Friday, September 29, 2006

The Ideology of Conflict

[This post is very long, but I consider it one of the most important ones I made in this blog. Perhaps the most important one.]

Introduction: The ubiquity of conflict

It is by now standard for a game in the tradition of the Forge to be about conflicts and their resolutions. Whether you play Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master or The Shadow of Yesterday, the idea is that the GM and the player take opposite sides of a fictional conflict, then resolve it. In Polaris, the structure is no different: the Heart and the Mistaken have free play until they wish different things to happen, at which point challenge, conflict and resolution occur. Universalis is driven by the conflicting wishes of the players; 1001 Nights is about the players trying to be the one who realises his Ambition/Freedom first, in a setting where jealousy only exacerbates this conflict of interest; in Shooting the Moon the two Suitors are trying to get the prize and stop the other from getting it.

But really, this is nothing new. Dungeons and Dragons, from the very start, was about conflict: a conflict of the players against the dungeon, or against other groups in a tournament. Why does a player of Vampire desire all the cool powers his vampire can get? Because it makes the character more powerful in the fiction, and thus more likely to prevail in the bitter conflicts that characterise undead society. (The whole setting is built around conflict, with all its hierarchy, its clans, its division between the Camarilla and the... uh... whatever it is that is opposed to the Camarilla.)

The result of this ubiquity of conflict is that most roleplaying games lead to conflict-driven stories. In most roleplaying, the drama comes from opposed wills (either those of the characters or those of the players, and generally both at the same time) clashing, and either dominating or succumbing.

As a conscious design choice, there is nothing wrong with this. But as a given which is not reflected upon, it betrays an ideology of conflict: an idea that the world is in fact driven by conflict, an idea that our lives are to be understood as fights of our will against opposing wills/forces. One doesn't have to be a Marxist or a feminist to have a feeling that this is a very capitalist or a very male conception of the world. (Never mind that Marxism is also an ideology of conflict.) It is certainly not the only possible conception!

Stories without conflicts

You may feel that a conflict-based view of life is perhaps optional, but that it is nevertheless necessary for interesting stories. I found this idea in the comments to a post by Adam Dray in which he talks about stimulating non-conflict scenes. Someone asks "Is conflict yet another sacred cow?", and the answer is:
If it's a sacred cow, then it's one that goes all the way back Gilgamesh. Conflict is central to most narrative as we understand it.
But, as a matter of fact, this is not true. There are vast, and I mean vast, numbers of stories which are not conflict-driven at all. I will give you a few examples.

First, meet my favourite Dutch author, Nescio. I don't know if his stories have been translated into English, but if they have, go and read them. He really only wrote four short stories, so it doesn't take a lot of time, but they are works of genius.

However, they are not about conflicts. The protagonists are young, idealistic men, who are planning to do something worthwhile with their lives, and not to become trapped in the trappings of a standard, bourgeois life. You know, from the very start, that they are going to fail. In fact, they know that they are going to fail, even if they don't want to admit it. They make plans, but never do anything. They go out into the countryside to watch the sunrise - a moment of beauty in a melancholy and resigned (gelaten, gelassen; 'resigned' doesn't translate perfectly) life. And never, ever, do they come in conflict with each other or with other people; never, ever is the reader wondering 'who will win this conflict?'. But these stories work, and I would love to see a roleplaying game which creates the same atmosphere.

Second, let us consider Kafka's Das Schloss (The Castle), which is about K trying, for unclear reasons, to reach a castle. Is there perhaps a conflict between K, who wishes to get into the castle, and someone or something else, who does not wish him to get into the castle. No - one of the novel's most intriguing aspects is that even though nobody and nothing is actually opposed to K, he is nevertheless unable to make any progress towards his goal. What makes the novel so haunting is precisely that K never gets to a conflict, that the conflict always recedes, that any attempt to attack the barriers that oppose him turns out to be an attack against nothing. K has no chance of success not because the forces opposing him are too strong and he is bound to lose the conflict, but because there will never be a conflict.

Third, moving to English literature, what is the conflict in Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Is the book ever about whether or not the protagonist will find Kurz? Surely it is not. It is a story of experience, but not of conflict. What is the conflict in Nabokov's Pale Fire? That story is driven by the painful unfolding of Kimbote's egotism, but not by any events whatsoever. What conflict is the dramatic heart of Harrison's Signs of Life, a story the protagonist of which lives as if he is never really involved in what he is doing?

There is, then, a whole realm of stories which are not driven by conflicts. Can we play them with roleplaying games?

Non-conflict RPGs

Yes, we can, and there are already several roleplaying games out there that achieve this to some degree. I will talk about Bacchanal, Breaking the Ice, Shades and De Profundis. There are probably others. But they are a small minority, and there is a lot of room to explore.


Strictly speaking, Bacchanal is conflict-driven: the overall story-arc of each character is formed by the resolution of a conflict between the Accuser (who wishes to kill the protagonist) and the protagonist (who wishes to escape Puetoli). What is interesting, though, is that for each player there is only one conflict in the entire game; play does emphatically not proceed on a conflict-to-conflict basis. Although the rolls do in the end resolve the conflict, most of them push the player not towards resolution, but towards exploring sexuality and decadence.

Breaking the Ice

Emily's game is not conflict-driven, neither on the level of the players nor on that of the characters. In all the games I played, both players wanted the characters to succeed (and I consider this necessary for playing a good game of BtI); and obviously the very fact that they are dating shows that the characters want, at heart, to have a successful romance. There are neither conflicts between the players nor between the characters, and there is therefore no conflict-to-conflict structure of play and no conflict resolution.

This is obviously utterly appropriate for a game which is about being vulnerable and coming closer together through being vulnerable. Emily's portrayal of love (at least in this game) is opposed to the ideology of conflict.

"But surely there is a conflict between the players and ..." No. I will answer that objection in the next section.


My game has no resolution system whatsoever. If the players have a disagreement about the fiction, there is simply no way that one of the players can make his wishes prevail against those of the other. But, on the contrary, you can let the wishes of the other prevail against your own - and this is the only way to ever complete the game. (I should note that speaking of 'wishes' may even be going to far in the direction of conflict.)

But, someone will object, if any game is conflict-driven, it is Shades: after all, isn't one of the objectives of play to establish a deep and dramatic conflict between the characters? Yes. But it is not the object of play to resolve this conflict. It has already been resolved in advance, and everyone has lost. The dramatic power of the stories comes not from resolving the conflict, but from dissolving it: the question is whether the shades can come to see their conflict as something that they can leave in the past, that they can outgrow, that they can transcend towards a new harmony. Shades is a direct attack on the ideology of conflict.

De Profundis

The letter-based game of Lovecraftian horror is not bases on conflicts either. You write each other letters detailing creepy events that have affected you, trying to weave elements of the others' tales into your own. Perhaps you die, perhaps you do not. The whole idea is to entertain others, create a convincing fiction and creep yourself out.

This is utterly appropriate for a Lovecraftian game. The characters of Lovecraft (whom, by the way, I consider a pretty bad writer) never act; like those of Clark Ashton Smith, they only experience. Such experiential characters cannot possibly be a party in a conflict.

Conflict and Resistance

Someone will object that play without conflicts falls flat. If you can just tell whatever you like, whenever you like, play is without energy and there will be a general lack of fun.

This is true in so far as a successful game needs a form of Resistance. Every story is teleological: the beginning points towards an end, where it may or may not be clear which possible end will be the actual end. Something has to stop you from just skipping from the beginning to the end. Something has to ensure that the game must go through the intermediary event, must actually tell a story. This something is what I will call the Resistance.

Conflict is a form of Resistance. If there are characters with opposing wills and the power to try and make their wills reality, there will be Resistance to each possible ending. Play can then consist of playing out conflict after conflict, until one of the will emerges as victorious; or, as happens more often, until one character gets what he wanted, having paid a heavy price for it that makes us wonder whether it was worth it.

But there are other forms of Resistance. In Breaking the Ice, it is, fictionally, the difficulty of showing yourself to another person, of breaking down the walls that protect you from harm; and the possibility of incompatibility. Mechanically, it is the Resistance of the dice against the wishes of the players. But this Resistance is not a conflict. There are no opposed wills. There are no winners and no losers.

In Shades, the Resistance is the difficulty of getting on the same page with your fellow players and the difficulty of shaping the loose fragments you start with into a coherent story. The game does everything to make this Resistance strong, but it also gives you the tools to overcome it.

In De Profundis, the Resistance is mostly your own habit of taking everything for granted, of not seeing the possible mysteries behind everyday occurrences. The game is designed to make you look at the world around you with other eyes.

In the work of Nescio, the Resistance is the difference between dream and reality, between the beauty we crave and the world we inhabit. In the work of Kafka, the Resistance is the very impossibility of fighting to achieve your aims.

(But is 'overcoming Resistance' not just a kind of Conflict? Does not the very logic of the story, its teleology, incorporate the idea of Conflict? We could only say that by widening the meaning of the word 'Conflict' so much that it would no longer designate what we used to designate with it. Let us adopt two different terms for Resistance and Conflict, which is a form of Resistance.)

Designing without Conflicts

There are many types of Resistance, but only Conflict has been explored thoroughly in roleplaying games. Or rather, perhaps some other types have also been explored - in which case I would love to hear about them, and perhaps the LARP and freeform people are the ones to teach us here - but most remain unexplored and often even unrecognised.

Consider this.

I have heard it say that Vampire is a game that allows you to explore existential dread. Obviously, it is not; and no conflict-based game could be. What we dread is freedom, but not because we are afraid of making the wrong choice. What we dread is the very fact that we have to make choices; that our being-as-possibility must at every instant of time turn into a being-as-determinate. I chose to become a philosopher, at the same time choosing not to be, say, a forester. Dread is provoked not by the fact that I am afraid that I have made the wrong choice; not by a naive belief that forestry is more fun than philosophy (as if maximising fun were the meaning of life!). Dread is provoked by the disappearance into nothingness of the possibility of becoming a forester. I can no longer become a forester, or at least I can no longer become a forester before my 24th. We shed possibilities all the time. At the instant of our death, we are no longer possibilities, we are no longer free: we are determined.

This is an extremely powerful theme. How could it be explored in a roleplaying game?

Consider this.

A woman asks a man to marry her, but he doesn't know whether he loves her. He goes through the motions, but whether they are caused by real love or whether he merely acts as if they are caused by real love isn't clear to him. He has no idea how to answer the question, but constantly agonises over it.

How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?

Consider this.

A man and a woman once loved each other, but with old age a certain tiredness has come into their relationship. They both long for the passion of yore, but do not know how to bring it back. Perhaps, they wonder, perhaps they have to learn to be content with companionship instead of love.

How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?

You will be able to multiply these examples. The key point is this. I am growing tired of people solving moral conflicts with a gun, of wars and fights, of antagonists, of struggles between knights and demons. I want more games which do not conceptualise life as a conflict. So - how are we going to make them?


  1. Victor, what you're describing sounds to me like conflict. Granted, it's internal conflict (Man vs. himself), but it's still conflict, Lit 101 style.

    Take one of your exmaples: "A woman asks a man to marry her, but he doesn't know whether he loves her."

    That's not a lack of conflict. A lack of conflict would be: "A woman asks a man to marry her, and he says 'Yes' and they live happily, both deeply in love."

    If you truly take away conflict, then you're either exploring a character or exploring a setting. I know that GNS-Sim supposedly prioritizes this sort of thing, but if there's no conflict involved at all, what you really have a is, respectively, a bio/sketch or a travelogue.

    Whether this is fun depends on the people invovled. IMO, it seems like just an extended info-dump. Either the player is simply musing about his character, or the GM is giving a lecture about the game-world.

    Hmm... really, a game without conflict isn't a game, it's a toy, e.g. SimCity, or Legos. That doesn't prevent having fun, but it sort of obviates the need for more than a single player.

  2. Buzz, aren'y you concernes answered by my distinction between Conflict and Resistance? Is it clear what I mean with those two words? Maybe you could call all Resistance Conflict, but that is not useful for me in this post; I am trying to describe a very real difference between most RPGs and the few I have singled out to comment upon.

    Let me know if I have misunderstood you.

  3. Victor--

    I am so on board with you I feel like you have been cribbing from my notebooks;).

    I like to talk (no surprise from what little I have posted elsewhere on your blog) in terms of non-oppositional differences, of differentiation, of meeting obstacles not as things to be overcome but as things to be recontextualized--answer resistance not with a beat down but with elaboration and permutation.

    Great post.


  4. And one more thing--

    I think 1001 Nights is so a game with a strong non-conflict driven heart. The conflict portion of the game is the least represented in the rules and discussion of play, while the storytelling session, with no way to mechanically *contest* and *overturn* someone's contribution to the fiction, is all about resistance.

    In other words, the best way to answer' a move you don't like in 1001 Nights is to add some new bit of narration that throws a new light on to what has already happened.


  5. I think where I have a problem is in your redefining of the word conflict.

    We could only say that by widening the meaning of the word 'Conflict' so much that it would no longer designate what we used to designate with it.

    At Buzz alluded to, the word conflict in literary terms is already the defined term for many of the things you term as resistance. There is no expanding of the term 'conflict' needed. So your splitting the term conflict into seperate parts rankles.

    Aside from those semantics though, I understand your point that certain kinds of conflicts, those you define as resistance, are not adequately supported by current game systems and I am curious to see where this line of thinking leads.

  6. Rich D. basically nails what I was trying to say. The only difference is that I wonder if there aren't already games that can do what you want. E.g., PTA?

  7. Rich D also beat me to the punch. The issue isn't that people are expanding the concept of "conflict", the issue is that most RPGs have *narrowed* the understanding of conflicts to only mean a one thing.

    But I agree that I would love to see more games with a broader definition of conflict.

    Actually, I would argue that The Mountain Witch is a game with a broader definition. Sure, you roll dice in standard fashion, but as I say in the book, the real conflict is the tension between characters. It is the internal struggle for honor, between feeling pulled in opposing directions. And this conflict isn't decided by dice, it's decided in the heart and gut of the players.

  8. Hey guys,

    I'm really very uninterested in whether the word 'conflict' is used in a standard way or not in my post. It seems to me that when we talk about conflicts in RPGs, right now, the idea btat either the players or the characters wish different things is central. But maybe not. Let's not dwell on it.

    I don't see how PTA escapes from the ideology of conflict. As far as I can see ot has one the purest Conflict-driven methods of play on the book?

    The Mountain Witch is perhaps a more interesting example, as far as loyalty is concerned. I'll have to think about that.

  9. What "conflict" means as a literary term doesn't have anything to do with how the term is used in RPGs. There are many terms with different definitions in RPGs then they have in other fields, including "character", "narrative", "story", and let's not forget, "roleplaying". Making this an issue of semantics isn't very productive.

    Victor: How does resolution of conflict figure in this? I'm specifically thinking of Breaking the Ice here: Every character does have a Conflict in this game, but resolution of the conflict is not an issue, it's not what the game is about. What's important is how the conflict influences the drawing together of the characters. In Ian's words:

    meeting obstacles not as things to be overcome but as things to be recontextualized

    So is the difference between resistance and conflict the ability for the protagonist to resolve it?

  10. Victor,

    I recommend, if you haven't already, looking at the stuff Jonathan Walton's been doing over the past year or so. KKKKK, Waiting/Tea, and Anathema are all games without conflict resolution mechanics, and as such have a fascinatingly different play dynamic.

    I also think that Jasper may well be onto something important with his distinction between resolution and recontextualization. It may not be quite what you're talking about, but I suspect that if it isn't it's very closely related.


  11. Jasper,

    That is very interesting. It is certainly the case that all conflicts can be resolved; a character can win a conflict.

    It is also the case that some resistance cannot be resolved; that, as Ian says, obstacles cannot be overcome but must be recontextualised - or must be accepted, or recede, or ... probably many other things.

    So the least we can say is that dropping resolution in favour of something else is going to take us away from conflict and towards something else.

    But I do think there are forms of resolution that do not involve conflict. Let's take Breaking the Ice again. On the level of the players, there is very tangible, quantised resistance: dice that come up the wrong way. This resistance can indeed be overcome, the difficulties it poses can be resolved. (It is interesting that this description does not really work on the level of the characters.)

    Or in Shades, the resistance - which is created by the inability of the players to fully coordinate their narrative efforts - can in the end be overcome. (On the level of the characters, the resistance - the character's bad faith - can also be overcome; although their conflict is set aside.)

    Of course, this too runs a danger of becoming a verbal questions: do we restrict 'resolution' to 'conflict resolution'? I don't think that is useful. But there is something substantial as well, and I suggest we keep thinking about it.


    Waiting / Tea has been in my to-play-list since I received Push. Unfortunately, it is still there.

    I don't know KKKKK, but will go and look for it now.

    Anathema seems to be based on a game I neither own nor know, Exalted?

  12. Here's my thinking on the resolution thing:

    K wants to reach the castle. I can easily see this as a conflict, in the RPG sense: The stakes are, do you reach the castle or don't you? Roll the dice. No, you don't reach it.

    However, even if he loses the conflict and he doesn't reach the castle, the conflict is resolved.

    So why, in Kafka, is "reaching the castle" not a conflict? Like you said, not because he lost the conflict, but because there will never be a conflict. The resolution just isn't there.

    Likewise, in Breaking the Ice, the question of "Will Maria and Antonio get together, despite of him having gambling debts" is never answered specifically. She might, after all, forgive him his faults and still end up alone. Here too, the conflict doesn't get resolved.

    From the characters'/story point of view, the resistances aren't really obstacles to overcome. That would be a conflict.

    Like you said, the game players have bad dice to overcome, but the same thing isn't happening in the story world. Instead, the dice rolls serve the purpose of giving the obstacle it's place in the characters' relationship. So that would be contextualisation or recontextualisation.

  13. Victor,

    I feel like you've cheated a little bit. You spend half your article tearing down "conflict" only to replace it with "resistance," which almost everyone with whom I have discussed this topic agrees is a kind of conflict. In short, our definition of conflict includes resistance; you just redefined it so that it doesn't, and so that resistance includes conflict.

    This is a semantic argument, I realize, but it is vital to this discussion. You've set up a straw man and set it on fire. Let it burn. Fine. No one is arguing against you, as far as I can tell.

    If I can cast what we've been saying all along into your redefined language, RPGs need to have rules that handle "resistance" and that without this "resistance," the play experience falls flat. Do you disagree?

    My original post you cited was meant to point out that there's a lot of interesting character development to be had between the classic conflict scenes and that instead of just leaving that up to the players for freeform or "free and clear" role-play, why not put a little structure and mechanical oomph behind it?

  14. Jasper,

    I'll come back to you. :)


    I don't think I've set up a straw man, because, well, because I have not been arguing against anyone, as far as I can tell. Neither real nor straw. I don't think there is a disagreement between me an anyone else. What I am doing is pointing out that almost all RPGs we have cater to one kind of resistance only: conflict.

    Never mind the terminology. The question is: is it true that almost all RPGs we have cater to this small subclass of resistance? Is there an assumption at work that only opposed wills create dramatic tension?

    I think there is. Nothing you have written causes me to think you disagree. Am I right?

  15. The word 'conflict' is obviously not helping this discussion, it is too overloaded. Let us drop it altogether. Victor's point seems to be to distinguish between the general class of 'resistance' (that things don't always happen according to a character's will) and, shall we say, 'battle' (resistance caused be another character with an opposing will).

    I think it is generally true that some kind of resistance is necessary for drama, but also that the majority of RPGs have focused on battle (martial, political or whatever) as the prime source of resistance.

    The distinction gets a bit blurry around the edges though. Even in D&D you had obstacles like the stereotypical rickety bridge over a bottomless canyon. Such obstacles could hardly be called "battle".

    It is more profitable, I think, to focus on the kinds of resistance we _do_ want to produce.

    Possibly the other difficulty with this discussion is the distinction between "resistance between players" and "resistance between characters". If there is to be resistance, then a player needs to provide it. One player needs to narrate things which oppose the will of a character. If that character is played by another player, then there is in a sense a 'battle' between the players. This appears inevitable and I can't see any reason to call it a bad thing.

  16. Malcolm,

    If there is to be resistance, then a player needs to provide it. One player needs to narrate things which oppose the will of a character.

    In Breaking the Ice, resistance is provided by the dice; the two players together work towards 'defeating the dice', if you will. Everything the players narrate is meant to lead to a happy outcome for the couple, but that happy outcome is envertheless not certain.

  17. perhaps drawing upon categories of games such as theatre games, literary games etc. that often have a less 'conflicty' format than wargames & boardgames will bring more non-conflict possibilities into the rpg genre.

    my series heads of state: nine short games about tyrants (a topic overflowing with violence), blends game influences from parlor games, rpgs, literary games & possibly as a result most of the 9 games aren't centered on conflict mechanisms. ironically the only one with direct player to player conflict is concerned with revising a biograpy: editorial violence.

  18. All I see here is that you need to stop using the word 'conflict' and twisting it to mean whatever you want it to mean.

    You say you are uninterested in arguing semantics, yet your entire post is, basically, one big semantics argument.

    You want to take the word "conflict", which people normally take to include character vs. character, character vs environment and character vs. self, and re-define it for your own ends to mean nothing but character vs. character, and at the same time making up the word "resistance" to cover the other two types of conflict excluded from the new definition.

    From that your entire argument is born. Which is why you;re having such a difficult time getting your point across without eveybody and their cousin trying to correct you.

    Drop the self-serving re-definitions and just say what you really mean, in terms that your readers will actually understand without you having to explain it to them, and you will have a much easier discussion.

  19. I think that the solution here is to move in a new direction. We cannot allow our minds to be enslaved by our language.

    I ran a game of Sorcerer once that used a world of wealth as the setting. No character had to strive for anything, and they had all become bored of spending their money. To overcome this boredom they would meet in a park filled with water fountains at the centre of an ostentatious city. While looking at these marble fountains that spilled water from the mouths of gods chiseled from an elaborate history of myth and legend, the characters would dream elegant dreams of dancing on palatial courts with chessboard patterns on the floor to pass the time.

    With this setting, I wanted to encourage the players to excel, and to feel proud of their inherent creative nobility, so I set them a rather simple task. I told them, "You and your friends have decided to play a game to pass the time. You take turns summoning a demon which you send into the world in search of city-dwellers. The demon is going to possess them and walk them to this elegant garden landscape and is then going to make them do a dance for you. Your task as the player is to represent your character through the exposition of who the demon possesses, how the possession finally takes place, and what dance you will have the victim perform. You all stare for a moment at the opalescent divinities spouting delicate streams of limpid water from their mouths that collects in the basin where the pooled memory laps gently against its confines, catching and reflecting the day's sunlight."

    The result of this game was an extraordinary process of character revelation. One of the players told about how his demon would possess a shoe-maker, but that this shoe-maker moved very evasively throughout the city. His story ended as it was revealed that the shoe-maker was in fact already possessed by another demon that was helping him avoid the dance. Another player went into a long and very poetic description of the dance that his possessed priest performed. I can remember one of his phrases quite vividly:

    "With fluid, preternatural grace, his steps interwove incandescent spirit to the tune of the cascading numina, which seemed now to be a prophecy fulfilled by the passing of a strange alien moon."