There's been a lot of discussion lately about conflict as it relates to MUSHes, and R2A in particular. I thought I'd post some thoughts publicly.
I've been RPing now for over 30 years. Obviously, not all of that was online in a MU* setting. Actually, very little until about 3 years ago, starting with AmberMUSH. So, most of my RP has been in tabletop/face-to-face (F2F) gaming. I'm not sure about others' experience, but in all this, we really never had major conflict between players — it was all players vs. NPCs run by the GM. Of course, that's easy to do in this format. And, it probably is encouraged by the fact that we rarely ran in large groups, and we rarely played in "open" settings — we RP'ed among friends only. Interpersonal conflict between PCs was generally kept to a minimum. Thus… that is really my "norm" for RP. I have been, and still am, far more interested in PvE (player vs environment) rather than PvP (player vs. player) play.
I can't be certain, and maybe I'll get a few replies about this, but I would guess that maybe a lot of long-time MU* players have taken PvP to heart, as MU*s tend to be PC-centric. So unless players made NPCs for a TP, conflict between PCs was much more common.
I agree that conflict drives story. But I think that is too broad a statement. There are many flavors of conflicts, not the least of which is internal conflict. And I see MUs trying to drive conflict, because, yes, without it, there's only coffeeshop RP. That's not to say that such isn't fun, but just that it is ultimately limiting.
But the problem as I see it, is that the current trend in popular storytelling is to have rather one-sided conflict. In fact, I'll go on to say that popular storytelling is more like PvE than PvP. The conflict is generally shown only from the perspective of the "good" guy. And, while there are bumps in the road, the "good" guy always wins. For better or worse, adaptations of books to movies tend to emphasize this (often much to the author's chagrin).
So, getting back to RPGs and MU*s, I think this is why efforts to promote conflict feel like they are pushing a rock up a hill. In fact, looking at the current crop of graphical MMOGs, I think we see similar trends — easy content, low penalties, optional PvP. I think the idea to make conflict indirect, and about "things", can only have limited success. It might work if such conflict is mainly minor — competition for some minor ebb and flow. But once it becomes major, or if there's any personal investment by a PC in a prop, such things escalate quickly. In fact, a major tenet of storytelling is that you hurt a hero not by attacking them, but by attacking that which they hold dear. Thus, the distinction between a direct and indirect conflict will likely be lost.
And like I said, I guess I fall into the happy-ending crowd too, though I am not opposed to bad things happening in-between. From my viewpoint, I would be more happy with lots of player-run stories where the opposition was an NPC villain. Maybe it makes me a wimp, or maybe I'm not suited to the MU* environment, or maybe it relegates me to "color" play, but I really have very little interest in PvP conflict, direct or indirect.