Mastering the Game
Elements of Content
A game master must create challenge for both players and characters by correlating a character's status quo with a developmental goal against the game challenge and the player's ability to use the character's abilities to overcome that challenge. The tools of content create the story challenge and the means to increase game difficulty. This conflict consists of a character's need to change, and the pressures that prevent the desired change from occurring. Keep in mind that combat is not the only type of conflict that acts as a character catharsis. Stories delve into character structures and interactive relationships with the character's environment.
A game master must blend internal and external conflict to create a story challenge that will motivate players singularly and as a group (if applicable) to resolve the conflict and achieve the goal. The reward associated with the goal is the motivational factor. This illustrates the importance of a GM's familiarity with the involved characters. Without knowing what motivates a character, the GM will be unable to create a campaign link or interest the player.
Character conflict is infinite in result, but simple in form. Conflict consists of internal and external conditions affected by internal and external pressures. Identify each side of the condition/conflict arrangement and how they interact:
Figure: Directions of Condition and Conflict
Condition is status quo and conflict represents the game challenge which is created by the GM for the players. Each time a character develops from a condition by surviving conflict that character has matured by developing a new condition in response to the situation. By examining the components of situational drama, a game master will be better equipped when creating a story challenge for the characters.
Internal condition is a character's state of being and how that character functions. This ranges from physical being to mental fortitude. Physically, this is represented on character sheets illustrating a combination of characteristics and background information. This information includes strength, constitution, height, weight, age, race, gender, comeliness, etc. Mentally, a character's composition includes ego, intelligence, identity, charisma, ideology, desires, etc.
External conditions are the existing environmental factors before change is introduced. In any game setting these conditions are represented by the concepts of environment, society, and culture. Environmental factors include atmosphere, terrain, setting, time, weather, etc. Social conditions are the political ecology, social stratification and mobility, economic conditions, education, etc. Cultural trends are behavioral interaction such as art, language, technology and other refinements.
Internal conflict represents the realm of psychological limitations that effect behavior. Internal character conflict can be designed by the player during character creation to increase the complexity of character reaction or applied by the GM to increase game challenge. Internal conflict is usually a byproduct of being exposed to external conflict by the character during game play. Examples of internal conflict include disease, strife, psychological limitations and other enduring plot enhancers.
The spark of life that mentally animates an RPG is the content. Tangible and intangible variables that define an adventure story and the systematic operations of the characters and the game setting. The functional components of action and reaction developing challenge and reward all driving the unwritten script.
Content is the skill of game master upon which style will later be infused. Without content, style becomes frosting on a stale cake. The game must be worth playing and the challenge must be genuine. Being allowed to win a game without effort is shallow and an RPG without challenge is boring. A game master creates a story challenge so that the players can developmentally mature their characters with each adventure. The longer a player runs a specific character, the more capable that character becomes, generating a need for a greater challenge. The challenge must be on a par with the reward, both for the player and the character. That relationship of player to game/character to challenge is the focus of content.
A gamemaster's job is to bring condition, conflict and resolution together in a challenging capacity presented in story form. Each story and adventure is created by a series of story challenges to reach a conclusion. If the game master is using a published adventure, the game variables have already been designed and play tested for game congruity. Every detail from starting and final ability levels of the characters through all the conflict and resolution that a character must overcome. The GM need only prepare and present it with a little style. In the instance of an authored campaign, the GM must consider all the game variables available in the campaign setting to produce a challenging adventure. A campaign setting is always developing and adventures are built character specific to be installed into the campaign setting. As the GM continues the preparation cycle for each adventure, the body of campaign material available to create a new adventure will become more readily available.
Goals and Motivation
When a GM prepares a story, a reason to overcome a challenge must be present for a character to develop. This motivation towards a goal can be created by understanding the fundamental needs of internal and external survival.
The hierarchy of fundamental needs works well to motivate all characters, even those of alien origin (a new game challenge would assuredly include the formulation of alternative needs, and the conflict of different character types trying to understand the opposing situational conflict). Fundamentals of need begin with basic physical drives and work towards self actualization. The needs occur in order of succession and are subconsciously resolved in their respective order.
The various combinations if internal condition and internal conflict, external condition and external conflict created by the GM will pressure the character. By causing a character's need to maintain one or more of the five fundamental needs, the story challenge is manifest. The degree in which the player is prevented from resolving the goal sets the intensity level of the game.
The following examples illustrate, in story terms, how need establishes condition and game challenge conflict.
1. Psychological need vs. external condition and external conflict: A character that must cross a desert with a limited amount of food and water as a result of exile. The characters need is to survive by successfully crossing the desert (external condition), and the game challenge is managing his supplies to last the length of the journey (external conflict). Game challenge could be increased by introducing additional conflicts such as harsher weather, desert villains, or random opponents.
2. Safety need vs. external condition and external conflict: A character who is trying to escape a dragon that is trying to satisfy its need to satiate hunger. The character's need is to escape the hungry dragon. In this case, the external condition is the how and why he is in close proximity to the hungry dragon. The famished dragon represents the considerable external conflict.
3. Associative need vs. internal condition and external conflict: A character that must set aside personal beliefs to coexist in his adventure party. The character's need is to remain in the adventure party. His personal beliefs represent the internal condition and the adventure party is the external conflict. The game master should pay close attention to the character's link to the party. If the link is not strong enough, the character may choose to leave the party as a resolution to his conflict. For the player, it means a a new character write up.
4. Esteem need vs. internal condition and external conflict: Remaining in an archery contest to publicly demonstrate skillful supremacy while in danger of being captured by the local constabulary. The character's need is to show off and prove to himself or the adventure party that his archery skills are the best. His archery skills are the internal condition and the game challenge (external conflict) is avoiding the local constabulary.
5. Self actualization need vs. internal condition and internal conflict: A wise priest wandering a strange land to help strangers and spread wisdom along the way. The character's need is spreading wisdom. His internal condition is the level of wisdom and past experiences, creating the internal conflict which is a yearning to wander.
Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.
Carl Jung (1916)
The more conflict a GM applies to the characters, the more difficult the game becomes. The reward must satisfy the character and the goal must satisfy the player to create an exciting game. Quality role playing is directly related to the type of conflict that is created and the reward that is offered for resolving the conflict. In turn, the development of the character is effected by the goals achieved and player satisfaction is dependent on the quality of the character's ability to successfully complete the adventure.
The Role of Experience
Character goals are an intrinsic part of the player's motivational factor. The players develop along with the characters, and the content of the goal will affect game play. When designing an adventure or campaign, the game master must create an appropriate goal. Functionally, there are two types of goals during an adventure. The first is a supportive goal. Supportive goals are laid out in timely progression to create a ladder of stimulus and response directing player characters throughout the adventure challenge, leading a story to completion. A supportive goal is something that positively offsets the pressure of the game challenge such as a glowing clue, helpful NPC, treasure map, or other contributing factor that supports the final goal by building a sense of accomplishment. The completion of that supportive goal supports the final goal. The final goal is a reward for resolving the conflict. The final goal may affect either the internal condition (personal satisfaction, curing sickness or madness, spreading wisdom) or external condition (accumulating wealth and lands, building a family or empire, winning or diffusing a war). During the course of a campaign, adventure goals may be supportive of a greater campaign goal to build a larger story climax.
As the complexity of a game increases with the depth of the content, the necessity for a compound goal is evident. Multiple conflicts created with plots and subplots result in multiple conflicts, each requiring a reward. Compound goals address the needs of character diversity to maintain interest over the span of a characters life in unison with the duration of a campaign. In essence, when the plot thickens with possibilities, they each need a conflict, resolution and reward juxtaposed with the story structure.
Just as the adventure challenge or story must have a link to the character, so must the goal. This is accomplished by combining actual and inferred information from the player. During the character creation interview, a GM should ask players what the character wants to accomplish and why. To retain the element of surprise, the game master should also formulate supportive goals from inferred information to simulate unexpected windfalls in a character's life. For example, a player might want to defeat an evil dragon. At some point during the course of a campaign, a character's subplot may come to fruition by finally vanquishing the bitter, scaly foe. The unexpected windfall could involve finding a dragon's egg that the character could keep as his own. The young dragon that will be raised by the player character can open many new plots and subplots that will extend the life of the campaign and increase the link between player, character, and campaign.
Each time a character achieves a supportive or final goal, a player accumulates experience points. The total accumulation of experience points (abbreviation: XP) is given out at the end of each adventure. The players goal is achieved by increasing the level of the character's experience points which are translated into resources and abilities. A game master should pay attention to the speed in which experience points are accumulated because of it's relation to game flow. If a character develops too slowly, the player may become frustrated and amassing character points too quickly will bore a player due to the lack of any real game challenge. Experience points represent the cusp of character development and the satisfaction of XP accumulation should be based on genuine challenge.
By understanding the functional variables of creating story conflict and resolution, a game master can considerably contribute to the quality of game content. Everybody involved will get a greater satisfaction from an air of accomplishment by identifying with each part of the adventure thrust. The game challenge will be engaging for both the players and game master, story conflict will have depth and meaning, and the goal will be rewarding as players and their characters grow and develop.
A tree that can fill the span of a man's arms
Grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine stories high
Rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles
Starts from beneath one's feet.
LaoTzu, 6th century B.C.
The universe of external conflict is infinite - - everything from environmental catastrophe to political and social revolution on down to personal interaction and physical needs. In game terms, external conflict involves the campaign setting, NPC's, combat situations, and all the independent variables that make up a game world.