Keep Players Intensely Engaged With the 3 Conflicts

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1151

Character arcs tell the story of how characters develop by overcoming foes and challenges in pursuit of their goals.

This is the ambition of campaign play: to develop cool character story arcs.

Such arcs keep players intensely engaged in your games.


Thinking about armour, health points, personality scores, and other character sheet elements are kibbles of entertainment to occupy players for mere moments between games.

But a good story? And a story that’s all about their character?

That’ll keep your players chewing on your campaign over and over all the time.

It’s the power of story meets the beautiful dynamic of our interactive hobby.

But it’s difficult making good character arcs happen.

We can’t control the players or their decisions.

We can only create situations, not outcomes.

Fortunately, straight out of Hollywood (and a book called Storybrand that codified this for me) comes a clever technique for how to make this happen in our games.

I call this technique The 3 Conflicts.

And today I’ll show you exactly how to do this from behind your screen.

Meaning Comes From Struggle

The journey is the story.

Because meaningful stories spawn from journeys filled with struggles.

And the best struggles occur at three levels.

Engage a player at one level to get them interested.

Engage a player at two levels to keep them interested.

Engage a player at all three levels to make them passionate about your campaign.

So our goal is to understand the three levels of conflict and add them to each character arc.

Here’s what to do.

Level 1: External Conflict

Characters should have an extrinsic goal. One that results in character sheet improvements.

What To Do

Work with each player to give their character at least one compelling character sheet objective.


  • Acquire a wondrous magic item
  • Get a Strength score of 100
  • Remove all Hindrances
  • Achieve level 20
  • Earn a wicked feat

During the game you treat these objectives like side plots.

Use the 5 Room Dungeon method to turn player side plots into mini-adventures and encounters.

Whether these side plots work into your main plot arc is your call. I give myself bonus points when I can make that happen, but I don’t force it.

Armed with these external character goals, you then drop clues and revelations about character side plots during your main plot arc and encounters.

As gameplay develops, when the opportunity presents itself, you trigger a side plot encounter every couple of sessions or so.

If players feel their plot progressing, they’ll stay engaged!

Level 2: Internal Conflict

Why does the character want to fulfil their External Conflict goal?

Why do they care?

And why take the risks associated with their quest?

People want all kinds of extrinsic things. We want health, wisdom, and happiness. But why? What’s our personal drive for these things?

So too it is with your players and their characters.

What To Do

Link an internal motivation to the external motivation to create a whole new layer of story depth to each PC.

Do this by asking why they want the character sheet goal.

For example, a player wants to acquire a legendary sceptre that will give her character leadership abilities.

That’s a great external goal.

Why does she want this?

She tells you it’s because her character’s village is ruled by a weak chieftain who does the villain’s bidding. She wants to save the villagers by leading them to overthrow the chieftain and villain. The sceptre is key to that.


External Conflict: Find the sceptre

Internal Conflict: Free suffering villagers

Why is this effective?

The linkage creates a deeper emotional connection for player and character.

It gives character arcs bigger stakes.

It hooks players into pursuing a more meaningful story that connects character sheet wins to their story arc.

And because External and Internal conflicts are linked, when you put an obstacle in front of one conflict, you jeopardize both goals. You work one plot and get two wins!

Level 3: Philosophical Conflict

We are driven by our values and beliefs. We see the world through these lenses every waking moment.

Open this world up to characters via player values and beliefs to capture an even deeper level of connection with your stories.

This is master storytelling stuff Hollywood works hard to inject into their blockbuster scripts.

If a movie falls flat for you, it’s often because the script or production has failed to tie these three conflicts together into an interesting narrative.

An example could be a player’s belief that hurting other people is bad. This might extend to humanoids and monsters as happened recently in my Barbossa campaign.

So we construct a character story that confronts this belief.

What To Do

If you don’t know your players well, start with a universal human value. Else pick a value, or ask a player to choose a value, that they prioritize in life.

Theme the primary sources of conflict in each character’s side plots around the value.

For example, we choose the value Freedom. Everyone wants freedom to live the life they want.

We then make the weak chieftain oppressive or even a slaver for the villain.

External Conflict: Find the sceptre

Internal Conflict: Help suffering villagers

Philosophical Conflict: Stop oppression/slavery

Robbie’s cleric Templeton wants to find a sceptre to save their village from the authoritarian chieftain who enjoys controlling and hurting people.

Now we appeal to the player in three ways, at ever-deeper levels.

First, we cater to the surface level aspects of the game. Treasure, rewards, and character sheet improvements. The sceptre.

Second, we tackle the why to hook our player deeper. A magic sceptre on its own is cool. But if it serves a greater purpose, now we’ve got a story brewing! A village suffering.

Third, we add deeper meaning by tapping into a player belief. Now we’ve got players on a real mission. A cause. A deep story hook. Stop the villain because oppressing people is evil and freedom is good.

Each time the villain oppresses a villager, it’s more than an adventure kludge. It’s a personal raison d’être the player brings to their character sheet and chair at the table.

It’s Your Turn

Create a side plot for each character in your campaign using the 3 Conflicts:

Conflict #1: External. A character sheet upgrade.

Conflict #2: Internal. The why of the character sheet goal.

Conflict #3: Philosophical. A human value put into conflict in pursuit of the character’s goal.

Finally, use 5 Room dungeons to bring these side plots into gameplay. Bonus points if you integrate side plots into your main plot arc, but don’t force things. Gameplay often makes this happen without effort.