The conflict-first approach to adventure design

If, after an hour of adventure planning, your notes look like this, it may be time to try a fresh approach.

One such approach involves establishing core conflicts first, then applying particulars from the D&D campaign setting to turn that conflict into an adventure. For our purposes, we’ll call this practice conflict-first adventure design.

All good stories, true or fictional, are rooted in conflict. Conflict brings out the best (and worst) in the parties involved, and each side of a conflict tends to respond to the other’s actions, furthering the story in the process. By first defining types of conflict in generic terms – like those used when interpreting literature – a DM can be certain that sufficient conflict is present for a story to exist. After that, a basic level of familiarity with one’s own setting is often enough to flesh out the details.

Types of Conflict

Any child’s English or language arts curriculum includes discussion of the basic conflicts appearing in literature. They are:

Protagonist versus other people. In this most basic of plots, the protagonist must either accomplish something or prevent something from happening, and the villains oppose him. While it is possible for a DM to decide that the heroes must prevent a villainous plot from coming to fruition, then go through the mental gymnastics of creating that plot, this conflict works best as inspiration when the players are trying to do something, and the villain decides to stop them.

For example, imagine a party of heroes who want to create a special magic item or research a new ritual, and they have begun questing for an exotic artifact needed to reach their goal. The DM decides to use the protagonist versus others conflict, so she decides that some aspect of the heroes’ quest runs counter to a villain’s plans. She decides that, unbeknownst to the heroes, a villain needs the same artifact for a ritual of his own, putting him in contest with the heroes for the item. Building on that idea, the DM determines what fell purpose the villain has for the item, and decides that the villain is closer to retrieving the item than the heroes. When the heroes arrive at the ruin where the item is reportedly hidden, they find the place crawling with the villain’s troops; they must fight their way in and overcome the villain before he can escape with the item.

Protagonist versus nature or the environment. The forces of nature are an often-overlooked source of conflict in a D&D adventure. Heroes must  travel through inhospitable regions on their quests; sadly, the scorching deserts, frozen tundra and waterless badlands usually provide little more than background detail. There is no reason why terrain, weather and temperature couldn’t play a more adversarial role in an adventure, especially if the fourth edition (4e) D&D rules are being employed, where skill challenges can quantify what the heroes must do to overcome the environment and reward them with experience for doing so. If the environment is sufficiently dangerous or other-worldly, the environment may even be the primary “villain” of the adventure.

Protagonist versus society. In this situation, the heroes must overcome societal pressures in order to achieve their goals. It could be that good-aligned heroes must travel through an evil kingdom, seeking to perform deeds that run contrary to popular values, or it could be that the heroes’ own society feels a need to prevent the party from continuing.

For example, consider a party of heroes that has spent several adventures investigating an ancient evil, which they discover is a powerful vampire lord. A nearby temple houses a religious artifact that would help the party defeat the vampire, but regional temple authorities have clearly indicated that they will not release the item to the heroes, as they don’t want to risk the artifact becoming lost or falling into the wrong hands. The heroes know that the vampire grows stronger each day, and that if he is not destroyed by the artifact soon, he will be all but unstoppable. Do the heroes take the item and undertake the quest for the greater good, or stand by and watch while the vampire gains power?

Protagonist versus the supernatural or technology. In most literature, this conflict emerges between “normal” heroes and magic or technology well beyond their initial ability to defeat. Since most D&D heroes, by virtue of their powers, are a bit supernatural to begin with, using this conflict in a D&D adventure entails the presence of earth-shaking magic or alien technology, thereby rendering the heroes comparably “normal” in the process. This conflict is especially appropriate for epic-level heroes.

Protagonist versus his or her self. Internal angst typically takes the form of competing emotions or values. Conflicts within heroes can be very effective. Imagine a cleric who values honesty and devotion to deity above all else learns that the highest officials of her church deliberately changed the wording of holy writ to serve their own interests, then passed down their version as true; if she stays with the church, she is endorsing their duplicity, but if she leaves, she’s forsaking her religion.

The D&D game offers another angle for this conflict. Many player character races or classes almost beg for internal conflict: tieflings must reckon with their infernal blood, half-elves can feel physical and emotional impulses from either side of their lineage, some sorcerers must reckon with their draconic ancestry, and most primal heroes will have a very difficult time containing their savage natures under certain stimuli.

A DM can add more layers of conflict (and added dramatic tension), can be created by choosing more than one of the above conflict types and applying them simultaneously.


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