When the good guys don’t get along

All stories, role-playing adventures included, require conflict to drive their plots forward. It is for that reason that nearly every Dungeons & Dragons campaign has numerous villains and evil organizations, and an equally large number of good-aligned entities; both sides are at odds by definition, so conflict is never in short supply. There is, however, a second variety of conflict that is seldom employed in a D&D game, and players accustomed to bashing evil because it’s evil are often taken aback when they see it: good-aligned groups can be at cross-purposes, and situations can arise when the heroes’ opponents aren’t evil.

This post is not an endorsement for good-aligned characters killing other good-aligned creatures, or a suggestion that people should play evil-aligned characters. It is an endorsement for forcing players to change their standard tactics in certain situations, so that they can accomplish their ends without harming fellow forces of good.

The easiest way to define this sort of conflict is by example, and we’ll discuss three incarnations of the idea in this posting: disagreement between patriots, mutually exclusive needs, and the rule of law.

Disagreement between patriots. 

The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.

-H.L. Mencken

Mencken’s quote is illustrative of the “disagreements between patriots” conflict. Internal discord is commonly present in any organization, including good-aligned groups. The dissidents don’t hate their organization and aren’t evil; in fact, their acts are motivated by a desire to see the group flourish, and they don’t see their opponents’ designs being as effective to that end.

An example of this conflict at work in a D&D game could involve a good-aligned church. Perhaps an evil priesthood has become more active in the region containing the church, and church leaders decide not to act overtly. Instead, they seek to identify all of the priesthood’s chapters in the area, hoping to find a central leader they can eliminate first before striking at the rest, rather like cutting off a tree limb instead of picking off each leaf.

Not everyone in the church agrees with this approach. Some church officials see the evil pristhood’s growing influence, and want to agressively stamp it out before it grows stronger. Is a zealous church templar who disregards orders and stikes at the priesthood evil? Certainly not – but the player characters’ church may send the heroes to apprehend him and bring him to church trial anyway.

Mutually exclusive needs.

While good-alinged groups will do all they can to assist each other, that assistance has limits. Situations can arise when one group has needs that the other won’t try to meet; the group with the need may not understand or accept the reasons for the other group’s inaction, leading to conflict.

Imagine three adjacent nations, one good-aligned elven, one evil-aligned orcish, and a good-aligned human nation between them. The orcs invade the human nation.

The elves are in posession of an ancient artifact that radiates magical protection against evil in a battlefield-sized radius. The humans ask to carry the artifact into battle, citing that the orcs are otherwise unstoppable, and they will definitely attack the elves next. The elves refuse, pointing out that, if the artifact is lost or destroyed in battle, the outnumbered elves won’t be able to defend themselves. The humans become resentful, thinking that the elves, who claim to be allies, are willing to fight the orcs to the last human.

Neither the human or elven nation is evil, but when the human king sends the heroes to take the artifact, there will be plenty of conflict.

The rule of law.

Most good-aligned groups have laws that dictate how those groups function, whether the groups are governments, churches or trade guilds. Unfortunately, these laws aren’t always clear, and situations can develop that aren’t covered by these laws at all. In such cases, factions can develop between or within good-aligned groups, with all sides believing that the law is on their side.

An example of this problem might involve succession in a monarchy. If a king dies without a direct heir, several parties may put themselves forth as rightful heirs, based upon genealogy and related laws. The result could range from a council of compromise, where one contender for the throne gives way to another in exchange for a high place in the new monarchy, to a civil war which may draw in the heroes. It is entirely possible for none of the candidates for kingship to be evil in this case, making the conflict even more difficult for heroes to navigate.

It is important not to overuse this variety of “good vs. good” conflict. Part of the fun of a D&D game is knowing who the villains are, finding them and defeating them, and if your players are always guessing at who they should oppose, your game will lack direction and the players will be bored or frustrated. Used in moderation, though, this variety of conflict can provide a refreshing change of pace from standard adventure.

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