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All Rules in Social Conflicts

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Stakes and Contenders

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 167
Once the pacing of the adventure has been chosen, the next step is to determine the stakes and the contenders of the social conflict, or at least those at the opening of the conflict. The stakes are the core of a social conflict— the prize for which the contenders strive. Social conflicts are often struggles for control of economy, prestige, or political power. The contenders are those individuals or groups struggling to win or achieve the stakes.

Consider the extortion example. At least one group of wealthy adventurers is spreading newfound wealth in town, and local businesses are flush with cash. The local thieves’ guild takes notice, and decides to exact a toll in the way it knows best: extortion and larceny. Each side is fighting over its own economic interest. The stakes are economic in nature, and the contenders are the business owners and the extortionist.

In the example of the evil vizier, the stakes are political power. Because the duke holds a hereditary position, and must answer to barons, the vizier’s plan is to dissolve the power of the barons and mesmerize the duke into compliance. The vizier and her agents, the duke (whether he knows it or not), and the barons are all contenders for the stakes.

When the stakes are prestige, that can mean anything from helping an ally gain a political position (and the opportunity to contend for political power), winning a game at the local fair, or being granted the honor of becoming a favored musician at court.

You’ll notice that in the examples above, the PCs are not considered contenders for the stakes. In many social conflicts, the PCs are outside agents who side with one contender or another, typically based on ethical grounds. The PCs may have no control of the stakes by the end of a social conflict arc, but they have made sure that the stakes are in the right hands.

This doesn’t always have to be the case. You could run a campaign focused on politics, presenting a situation in which the PCs work for a merchant or noble family. In a higher-level campaign, the PCs might take over or build a small fortress on the borders of civilization, forcing them to negotiate disputes over logging and mining rights or get in the middle of a group of human landowners and a gnoll tribe, with each party seeking to defend its economic rights, titles, and lands. In most campaigns, the PCs serve as agents for their favored contenders, and often motivate or even control how that faction pursues its goals. As a serialized or even an episodic social conflict matures, the stakes and contenders can expand. Contenders themselves can even become the stakes.

Let’s return to the extortion example. The PCs run off the tough, who—being the head of one of the city’s thieves’ guilds—controls the criminals up and down the docks. He supplements other lucrative trades with so-called protectors—local hoodlums whom neighborhoods must pay for “protection,” supposedly from robbers. When one of his agents is chased away, the tough must find a way for his organization to reclaim its economic and political power, not only to save face with the other guilds, but also to keep other criminals out of the lucrative territory. The little extortion fiefdom becomes one of the stakes itself, and the PCs might fight to keep the racket out while the vexed crime lord ponders the economic feasibility of launching an all-out war on the PCs.

While social conflicts with serialized pacing are a good way to add intrigue to your game, they can quickly become a maze of stakes and contenders. In such cases, it’s helpful to record the various stakes and contenders to keep all the details straight. You won’t need to pick up every dangling thread in your weave of characters and varied agendas, but if you’re able to produce the perfect threat or call-back from multiple sessions ago, it’ll look like you had it planned all the time.

Measuring the Stakes

Source Ultimate Intrigue pg. 168
When the stakes of a conflict are no more than a plot device, it’s okay for them to be somewhat nebulous. Other times, the stakes are concrete, and you’ll want a precise way to measure them. For this purpose, you can use the rules for gaining capital in the downtime system or the >influence system for organizations.