Dramatic tension is created when the characters are faced with obstacles to a goal that is personal for them. Motivation is desire, be it love, revenge, redemption, freedom, survival, justice, or greed. The GM needs to tie the adventures to the desires or fears of the characters. What do these characters want? Then — how do you get in the way of that for a good story?

It doesn’t always have to be save the world from the bad guy with a superweapon. (Hello, every f’ing Star Trek movie since The Wrath of Khan.) Sometimes it can be very personal. The main conflict in Captain America: Civil War is Tony Stark’s guilt over his actions in the past and anger over the death of his parents. His obstable: Captain America’s desire to redeem his friend, Bucky, and remain free to help people has he sees fit. Cap’s main obstacle: his stubbornness and arrogance. The characters create the tension and motivations. The rather bland villain in the piece is actually incidental. He’s simply a catalyst to bring these characters into opposition.

Some of the best obstacles are: a foil they have encountered before and desperately wish to best (Belloq and Indy in Raiders of the Lost Ark really aren’t so much interested in the ark, as they are beating each other at the game.), a thing they want badly (released from a curse, say), a person they care about is in trouble (every action movie involving a dad saving a kid), or they are trying to develop a relationship with (every romance movie), or they have to save the world! Which tends to be high stakes as a lot of people are involved, but funnily enough, only if you care about the world or the characters fighting for the world.

Case in point: The Man of Steel features Kryptonians coming to Earth and wrecking havoc. I didn’t really care about the world or the stakes, because the movie 1) had no engaging hero, and 2) the movie had no engaging villain. In counterpoint, the second season of Luke Cage has superbly crafted villains — the odious Mariah Stokes/Dillard, the damaged and vengeful Bushmaster, who but for his gangster connections is almost as heroic as, say, the Punisher; and the hero this season, is a much more engaging Luke Cage, a guy who wants to protect his adopted home, but really is motivated by a sense of sef-importance, some perfectly understandable daddy issues, and who is trying to regain his pride. This last trait is central to all three of the characters, so the stakes are personal, and that makes them important.

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