Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 12: Caring about Collaborative Conflict

Who wants what?
Why can’t they have it?
Why do I give a shit?

Any narrative worth its salt, regardless of genre or medium, needs to address these three questions. The bastardry an author has to apply in order to cut through the complexity of his/her tale to provide these answers is gut-wrenching, but ultimately necessary though; as all stories are conflict and the good ones are those that make the narrative into the reader’s conflict.

This would make the application of these questions into a medium in which it literally is the reader’s (or player, rather) conflict, something of a simpler chore? Perhaps, but not without its own challenges.

Before we get too sidetracked, lets look at each question:

Who wants what: Ah the joy of divided labour. Players are the stars of the story and, as such, can manufacture their own needs and wants. And ideally this is true. Most often, there is a larger goal behind a player-character (PC) that motivates them through the story. This can be broad (Find the six-fingered man and kill him for murdering my father) and can be the basis of story development or player decision at whim. For complex characters and better players, there may be smaller goals that lead into bigger ones (Hire capable yet dense henchmen to kidnap a prospective queen, kill her in a manner that casts blame upon a richer or better positioned kingdom, get paid and continue to use vast intellect to manipulate the noble class in ways they cannot begin to fathom because I’m compensating for any chance of finding someone who’d love me for who I am, nor being able to compete in anything other than a meaningful, educated or “civilised” way).


And as the Storyteller of the group, your challenge becomes weaving this character motivation, or want, into your story and doing it in such a way that it ties into the story elements that you want your players to reach (That six-fingered man could be an advisor to the nefarious noble looking to start a war with his neighbour). The ideal outcome is to place a character’s wants into your story, as well as take the story’s goals and make them something that the player wants to achieve. And so the circle is complete.

Conflict is what you’re hoping to manufacture with your games, and here is what your power-gamer or ‘Munchkin’ fails to grasp. It’s not about steamrolling through obstacles (unless it involves hoards of disposable henchmen), it’s the rocky road of actually confronting and overcoming these obstacle that makes for enjoyment. It’s all in the journey.

Which leads into ‘Why Can’t They Have It?’ but there are other angles to consider when answering this question. You want conflict, but you don’t want to make it unassailable. You want to use it as a carrot, but you don’t want the player to confuse it for the stick. This is particularly important as your player will come to resent what the character wants because it’s become a continuing source of trouble. Other players might feel this way too. This diminshes enjoyment in the character and it can diminish the respect for the Storyteller. As well it should because if the Storyteller can’t care enough to work this broad idea of yours into his/her story, then what chance exists for any spontantaeity or innovation or ROLEPLAY in the game?

So, for the Storytellers, here’s that song again: This is a collaborative medium, your players are there to have fun, you’re there to ensure you give them fun through the pleasure of storytelling and if your narrative can’t support independent action, then work on it by yourself and let me know when I can buy the book or see the movie.

Which brings us to ‘Why do I give a shit?’ and for this question, most of all, it cuts both ways.

The non-player characters in the story, be they evil overlords, wizend mentors or overprotective parents all WANT something too. And while the focus should remain on the PC’s, it enhances the character that those they hate, love or simply interact with, present a complexity of character based off what they desire. Overprotective Parent more or less answers itself. Wizened Mentor may be one of the parents, or may have an agenda of his/her own (Such as ending a wedding that will result in humiliation for the Prince that fired him). The villain may have more than self-aggrandizement in mind, or perhaps justifies his actions in a way that makes a peverse sense. (Such as declaring war with a neighbouring kingdom to increase the wealth and land for his people).

One of the best examples of the latter is Baron Wulfenbach from the comic Girl Genius, who ruled with the best of intentions, while his heroic and perhaps better-suited friends were missing. But because he was not as clever, or perhaps too clever, he believed that tyranny was the only effective way to keep the peace. It is stunning characterisation and recommended reading in general for those looking to add an extra dimension to their non-player characters.

The thing to take away is; the richer and more detailed your story, the more opportunities exist for your players to pursue or interact with. From that interaction, new wants may surface.

As much as a Storyteller must try to work in the wierd and wonderful reasons that player-characters do what they do, there are some characters that may be at odds to the story in the whole. And while I champion the idea of working your characters into the story, if your story hasn’t started, then there is opportunity to discuss with your player your concerns and compare your ideas with his/her’s. Take the time to ask questions, listen to the answers and don’t be afraid to ask for changes that both of you can accept. ‘Mutually benefical’ is the watchword and if you think it means giving up things, then rethink why you want to run game in the first place.

Make no mistake, you have to want to tell a story and, given how much your players enjoy it, you may end up telling this story for years. Literally years! So part of gaining this insight into players and ensuring that they have fun AS MUCH AS YOU DO means that you have to give a shit most of all.

And your players will as well.



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