Building Conflict Into Cradle

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I actually want to do with this setting I’m working on. Building a world for its own sake isn’t really my thing; for many years, I’ve hewed to one degree or another to the concept that you only need as much world as the game (or the story) demands. To that end, the setting should serve a purpose of some kind. At its very basic, it needs conflicts built in, to give the GM and players a sense of what it is they’re supposed to do.

The thing is that I’m not really any kind of expert on how conflict is used in stories, or role playing games, or anything else. There’s way more written on this subject, from people a lot smarter than I am – so in this post I’m not really going to be talking about that kind of thing. Instead, I’m more interested in the practical application of figuring out conflict in my setting with the hopes my thought process helps people out.

From the earliest iteration, Cradle has had two continents – one is home to human civilization and the other is an analog for the New World in our world. I’ve always intended for the focus to be on this new continent, set in one of the colonies that has been established, with a lot of emphasis on exploration, discovery and mystery. It was influenced by binge watching Turn, coupled with playing Dishonored and Thief. As such, it was very Colonial America themed, and the reasons for the colonial expansion were pretty standard – resource exploitation (the predecessor to arche was a thinly veiled reskin of whale oil from Dishonored) and colonial oppression.

Ultimately this wasn’t that interesting to me, so I started to consider the reasons why these far away empires might be colonizing a new continent. More as a reason to justify the existence of Pleistocene-style megafauna
(I think they’re scarier than a lot of stock fantasy creatures) in the setting than anything else, I had posited there was an ice age involved – either impending, ongoing, or ending. The smaller human continent is in the northern latitudes, so it made sense that it would be more severely affected. It started to seem like a good reason why these nations would colonize a new continent, and why people would want to go there versus staying home and freezing.

As my vision of the human continent continued to evolve, I changed the overall climate from “ice age” to “just fucking volatile”. Random, extreme climate shifts provide a pretty good reason to want to get the hell out of Dodge. Finally, I recently settled on the whole place is falling apart. A combination of the extreme climate shifts and natural disasters (possibly connected) have wreaked havoc on the human civilizations. It’s not an overnight destruction a la Atlantis, but the humans are starting to realize that they might not want to hang around to see how much worse things can get.

I think this helps keep the focus squarely on the New World as the setting (because why am I going to detail a continent that is just going to get wrecked?). The people there are coming for many of the same reasons that they came to the Americas in our world – for a new life, for freedom, for wealth. But they’re all escaping the cataclysmic events that have already devastated their homes.

As if establishing new homes in a foreign place wasn’t enough, the humans aren’t alone. There are already people living there, and unlike our world the humans have neither technological nor numerical superiority. This puts the colonists in a tough position, since they need to be able to coexist with the native inhabitants (who might not necessarily want the same).

I’m hoping this mix of conflicts ultimately provides compelling challenges, and will help answer the question of “Yeah, but what do we do?” with regard to the setting. I also want to tie together the bigger mysteries and questions of the setting. Why is the human continent tearing itself apart? Could this also start happening to the new continent? Who are the new people the humans have encountered? Do they have anything in common with the humans and can they coexist? I actually don’t have the answers to any of that yet, but I’m sure that it’ll lead to some pretty interesting things once I do.

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