Internal conflicts in OSR play

A few years ago I ran the AD&D DL series of modules, the Dragonlance Chronicles. They are a perfect example of the worst inclinations of the Weiss-Hickman plot-driven rail-roading modules that began with Ravenloft and continue to this day. I decided to pick it apart and place it into a sandbox. It worked.

DL1: Dragons of Despair

However, I think the design I did wasn’t successful because of the methods I used to sandboxify a linear, plot-driven series of modules. I think that the success of the campaign was largely due to a minor introduction I made in order to simply communicate what the important aspects of the characterisations from the novel were: I gave each character a one-line internal conflict. This was both challenging and potentially dramatically dangerous, because it pitted a lot of PCS against each other, but also set up fruitful relationships with NPCS, again in ways that seeded drama into moments later in the campaign.

There was no relationship mechanic here, and no procedure for generating them. For this campaign, I went bespoke. But I think that these could be semi-randomly generated, and that’s what this post is about.

Why internal conflict and not external conflict?

The primary goal of the internal conflict is to complicate decision-making, not to provide opportunities for drama. The big dramatic moments will come when the internal conflict is resolved; in my experience, this occurred organically, and created interesting play opportunities when it did. An example of this is that a slow-burning pair of PCs with a troublesome marriage resulted in one of the pair turning coat on the heroes, which turned the tide in a major battle.

Creating an internal conflict

So here’s my basic working definition: An internal conflict refers to a struggle between two opposing values. Our list of values (this isn’t the right word, quite, but I’m not sure exactly what the right one is):

  • Desire, such as your desire for power over others through magic.
  • Need, such as the need to keep your vampirism secret or face doom.
  • Duty, such as your duty to protect your sworn lady irregardless fo risk to yourself.
  • Fear, such as your fear that your brother will not thrive without your protection.
  • Obligation, such as your obligation to obey your Lord Father in his commands.

We need to take these values and combine them to create our conflict:

  • I desire to be a powerful wizard more than anything, but to do so I would have to abandon my brother.
  • I desire the love of my fiancé, but my duty to my Goddess will always come first.
  • I will be executed if I return home, but I fear being captured by the villains that pursue me.

So, let’s randomise this process. You’ll need to repeat this process twice, once for each value. Roll 1d10 for your value. On 1-2. Desire; 3-4. Need; 5-6. Duty; 7-8. Fear and 9-10. Obligation. Roll 1d10 for what in the world the value relates to: 1. Home; 2. God; 3. Family; 4. Friend 5. Enemy faction; 6. Friendly faction; 7. Sibling; 8. Magic 9. Riches; 10. Body. Roll 1d10 if you need assistance in determining the relationship between the value and the world is 1. Devoted; 2. Antagonistic; 3. Dependent; 4; Unaware; 5. Treacherous; 6. Protective; 7. Authoritative; 8. Dedicated; 9. Coercive; 10. Aggressive.

If your table is using world anchors (you may have noticed that the third of those lists is adapted from world anchors), it might be beneficial to tie one or more of your values to your world anchors.

Finally, be sure that there is some intrinsic tension between your two values if necessary, by adding an extra clause to your sentence:

  • I desire to be a powerful wizard by studying with the great wizard Grabimoru (Desire/Magic/Dependent), but to do so I would have to abandon my brother who lives to protect me (Obligation/Family/Protective).
  • I desire the love of my fiancé who wishes only to keep me safe (Desire/Family/Protective), but my duty to my Goddess will always come first, and she wishes me to bring her healing back to the world (Duty/Goddess/Dedicated).
  • I will be executed for treason if I return home (Need/Home/Antagonistic), but I have a duty to keep the tumpkins safe from the murderous grolgs (Duty/Friendly faction/Aggressive).

Linking internal to external conflicts

A secondary goal of the internal conflict is to provide the GM with opportunities for temptation. Cursed magic items, grey-aligned gods and wizards, bribery and corruption: Internal conflicts provide chances for PCs to lean into these things without simply being characters who make poor choices (most players don’t like to make suboptimal decisions). This is where the GM has the opportunity to create external conflicts from the seeds these internal conflicts grow.

Resolving internal conflicts

You can definitely do this by discussing it with a player; they can say “No, I think it’s time that my character makes the decision to no longer put his brothers needs before his.” It may involve discussion with more than one player if necessary. It’s up to the player whether or not the resolution of the conflict is the end of the story for the character, or whether they develop a new conflict for them.

Well, I was hoping I could have a simpler list, roll d66 for an internal conflict, and maybe that’s possible too. I suspect if I spent enough time analysing literature I’d find that there is a limited number of internal conflicts that we could compress to a table, but I don’t have energy or time to do that analysis. I’d love to see someone who did!

There are a number of ways we can use this! Firstly, we can get players to generate them for their characters, discuss them with each other, and decide whether any of the people involved are PCs. But perhaps a better solution would be for the GM to use the spark tables to generate a d10 or d66 table of campaign-specific internal conflicts, that each character can be randomly assigned. If I were to do this, I’d ask that the relationships be evenly split between PCs and NPCs if possible. I feel like a list of internal conflicts would be a more fruitful approach than the typical d10 hooks that we get more often in campaigns and modules.

10th February 2023,

Idle Cartulary


Time bubbling

Timekeeping is important when you’re running multiple groups simultaneously in the same world. Doing this means you get to do half the preparation, and might get to re-use preparation on a second group. It’s pretty good GMing practice for people like me, who want to play a lot, but can’t find easy ways to play a lot. Most of the advice I’ve been given about timekeeping in D&D-likes is pretty unsustainable practice for me. It’s typically this: Write down everything your PCs do every day, so that their actions impact the world that the other groups are adventuring in. It often comes bundled with the advice between sessions, game-time progresses at the same speed as real-time, because that’s the way the Gary did it and he’d run for up to 50 players!

Marcia’s Fantasy Medieval Campaigns has the best version of this (which, to be frank, is probably the intended version, those early rules can be vague): Don’t track days, track weeks. However, it’s still more tracking than I want, so instead, for my next open table campaign, I’m going to try something new: Time bubbling. If you recall my previous post on apocalypses, it’s always more fun if you tie an apocalypse into a mechanic, so here it is:

The Apocalypse

Nobody knows what caused it, but sixty-odd years ago time broke. The dead began to rise from their graves – some still rotted corpses or skeletons held together by time itself, some strangely renewed and with cruel powers. Those that lived or walked in solitude became disconnected from time. And when time disagrees with itself, entire communities can be trapped behind impenetrable walls of time itself.

The Mechanic

Whenever an individual or small group leave a larger group (such as a town or city), they enter their own timeline – a time bubble. Everything that happens when they are travelling exists on its own timeline until they return to that same town, and which point it is placed into history at that point in time, as if it all had occurred at once. If contradictory or simultaneous events occur, there is a time paradox in that location from now on (a unique quest is required to resolve a time paradox!) And there are unpredictable impacts on the ability of items or spells to function that originated in the paradox (you both have the sword of knowledge? It only knows half of its knowledge in each timeline!).

An Example

So, in this example, the Tigers of Red Larch set off on the 1st, the Band of the Silver Bridle on the 3rd, and the Party of Five on the 10th. However, The Band arrives back first, and so their adventure becomes history on the 9th. This doesn’t impact the Tigers at all until they return on the 13th, however the Party leaves after they return, and so their adventure exists in the past for them, where the Tigers does not. The Tigers get home on the 13th, impacting the Party’s adventures only 16th, and when the Tigers and the Band resume play later in the month, all three groups adventures will impact the group.


Because I can now run things only in game time, without any real-time impact, which is something I appreciate. Real-time play doesn’t work for me and my friends, who can’t play regularly, and don’t want to wait a year for their downtime magical item to be finished. Timelines don’t interact until adventures are complete.

Tricks and tips! This can also run week-by-week if you wish. I think it’s actually messier weekly, because usually sessions happen on a weekly basis, so everyone’s timelines sync up and it results in more, rather than less paradoxes. Paradoxes don’t occur very often except in the case of specific groups competing for things, and they’re a fun consequence as well, and clever groups might come up with methods to avoid them.

6th February 2023,

Idle Cartulary

Not ancestries, factions with food preferences

I started writing this at one time, and then realised it dovetailed with a conversation that Sandro and I were having on discord about food. So I mushed them together.

Ancestries are boring. Don’t use them. Instead, develop factions with each other, because they come with built-in red barrels. To do so, pull from the work of Chaos Grenade and Dungeonfruit.

These don’t have to be major, and they can be ancient, but community-based biases and contradicting community goals have a deep place in fantasy literature and it appears to be overlooked in most modern fantasy D&D-likes. We recall Legolas and Gimli’s animosity, but also recall the animosity between the elves of Mirkwood and those of Rivendell, between Rangers and Bree-folk, or between Tooks and Bagginses. Most of these are petty and unfounded and based in distant history. I am reading City of Brass, and in it, there is a conflict map between Shafit, Deva, Nahid and Qahtani based on religious beliefs, current superstitions and wars that happened one thousand years ago, and all of these are simply different families of djinn.

Let’s start with a few basic building blocks: elves, dwarves, and orcs. There are never just one type of a group, so let’s say we have elves of Kalladros, elves of Ellumel, dwarves of Kalladros, dwarves of Xermahk, and orcs of Gheribour. Let’s use a 5 point conflict map to sketch this out. And don’t be afraid to be distant, superstitious, and petty.

I’ve literally drawn on the diagram from the blog linked to earlier on Chaos Grenade.

I’ll pick one, because I don’t need to write a bunch of communities to make an example. This map poses me questions. But, first, I have a few questions drawn from the Dungeonfruit article as well, and I’ll put them first

  • What is their aesthetic?
  • What is their hierarchy?
  • What is their (strange, proactive, selfish) goal?
  • What do the dwarves of Kalladros need from the elves of Kalladros and how are they exploited?
  • What do they have that Gheribour needs, and how do they exploit the orcs?
  • What inspired the rivalry between them and Xermahk?

The Dwarves of Kalladros

  • Slim, diminutive, elegantly bearded, intricate knotwork, graceful curves, stone and metal that appears to be woood.
  • A council and many committees that lie below it, open to all in theory, but not in practice.
  • Freedom from the tyranny of the elves of Kalladros.
  • The Dark Trees of Kalladros will drain the life-waters of the Earth-goddess. In their kindness, the elves brought their magic to restrain the Dark Trees. However, they strain their goodwill by requiring such great taxes on our stone and metalwork.
  • Gheribour need the waters of life, for their swamplands have been polluted in their war with the elves. In exchange, we smuggle them weaponry to weaken the elves of Kalladros
  • Xermahk abandoned the great city of Alladroshahk when the waters first began to dry, one thousand years ago. They are spineless and weak and do not deserve shelter or hospitality.

The important thing is that it’s not necessarily true that the Dark Trees will drain the waters, that Gheribour need them, or that Xermahk have become inferior in their absence, in fact this is all more interesting if the waters are not magical at all, and neither are the trees.

But I’m not finished, because now we have inter-community politics and we have needless discrimination, but we don’t really have a sense of what the community of the Dwarves of Kalladros are. Enter food.

So, ask yourself some questions about food or drink and it’s place in your factions community. Pick one or two of these!

  • What are one or two meals your community eat most days?
  • What food does your community replace “chicken” with in the phrase “tastes like chicken”?
  • What is a major event in your communities calendar, and what food do you eat only at this time?
  • What food do you always have in a pocket or hidden away?
  • What condiment do you always have and that you add to everything?
  • What is a small ritual your perform before or after every meal?
  • What food or drink can you only have after you’ve come of age?
  • When you eat as a community, where do you eat and what is it like?

Now, it doesn’t matter too much how much detail you go on here, it’s about bringing a sense of home to the community you’re a part of. So, maybe you eat steak and eggs for breakfast and steak and three veg for dinner and that says a lot about your community and its structure and even it’s climate; same if you’re having vegetarian madras or if you’re having barbacoa. This is about bringing flavour as well as explosiveness to your community. For the dwarves of Kalladros:

  • We have huge community feast-halls with roaring fires where the entire district brings food to cook on the communal fire or in pots to keep warm over it. This happens regularly, whenever a significant puck-ball or axeball match happens.
  • We always have spiced dried or friend fungus chips in a pocket or hidden away to snack on.

And our impression is suddenly not just of beautiful artisans, but of a sport-loving tailgating culture that love fried snacks.

And they’re just mountain dwarves, aren’t they?

4th February 2023,

Idle Cartulary

What’s your apocalypse?

I was writing a post about a timekeeping technique called Time Bubbling (coming soon!), and I realised that there was a worldbuilding technique that I think is essential to most fantasy worlds that we play treasure-hunting in: Apocalypsing. Don’t worry, this one will be a quick one.

Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts has one of my favourite apocalypses

Most D&D-likes are post-apocalyptic. When you’re world-building, the first thing you need to decide is: What was your apocalypse, and what were its consequences? Because this is a fun question to ask, and it says a lot about your world.

The size of an apocalypse

The main decision you need to make about your apocalypse is whether is was a local apocalypse or a global one. A local apocalypse might look like this:

The kingdom of Magras was once a noble kingdom well-known for its Oogrish stonework and its advances in automation. It was destroyed in a war with the Moondark Queen, and now only remnants remain in a twisted wilderness peppered with the ruins of the old kingdom and cultists of the now-dead Moondark Queen.

Whereas a global apocalypse might look like this:

One thousand years ago the God-priestess of Som Nam used her secret and blasphemous arcane research to open a hole between the mundane and the eldest divinity, allowing the divine to engulf and infect the world. The portal was wedged closed by a consortium of long-dead knights, however not before the world was shattered by the destruction caused by Darkness of Possession, the Devouring Void, and the Ecstasy of Destruction. Were these three elder gods ever truly vanquished?

Choosing which sized apocalypse you want to write about is more important than the nature of that apocalypse, because it will often dictate the nature of your campaign and how much sense treasure-hunting makes in that context.

The nature of your apocalypse

The nature of your apocalypse helps dictate what kind of hazards might be encountered, what kind of treasure there might be, and what kind of community remains.

Our two earlier apocalypses were military and divine in nature respectively, but there are many opportunities for other apocalypses such as war, famine, climate change, the summoning death-gods, causing divine wrath, creating intelligences that turn upon you, accidentally merging your dimension with another dimension, mountains falling from the sky, or an army of sorcerers suddenly trying on each ther because their access to magic was tainted.

Choosing the nature of your apocalypse is less important than the consequence that that apocalypse has on the world now. The nature of the apocalypse is just lore. Don’t put too much thought into it.

Fun apocalypse consequences and tensions

Instead focus on the consequences of the apocalypse and the tensions it causes. Let’s take our two earlier apocalypses.

In the first, the war has left only a remnant: Let’s say there are the remnants of the militant nobles, now solitary but organised and patrolling the wilderness to protect the most sacred object of Magras, the remnants of the innocent civilians, reduced to subsistence in walled villages or living in caves, and the remnants of the cultists, in the desecrated temples of the past empire. In the ruins are automated technologies that only need to be activated or repaired to be implemented. Outside of Magras, there are likely places unaffected by the war who have an interest in the technology of Magras, and who are in opposition to the Rangers and may ally with the cultists or the remaining magrasians in exchange for passage or information.

In the second, a thousand years have passed, but there are wastelands that new communities and old have had to learn to avoid and overcome. There are zombie wastelands of the Possessed, there are whirlpools and black holes rendering swathes of land uninhabitable by the Void, and roving bands of the crazed devotees to the Ecstasy of Destruction roam the lands chaotically. There is a mystery here, too: Is this all still remaining, or are the elder gods still here and biding their time?

Consequences can also be mechanical: Time is broken, and now different groups travel in different timelines. Magical artefacts are rogue, and now they must be tamed. Violence was banished, and now combat can only occur in certain arenas. The benevolent gods fled, and now the only gods hide their curses behind blessings.

Note how tensions are harder to extract from a thousand-year-old apocalypse. Easier to extract treasure, or hazards, or enemies that have been trapped or held in stasis. But having elder gods hibernating beneath the land is cool! How do we bridge the two?

Layered apocalypses

Well, we layer apocalypses. We can have our thousand-year elder god apocalypse, our recent war with the Moondark-Queen, and the kingdom that stood on the same ground that was destroyed 500 years ago by its hubris in attempting to harness the power of prism-batteries.

There is a danger in layering apocalypses, however, because the more we layer apocalypses, the more we need to explain why the previous apocalypse hasn’t been demolished and looted. This can be fruitful, though: Stone is expensive to mine, so if there is stonework it’s likely to be repurposed. What does this look like in modern or pre-modern architecture? Did they respect the ancients and preserve it? Treasure is likely to be taken unless it’s dangerous. Most communities will mark danger with signs that are meant to be universal (see physical waste markers). What are these signs? How did subsequent communities use the treasure or the technology they found that was not dangerous? Why are there no dinosaur skeletons? Why are the ruins beneath the ground? Did they live in dungeons, or did the apocalypse bury them? Ask these questions, these are the fun questions to ask, that will bring weirdness to your world.

That’s it, really. Let me know your thoughts, and tell me about your apocalypses!

Addendum: Mechanical consequences was added to the consequence section.

2nd February 2023,

Idle Cartulary

Minimalist Lore

I can’t speak for the Dark Souls games, but in Sekiro, which I’m told is similar, story is told obliquely, through torn off pages, off hand mentions, and item descriptions.

Robert’s Firecrackers from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

We were talking about this on a discord this morning, and I was thinking about how it worked, so I’ll use an example from the game.

Item description for firecrackers:

Firecrackers from across southern seas. Can be fitted to the Shinobi Prosthetic to become a Prosthetic Tool. Makes a deafening sound, frightening to animals. Sold by little Robert and his father to raise funds for their travels. Their voyage brought them to Japan, where they would seek the “Undying” in an attempt to extend Robert’s life.

Incidental speech from a boss:

“For the sake of my son…Put down your sword.”


In catacombs behind a monastery:

The mummified corpses of many children who were killed in experimental procedures by the monks to create the Divine Child of Rejuvenation, who cannot die. None survived.

There are many other stories, some linked to locations (the undying gorilla boss at directly below where the waters of rejuvenation flow from a later level), some to items and characters like this one. But, I think they have two or three of these in common, and always the first point:

  1. Only tangentially related to any main plot
  2. Mentioned in item lore, item name or by an NPC
  3. Implied through description of a location
  4. Implied by special ability

I can give myself a procedure then: When I describe a location, grant an NPC a special ability, name an item or give an item a history, I must add at least one of the other two to my list of “future lore to be incorporated”. I strongly doubt the writers of Sekiro wrote the story of Little Robert and then chose to incorporate firecrackers into the gameplay. It was the other way around. The thing is there, and then I decide who brought it into the dungeon, why they did, and what clues are left after they’re gone.

A kobold wears a helm the shape of a charging boar. One of the six Beast-Knights once ventured into the forest, seeking the Crown of the Forest Wild, which was stolen from Her Verdant Majesty. His word his bond, his corpse is upon the Bridge of Duels, affront the bones of many enemies. The Rod has the images of six beasts upon them; one is a charging boar.

By doing this, I can begin to give my world or dungeon the kind of lived-in depth that I saw in Sekiro and that people talk about in Dark Souls and Elden Ring.

11th January 2023

Idle Cartulary