I am always looking for ways to enhance the narrative of the stories I create in Skyrim but it’s not easy. The game guides us along fairly linear adventures that can begin to feel rather mechanical and over time, the experience becomes lack luster. This is especially true for role players who are experiencing the game content more than once. But there is a solution…at least there has been for me.
For me the secret lies in character and more specifically, inside our character’s head. As an example, think of a simple Skryim side quest such as “In My Time of Need”. In this quest the character is asked to make a choice, save the princess in hiding or help the Alik’r warriors capture her and take her back to Hammerfell. The shallow view of this quest is that either choice carries with it a reward of gold so the choice does not matter. This is not a good approach for even the greediest of characters as there is no way to determine in advance, which party will compensate you more favorably for completing the task.
So what can we do to bring depth to this story? What if the player character was in love with Saadia? Of course, that’s an even easier solution…too easy! Okay then, what if the player character was in love with Saadia but she did not know he or she existed? Now we are getting somewhere! Saadia is just using the player to get what she wants, obviously we should side with the Alik’r warriors…right? But what if Saadia was destined to be a key figure in the outcome of the Civil War? Is that even possible? Of course it is!
You see what I am getting at here. The narrative in our head combined with the psychology and motivations of our character can turn a rather bland quest into a symphony of complications and conflicting emotions. Is possible that with the right approach a small side quest can become the centerpiece of our Skryim experience. That’s great but how do we do this? The key lies is understanding our characters first and foremost. Not just our character’s past and current motivations but our protagonist’s relationship to conflict at many levels. This is where the “Circles of Conflict” come in.
Circles of Conflict
Picture an image of three concentric circles. At the center we have the most intimate form of conflict, conflict with self. Next we encounter the circle of interpersonal conflict and beyond that what I like to call “extrapersonal” or societal conflict. Let’s go through them one at a time:
Personal conflict is all about our character’s inner demons. What does our character struggle with that causes them pain or forces them down pathways that others dare not tread? What are the lies they tell themselves? The soldier that buries himself in military structure to escape paralyzing fear of intimate relationships and attachments of friendship. Or the bard who drowns his deep sense of inadequacy and failure in drugs, drink and fighting. Or the mage who throws himself into ever more dangerous and suicidal situations out of shame or to punish himself for past transgressions. Understanding our character’s personal conflict is key to real gritty role play.
Interpersonal Conflict is about the complication of relationships. Much of our life is defined through our interactions with those closest to us. Conflict with family, friends and rivals has a powerful effect on the direction of our lives and often clouds our ability to make rational decisions. Short, seemingly minor interactions can have consequences that last a lifetime. The overbearing mother, the hostile or abusive father, the loving sibling lost too soon. Or perhaps the childhood friend turned adult rival. Who are the individuals who occupy the ring immediately around the player character and what is the nature of their influence on our character and thus the direction of the story. Every person in this ring, weather good or bad, constitutes a subplot in our character’s story.
What are the institutions of society that our character rails against or embraces? The soldier who lives in a world of order, loyalty and duty. The thief who occupies the gray spaces between savior and criminal. Societal conflict, however can be even more subtle. The driven mage who resists societal pressure to settle down and have children to instead pursue the path to power. The physically imposing man who is expected to march to war but only wishes to run his own inn and live in peace.
Thinking about our character’s in this way can bring to the surface many interesting facets of personal triumph, failure, joy and pain. The challenge as role players, is to peer through the many-faceted gem we have created to see these quests anew. The secret to exciting and engaging role play lies in character and what we see through their eyes. The Circles of Conflict can help you bring your character into focus in way you may have never expected.