Building a Fantasy Campaign World II: Driving Conflict

All stories are driven by conflict. Fiction is driven by narrative conflict and games are driven by the conflict between either the players at the table or – in the case of most RPGs – between the GM and the players, be it directly or indirectly.

This is the second chapter on a blog series on World Building.

Table of Contents

This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below

Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous


In D&D, much of the conflict comes in the form of story or the monsters, with the exact ratio being determined by the type of game. In a classic old school dungeon crawl, the vast majority of the conflict will occur between monsters and the PCs, as the party moves from room to room. In a more narrative game, the conflict might be driven by many different factors and monsters might be a minority – if they exist at all! Given dungeon crawls can occur on any world, very little world building thought needs to be given to dungeon-based conflict: it can be handled on an adventure-by-adventure basis. However, conflict in a larger world is much harder to add spontaneously. The more conflicts and potential conflicts in a world, the more potential adventure hooks and adversaries the DM has to work with and the more ideas that can be drawn on for inspiration.

Why Start with Conflict?

This might seem like an odd topic for the second part of the series. I began with “the Hook” and am pushing conflict before thinking of nations or the races or the role of the various classes. Why start thinking about potential conflict in the world so soon?

The reason is conflict informs so much else in the world. The scope of a campaign world – its usability for multiple stories, adventures, or campaigns – is dependent on the number of conflicts. Conflict is something that informs so much of the later design that its importance needs to be emphasised early. It’s not as foundational as “the Hook” but is pretty darn important.

I’m going to abuse Greyhawk and Dragonlance for my examples here, which will likely upset a few people. Both are great examples of worlds with little diversity in their built-in conflict.

Dragonlance was really an Adventure Path (the first AP!) that spun off into a setting. It wasn’t intended to be a fully fleshed-out campaign world: it was pitched as a short series of adventures design to tell a single story and focus on dragons. As Chris Perkins has noted, Dragonlance has the one really big story: the War of the Lance. There have been many other stories told and additional epic events have rocked the landscape of Ansalon, but most involve newly arisen foes, previously unknown menaces, or the same faces seen during the War of the Lance. The later conflicts are tacked-on.

Meanwhile, in Greyhawk there were a large number of competing nations, but little variety beyond rampaging monsters. Most of the powerful NPCs were former Player Characters whose story was focused on killing monsters & exploring the depths of Castle Greyhawk or the rivalry between three city-states. To liven up the setting during the Greyhawk Wars event, TSR had a couple noteworthy heroes turn evil and increased tension between the various rival nations. But the world was still focused on dungeon crawls and national politics.

(Although, it defence of Greyhawk, it was left blank on purpose so DMs could make it their own. In the eyes of Gygax, the lack of built-in story and conflict was a feature not a bug.)

It’s easy to have lengthy campaigns in both, easily adding new threats and menaces to drive the story, but that requires a little more work (semi-defeating the purpose of using a published world), or the campaign runs the risk of over-using the few Name bad guys of each setting. It’s a little like Transformers orG.I.Joe where in every episode the bad guy is the same: “something mysterious is happening somewhere in the world, gee I wonder if a Decepticon/Cobra is involved?”

In contrast, an example of a campaign world with more pre-built conflict is theForgotten Realms, which was created around the same time as Greyhawk and published around the same time as Dragonlance. The Realms has the Zhentarim, the Red Wizards, the Cult of the Dragon, thieves’ guilds, evil merchants, the clerics of various evil gods, and more. All in the first boxed set, and in addition to the usual suspects of dragons, devils, and assorted other monsters. It isn’t just Takhisis and her armies again and again.

But it goes beyond that. Even in the “good guy” nation of Cormyr there is tension between the crown and the squabbling noble families vying for power, the familial tension between the king and the daughter that wants to be an adventurer, and the national tension with neighbouring Sembia and independant Dalelands.

Realms campaign can feature multiple different opponents, sometimes even in the same adventure, with a great deal of variety in enemies and their goals. And all have strong ties to the world, its lore and history, and the setting in general: the conflict is integral not additive.

In short, the more potential adversaries and opponents in a setting, the more varied and diverse the campaign and story and the easier it is for the DM to be flexible

Types of Conflict

Having established the need for baseline conflict let’s briefly pause and look at the potential areas to add conflict and tension to a world. As everyone should have learned in Elementary school, there are three types of conflict. Man versus ManMan versus Nature, and Man versus Himself.

The last one (man vs. himself) isn’t particularly useful on a worldbuilding scale, so we’ll skip heavy discussion on that type. It is useful for character building though, so it’s handy to establish a cultural baseline for races, so players have something they can base their character on: either to stand out from or embody as a common member of a race. That drives personal conflict, either as the odd-man out or striving to live up to the ideals of your people.

Starting with the middle, the embodiment of Man vs. Nature is Dark Sun where the setting itself is the worst enemy the players will face. But even more mundane places can add some environmental hazards to the game, with large deserts, barren tundra, frozen glaciers, and the like. There should be places where just day-to-day life is dangerous and adventurers are challenged to even survive. In many worlds the Underdark qualifies, but the Mournlands in Eberron is a good example. Likewise, unintelligent monsters are as much a factor of vs. Nature conflict as a precocious marlin and some sharks. As such, there should be some wild areas where monsters run free and civilization has no hold, as is demonstrated by the theme of Points of Light in the Nentir Vale setting.

Even if Nature is not directly slapping the PCs in the face it can drive conflict. Scarcity of resources always drives tension and can fuel other tension. Dangerous trade routes or resource monopolies are great examples of easy tension. Strategic locales can also drive conflict and stories. Look at Constantinople/Istanbul for a famous city that has changed hands many times and been the focus of much conflict due to its location.

More than likely, Man vs. Man will be the driving conflict of most worlds. This can be subdivided into Man vs. Man and Man vs. Society. The first is the common evil people doing bad things, but would also include good people doing bad things (for “good” reasons), selfish people doing selfish things, misguided people doing bad things, and the like. It might be limited to individuals but would also include groups of varying sizes. Evil foreign powers would also count.

Man vs. Society is a little more complicated, not just being conflict with the people in the society but their philosophy; the conflict is almost Man vs. Idea. This takes place when the heroes are fighting the evil nation of evil as inhabitants and not representatives & champions of the neighbouring good nation. It starts with the “Resistance” style campaign, where the heroes are working to overthrow a government (legitimate or occupational) but could also include campaigns where the heroes have a different philosophy from the rest of the nation (honest folk in the city of corrupt schemers, noble souls in the back-stabbing drow nation, free thinkers in the dogmatic theocracy, etc).

There’s also the scale of conflict. In a 4e game this equates with Tier, but 5thEdition might have a different tier system as we haven’t heard anything about its level range, but it’s safe to say we’ll eventually have some form of epic high level play.

Conflict can start small, on a local scale. This includes family tension, politics limited to a single village or small city, and drama between small households. Moving a step larger there is large feuding families ala Romeo & Juliet and politics in a large city. Large merchant guilds might also come into play here, as would various urban organizations. Beyond that things go to a national scale, with conflict between cities or regions in a single nation. Merchant houses that control trade between cities, nobles fighting for power over entire regions. Church officials that hold power over multiple parishes. The scope keeps increasing, and conflict goes international and the rivalries of nations take presence. Then the problems of entire continents become apparent, or the conflict moves to a planetary or planar scale. At the upper end of the conflict scale there’s church against church in a massive holy war or the collective armies of multiple nations being used like pawns on a cosmic chessboard.

This isn’t to say the problems of common people stop mattering to high level parties (although they often do) but that there needs to be room for the conflict to go and problems set-up for various level ranges and power levels. If the primary conflict in a world is divine in nature and revolves around competing deities then by the time the party can actually impact and resolve the conflict they will have been dealing with it for years of real time. It might easily grow stale. Instead, a the larger conflict might trickle down, having ripples on a smaller scale that can be noticed and solved while leading to the larger problems. Speaking of which…

Engineering Conflict

When designing a world it’s a good idea to slip in a few different types of conflict and a few layers of conflict. There should be small personal conflicts that can be easily resolved or escalate into larger problems. There’s should be larger problems that are affecting things on a regional and local scale. Even if the larger problems are not a focus of the campaign or something the PCs can influence, having this larger conflict as a backdrop gives the sense of a larger, living world.

As an example, the second World War drives and influences the plot ofCasablanca but the actual war itself is really a backdrop as the real story is the romantic love triangle. Any conflict could replace WWII in the story and the plot would move forward (as can be seen in any of the half-dozen Cassablancaclones). The PCs don’t have to be fighting in a conflict – or even picking sides – to have it influence the story.

Conflict should be both past and present. It’s a good idea to have some ideas of old conflicts with lingering resentment that might build-up to renewed conflict. It helps establish relationships and assumptions between nations and races: despite being at peace for 200-years, the prior centuries of continual war still influence British and French perceptions of each other.  England and Scotland have been one nation for 300-years but the old animosity remains.

Not all conflict needs to be entirely justified either. Propaganda and assumptions are powerful weapons. The Crusades were all about freeing the “Holy Land” from the non-Christian heathens despite Muslims respecting Christ and Islam being one of the three Abrahamic religions. It’s always fun to tell PCs that the neighbouring nation is full of “baby-eating heretic savages” or “evil virgin-sacrificing wizards” only to reveal their homeland is actually intolerant or misguided.

It’s also a good idea to create a few “wild card” opponents, bad guys or evil organizations that are mobile or operate on an international level that can be dropped in anywhere, such as the Zhentarim or Scarlet Brotherhood – although I’ll write much more on this in the eventual Organizations part of the series.

As I’ll discuss much more in the nation building chapter, no country should be all-good. Even the noblest most decent nation run by kitten-hugging paladins of Pelor will have its tensions and conflicts somewhere. It’s human nature to divide ourselves into opposed tribes. There should be seedy underbellies, competition for rank and prestige, concerns over trade, and the like. The kitten-hugging pallys might be anti-dogs, or compete for places in the church hierarchy, or fight over the best quests and charities to support. In real world terms, America the “land of the free” is a nation divided on every major issue by a binary political system of deeply entrenched parties (essentially “the incumbent” and “the opposition” ) and still fractured from a 150-year-old war and years of racial inequality while struggling with massive financial problems that have resulted into staggering debt and inequal distribution of wealth. And all of the above makes for great narrative conflict and potential stories. Lots of fodder for the worldbuilder as utopias make for crappy stories.

Conflict is not a step in and of itself, but something that needs to be considered with all future steps. As discussed last time, when adding an element to the world, such as describing a race and nation, a good world builder should ask themselves “How does this reflect, complement, or contrast the Hook?” And just like that, when creating some element, a world builder should ask themselves “Where is the conflict?” For nations they should be able to answer the question “Where is the conflict against nature, and where is the conflict against people?” For races they should be able to ask “What are the major conflicts with this race?”

Conflict in War World

To wrap-up this chapter, we’ll return to my example world, tentatively named “War World”. At this point, I can only work in generalities as I’ll be describing the races or nations in those chapters and am trying not to think too far ahead so I can best reflect the discussion points in my chapters. As such, I’ll have to keep the idea of “conflict” in mind while doing those examples. Which is the point.

Much of the conflict for this world is easy because of the Hook: there need to be nations that are currently at war. But the conflict shouldn’t end there. There needs to be varied and layered conflict.

There should also be nations that were at war regularly over the past but are currently at peace, possibly because one nation is at war with someone else and does not wish to wage a two-front war. That makes for great stories and tension. One nation might be considering breaking the peace to trap the other nation in the aforementioned two-front war, viewing it as an opportunity for decisive victory. Other factions might push for an alliance, viewing it as a chance for lasting peace. The third nation might be trying for an alliance themselves against their mutual enemy, or trying to orchestrate a war through deception. That’s conflict without open conflict right there, and many of those ideas could play out at the same time with various factions competing with contrary goals.

In lengthy war, there’s also the tension from occupied countries or regions. Occupied France during WWII is a good modern example, as would be Iraq during the recent invasion. There’s always the resistance movements and those seen as collaborators. In wider wars there might be foreign involvement, with aid supplied by 3rd Party nations – such as the aid offered to Afghani rebels during the Soviet occupation of that country. Seized territory is always a point of contention; after a few generations the “occupiers” become the “inhabitants” and the true ownership of the land becomes tricky. This might be especially fun in a D&D fantasy world where a generation for one race is significantly shorter than for other races.

In a world where warfare is the expected behaviour pacifistic movements are another point of tension. Just look at the peace movement of the ‘60s, a direct reaction to the Vietnam War. And even in a world torn apart by war there might be pacifistic neutral nations – such as Switzerland in most modern wars. The Swiss are neutral because their country is really a mix of four different ethnicities and is bordered by six modern countries. They don’t take sides as the inhabitants typically have ties to both sides.

A race or nation of mercenaries would also cause some lovely tension, not being trusted by many – as they were “the enemy” until recently – but would be +necessary to win otherwise equal battles. Plus there’s the inherent conflict of someone raised in such a culture picking a side or fighting for a cause other than money, which is a nice hook for a PC (an understated but important step in worldbuilding is seeding the writing with character hooks and roles to inspire creativity).

Something that’s less reflective of the real world might be people without a nation. Vaguely similar to the Roma or Hebrew people, in the War World this might better resemble the people of Cyre from Eberron. Their nation might have been brutally occupied and annexed and the population fled or became slaves. Or it might have been laid waste by mundane or magical means (or a mix of both; I’m imagining squads of flying dragons salting the earth).

This is all in addition to the standard small-scale personal problems, merchants struggling with bandits, monsters raiding settlements, families with secrets and personal problems, and all the little stories that continue despite the larger problems.


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