Planeswalking into Conflict

Posted in Savor The Flavor on March 18, 2009

Conflict is the motor of story, and conflict happens when people get in each other's faces.

Watch just about any TV show—scripted or unscripted—and you'll see this pattern. The characters are likely shoved together in a single location: a police precinct, the emergency ward of a hospital, a battlestar, or maybe a London walk-up where they stop being polite and start getting real. Opportunities for conflict arise all over the place, because the characters are almost stepping on each other, physically, all the time. They're free to get in screaming matches with one another, deliver tragic news to one another, notice each other's matching dresses, or fall in love with each other at all the wrong times.

That's not to say that the location of a story has to stay the same all the time. The characters can move around. But wherever they go, they have to either run into more characters to butt heads with or bring all their buddies along with them, so those rich relationships can follow along—and generate conflict.

I'm not making up these rules just to be didactic; these are just the practical needs of story. Now, you could have a story about one guy wandering around by himself, but the story will need to go out of its way to present him with challenges and obstacles to generate conflict—and, if he's alone without anyone to talk to, the story would have to provide a way for him to express what he's thinking and feeling.

This brings us, as it often does, to planeswalkers.

    Planeswalkers and Plot

Planeswalkers present interesting challenges for a storyteller. The whole point of a planeswalker is that he or she has the power to leave. This means important things for conflict and the story built around it. Planeswalkers create opportunities for conflict that mundane characters don't, but also create challenges that we must deal with.

Problem #1: They travel.

The very fact that planeswalkers can walk the planes—or more accurately, the fact that non-planeswalkers can't—means that it's hard to keep a planeswalker in a situation. We on the creative team spend a lot of time building detailed settings—and yet these slippery planeswalker characters aren't actually tied to any of them. It's hard for Garruk Wildspeaker to feel forced into a problem with another person, since he can just leave the plane—and those problems are hard-pressed to follow him to the next world.

Certainly it's possible to weave a story in which a planeswalker never goes anywhere. Garruk could find himself dozens of novels' worth of conflict on Alara, or Dominaria, or Moag. But without planeswalking, there's little reason to have the story be about a planeswalker. If you've got a planeswalker in your story—especially one that's a protagonist—then he or she should probably do some planeswalking in there somewhere. So the problem remains—given that a planeswalker moves around, how do you make sure he or she runs into enough conflict?

Solution: Strong Values

Planeswalkers have to travel. But they don't always have to escape. To keep planeswalkers embroiled in the affairs of worlds, give them reasons to care about them. Ajani cares about his native Naya, and the mysteries surrounding the death of his brother Jazal, and the honor of his pride. Not all these motivations and values that link a planeswalker to a world have to be positive or heroic, however—Nicol Bolas, for example, cares about consolidating his own power, and values the shards of Alara for their potential in aiding his grand schemes. When planeswalkers have people, places, and causes that they treasure, they will go out of their way to planeswalk toward conflict in order to defend those things. Want to show in a realistic way that a planeswalker feels motivated to stick around on, or return to, a given world? Attack something they care about—you'll see!

Problem #2: They can be secretive loners.

The ability to planeswalk means being different. A planeswalker's talents are so unique that they tend to distance him or her from others. It's lonely at the top—planeswalkers have no peers to discuss their particular challenges with, no one who knows the personal weirdness of living a life across several worlds, nobody with a wide enough perspective to appreciate the interplanar ventures they undertake—and only the lucky ones find a mentor figure who can guide them through the process of the awakening of the spark, and the bewildering experience of their first planeswalk. All of this makes relationships hard for planeswalkers—they naturally have more in common with other planeswalkers than with planebound folk. And yet they're so rare, and the multiverse so vast, that they don't bump into each other all that often.

Many planeswalkers even hide their true natures from others, further serving to cut them off from others. Why? Some hide their planeswalker nature out of fear for their safety. Many cultures react negatively to finding out that their world is not the center of the universe. Planeswalkers challenge that notion—and some venerable institutions don't like being challenged. It depends on the plane; on some worlds, planeswalkers are well-known. But since they're so rare, planeswalkers tend to fly under the radar. Some just hide their abilities because it complicates the heck out of relationships. Some people in their lives might be able to get their heads around the enormity of that ability, but most can't—which turns them back toward a lonely life. Planeswalkers travel solo, and often live solo—they're naturally set up to avoid others, which can cause them to avoid conflict.

Solution: Strong Relationships

Everyone has the desire to blend in, to belong, even planeswalkers—especially planeswalkers, who often lack a permanent home or community. Everyone wants to feel like they are part of something, that they are welcomed in a family or community. This sets planeswalkers up for excellent internal conflict. Their nature tears them away from fitting in anywhere, but their heart naturally pulls them toward belonging. Elspeth Tirel, for example, cares deeply about her adopted home of Bant, and the bonds she's forged with her fellow knights there. All she's ever wanted is to find a place where she can hide her gifts, settle down, and feel part of the community—and Bant has been that place for her. (We'll see soon how the Conflux affects that.) Strong relationships like that—or even just the desire for strong relationships—can lead planeswalker characters directly into nice, soul-tearing conflict. Cause a planeswalker to try to reject her own differentness, and watch the dramatic fireworks that follow.

Problem #3: They can be hard to threaten.

With enough time, mana, and concentration, a planeswalker can probably overcome just about any mundane problem. They can overwhelm a marauding creature with spellcraft and summoned minions. They can tear down an evil lord's castle wall or redirect a damaging river. And they can pretty easily get out of anywhere you put them—even some very powerful types of magical imprisonment aren't enough to root planeswalkers to a plane. Planeswalkers can even overcome most magical problems with enough study and resources.

Physical threats like this make for good conflict. But what if you want to put a planeswalker in a really hard spot? What if you want him or her to be truly stuck, or defeated?

Solution: Obstacles that Suit Planeswalkers

There are still plenty of ways for a story to put planeswalkers in a hard spot—but the storyteller must recognize that the gifts of a planeswalker make some traditional story obstacles not that difficult to deal with. Planeswalkers are mortal, and planeswalking takes some amount of time and effort—and so any physical obstacle or threat can, under the right circumstances, get the better of them. It's true that a jail cell won't do much to keep a planeswalker down, but stab him in the chest while he's sleeping—that'll still put him in a world of hurt. Some magical threats can go at the heart of how magic works—mana denial is one of them. If a planeswalker is out of mana—whether because he is temporarily tapped out of his resources due to using them up recently, or because something has denied him access to his mana bonds somehow—then that character's magical gifts can be taken away.

Also, note that many planeswalkers have strong color alignments and spellcasting "themes"—they tend to stick to one kind of magic or another. In line with the game, those themes naturally creates magical weaknesses or blind spots. It doesn't matter whether Jace Beleren can read minds with little effort, if he's faced with a millennia-old mystery carved into ancient stone.

Furthermore, remember that sometimes the best obstacles for planeswalkers are social, intellectual, or internal obstacles. It doesn't matter how much fire Chandra Nalaar can summon up when she's faced with painful memories from her past. It doesn't matter if Ajani possesses the power to scour an entire valley with his rage, if he values that valley and the people in it.

Problem #4: They can have unrelatable problems.

The ability to planeswalk presents planeswalker characters with strange decisions, problems, and obstacles. But that can tend to distance the character from the reader—the reader wants to find similarities between himself and your protagonist, wants to identify with him and the decisions he's making, and feel triumph along with his success. This is a problem for all fantasy, science fiction, and other speculative fiction—how do you make your characters possess characteristics that the reader never could, while still making them relatable to the reader?

Solution: Humanity and Metaphor

With a planeswalker's strange gifts come strange options. "At any moment, I could be elsewhere. Should I be? Are these relationships you have on this plane worth my time here? Could I find more living value on some other world? Could I be helping someone, or helping myself, if I were on another plane I knew? Am I missing opportunities on planes I don't know yet, but could find out about?" The reader may not have to deal with decisions such as these, but daily life presents similar decisions that are easily relatable. Focus on how similar the planeswalker character is to your audience. Issues of the isolating effect of intelligence, the desire to fit in, the difficulty of relationships, the struggles of accomplishing one's personal goals, and the need to protect one's personal values are universal. Focus less on the details of the world as an end in itself, and more on how those details create metaphors to our own problems and plights. The planeswalker figure is a strong metaphor for our own journey through life and relationships—a perfect vehicle for telling a story that has a special meaning to your reader.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your letter response in "An Angel's Eye View of Bant":

My brother and I were talking about Progenitus when he asked me whether protection against a certain color meant protection from planeswalkers with that alignment. With Progenitus I could imagine the protection applying to planeswalkers, or even with Akroma. But a Paladin en-Vec or a Soltari Priest squaring it off against Chandra Nalaar and WINNING?!?! Is it just me or is there something very wrong about that?


Thinking about how those cards function in the game, you're right, Donn, that the result is strange. There are definitely cards that can trump planeswalkers, and while it feels right that mighty Progenitus could be one of those cards, it feels strange that Chandra could meet her match in something so lowly as a non-legendary knight or simple priest.

Now, if you were seeing an action movie about Chandra, and she faced off against a combatant who was protected against her magic, you might see her improvise to overcome such protective magic. Maybe she couldn't bathe the paladin in flames, but she might be able to blast apart the wooden pillars holding up the ceiling above him, causing a cave-in that could pin the knight in place. Or if she weren't able to torch the skin of her Soltari captors, she might instead summon a fire elemental that could distract them long enough so that she could get away. If worse came to worst, perhaps she could find a powerful artifact and rely on it to deal with her protected foes, using its power rather than her own to get around their magical defenses.

But despite all these possible narrative workarounds, the fact remains—protection from red is a big deal to Chandra. Chandra relies solely on her powers of fire, and therefore some properly-applied pro-red can shut down everything she can do. That is a big Achilles' heel for her, as it is for every mono-red player. It may seem crazy for all of her planeswalkery power to be stopped by a humble white critter, but that's the way the fireball crumbles.

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