Way back in April of 2019, I wrote a post about the difference between a fantasy world driven by characters’ internal conflicts and a fantasy world driven by external conflicts or world events. (You can read that post here.)
I’d like to return to that idea now, almost four years later, because of the centrality of internal conflict in duet gaming.
When I first wrote that post, I was only a month or so into writing my first fantasy novel. I’ve since finished and published it and three others, along with four novellas. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, I also have hundreds more hours of duet gaming experience and four years’ worth of conversations with duet GMs and players about their games.
I took a more neutral stance the first time around but, this time, I’d like to make a stronger claim.
Internal Conflict in Duet Game Design
There are exceptions to this, but, by and large, the best setup for one-on-one D&D is a character-driven world where the PC is the one creating the action of the story, where their internal predilections and beliefs determine the conflict and the stakes.
This need for internal conflict is mine and Jonathan’s #1 consideration in our game design. When writing an adventure, we ask: How can we make sure that the PC is the one leading the story and, as a central part of that question, How can we empower GMs to incorporate PC’s internal conflict into the campaign or adventure?
Internal vs External Conflict
Before we continue, let me make sure we all have the same understanding of the terms. I’m going to use our home game, my first novel Buried Heroes, and the Land of Vampires campaign as specific examples. (Buried Heroes emerged out of our home duet game, so they remain deeply interconnected for me.)
External conflict refers to the events, concerns, and movements of the world at large. Examples may include the actions of gods and goddesses, wars between kingdoms and nation-states, or natural disasters such as floods to name a few.
External conflict in our home game
We’ll begin with the external conflict in our home game. Shortly after Iellieth mis-teleported (exactly like the beginning of First Blush in the Crystalline Curse Trilogy) and landed in the Frostmaw Mountains, she began to hear rumors about a brewing war between her home kingdom of Linolynn and the much wealthier, more powerful kingdom to the north, Hadvar.
Iellieth is a young noblewoman of Linolynn’s court, so this external conflict did affect her, but it wasn’t a driving force as it might have been were she a captain of the army or an instigator in the conflict.
Jonathan, as the GM and I, as the writer, needed to find something deeper, closer to heart, to drive her north to Hadvar.
External conflict in Land of Vampires
As a second example of external conflict, let’s look at the Land of Vampires campaign.
In the initial arc, the PC learns that there’s a creature or force capturing children in the night, and the City Watch asks them to help uncover who or what is behind the disappearances.
This problem will resonate differently with different characters, so even from the very beginning of the campaign, it’s up to the GM to help the PC be invested (which is also why we need the player to be tapping into their character’s motivations).
- Some PCs might find the promise of wealth and riches to be an intriguing offer while others will want the prestige they might gain from uncovering the creature behind the captures.
- The conflict may also tap into the character’s backstory. Maybe they lost a sibling or child at a young age, so the conflict resonates with them at a personal level.
- Alternatively, the problem might tap into the PC’s expertise as a monster hunter (and of course this motivation could combine with those listed at first, either the money, renown, or both)
Internal conflict, most often, refers to a dissonance or desire at the heart of a character. I think it’s important to include desire in our discussion of internal conflict as it can be an equally powerful driving force for a PC.
Another way of putting it would be the engine behind everything the character does. What force, desire, belief, vision, or fear serves as the impetus and energy behind their actions?
What drives them to act rather than to remain where they are/were? Inertia is powerful. It takes something powerful, internally, to drive us out of a state of inert-ness and into action.
Internal conflict in our home game
For Iellieth, I’ll use the example of a driving internal desire. One of her primary motivators at the beginning of her adventure is her desire to learn the identity of and find her father.
It is the possibility of finding her father in Hadvar, not the brewing war in Linolynn, that convinces her to uproot herself from the life she has known and start a new journey instead. (The story is of course more complex than this, and you can read it in the novel so I don’t give anything significant away here ☺️)
Internal conflict in Land of Vampires
In our own adventures in Steymhorod, my PC Briseras’s experiences as a vampire hunter led her to Steymhorod. Hunting is all Briseras has ever known, but that, in and of itself, isn’t enough to propel her forward. Again, this is a simplification, but at Briseras’s heart, there’s a brokenness, a disbelief in who she is and what she can accomplish.
But at war with that brokenness is her desire to protect those she cares about and a calling that she received at the start of her own adventure—a destiny to walk between the worlds of the living and the dead. (You can read the origins of that tale in my short story, “Blood Wolf Moon.”)
Bringing the Pieces Together
Internal conflict and desire might tie into a character’s backstory or it may emerge over the course of their adventures. For our PCs, the adventuring party around them has always been a driving force. Some of my favorite arcs have revolved around learning more about my characters’ companions and helping them rather than always being about my primary character.
I’ve written previously about the importance of PC motivation in your duet game, which you can read or revisit here.
We’ve also written about creating powerful and compelling villains, which I hope to write about more later. For our immediate purposes, when trying to apply this advice to villain creation, think of your villain as standing on the opposite end of the spectrum from your hero.
An example: One of my PCs, Persephonie, is lively and friendly, and she has received special favor from the goddess of fate, Cassandra. The villains opposing her, a demon and then a lich, have both sought to destroy the fabric of fate. The demon was especially daunting as it threatened Persephonie’s family and people. And the lich perfectly embodied Persephonie’s opposite—death, destruction, and selfishness as opposed to care for others.
The final thing I’ll say about this for now is that you don’t have to set out, consciously, to determine all of these things. It’s entirely possible that you’ll happen upon them intuitively—you may have already happened upon them intuitively! But I think it’s helpful to have this framework kicking around in the back of your mind as well as to have it as a filter for observing other storytellers and your favorite storytelling methods.
Raising the Stakes
In a future post, I’ll work through some of my favorite advice that I’ve received from my editor that has served me so impossibly well as a novelist, GM, and a game designer: forcing the PC to make the best bad decision.
When you’re trying to really up the stakes for your campaign or trying to make your villain really interesting, see if they can put your hero in a situation of making the best decision of two (or more) really terrible options.
Do they defy their deity and use a forbidden magic in order to save the one they love? Do they betray their family or their adventuring companions?
Sometimes they’ll still be able to make both decisions, like killing the villain and saving their partner, but the drama of the moment is so worth it!
As a quick caveat, I do suggest caution with using this technique as we don’t want to trap the player into indecision or betray the duet relationship. Rule of cool and rule of fun still apply!
Closing Thoughts (for now)
The weight of internal conflict’s centrality in duet D&D (and tabletop gaming more widely) and its broader storytelling implications are still settling over me, and that’s all while being four years into this D&D Duet journey with all of you! This is something I want to keep working through and writing about but, in the meantime, if you’d like to read further, check out our previous posts on designing character-driven campaign arcs and incorporating PC backstory into your duet games.
I’d love to hear your experiences of designing with the PC’s internal conflict or internal desires in mind! Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
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