well as neutral parties caught in the middle). Whatever the central conflict, it will be the foundation for the rest of the preparations, so choose well. Remember to get all the players involved in deciding this. After all, they are going to be playing, too.

Although they are not recorded on the storymap as such, conflicts are what provide energy to a storymap. Without conflict, there is no story. Interesting conflicts make for interesting stories.

Legends of Alyria was designed primarily with moral conflicts in mind. Therefore, it is these sorts of conflicts that should be the focus of a game. Secondary conflicts, such as survival against the harsh forces of nature, should be used only to intensify the primary moral conflicts.

A moral conflict needs to be seen primarily as a collision of values. This collision can be external, occurring between two characters, or it can be internal, occurring within a single character. Storymaps might include external or internal conflicts or perhaps both, depending on the story being created.

So what makes for interesting moral conflicts? Some common elements immediately stand out.

First, an interesting moral conflict often requires that the decision between the two colliding value systems should be challenging. Perhaps it is difficult to apply ethical principles to the situation. Perhaps there is a payoff to the immoral choice that is attractive. For example, you ambush your enemy in the wilderness and capture him. He is at your mercy. You know that he is untrustworthy and, moreover, that he is a cowardly murderer. Your friend urges you to kill him and be done with it, while your enemy cowers and begs for mercy. What do you do? (By the way, this is exactly what happens to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings when he and Sam capture Gollum.)

Second, a moral conflict can gain interest and intensity if the character’s relationships are bound up with the decision. What if the aggressor against your village is your long-lost son? What if your beloved is spiraling downward into dark obsession? Choosing to oppose them means that you must break that relationship. Or is there another way? The stakes are higher when the character must choose between warring values and passions. (The situations just mentioned are exactly what happen to Jochebed in “Blood of Haven”.)

Finally, a moral conflict can be made more interesting if there is a high cost tied to the choices that are made. This can be true of both good and evil choices. What of the newly initiated dragon cultist who is required to rape his mother as an act of worship? Even if his relationship with his mother is not part of the storymap, the high cost of making such a decision emphasizes it. The same goes for a simple peasant who chooses death before dishonoring his distant lord. His sense of duty is valued more than his life, and he pays the price. Costly decisions make a moral conflict more interesting.

2 Comments:

Blogger Jonas Karlsson said...

I don't know if you want to engage in dialogue here or if you want my comments to be phrased one-way, but I'll write some questions anyway. If you want me to move them to the forum on the Forge I can do that, just tell me so.

You say: Although they are not recorded on the storymap as such, conflicts are what provide energy to a storymap. Without conflict, there is no story. Interesting conflicts make for interesting stories.

I was confused at first, since you do record conflicts on the storymap, but then I realized you're talking about two different kinds of conflicts. In the above quote it's the central conflict(s), which are not recorded, and later on it's the conflicts inherent in the relationships.

Since the central conflict is so important when building the storymap, I think it should be noted somewhere on the map or in the corresponding text. This is especially important if you want to grab an existing map like Blood of Haven or if you pick up a map you did six months ago. I would also like to phrase the central conflict as a question, but perhaps that's just me. "Which one of the two farmers can claim ownership over the river?", "Will the village survive an attack from monsters?", "Will the young man and woman from rival noble families get each other?". I would play the game until the group felt that they had answered the question in a satisfying way, like "Farmer #1 owns the river, but it cost the life of his son to get it" or something like that.

But perhaps phrasing the central conflict as a question is to narrow? The way it is now I believe that you say "The central conflict is the war for resources between two neighbouring villages", and then you get all these juicy moral conflicts in the relationships between the different characters. Is that right?

There's no "end-game" built into the game, I suppose? Perhaps I've been spoiled by the indie games I've played recently, but my gut reaction is to ask, ok, we have a conflict and we have characters, but how does the conflict evolve and when is it solved? Is there anything in the mechanics for helping me to answer these questions?

8/05/2005 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Seth Ben-Ezra said...

Sorry that it took so long to get back to you. But I've got some answers.

Since the central conflict is so important when building the storymap, I think it should be noted somewhere on the map or in the corresponding text.

Generally speaking, my group has moved from storymap creation to gameplay very quickly, so there hasn't been a perceived need to record central conflicts. That being said, I don't think that recording the central conflict somehow damages the storymap concept at all.

Since my group never formally recorded its conflicts, I haven't given much thought to their phrasing. Using questions seems to work. However, an important point to note is that a given storymap might have more than one conflict, and each needs to be understood by the group. So, for example, "Blood of Haven" actually has two conflicts, which might be phrased like this: "Who will lead the villagers?" and "Will Uriel succeed in conquering the village?" Both conflicts are in play and need to be resolved in some manner for the story to be considered to be "over". When my group played "Blood of Haven", Jochabed won the internal power struggle, because she turned the younger generation against their parents. She also worked towards foiling Uriel by preparing a festival in his honor, welcoming him home and celebrating his birthday. Of course, these efforts were opposed by Victor and his faction, who were pursuing their own methods of solving the two conflicts.

I would say to experiment with formal statements of conflict, being aware that there are often multiple conflicts in a given storymap.

Perhaps I've been spoiled by the indie games I've played recently, but my gut reaction is to ask, ok, we have a conflict and we have characters, but how does the conflict evolve and when is it solved?

Legends of Alyria has no formal mechanisms to track progress of the conflict. In this way, it is more old-school then a lot of the newer games out there, like My Life With Master. In a way, this isn't surprising, since the essential system design work was finished in 2001 or so. (Yes, this game has been sitting around that long.)

In some respects, it is the Narrator's job to continue to add pressure to resolve the conflicts, through scene framing and by setting tension levels. On the whole, as the game moves forward, I see the average tension levels of the conflicts rising, as each conflict becomes increasingly important to the outcome of the conflicts at hand. In addition, the gaining of Inspiration and Corruption by various characters can offer guidance.

That being said, most RPGs get on just fine without such a mechanic. I appeal here to Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard as witnesses. ;-) So, at this point, I don't consider this to be a lack in the game. I sometimes feel that games with a formal endgame put too many constraints on narration, when the group synergy should be guiding the story arc through rising action, climax, and denouement. I don't like handing those decisions off to a formal mechanic, so I didn't build one.

8/11/2005 08:06:00 AM  

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