How are heroes made? Why, struggle, of course! Creating conflict is key for ALL storytelling! So, you might be a GM looking for more interesting ways to torment your players. Or maybe you’re a novel writer searching for interesting conundrums for your main characters? Either way, you’ll always be looking for more conflict and drama for your stories. In this post, we have 5 plot devices and plot points for interesting conflicts to throw at your players, beyond “killing mooks” or “1d4 wolves”!
Tip #1. For Creating Conflict: Overcoming flaws or facing fears
All heroes should have flaws – they’re part of creating a compelling character! And character flaws are a great way to build interesting and relatable characters, too. For DnD and other RPG players, flaws are often built into the character-making process, and most writers love creating flawed characters too —they’re just so compelling to watch! So, why not leverage those flaws into plot points, to up the conflict and drama of your novel or campaign? Why not MAKE THEM FACE THEIR FEARS? Or, well, overcome their flaws. It’s the basis of many-a great character arc, and there’s a reason. It makes for great conflict.
Phobias are some of the easiest flaws to leverage in this way, as it’s just a question of engineering the setting to make your hero face their fears. A great example of this can be found in Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade. Indie gets locked in an ancient tomb, but to up the stakes… it’s full of snakes! Having him face his phobia makes this an even more stressful situation. In order to make this work, though, you usually have to have foreshadowed the extent of the phobia, so the audience – whether that’s readers of your novel or the other players around the table – understand exactly why it’s such a big deal.
Other character flaws, though, can easily be manipulated like this. For example, if a character struggles to keep their temper, consider how you might trigger it. If they’re prideful, you can use that to your advantage for creating conflict that is more interesting. Make it clear that, if they don’t humble themselves, something terrible will happen. And then watch them spiral into torment! So much drama from such an easy plot point!
But here’s where it gets tricky. RPG Players should be rewarded for playing true to their character. It’s most satisfying if that’s not just with a mechanic, like inspiration or XP, but by rewarding them in story terms too. But in general, in-story characters should have penalties, at least in the short term, for succumbing to their flaws. A great way to manage this is to give a delayed story progression reward to the character.
For example, if they get angry and punch out that guard, they’ll be arrested. But maybe whilst they’re stuck in prison, they overhear a key piece of information —overall, it’s a good thing to drive the plot forward.
If you do this, it’s all about creating a perceived setback and then finding a way to drive the plot forward. You’ll be well on your way to telling a great story (and your players will TOTALLY think you planned it)!
Tip #2. The lesser of two evils
How to write a hero struggle without MORE MOOKS? Well, why not give your heroes a choice, but a terrible one? For example, your sister is revealed to be a murderer just as your best friend, a policeman, arrives. You must choose a side… and neither choice is good! With this plot device, it’s not just that the choice is agonizing. it’s that either choice will lead to further conflict and problems down the road. And as we know, problems are fuel for the story machine!
You can even make this even more dramatic! There are two great episodes like this in the Batman movies – the Joker kidnaps batman’s love interest and Harvey Dent, and makes Batman choose. He also sets up explosives on two boats — one full of convicts and one full-on innocent citizens. In both cases, Bruce Wayne has to first determine the lesser of two evils, before he can even act. There’s a great sub-thread wrapped up in these scenes about altruism and selfishness and the nature of man, but the example still holds. On a fundamental level, there is no right choice, and the moral dilemma is terrifying —which means it makes great storytelling!
Whether you’re a GM or a writer, the trick is making the choice —and the stakes— as clear as possible. The choices your main characters or DnD characters make will go a long way to defining their character and will have repercussions in the future.
There’s one more way you can take this. I like to call it “secret option number three”. That’s when a “lesser of two evils” choice is presented to the characters, but they instead think their way around the conundrum. They do something that is unexpected. This works really well in two cases:
- If you want to show your main character is smarter than the villain
- If your RPG players think of it on their own, despite your best efforts!
In terms of 1, this definitely something to be used sparingly. After all, by having your hero outwit the villain, you’re watering down the villain just as much as you’re showing how smart your character is. If you want a Sherlock Holmes vs. Moriarty style victory, make sure that your villain is repeatedly one step ahead until your main character spots the secret option number three. That will help keep them credibly terrifying in the eyes of your readers and players.
If you intend your players to spot “secret option number 3” you might want to foreshadow that the villain is not that bright – that they repeatedly fall short of the Machiavellian genius they aspire to! This will hint to them that they might be able to thnk their way around the problem. And if you don’t intend them to spot secret option number three, then don’t worry! This can happen, after all, they’re looking at the conundrum from a different perspective, and you can’t plan for every eventuality as a DM. My advice is….. give it to them! At least, if it’s a clever solution, it fits the character and the campaign setting, and it makes sense! After all, it’ll allow your players to feel they’ve earned a win, and that they deserve to be the heroes in the campaign!
Rather watch a vid? Here are the main plot devices for creating conflict… in video form! Then read on below for more details!
Tip #3. Facing up to past mistakes
However bold and true and loyal your hero is right now, the chances are, they’ve made some mistakes in their past. Making them face up to those mistakes, whether it was an accident, negligence of duty, or overconfidence, is a great method for creating conflict and amazing character moments in one fell swoop. This is one of my favorite ways to make interesting conflicts for heroes. As a GM, you’ll need to be familiar with your PCs’ backstories, but chances are they’ve given you plenty of hooks to work with!
In fact, if you’ve got a Paladin who’s too perfect or a Mary Sue character, this is a fantastic plot point to use! This is also a great way to stop any hero from feeling like a Mary Sue —like a character who is too perfect. After all, they’ve made mistakes in the past, and those mistakes are coming back to haunt them. This is a wonderful way to add more complexity and interest to such a character!
[Want more tips for character creation? Read our 5 tips for writing compelling characters!]
To make this one work, pick a moment that the character considers to be their greatest failure. Maybe they arrived too late to save the princess (or another important person from their past)? Maybe they abandoned their post and something terrible happened. Perhaps it was even more nefarious —they cheated, lied, or stole, and the consequences were cataclysmic. Whatever it is, with this plot device, the fallout has come back to bite them in the ass! They don’t just have to deal with the story conflict, but with the guilt and shame of what they’ve done. They might even try to hide the true story from their friends and relatives… And if it gets out, it could seriously damage their reputation! These are all great ways to raise the stakes and change up the status quo, by the way, which is another key to great drama and conflict.
As for ways to introduce this plot point, it often comes in the form of a “herald”. That’s just a fancy word for messenger. It might be in the form of a letter or message from an old friend. It could be a character from their past carrying the message —and that carrying might be with a word, a sword, or an assassination attempt. These are all great ways to introduce the thread of what’s happening. it might even be that the character doesn’t know, at first glance, what this is all about. They may have to put some clues together. And that’s a fascinating part of this plot device, too.
Tip #4. A deal with the devil for creating conflict
A deal with the devil means, in simple terms, making a pact with someone you KNOW is bad. Unlike the Lesser of Two Evils, it’s often the only choice, especially if the Big Bad has manipulated your character into the situation. For example, they have your loved one, and they’ll only return them if you give them something in return (this is the plot of Disney’s Hercules). Another classic example is the typical Faustian Bargain, as parodied in Futurama, the Simpsons, etc. A character exchanges something important – usually a soul – for a trait, powers, or something else. And in the end, the Devil comes to collect.
Another fabulous example of this plot device in action is the “enemy of my enemy” trope. I mean, sure, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but if he’s also a BIG BAD in his own right, what does that mean? And how far will your hero go outside their moral comfort zone when associating with them? How will they deal —emotionally— with having to associate with someone who’s just so darn selfish, greedy, or downright evil?
And a third good twist on this… is to pile on the consequences! Is it just that their soul or sense of self is now tarnished, or are there more immediate consequences —like betrayal, or strings attached, or even a loss of reputation? There are so many potential long-term conflicts and consequences of a Deal with the Devil, which makes this an awesome one to play with! It’s a conflict that can pay out session after session, or novel after novel. And it can crop up again as number 3 —a mistake from their past!
More great examples of the “Deal with the Devil” plot device are:
- Ariel and Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid
- Hercules making a deal with Hades AND Megara making a deal with Hades in Disney’s Hercules
- Dr. Facilier from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog
- Anakin Skywalker and Emporer Palpatine in StarWars
- Davy Jones makes deals with dead or dying sailors in Pirates of the Caribbean
Looks like Disney uses this plot device a lot. But we’re not going to read into that. Nope. Definitely not…
Tip #5. Their favorite problem-solving tools are unavailable
So your heroes have at least one strength, and it might be a pretty significant one. Chances are, it’s their go-to method for solving problems, large or small. But what happens when Thor can’t swing his hammer, Cyclops can’t use his laser vision, or She-Ra’s lost her sword? What happens if their normal tools aren’t available for some reason? How will they react, and what will they do?
These situations often make the most memorable stories —what do your heroes do when they’ve lost their normal problem-solving tools? This is a great way to get to the heart of how your hero approaches problems, and lead them on a path to discovering something new about themselves.
You might shatter weapons, introduce no-magic zones, or other setting-specific nerfs to force your players to think outside the box. For example, characters who excel at reasoning might have a temporary concussion or amnesia.
However you introduce it, there’re two important things to remember with this one. The first is that it shouldn’t feel vindictive; no one person should feel singled out (whether that’s around the table or in a novel). The second is that it shouldn’t be permanent! We fall in love with these characters for their abilities as well as their flaws, and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had from Thor smashing stuff with his hammer. So taking toys away briefly to explore how the characters react and what they learn is a great tool for creating conflict… but maybe give them back for the big finale!
Using World Anvil for creating conflict
If you’re creating characters for novels and short stories, Player Characters or NPCs for Dungeons and Dragons or other Role Playing games, World Anvil has you covered!
Our character template – perfect for novel characters and NPCs – has a detailed questionnaire that helps you get into their mindset, and figure out their motivations, traits, and those all-important flaws! Our RPG Character manager lets you detail your character and writer about their experiences in journals, as well as tracking their equipment, health, stats, and more! Make sure you check out our features for game masters and writers!
It’s Worldbuilding CHALLENGE time!
YOUR CHALLENGE should you choose to accept it, is:
Create a plot article about a clever conflict you plan to introduce to your Main Character or your Player Characters. Explain why the plot is perfect to mess with their heads!
You can use one of these five ideas OR one of your own, but it should be cleverer than just “they fight some wolves”. And remember to take your characters’ traits, flaws, histories, and personalities into account!
Make sure you submit the prompt here on World Anvil, AND you can see other people’s answers too, if they’ve chosen to make them public, for even more inspiration! There’s always someone doing something awesome on World Anvil!
So, which is your favorite of these Conflict Devices – or maybe you have another one to suggest? Let me know in the comments below!