Posted by: markfender | September 17, 2013

Civil Wars

Man, that was a lot of vampire stuff.


Hopefully not as dumb

A compelling story in fiction that doesn’t show up in RPGs that much is the struggle within a group, a civil war of sorts where one or more characters disagree with their companions on the proper course of action to take. Other than “should we long rest here or not?” sort of discussions that can get heated but eventually settle down into people going along with the majority opinion. No, I’m talking about actual battles between characters – where all group cohesion falls apart and characters engage in conflicts with each other.

That’s certainly not a common mode of RPG play, probably for good reason. There are always going to be groups that don’t agree with this sort of idea. But the U.S. Civil War remains a popular subject of study because of that whole “brother against brother” idea. All good stories are about conflict and it seems to me that RPGs are always about external conflicts. Why not invoke some internal conflict?

But, how do you do that? Sometimes this develops naturally as the motivations of characters diverge over the life of a campaign. But this doesn’t always happen (and probably shouldn’t). What can you do to cause these schisms?

One way only really works within a game where the characters are going to have some sort of political power. If a character controls a faction, such as the local church, and that church’s followers begin to worry about the heresy of their neighbors, controlled by a different character, you’ve got a built-in conflict. While both characters might get along, their factions do not, which could lead to conflicts, especially if the only way to maintain control over a faction is to go along with their “madness of crowds.” This can be a GM-mandated change or derive from random events (especially if you’re rocking some sort of domain management system with random events).

Of course, that sort of civil war only develops if it’s a sort of game with political factions. What if you’re not running that sort of game? Another way to do it is if there’s a prize for “winning.” Let’s use Unknown Armies as an example. In Unknown Armies, there’s a concept called the Invisible Clergy. Each member is an Ascended, a person who embodied an Jungian archetypical ideal to such an extent that they became that archetype. There are 333 Invisible Clergy members and, when the last one Ascends, the universe is remade according to the currently standing Clergy members. What if your group is nothing but Godwalkers embodying different Archetypes and there’s only one more position left in the Clergy? Only one of you can Ascend. Who’s it gonna be?

In that concept, there are two important points: there needs to be an “endgame” position where it’s obvious that the game is over, and there needs to be a prize of sorts. You can keep it more low-key than my example (“I am the one true king of this realm!” or “I’m the only one to escape the dungeon!”). And, of course, you’ve got to have a group that doesn’t mind internal conflicts.

I’ve played in games where these sort of divisions formed (usually in political games), but I think it would be interesting to see a game where that was the default mode of gameplay. It might start out with an ordinary group of disparate heroes adventuring but will eventually develop into a civil war where only one character will emerge victorious. This can give rise to interesting character growth, from the ruthless dictator who assassinates his friends in their beds, to the noble sacrifice of another character who decides that the best way is to surrender to another character. It can lead to richer game play and one that doesn’t necessarily require a GM to keep the external conflicts happening.

Of course, there’s a whole section of problems this sort of game could introduce, from screentime to secret note etiquette to even handling players who might not like how they’re getting jerked around by the other players. But that’s probably for another post.


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