Internal Conflicts

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The situation of having a set of desirable actions or goals where the progress in one makes the others more difficult or impossible.

Most games have many different types of goals, and on many different levels of abstraction. Quite naturally, it is common for these goals to not be compatible in the sense that succeeding with one may make another impossible. This can provide interesting challenges by pitching players or teams against each other by spreading the incompatible goals out among them. However, when only one player or team have all the incompatible goals it instead become an example of Internal Conflicts, which either requires extra effort to succeed or requires the choice of selecting which goal to strive towards.


The PC is set to infiltrate a terrorist organization in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Double Agent game (one game in the Splinter Cell series). At one point of the game, the player needs to make a choice of whether to kill a captive to please the terrorists and displease the NSA (his employer) or not to kill the captive to please the NSA and loose the trust of the terrorists.

In many board games (e.g. Puerto Rico and Homesteaders) and card games (e.g. Race for the Galaxy and Dominion) there are many possible strategies to win. However, committing to any one makes it more difficult to succeed with the others so players may feel an Internal Conflict on which strategy to take, especially since one may have to switch during gameplay depending on how the overall gameplay develops.

Using the pattern

The pattern of Internal Conflicts can be applied in many different ways: on individual players, on groups of players involved in Guilds or Teams, on the Characters of players or NPCs, or on Factions of Characters. Internal Conflicts can be used in all of these simultaneously if needed, but can express itself differently for each category.

Presenting to a player a Selectable Set of Goals where each goal is Incompatible to the other goals is an easy way to create Internal Conflicts on a personal level. This however requires that the player has Strategic Knowledge of the game, the choices have Predictable Consequences (e.g. through support from the Predetermined Story Structure), or that goals can be completed within a short period of time. The Ticket to Ride board game series does a mix of the two first approaches by letting players choose from a limited number of goal Cards (although cards may by chance be compatible and players may choose all if they wish). Roleplaying games that support Player-Planned Development, e.g. Torchlight and the Elder Scrolls series and to a lesser degree tabletop systems such as Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS, function somewhat similar but are more related to how players wish to be able to play. Bidding systems where players can only win one of many possible offers, as for example in Cyclades or Homesteaders, shows one way of providing sets of Incompatible Goals that can be achieved or failed quickly.

Although the Ticket to Ride series does so, and the mentioned Roleplaying games do so on the level of how one wishes to play, it is worth noting that game design using goals for Internal Conflicts do not have to use Committed Goals. The Fable series and Knights of the Old Republic series let players choose to aim for having good or evil characters but these are Optional Goals since the games can be completed regardless of the characters final moral attributes (another way to look at these games is to say that players can have Internal Conflicts over which narrative ending they wish to aim for).

A more direct approach to offer individual players Internal Conflicts, which is also resolved quicker, is to focus upon actions rather than goals - by providing players with Limited Set of Actions that are also Irreversible. The board game Puerto Rico and the card game Race for the Galaxy does this by letting players each round choose only one action which they are guaranteed to be able to perform, and only allowing the other actions if other players have chosen those actions. Dialogues can easily work as a Limited Set of this kind, since the Predetermined Story Structure can easily make actions Irreversible. The goal and action approaches to providing Internal Conflicts can of course be combined, with Effect Descriptions and Predetermined Story Structures being two possible ways of linking them together (see the Witcher series for an example using Predetermined Story Structures).

Using Internal Conflicts on group structures (e.g. Factions and Guilds) can be done in two ways. The first way is similar to that for individual player in that a goal from a Selectable Set of Goals needs to be selected, but in this case the group as a whole needs to make the decision. In groups under player influence this typically requires Negotiation and quite likely Team Strategy Identification to be able to complete any of the goals, while in pure NPCs groups persuading these NPCs to decide on one goal can be a player Reward that opens up for Alliances and progress Predetermined Story Structures. The second way is to provide different members with Incompatible Goals in relation to each other. This causes Internal Rivalry which may lead to Negotiation or Intrigue depending on if the goals are Secret Goals or not, and may justify members to become Traitors if the group as a whole prevents the completion of their individual goals (note that Internal Conflicts may also be the source of Internal Rivalry so the two patterns can instantiate each other). Regardless of if the groups consist partly or fully of NPCs, the use of Internal Conflicts provide an easy basis for making it so that Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences.

Internal Conflicts within Guilds or Teams can also occur during gameplay when one player does some action that is considered inappropriate by other players in the same Guilds or Teams. Ninja Looting is a typical examples of this, so allowing this pattern is a way to make Internal Conflicts possible.

Social Dilemmas are a classical form of Internal Conflicts that combine focus on individuals and groups by setting up a group goal against a personal goal. Loyalty can be used to achieve this type of Social Dilemma but may also be used to set up Internal Conflicts between different Loyalties.

Interface Aspects

When Internal Conflicts are meant to be built more on Predictable Consequences than Predetermined Story Structures, games typically can help players make predictions by providing Direct Information and Effect Descriptions.

Narration Aspects

As mentioned above, Predetermined Story Structures can both provide the basis for Internal Conflicts and provide the scaffolding to let players make assumptions about the consequences of choosing particular actions or goals.


Internal Conflicts is a subpattern to Conflicts and one that most often requires players to make Trade-Offs. Given that Incompatible Goals or Irreversible Actions are commonly used to create Internal Conflicts, there is usually a Risk/Reward associated with the pattern. This also brings with it the likely presence of Stimulated Planning and possibly Analysis Paralysis in Multiplayer Games that are Turn-Based. Although it may be somewhat of a negative choice since it would in many cases be preferable to chose all actions or goals or not have to chose at all, Internal Conflicts provide a Freedom of Choice. How to resolve Internal Conflicts can easily be expanded to be Character Defining Actions when it is Characters rather than players that have the Internal Conflicts.

Given that Internal Conflicts require that there are several choices worth considering, having it present typically makes a game have Varied Gameplay and provides Replayability. Unlike games without Internal Conflicts, the presence of strong Predetermined Story Structures encourages this Replayability as long as there are several narrative endings that can be classified as the effect of successfully completing the game. Having several choices also makes Roleplaying need to consider not only how to reach goals but what goals to reach.

Internal Conflicts can cause Internal Rivalry and breakdowns in games requiring Cooperation or Teams, so the two latter patterns may be in conflict with the Internal Conflicts.


Can Instantiate

Conflicts, Internal Rivalry, Intrigue, Negotiation, Predetermined Story Structures, Replayability, Team Strategy Identification, Trade-Offs, Traitors, Varied Gameplay

with Characters

Character Defining Actions

with Multiplayer Games and Turn-Based Games

Analysis Paralysis

Can Modulate

Characters, Factions, Guilds, NPCs, Roleplaying, Teams

Can Be Instantiated By

Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Analysis Paralysis, Bidding, Committed Goals, Dialogues, Direct Information, Effect Descriptions, Freedom of Choice, Incompatible Goals, Irreversible Actions, NPCs, Limited Set of Actions, Loyalty, Predictable Consequences, Player-Planned Development, Risk/Reward, Selectable Set of Goals, Social Dilemmas, Stimulated Planning, Strategic Knowledge

Ninja Looting together with Guilds or Teams

Can Be Modulated By

Secret Goals

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Cooperation, Teams


An updated version of the pattern Internal Conflict, first introduced in Lankoski 2010[1].


  1. Lankoski (2010). Character-Driven Game Design - A Design Approach and Its Foundations in Character Engagement. D.A. thesis at Aalto University. Publication Series of the School of Art and Design A 101.