Words about worlds

Conflict-first Worldbuilding

by | Jan 11, 2023 | Games | 0 comments

If you want to find a story, look for a problem.

This worldbuilding series revolves around designing worlds for stories, stories that might later be wrapped into role-playing games, novels, plays, art exhibits, or song cycles. So, why not start worldbuilding by finding a satisfying problem?

As with map-based worldbuilding, you have to answer some of the “top level” questions first. What genre interests you? What scale of problem interests you?

We’re participating in #dungeon23. Specifically, we’re slowly building out a hard sci-fi setting, based in our solar system, in the somewhat near future. So at the moment, I’m sci-fi minded. Typing along right now, I could say, let’s write a story where some people are highly motivated to use a technology that drastically improves spaceship flight times, or that has very high energy yields that would allow humans to push out to the icy outer edge of the solar system. Now, let’s say that another group of people are highly motivated to ban that technology. This conflict is rich fuel for many stories. What if a rare compound was found in the Oort Cloud, and what if that compound could save thousands of lives? Say that it can not be synthesized in a lab. Without that new technology, it would be impossible to reach and extract that compound from the distant Oort Cloud. Or there’s the conflict between the corporation (or government) that invested in this technology and the corporation (or governments) who are benefiting quite well from the current technological base and have an interest in squelching the new technology.

A serene photograph of Comet Hale-Bopp, showing the comet's two clearly separated tails, pale blue and brilliant white, stretching across the sky.

Andy Roberts CC BY 2.0

If these plots sound familiar, it’s because they are inspired by real life. The same conflict can fit in multiple genres. The struggle to develop or oppose new technology described above can be re-dressed to apply to electricity in the late 19th century or to nuclear fission-based power plants in the modern day, to give just two examples.

The scale of the conflict you focus on should match the scale of the stories you want to tell. For instance, say that it’s a quiet Sunday afternoon and I’m in the mood for a slice-of-life story. I might start by looking for a conflict between individuals, families, or small communities. Work, education, lifestyle choices…there is no part of someone’s life that a family can’t get interested in and by interested in I mean argue over. For slice-of-life stories, I would look for conflicts that would affect a rather small group of people, something on the scale of a dozen individuals to a neighborhood. A neighborhood. Okay. What if a local developer filed a plan to demolish a historic theater? Sure, it’s run-down but it has a cherished place in the community. The community around the theatre starts to blossom: the school that holds two concerts and one play a year on that stage, the local dance studio that runs a charity dance-a-thon every year to fund its scholarship program, the influential owner of the local corner store, the quiet family on the fourth floor that the corner-store owner delivered medicine to at 2 a.m….Now what about that developer? Why target a historic theatre for demolition? Your world expands, and your stories with it.

Once you have a type of conflict that resonates with you, start exploring the conceptual space. Perhaps the basic conflict of “community vs corporation” speaks to me but the theatre angle doesn’t meet my needs today. In fact, this is what happened, so my partner and I wandered around the conceptual space, looking in different corners. In the middle of a sideline on sky pirates vs wizards, my partner spontaneously suggested, “Bakeries versus bread factory.”

He is great at derailing my trains of thought. “Excuse me?”

“Bakeries versus the bread factory. A new bread factory comes to town. There’s our conflict.”

Bakeries versus…

A lighthearted image of a question mark-shaped cloud against a background that shows the edge of planet Earth

Micky Aldridge CC BY 2.0

If there is one thing working with my partner has taught me, it is that even the most unworkable-appearing ideas need to be approached with an open mind, and this was far from unworkable. It just felt a little…small at first.

“Okay. Okay, so, the basic idea is the tension between the bakeries and the bread factory that is taking away their livelihood?”

“Sure, yeah.”

“So…okay, let me think a bit. I don’t like the idea of someone moving in, “Mwha-ha-ha, I shall open a factory and put every bakery in town out of business.” It feels a bit one-dimensional. What else is going on?”

“They could put the factory in town and open a retail arm because why not but their major business is selling to…to businesses in the wider region?”

That sounded likely to me. I’ve known woolen mills, ice cream factories, and candle-makers whose major profits came from wholesale contracts but who kept small shops to sell retail directly to local customers.

“Okay, let’s mine this out. If there’s a bread factory opening in town, it’s because locating in this specific town gives them an advantage. Maybe they can get raw ingredients cheaply because the town is in an area with a lot of grain farming, or perhaps it has the motive power for grist mills to grind flour–”

“Or cheap transportation to ship their product.”

“Right. Cheap transportation is a good one because it could be a new form of transportation, creating a motive for a new factory. What kind of transportation?”

“I’ve always liked air ships,” my partner said immediately.

“I get that, I really do, but dirigibles aren’t built for hauling heavy cargo.”

“Fair point. What about…”

Some time later, we return to the question of the advantages offered by the town.

“It could be cheap fuel for the ovens.”

“So, we could go the wood or coal mine route, or we could do something more fun. What about geothermal?”

We discussed a vision of ovens warmed by pipes conducting the heat to the factory from volcanic fissures. It offers some real advantages. It gives the setting a distinct feel and it offers a direct point of contention: there is only so much heat rising from those fissures each day. A new factory will use a lot of that heat, directly affecting the community’s resources.

Personally, I find that worldbuilding by conflict contains a catch. In our earlier worldbuilding articles, we’ve encouraged you as a creator to pause your worldbuilding once you had two or three good stories for the world. After that, you can expand the world in sections as you need it to tell more stories. When I start worldbuilding with a conflict, however, I find I have to be careful to build the world big enough for my purpose. The tale of the threatened historic theatre is a solid basis for a role-playing adventure, or an episode, or a play, or even a novel (or real life, which can show a stack of examples). If you want something that will last for a series of adventures or a series of novels, you may want broader horizons.

Here’s a challenge. Take two minutes (or five, or whatever). How many conflicts and how many approaches to facing those conflicts can you imagine for bakeries versus the bread factory?

Here’s a few we uncovered:

PCs on the bakery side could bribe, blackmail, or persuade the local government to stall construction with or to impose higher taxes on commercial ventures with a square footage bigger than X.

PCs on the bread factory side could bribe, blackmail, or persuade the local government to impose new “health regulations” that would be very expensive and time-consuming for small local businesses to meet.

PCs on either side might discover environmental threats posed by the new bread factory. PCs on either side could be opposed by vested interests including the bread factory owner, mysterious “vested interests” and even a traitorous baker.

The phrase “traitorous baker” begs for at least two stories to itself but we’ll leave those as an exercise for the reader.

PCs on the bakery side could try to bribe or blackmail the bread factory owner to change their mind about their location before settling in this town.

PCs on the bread factory side could solve a local problem that makes the factory look good. They could even create the problem secretly first and then publicly solve it.

PCs on the bakery side could slightly poison the bread factory’s goods and couple the incidents with a whispering campaign against these unnatural new methods of baking or new ingredients.

PCs on either side could go for the other side: the people to whom the factory intends to sell. Securing or defending those contracts takes the PCs further afield and adds a nice dimension to the storytelling.

So there are at least a few adventures’ worth of story here. The next step would be to see if there’s a story arc here: some sort of tale of mutual transformation, where both sides suffer, change, grow, and hopefully develop a healthy working relationship by the end of the arc.

That’s what I consider the real benefit of worldbuilding by conflict: the immediate focus on a satisfying problem leads naturally to the design of a story arc, which then forms the backbone of a substantial story.

Go try one.


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