Improvising with NPC Motivations

October 13, 2014

Pretty much the two types of games I like to run are either strategic tactical Gamist games, or drama-laden Narrativist games.  The latter relies a lot on improvisation, which is usually pretty easy once I have a good set up of what the overall conflicts are, and what motivations power any given NPCs.

I’ve said it before – improvising is mostly doing exactly what the players do – look at the character and what makes sense for their motivations and what would be most entertaining.

A Character Study

One of the NPCs in my current game is Prince Rupak.  He’s brother to the King and when we first created him, dubbed him “Uncle Scar” ALA the Lion King.  That said, having the brother usurper type is kind of bland so I decided to do something more interesting with him.  He’s got 3 major motivations, which can go in many different ways:

1. Protect the kingdom

2. Protect his brother, the King, who is too indecisive and naive

3. Restore the kingdom’s glory!

What makes him an interesting character is that generally he’s a decent guy – but the conflicts are likely to force him to modify or ditch something – if the enemies try to take over the kingdom, he might have to take power just to be able to command and protect effectively…  and so on.

I don’t have to prep what he’ll do or say, I know that of those 3 motivations, anytime I throw him into a scene, or the players take actions that improve/endanger the safety of the kingdom, or that could potentially improve it’s place as an imperial power?  He has something to say or do about it.

Most nearly every NPC who matters has 2 or 3 motivations pulling them in different directions – sometimes it’s loyalty, sometimes it’s personal ideals.  To be sure, there’s a couple of NPCs who are single minded, but they usually are great at creating pressure because of their simple goals.

A Roster of NPCs

We started the game with 5 major NPCs and have been adding spot NPCs as needed.  Because the primary details needed are the characters’ motivations and maybe a 1-2 sentence description, it’s pretty quick and easy to do on the fly.   This obviously works better with games where the character stats are easy to make up on the spot or have no NPC stats whatsoever.

Levels of Support, Levels of Opposition

It’s also important to consider as you play, how far a given character will go based on the situation at hand.  The level of support or opposition is quite situational – in one case any NPC might be willing to simply give you good information and advice, and under different circumstances, they’d be willing to give their life for you.   Or perhaps you do something and they feel betrayed or threatened, and decide to work against you, to various degrees.   These can shift all the time based on what happens in play.

Again, this isn’t hard or requires too much tracking – just think of recent events, look at who the NPC is and what kinds of ways they might feel about the situation or characters in question.

“Aiming” the NPCs

The other half of it is focusing on what is going to be the most entertaining.  Here, “most entertaining” means looking at which motivations and goals intersect with the conflicts that players have latched on to.  While a motivation gives a lot of leeway for how an NPC might act or react, looking to see what turns up the pressure on a situation the players have emotionally invested in is key.

One of my players described it as, “Look for the ‘Oh shit!’ moments”, which doesn’t always mean the most overt/epic moments, but also ones that load things up emotionally.

This is also part of the reason I’ve been trying to make most of the characters pretty decent people if only caught in bad situations – when you actually care about the NPCs, things like what they think about you or how you protect them from themselves matters deeply.

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