Introduction: The ubiquity of conflict
It is by now standard for a game in the tradition of the Forge to be about conflicts and their resolutions. Whether you play Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master or The Shadow of Yesterday, the idea is that the GM and the player take opposite sides of a fictional conflict, then resolve it. In Polaris, the structure is no different: the Heart and the Mistaken have free play until they wish different things to happen, at which point challenge, conflict and resolution occur. Universalis is driven by the conflicting wishes of the players; 1001 Nights is about the players trying to be the one who realises his Ambition/Freedom first, in a setting where jealousy only exacerbates this conflict of interest; in Shooting the Moon the two Suitors are trying to get the prize and stop the other from getting it.
But really, this is nothing new. Dungeons and Dragons, from the very start, was about conflict: a conflict of the players against the dungeon, or against other groups in a tournament. Why does a player of Vampire desire all the cool powers his vampire can get? Because it makes the character more powerful in the fiction, and thus more likely to prevail in the bitter conflicts that characterise undead society. (The whole setting is built around conflict, with all its hierarchy, its clans, its division between the Camarilla and the... uh... whatever it is that is opposed to the Camarilla.)
The result of this ubiquity of conflict is that most roleplaying games lead to conflict-driven stories. In most roleplaying, the drama comes from opposed wills (either those of the characters or those of the players, and generally both at the same time) clashing, and either dominating or succumbing.
As a conscious design choice, there is nothing wrong with this. But as a given which is not reflected upon, it betrays an ideology of conflict: an idea that the world is in fact driven by conflict, an idea that our lives are to be understood as fights of our will against opposing wills/forces. One doesn't have to be a Marxist or a feminist to have a feeling that this is a very capitalist or a very male conception of the world. (Never mind that Marxism is also an ideology of conflict.) It is certainly not the only possible conception!
Stories without conflicts
You may feel that a conflict-based view of life is perhaps optional, but that it is nevertheless necessary for interesting stories. I found this idea in the comments to a post by Adam Dray in which he talks about stimulating non-conflict scenes. Someone asks "Is conflict yet another sacred cow?", and the answer is:
If it's a sacred cow, then it's one that goes all the way back Gilgamesh. Conflict is central to most narrative as we understand it.But, as a matter of fact, this is not true. There are vast, and I mean vast, numbers of stories which are not conflict-driven at all. I will give you a few examples.
First, meet my favourite Dutch author, Nescio. I don't know if his stories have been translated into English, but if they have, go and read them. He really only wrote four short stories, so it doesn't take a lot of time, but they are works of genius.
However, they are not about conflicts. The protagonists are young, idealistic men, who are planning to do something worthwhile with their lives, and not to become trapped in the trappings of a standard, bourgeois life. You know, from the very start, that they are going to fail. In fact, they know that they are going to fail, even if they don't want to admit it. They make plans, but never do anything. They go out into the countryside to watch the sunrise - a moment of beauty in a melancholy and resigned (gelaten, gelassen; 'resigned' doesn't translate perfectly) life. And never, ever, do they come in conflict with each other or with other people; never, ever is the reader wondering 'who will win this conflict?'. But these stories work, and I would love to see a roleplaying game which creates the same atmosphere.
Second, let us consider Kafka's Das Schloss (The Castle), which is about K trying, for unclear reasons, to reach a castle. Is there perhaps a conflict between K, who wishes to get into the castle, and someone or something else, who does not wish him to get into the castle. No - one of the novel's most intriguing aspects is that even though nobody and nothing is actually opposed to K, he is nevertheless unable to make any progress towards his goal. What makes the novel so haunting is precisely that K never gets to a conflict, that the conflict always recedes, that any attempt to attack the barriers that oppose him turns out to be an attack against nothing. K has no chance of success not because the forces opposing him are too strong and he is bound to lose the conflict, but because there will never be a conflict.
Third, moving to English literature, what is the conflict in Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Is the book ever about whether or not the protagonist will find Kurz? Surely it is not. It is a story of experience, but not of conflict. What is the conflict in Nabokov's Pale Fire? That story is driven by the painful unfolding of Kimbote's egotism, but not by any events whatsoever. What conflict is the dramatic heart of Harrison's Signs of Life, a story the protagonist of which lives as if he is never really involved in what he is doing?
There is, then, a whole realm of stories which are not driven by conflicts. Can we play them with roleplaying games?
Yes, we can, and there are already several roleplaying games out there that achieve this to some degree. I will talk about Bacchanal, Breaking the Ice, Shades and De Profundis. There are probably others. But they are a small minority, and there is a lot of room to explore.
Strictly speaking, Bacchanal is conflict-driven: the overall story-arc of each character is formed by the resolution of a conflict between the Accuser (who wishes to kill the protagonist) and the protagonist (who wishes to escape Puetoli). What is interesting, though, is that for each player there is only one conflict in the entire game; play does emphatically not proceed on a conflict-to-conflict basis. Although the rolls do in the end resolve the conflict, most of them push the player not towards resolution, but towards exploring sexuality and decadence.
Breaking the Ice
Emily's game is not conflict-driven, neither on the level of the players nor on that of the characters. In all the games I played, both players wanted the characters to succeed (and I consider this necessary for playing a good game of BtI); and obviously the very fact that they are dating shows that the characters want, at heart, to have a successful romance. There are neither conflicts between the players nor between the characters, and there is therefore no conflict-to-conflict structure of play and no conflict resolution.
This is obviously utterly appropriate for a game which is about being vulnerable and coming closer together through being vulnerable. Emily's portrayal of love (at least in this game) is opposed to the ideology of conflict.
"But surely there is a conflict between the players and ..." No. I will answer that objection in the next section.
My game has no resolution system whatsoever. If the players have a disagreement about the fiction, there is simply no way that one of the players can make his wishes prevail against those of the other. But, on the contrary, you can let the wishes of the other prevail against your own - and this is the only way to ever complete the game. (I should note that speaking of 'wishes' may even be going to far in the direction of conflict.)
But, someone will object, if any game is conflict-driven, it is Shades: after all, isn't one of the objectives of play to establish a deep and dramatic conflict between the characters? Yes. But it is not the object of play to resolve this conflict. It has already been resolved in advance, and everyone has lost. The dramatic power of the stories comes not from resolving the conflict, but from dissolving it: the question is whether the shades can come to see their conflict as something that they can leave in the past, that they can outgrow, that they can transcend towards a new harmony. Shades is a direct attack on the ideology of conflict.
The letter-based game of Lovecraftian horror is not bases on conflicts either. You write each other letters detailing creepy events that have affected you, trying to weave elements of the others' tales into your own. Perhaps you die, perhaps you do not. The whole idea is to entertain others, create a convincing fiction and creep yourself out.
This is utterly appropriate for a Lovecraftian game. The characters of Lovecraft (whom, by the way, I consider a pretty bad writer) never act; like those of Clark Ashton Smith, they only experience. Such experiential characters cannot possibly be a party in a conflict.
Conflict and Resistance
Someone will object that play without conflicts falls flat. If you can just tell whatever you like, whenever you like, play is without energy and there will be a general lack of fun.
This is true in so far as a successful game needs a form of Resistance. Every story is teleological: the beginning points towards an end, where it may or may not be clear which possible end will be the actual end. Something has to stop you from just skipping from the beginning to the end. Something has to ensure that the game must go through the intermediary event, must actually tell a story. This something is what I will call the Resistance.
Conflict is a form of Resistance. If there are characters with opposing wills and the power to try and make their wills reality, there will be Resistance to each possible ending. Play can then consist of playing out conflict after conflict, until one of the will emerges as victorious; or, as happens more often, until one character gets what he wanted, having paid a heavy price for it that makes us wonder whether it was worth it.
But there are other forms of Resistance. In Breaking the Ice, it is, fictionally, the difficulty of showing yourself to another person, of breaking down the walls that protect you from harm; and the possibility of incompatibility. Mechanically, it is the Resistance of the dice against the wishes of the players. But this Resistance is not a conflict. There are no opposed wills. There are no winners and no losers.
In Shades, the Resistance is the difficulty of getting on the same page with your fellow players and the difficulty of shaping the loose fragments you start with into a coherent story. The game does everything to make this Resistance strong, but it also gives you the tools to overcome it.
In De Profundis, the Resistance is mostly your own habit of taking everything for granted, of not seeing the possible mysteries behind everyday occurrences. The game is designed to make you look at the world around you with other eyes.
In the work of Nescio, the Resistance is the difference between dream and reality, between the beauty we crave and the world we inhabit. In the work of Kafka, the Resistance is the very impossibility of fighting to achieve your aims.
(But is 'overcoming Resistance' not just a kind of Conflict? Does not the very logic of the story, its teleology, incorporate the idea of Conflict? We could only say that by widening the meaning of the word 'Conflict' so much that it would no longer designate what we used to designate with it. Let us adopt two different terms for Resistance and Conflict, which is a form of Resistance.)
Designing without Conflicts
There are many types of Resistance, but only Conflict has been explored thoroughly in roleplaying games. Or rather, perhaps some other types have also been explored - in which case I would love to hear about them, and perhaps the LARP and freeform people are the ones to teach us here - but most remain unexplored and often even unrecognised.
I have heard it say that Vampire is a game that allows you to explore existential dread. Obviously, it is not; and no conflict-based game could be. What we dread is freedom, but not because we are afraid of making the wrong choice. What we dread is the very fact that we have to make choices; that our being-as-possibility must at every instant of time turn into a being-as-determinate. I chose to become a philosopher, at the same time choosing not to be, say, a forester. Dread is provoked not by the fact that I am afraid that I have made the wrong choice; not by a naive belief that forestry is more fun than philosophy (as if maximising fun were the meaning of life!). Dread is provoked by the disappearance into nothingness of the possibility of becoming a forester. I can no longer become a forester, or at least I can no longer become a forester before my 24th. We shed possibilities all the time. At the instant of our death, we are no longer possibilities, we are no longer free: we are determined.
This is an extremely powerful theme. How could it be explored in a roleplaying game?
A woman asks a man to marry her, but he doesn't know whether he loves her. He goes through the motions, but whether they are caused by real love or whether he merely acts as if they are caused by real love isn't clear to him. He has no idea how to answer the question, but constantly agonises over it.
How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?
A man and a woman once loved each other, but with old age a certain tiredness has come into their relationship. They both long for the passion of yore, but do not know how to bring it back. Perhaps, they wonder, perhaps they have to learn to be content with companionship instead of love.
How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?
You will be able to multiply these examples. The key point is this. I am growing tired of people solving moral conflicts with a gun, of wars and fights, of antagonists, of struggles between knights and demons. I want more games which do not conceptualise life as a conflict. So - how are we going to make them?