Selling a Conflict: Two Key Points for Your Players

All of the conflicts I’ve seen work have made two major points to the players/characters: It has to be you, and it has to be now.

It has to be you. This is probably the most important of the two, playing as it does to the egos of the players—and to the verisimilitude of the overall storyline. You need to establish to your players and to their characters (yes, there’s a difference) that this isn’t just their job, it’s Their Job. Some people do this just by dangling a reward too big for the characters to walk away from, allowing them to convince themselves that it’s their job; “It has to be me,” the thought process goes, “or someone else is going to get this awesome reward first. Then there are the plots that tailor it to the characters specifically, either by utilizing circumstances or by playing to their particular skills. “It has to be you, because nobody else can be spared/is in good enough shape/escaped the curse/has a functional spacesuit; it has to be you, because nobody else is as strong/reads minds/knows how to maintain the engines/could hack into a computer system that secure.” Whatever it is, it should definitely be worthy of the characters’ skills, and does better if it isn’t a cakewalk; “it has to be you” doesn’t have near the impact if the player’s pretty sure it could have been anyone else had they just been invited. Heck, if the situation is sufficiently something only they can do, some players are prone to not caring about how soon it needs to be done, or even if it can get done right away; they’re going to find a way to do it anyway, and who cares how many plans they have to try and discard?

It has to be now—or at least, as soon as possible. It isn’t just that time sensitivity provides an incentive for the players and their characters to wander off and go fishing; it’s also that time sensitivity creates yet another supporting reason for “It has to be you”: the fact that there isn’t time to go fetch someone else. Even if the threat isn’t immediate, there should be either a definite timeline—or an indefinite, but very pressing, timeline.

Pretty much all the rest of the stakes are variations on why—why it has to be them, and why it has to be now. But if you can’t justify the second—and more, if you can’t justify the first—you’re going to have a lot of trouble keeping the group on track.


  1. I think it’s the second point that I usually stumble on. In my current game, the players – and characters – seem on board with the idea that they’re the best/only people for the job, but there’s no sense of urgency. I think I need to rectify this…

  2. Ravyn says:

    You and me both. I should make a point of looking into urgency over the next couple of weeks–hopefully, before my next paper’s due!

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