NPCs based on Flags

June 13, 2019

I’m gearing up to run a game that will have an element of politics and intrigue.  The game uses a multiple set of flag mechanics which naturally suggests ways in which you can make a host of characters that can play off of those mechanics.

I realized there’s a sort of list you can go down to figure out things to build the NPCs off of, based on those Flags.  (Consider this a parallel idea to my Seven Types of Antagonists that can combine as you like.)  It lets you make sure you have some well rounded set of issues for the player characters and a good amount of NPCs with motivations to play with so you can improvise during play.

NPCs at “starting points”

The NPCs you create using this are at a “starting point” of the idea and the situation.  They may change their minds, attitudes, alliances, etc. just like any other character – your initial idea may not be how they stay.  They may also turn out to be much more complicated and nuanced than your starting point, so don’t assume this first part is all you have to them.

You play the NPCs like you would any character – look at their motivations, look at what would be dramatically interesting, and go from there.

Alliance/Opposition Roles

Make a list for each player character of these four roles: Solid Ally, Grudging Ally, Opposition, True Enemy.  You can think of this as a cardinal direction set giving you a well rounded situation for politics.

Each player may have a couple of NPCs in each category, but the main thing is you want to make sure you have at least 1 in each of these to start.  As play progresses, these might move around or players might happen to have none in one category for a while.  It’s fine, again, this is about setting up starting points for play.

The same NPC might be in more than one player’s list, and might not even have the same role between those players.  For example, the Vampire Queen might be a Grudging Ally to one PC but fill the Opposition of another PC, depending on their roles and situations.

Solid Ally

The Solid Ally is someone who is strongly in the character’s corner, and willing to take risks and utilize their resources to help.  They may be limited by not have much power, by being far away/busy, or politically tied up and unable to help as much as they like.  The Solid Ally strongly agrees with one of the PC’s values which is probably one of the Flags in the game.

The Solid Ally creates risks/conflict by potentially suffering for being around and aiding the PC, if they are powerful or influential, they risk the opposition escalating and calling in their bigger allies as well.

Grudging Ally

The Grudging Ally doesn’t like you, might be suspicious, or looking for a reason to take you down a notch.  They have decided they WILL work with you, so they’re not going to sabotage you, but they’re also not going to handhold you.  You’re going to have to carry your weight and live up to the cause they’ve decided to work with you on.

The Grudging Ally creates problems by making demands, by working around you when they don’t trust you to do the job (right or at all), they may have methods you don’t like, they might leave you in the lurch after they get what they want or see you aren’t useful to their goals.  They’re also vocal about how they feel, which leads to interpersonal drama.

The Opposition

This is someone who generally works against you but isn’t going to take big risks for it and while they may want to see you suffer or out of the situation, they’re not trying to kill you or see your complete ruin.   These people might just trash talk you, they might lie and gossip, or they might try to sabotage your reputation, career, or goals.  The fact is, beyond a normal person who dislikes you, they’re willing to take some actions.  If it’s a violent situation, they’ll fight you, but they’re not invested in your death – running you off, degrading you, is enough.

It’s a good idea as a GM to think as to why these characters dislike the PC, and as play progresses, whether they might grow to respect the character, or go deeper into their hate of them.

True Enemies

The True Enemy wants you ruined, destroyed, and/or dead.  They are willing to take risks, and will see you ended.  If you are lucky, they have a sense of honor and won’t go after your friends and family, but usually people who are this driven don’t care anymore.

This is not an enemy of opportunity – this is someone who knows of you (by face, name, or at least description) and will gladly shank you, roll a boulder on you, or watch you burn slowly if given the chance.  You may not be their entire life’s aim, but they will need very pressing reasons to not destroy you if given the chance.

Although one would think that True Enemies must have good reasons to go this far (“You killed my brother!”), sometimes the reasons are just pettiness, bias, and/or narcissism  (“How dare she say no TO ME” etc.).    As a GM, it’s really worth thinking about what motivates this character, since, it will dictate both how they go about it – straightforward violence, political angling, manipulation, etc.   Rarely, but sometimes, these characters can be moved from hating the PC into a different attitude, but it usually requires a pretty hefty deed, or occasionally they find out they were mistaken (“Then that means… you weren’t the one who killed my father?!?”).

Authority Chain NPCs

Now, tied in with the above, there’s NPCs that naturally fit given a genre or situation that form a chain of authority – people with the power to give a PC orders, or at least, heavily encourage/discourage certain actions, and people whom the character might have authority over as well.

These types may fit into those four roles in many ways, however since they’re in the same chain of authority as the PC, so there’s usually an assumption of being allied – the types of stories you have when your own “side” is crooked or against you is very different than when at least everyone is nominally working towards similar ends.

Greater Authority – Commander, Mentor, Boss, Liege, Powerful Family members

Characters who have more authority than the PC tend to set up complications just by the fact they have both more power and their own desires.  They may end up giving the PC orders or restrictions they do not like, or make decisions on their behalf without checking in first.  This is even if they are Solid Allies, which is why even under the best of conditions, many people find points of friction with their parents, for example.

As a GM, these characters require some thought, since you don’t want them to make all the choices for the PCs and order them around like a videogame handing out a quest checklist.  You also don’t want them stepping on too many boundaries or the players (rightfully) get resentful and see the NPC as an enemy.

These characters work best when they provide some complications, and sometimes provide support, but not when they’re always around or in the way.

Less Authority – Protege, Assistant, Student, Ward, Charge, Apprentice, Less influential family members

There’s a character who you are responsible for, and you can often make many decisions for them.  How much this character supports you vs. has their own ideas can be a big deal.

As a GM, the easiest version of this character is the assistant or sidekick who is basically a Solid Ally and mostly does what the PC wants, and is generally good at it.  The player doesn’t face much conflict, and the character is pretty helpful.  However, it is worth considering the NPC’s values and goals, and at least letting them be vocal about what they want/feel about various situations, so they’re not just a convenient sidekick.

The characters who are less capable, or less cooperative, are, again, difficult because you don’t want them to be so much trouble the player decides it’s not worth dragging them along on adventures, action and intrigue.

You need to make them at least interesting enough as characters that the player wants to keep them around (Note: interesting doesn’t necessarily mean likable, and also, the player’s desire to have the NPC is not the same as their character’s desire to see the NPC around.)

Equal Authority – Coworkers, Friends, Rivals, etc.

Some NPCs are of equal authority as your character, and sometimes placed in the same role as yours.  Neither of you have the right to issue commands, so you have to cut deals and interact more.  These NPCs also can compete with your in the eyes of greater authorities, and you can argue with each other more easily without rank getting in the way.

This sort of character is easier to come up with and play as a GM, it’s just important to be mindful of what social/genre positions for the characters make sense to have “equal authority”.  If it’s tied to a common role – “We’re all knights” then it’s easy enough.  If it’s a game with unique and strange PCs – “I’m the Wizard who raised Atlantis”, you might have to think hard about what kind of characters are “Equal authority” and what that looks like.

Family Members, Lovers, Close Friends

Of course, onto any of the characters or roles, you can slap one of these categories onto and instantly make things more complicated.

These characters tend to be the most skipped or left underdeveloped.  Mostly because a lot of games are terrible about intrigue and politics and these characters naturally set up chains of obligation and relationship that complicate things.  (Also, just about everyone has personal histories and drama around these roles, which can also complicate the feelings for the actual people playing at the table.)

That said, this is kind of where we see a great deal of who your character is and how they operate in life.  These tend to also be the sorts of roles that a given society (real or fictional) has a lot of values, expectations, and rules around, which makes these relationships ripe for good play around Flag mechanics.

However, if the authority chain roles were a tough balancing act between “complicated character” and “fuck I hate this NPC”, these characters tend to be moreso.

Tying Roles to Flags

This is easy; allied NPCs support the player character in one of their Flags, opposed NPCs work against or challenge the player character in one of their Flags.

Complicated characters might support one Flag and oppose the other Flag, despite the Role you start them in.  For example a character’s father might be a Solid Ally, totally support their career goals, but disapprove of their fiance.  Your rival Knight might be Opposition and want to see your name ruined but will support you in protecting the King from assassins.

Then you can get into NPCs who support one PC, but oppose another, and so on.  Having ties to more than one PC allows an NPC to be multifaceted but if you do too much, it becomes less of a relationship grid and more like 8 dimension hypercube logistics – too much to track.

The One Red Flag

If you can’t come up with an NPC to tie into a Flag in a meaningful way, that’s a sign it’s probably not a good Flag and the player needs to rethink it or reword it better.

Same thing if you can think up an NPC but you don’t feel a little excitement about the conflict or complication it brings.  The whole point is to help people create interesting conflict which is exciting and emotional, so you should at least feel some initial spark to know you’re in the correct direction.

Focus and Calibration 

Generally, gameplay will narrow down the focus on NPCs – maybe only 2-3 get real spotlight in a session, or even over a story arc.  This is fine.  Let the players guide you by which characters create the most interesting interactions.  Also be willing to accept sometimes secondary or tertiary NPCs might become more important than the ones you started thinking would be important.

You may want to rewrite the list in a few sessions to see where the real focus sits, much in the same way I usually find that what people initially write as Flags (goals, issues, conflicts, etc.) usually is NEAR but not quite what really gets them hyped in play – and those first few sessions let you see what the real thing is they’re interested in.

When you hit the good point of conflict and interaction between PC choices and actions and NPC choices and actions feeding off of each other, the initial list of roles falls away – it’s more like a rocket booster to start things in a direction, but you let it drop away once you have got the speed you want.

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