Conflict Diagrams: A quick way to build non-linear TTRPG Scenarios

Have you noticed that even though the TTRPG hobby mostly evolved beyond a focus on dungeons, dungeons are by far the most viral pre-done collatoral?

OK, it’s partly because they’re pluggable. However, mostly, I think, it’s because they’re easy to grok: the matrix of PC choices is implicit in the dungeon map; you don’t have to internalise it because it’s there in front of you.

Less so with pre-done scenarios and campaigns.

Those mostly comprise screeds of text and maps. Unless they are horribly linear, you have to really learn them the way you learn — say — history for an exam, before you can GM them. Personally, I can rarely be bothered. It’s too much hard work, and — yes — GMing feels too much like taking some kind of test.

However, I don’t like just making stuff up. Not only is it hard to think big picture while essentially running a simulation in the small picture, it’s also hard to support interesting puzzle-solving and politics unless you have a really good handle on the network of relationships underlying your scenario or adventure.

Which is why I evolved a system of Conflict Diagrams.

I’d be surprised if I’m the only person to use something like this because it’s mind blowingly powerful! I can prep for several hours gameplay inside half an hour. The result is sandboxy, but with an adventure built in, and an underlying structure that empowers the PCs to make interesting decisions with consequences. Better yet, satisfying story emerges all on its ownsome. (Which is why I use it when I write fiction: Mandatory plug for Storyteller Tools here.)

For example, here’s a OneDice Steampunk scenario I knocked out for my daughter and her mate (oh and I used a cheap diagramming tool called Scapple – you can do this with paper and pencil, but it’s a fiddle because you’ll want to shift things around):

OK some of it’s in my head. However, if I were to package this up for other people, most of the information would fit on one side of A4 plus a map or two. Here’s how it works.

In Conflict Diagrams, the world is divided primarily into Bones (of Contention) and Players:

  • Bones (shown in jagged boxes) are what’s at stake in conflicts between Players. All interesting relationships are defined by conflict, and thus appear as a Bone. Not all conflicts are witting. For example, the Workers (middle) don’t realise that Professor Lowther is deceiving them. Thus their relationship with him is a Bone, even though they don’t know it.
    • A dotted line indicates where Bones are related, for example the Delivery of the Super Tank (bottom right) is related to the panic over late delivery, Delivery Panic.
    • An arrow indicates where “owning” a Bone exposes another Bone to capture, for example there’s a chain of bones along the top: Sneaking into the Proving Ground (opposed by the Workers), gives you the chance of finding the Secret Tank Park, then the Portal to Dino World, then Dino World itself, thus exposing Prof Lowther and his Evil Scheme.
  • Players (shown in rounded boxes) are forces, organisations or people that strive to shape or control the fate of Bones.
    • An arrow to a Bone indicates that the Player is in conflict over it.
    • A dotted line indicates allies. Thus the soldiers work for both Sir Henry and the Government (bottom right). Often, a Player may be the personification of an abstract force, for example Sir Henry may represent Unfettered Capitalism.

There are two other entities that you don’t always need:

  • Prizes (shown in square clouds) are things you may pick up when you own or occupy a Bone. They can be anything from people, through weapons and artefacts, to hypotheses and facts. For example, gaining access to the Factory Floor quickly reveals that the workers are all Reds, and that they have legitimate concerns over pay and conditions.
    • An arrow to a Bone indicates that this Prize exposes it. Thus, once you know they are Reds, there’s a chance of detecting their relationship with Professor Lowther.
    • A dotted line to a Bone merely indicates that the Prize illuminates the Bone.
  • Launch Pads (shown in sharp boxes) are jumping off points for the players. They can be adventure seeds or specific missions or whatever.

This is all rough and ready!

It’s not an exhaustive database schema, for example, nor a game in its own right. Some things are left fuzzy, for example the nature of conflicts and even who the sides are (which may shift). And, looking back, I missed some Players. For example, the top Proving Ground track needs more players guarding it, including a loose dinosaur and perhaps trigger-happy soldiers. However, these are easily pencilled in.

And that’s the point. It’s about having fun making stuff up on the fly, and recording the results by scribbling on the diagram. All you need is some stat blocks and your favourite rule system.

Dungeons (and Bunkers and Spaceships and More)

Even better, you can use the same system to plan out  a Place of Adventure. For example, here is another OneDice adventure, “Dungeon in the Woods”, again for my daughter and friend:

It’s a continuation from a previous episode, and took me about 40 minutes. I’ve done the surroundings in green, the actual tunnel complex in grey, traps etc in yellow, people and creatures in orange.

Again, it’s rough and ready, and deliberately streamlined. For example, the Warriors have the Spider Flute. However, if you don’t smite the warriors, then perhaps the flute becomes a Bone to be stolen or purchased?

The elephant in the room, though, is I haven’t drawn the dungeon!

The grey boxes work like a London Tube map: they show the connections between locations but not their physicality. In this case, I simply sketched the dungeon as I went. If I’d had more prep time, I’d would have done it, but not before preparing the Conflict Diagram — the diagram sets out the PC’s narrative  experience. The layout of the setting is almost just a skin.

And, obviously, the same approach works for more modern structures like bunkers and spaceships. I’ve also tinkered with making it work for battles and military campaigns…

And Stories (and Novels)

Though I devised Conflict Diagrams as a quick way to create and run TTRPG adventures, they ended up as my goto workhorse for writing fiction. They are an incredibly powerful way of wringing a story out of almost any situation.

But I’ve written about that in my book, Storyteller Tools, so I’ll leave you with a very familiar story diagrammed:


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1 year ago

This is great! I have his book and I’m trying SO HARD to get the hang of this. Everything is in my head and I am struggling to get it out. I know this mind mapping will help – I just have to get it right!

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