OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


Way with Worlds – Conflicts & the world falling apart

This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. 

battle at washington

So there’s a reason I covered humans (and human-alikes) and the psychology of conflict first. Characters and their institutions are often the causes of conflicts – and characters are the lenses through which players/readers experience your world. We have to think about them first in the case of worldbuilding because it gives us the right perspective.

But with that said, you need something to get your cast to engage in (or prevent) atrocities. What are he drivers and elements that create wars and conflicts?

Again, it’s often a matter of perspective. Which is the problem in fiction – and come to think of it real life as well . . .

The Secret Ingredient Is Unhappiness

“Conflict” is a matter of perspective. To have a perspective you need people to have it. No people, no conflict.

Let’s face it, a Tsunami on an uninhabited world is “a thing” – on an inhabited one it can be apocalyptic. For a worldbuilder, that’s also a story to tell – the conflict of man versus nature (and man versus man for survival).

Adding people to a setting means there’s a chance for conflict with their setting. However, it’s not just that people (of whatever race or species or dimensional stability) can regard an occrence as conflict, they create it as well.  They’re the ones that take an event and by their actions turn it into a conflict.

Look at our “real” world, where an argument or a slight can lead to violence, where the actions of a few lead to war. It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that, when people are involved, anything can expand into a conflict, from a punch-up to galactic genocide.

(Yes, assorted things can bring out the best in us, but that’s not my focus right now.)

To have a conflict you need to have people in your setting to experience – or outright take an experience to cause a conflict.

It’s very important to remember this because unless you realize the participatory nature of conflict in your setting, the your conflicts are merely invented. They’re not fleshed out in your setting because they’re not grounded in your characters and their world. Just deciding “hey there’s a war” isn’t going to be real to your readers or players – it’s got to be grounded in the people in your setting, even if they’re busy slaughtering each other.

How many wars against Generic Evil King and Faceless Galactic Empire do we need? Why do they exist? Why are they a problem? Hey maybe we can just assassinate the King or reform the empire from the inside?

And that’s where it comes together. – conflicts happen when Setting Meets Inhabitants.

And that intimate relationship is one from which harmony and conflict blossom. So let’s focus o nthat whole conflict thing since I’m on a roll.

Place Plus People Means Pandemonium

Settings are where your inhabitants live. It’s what creates them one way or another. They’re intimately, inextricably entwined with it (I argue that inhabitants are the parts of your setting we can relate to).

They eat because of the sun and the rain and the plants (and perhaps Blurdgore, god of harvests). They breathe the air (or methane, or whatever). They exist because of natural laws (or gods or magical fallout). They are not separate from their settings.

In turn, changes in the setting change things for them.

Food is less plentiful because of a drought (or Blurdgore’s depression over his affair with Foroma, goddess of woodcraft). The air is polluted because of the fallout from industry. A new mineral vein appeals to patriotism to build a better technology – or greed to own it.

Much as the human (or human-like) mind is one that thrives with some balance, a balanced world means survival. Sure a few changes here and there may be good and beneficial, but the more radical a change, the more chance something is going to be radically altered. It could even be a good change, as anyone watching people fight over a windfall know.

And when that change hits people too hard or in the wrong way, conflict begins.  That’s when it’s a vital part of your world – and vital part of your story or game or however people experience it.

Famine means hard choices and conflicts. Pollution requires confronting issues – or avoiding them and letting the problem gets worse. New resources can mean a mad dash to stake a claim and get an edge over others.   A severe enough change – good or bad – can drive the population to conflict.

You just have to figure out how far changes push people before things jump on the train to crisisville.

However, in theory, isn’t your setting always changing? Stability is more dynamic homeostasis than anything else, the world is always altering, from seasons to arguments to weather. Doesn’t this mean endless chances for conflict?

Yep. Especially when people are involved, however . . . .

Your setting in many ways is probably filled with endless amounts of conflicts. They just don’t seem very big or resolve themselves or don’t make waves. Things are calm in total, but you could easily zoom in and see the little conflicts (in fact a good worldbuilder can do just this).

Your epic tales and games are about ones that get kind of conflicts bigger than “what do I eat for breakfast” or “hauling in the town drunk” again. The epic tales (even if only epic for what they mean to one person), are ones where the setting and the personal interests mean conflicts get exacerbated until they get interesting.

Admittedly by interesting I mean “often ugly and bloody and action-filled” but you know what I mean. When the setting meets characters, there are times things get out of hand  – or as we writers think of it “you get a story.”

But conflicts aren’t forever. In fact that desire to resolve them is part of your world and story.

The Endgame

Conflict is something people seek to resolve (even if the resolution is getting themselves away from it). In fact, a lot of conflict is people fighting about different resolutions to a problem. Those resolutions may be someting like “killing every last damn orc in the province” but it is a resolution, though the Orcs may have something to say about it.  Sometimes the conflict is due to people trying to solve another conflict, a kind of mobius strip of misery.

Conflicts can’t go on forever as things tend to wear down, and conflicts often by their nature are due to people resolving other conflicts. That means one way or another, there’s an end coming.

People are pursing goals to resolve conflicts. So what’s their endgame? Well that’s a formula brought about by what caused it – the setting and the people.

The setting defines what you have to do to end the conflict. Raise more food to eliinate famine (or elimate people, or get Blurdgore hooked up via the divine equivalent of OKCupid). Clean pollution up (or wait until its so bad it’s a new conflict). Kill the competition to get to the new mineral rights.

Duke Nukem standing on pile of bodies

SEE ALSO: The Deadly Hero

But the people also define the setting. Their ethics, their principles, their goals, and their understandings. They will set goals based on their education, their biases, their knowledge. These understandings may be exceptional, or they may be ignorant, and they may be very, very wrong.

And, as noted earlier, character’s methods of resolving conflicts can be so out of wack they’re disastrous. A fanime that could be solved by cooperation turns into a religious war. Pollution is ignored until it breeds plague. A devestating war starts over some stupid natural resource that is destroed in the process.

So when people get into a conflict, remember they have an endgame in mind, defined by the setting and themselves. Just remember that the endgame may be completely stupid and insane. Historical examples are probably way too easy to come by.

But people plot strategy to resolve conflicts. Keep that in mind – and also keep in mind it may not be right, or seem right, or make sense to supposedly objective source.  But for the characters it makes perfect sense, and you end up writing their descent into hell.

And as for what “actually” resolves the conflict, well that could be anything from one smart character solving a problem to a battle that leaves most everyone dead so there’s not enough people to have a conflict.  That’s up to you to figure out.

Developing A Nose For Conflict

In many cases, when we build worlds, we build certain conflicts into them. These are best re-analyzed as you build the world to make more sense. Some things don’t pass the “smell” test, and as conflicts take time, resources, and more, they’re going to have impact and need to be analyzed to determine what they mean for your setting – or if they make sense at all.

If you’re building a world, you need to develop a nose for conflict to see where things should get nasty.

A weather change, the birth of a new god, the seventh annual Hyperspace festival (when Aunt Mildred’s clone visits) may seem like events that you can write easy. But will they produce conflicts (and will those get awful)? What happens to people when the setting and people encounter each other?  What if the conflict you’d thought about just seems to fade awa?

So be sure you can sniff out when conflict should start and how far it should go – and when it doesn’t make sense.. That’s going to b an important part of your setting and important parts of the media that come from them. If you’re not careful a setting can seem unreliably calm, or be so ridden with pointless fighting that it’s darkly hilarious.

It also gives you an idea of what writing or storytelling you can do because you can “sniff out a good story or place to start your game in the timeline. You don’t have to make things up, in many cases there’ plenty of interesting stuff to talk about.

A Lot To Do

Being aware of what a conflict is, just like being aware of how people make them into conflicts or make them worse,is important to worldbuilding. Events and people are always coming together, and thinking over their mechanics helps you make a realistic story and world.

And in some cases, you might be aware that your world won’t stand up. Maybe it’s so conflict ridden it can’t survive.

Or maybe finding that means that you’ve got a lot of great stories to tell, so let’s get to various forms of conflict and breakdown . . .

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at

Top image is by Talha122 on DeviantArt.


  • Silent Hunter

    Drawing a map is a good idea – conflicts will begin to suggest themselves.