RPG Reflections: In-Character Conflict

By | August 1, 2011

The topic of in-character (IC) conflict has come up a little recently in my Dragonlance campaign. I’ve not really thought about it a lot in the past; it’s always been there, of course, but I’ve never dealt with it directly before. So far, in this game, it’s not been a definitively negative experience as it’s engendered a lot of character growth that’s been really interesting for me as GM, and hopefully for my players. That said, there have been a couple of times where it’s ended up slowing things down significantly, to the annoyance of some. Sometimes, too, it seems to bring rise to a vague undertone of personal conflict that I’m not terribly happy with.

Most recently, we had argument between characters over how to treat a pair of captured draconian prisoners, with questions arising over interrogation, torture, execution, and so on. The eventual decision was to execute one of the prisoners behind one character’s back as it was deemed to know too much while letting the other one go in return for information. I’ve never been satisfied with glossing over the moral implications of this sort of thing in play, but while the character interactions and eventual outcome were quite interesting, the whole affair took a long time. After discussing it at the end of the session, it became clear that we need a better way of handling this sort of situation, which got me thinking..

Firstly, I don’t believe that IC conflict is an inherently bad thing, merely something that requires careful handling during play. For it to be a good thing, however, I think the following have to be true:

  • It can’t be about something trivial. Petty bickering rarely results in interesting role-playing. It doesn’t help players define and explore their characters, it rarely has a meaningful impact on the story, it tends to get repetitive, and it tends to breed actual discord between players. If petty bickering makes sense between characters, it should be handled out of character (OOC) at a broad abstract level. If Devla’s player summarizes it by saying ‘Devla’s not happy with Forden; she snipes at him for a while about random things he did throughout the day, then leaves in a huff’, Forden’s player can contribute positively, perhaps adding that “Forden gets confused and defensive, but manages to put his foot in his mouth, offending her further”. This sort of conflict can often be fun – it’s like being the writers of a dramatic comedy and has the potential to be interesting, even funny, for everyone; it also allows narrative tension to exist, and it’s nice and short.
  • It can’t take too long. IC conflict focuses attention on the characters involved to the exclusion of others, and while that’s true for almost all in-game actions, IC conflict can become drawn out, excluding others for an extended period. That’s not healthy for the game, not to mention not being fair to the excluded players. If IC conflict dominates attention for more than a few minutes, it needs to be cut off and resolved somehow, perhaps using narrative gaming techniques.
  • It cannot be a proxy for conflict between players. If characters A and B are arguing because their players have a disagreement, there’s a much greater risk of things becoming unpleasant. IC conflict distances players from one another, making it easier for people to say things to each other in-character that they’d never say in-person – Landras might say ‘Shut up, Devla!’, but Landras’ player would never say that to Devla’s. Similarly, in-person disagreements tend to require understanding, respect and compromise, whereas in-character ones can be resolved with much less emotional involvement. If the two are mixed, however, we have a conflict where players need to actually communicate with each other as people, but in which it’s OK to be mean. Generally, if the in-player conflict isn’t game relevant, it needs to be resolved outside play, which might mean taking a break, or maybe that certain issues should be flagged as out of bounds during play. If it is game-relevant, it’s probably best resolved OOC without any in-character discussion to muddy things.
  • It has to serve a purpose that can’t resolved better some other way. Two types of situation come to mind: the conflict might be a necessary part of the plot element or someone’s character arc – in Devla’s case, her character arc is (currently) all about self-realization and adolescence; she’s growing up and distancing herself from Forden, her mentor, and realizing she doesn’t idolize him like she once did. Conflict between them is thus natural, and key to that arc. Another situation is where the conflict allows players to explore issues that would be glossed over otherwise. Yesterday’s interrogation scene, for example, held within it all sorts of questions of morality and justice, offering lots of opportunities for character growth and player introspection. Neither purpose would have been served by completely glossing over the conflict. On the other hand, we would have done better to resolve more of the conflict OOC.
  • It can’t get in the way of play. IC conflict needs to be subordinate to progressing the game as a whole – while it might be interesting to plumb the depths of a character’s psyche, it can’t be at the cost of moving the game forward. This is particularly an issue when conflict arises as a result of some decision the party needs to make.
  • It can’t be personal. This is two sided. Everyone needs to be careful to avoid giving offense to another player – it’s OK to offend characters, but not players. Similarly, everyone needs to be careful not to take offense that’s not intended – it’s OK for one’s character to be offended, but that doesn’t mean one has to take things personally. Of course, this is all well and good at a theoretical level, but the reality is that we’re all bound up emotionally in our characters – they’re more than just agents we control; they’re extensions of ourselves, with all the emotional connotations that implies. Everyone coming into a gaming group needs to accept that it’s a somewhat emotional experience, and IC conflict is a strong example of that. Similarly, everyone needs to recognize that people react to things differently, and at the end of the day, none of us want to hurt each other. All I’m saying, really, is that we should all strive to play with compassion and empathy, because, just as in normal life, offense is easy to give, no matter one’s intentions.

IC conflict normally seems to occur in first-person role-playing. It makes sense that it would originate there, but it seems that resolution often requires that it be pulled up to third-person play, with players collaborating to decide on an interesting and meaningful outcome, then doing any necessary role-playing to bring it about. This avoids the necessity of people saying nasty things to each other that their characters might say to each other, affording a layer of abstraction that protects everyone from any potential offense. It also allows players to discuss the pros and cons of different resolutions – it turns conflict into opportunities for collaboration. To that end, then, it seems that techniques from collaborative story-games could be employed at the meta-game level to deal with these sorts of situations.

In my Dragonlance game, the party has just slain Onyx, bringing the first module “Dragons of Despair” to a conclusion. Since several of my players are heading away on various trips over the next couple of months, we’re putting the campaign on hold until October. This gives us the opportunity to try out a few story-games and select some mechanics that we like. We’ll probably follow a template something like this example, which is inspired by matrix games:

Any time a player thinks that there is IC conflict in need of resolution, they can call for it to be resolved out of character. The GM determines what questions or actions are at issue in the conflict; that is, what will be decided as a result of resolving it. One at a time, each conflict participant states their desired conclusion followed by any arguments they have in its favour, presented as short statements. If they wish, non-participants may also present arguments and conclusions. If there is an obvious compromise, it may be accepted by consensus. Otherwise, the GM assesses each argument and uses some mechanic to determine the actual result, which must be limited to the original conflict issues.

I’m certain there are more elegant or interesting mechanics out there that we could try – the Smallville RPG, for example, has a really interesting system for handling IC conflict (which is at the root of that game). I’m certain there’s many others, but I’m not well read enough to know where to look – suggestions?

In the end, conflict is an inevitable part of role-playing games, and one of the essential skills in being a good role-player or GM is handling it in a way that moves the game forward and creates fun for everybody. Since role-playing is an inherently collaborative activity, though, and since collaboration is somewhat antithetical to conflict, intentional IC conflict is, I think, one of the most challenging aspects of role-playing – handled badly, it can literally destroy a gaming group. Handled well, however, it can bring a great deal of depth to a game as characters become more independent and human, and situations become more diverse and meaningful.