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Characterizing Groups to improv NPCs

May 1, 2021

After a missing a couple of weeks, we got back into our Uncharted Worlds game and had a great time. Since it’s military sci-fi, I end up having to think a lot about how various NPCs act as collectives – I don’t plan out a lot, but I do try to take the week between sessions, figure out what each group knows and likely responses. And this is generally true of how I run any game.

The nice thing about considering the group and nailing down how it works, is then you can easily figure out NPCs that might fit within that group – it becomes a tool to generate NPCs and likely motivations quickly and easily.

Characterizing the Collective

A gang, an army, a city administration, a corporation, a crime family, a sports team. There’s going to be tons of collective groupings in most games, and you generally only need to consider a handful at a time appropriate to the game and setting. I generally consider these things by three factors. Though I’m going to go into detail on these, please understand it’s not like I this all out – it’s just a mental checklist I use in my head and once I nail it down, my notes might only have one or two sentences for me on the whole faction.

Capability

Does this group have a lot of ability, resources or skill in their field? Are they good at what they do? This could be sheer competence, morale, and so on, or it might be the sort of thing that they’re effective because they have enough resources to brute force solve any problem. Groups that are incompetent but well resourced or groups that are very competent but under resourced feature often in my games.

This also doesn’t mean each person in a group is equally good or bad at their job, just how the whole works together.

Stability

Is this group maintaining solid cohesion and “culture”? Is the situations it currently facing something they are equipped to handle and adapt to? Is the leadership making choices that hold things together or break it apart? A good part of this is how much do the individual NPC’s goals line up with the groups? If the stability is low, you may find infighting or people quite willing to abandon or betray the group.

This isn’t the same as being formal – a lot of groups of gangs or bandits could easily count as stability even if they’re losing members or changing leadership – the general tenor and operating process of the group is the same.

Dysfunction

How much does incompetence and internal harm to the members rule the day? This is unfortunately common in many groups of people, no matter where you go. It often is the thing that works against both Capability and Stability but again, organizations with a lot of power and resources can often weather and support nearly all dysfunction, especially if it is in line with other kyriarchy in society.

The Omega

Let’s say there’s a huge starship, The Omega, and it’s part of a large space navy with parallel issues to many real world navies of the modern day – the specialized training and cost often leads to nepotism and favoritism deciding the leadership rather than meritocracy. The crew of the Omega are probably very capable in the usual operations of the ship (it’s well funded, and you want thes things to last for decades), but because the Admiral might be someone’s drunk nephew who got ushered through officer school, the larger strategic decisions are not always the best, and often much slower to come to – there’s a lot of buffering and hand holding between the higher officers who know what they’re doing vs. the brown-nosers. Naturally, this is a slowly destabilizing situation, which can only get worse under the pressure of actual war.

See how that generates several sub-groups within the crew itself, and I can get some idea of motivations and capability within it? Not everyone within a group is the same, but I have a range I can think of – the people at the bottom have to hit their requirements, at least some of the people higher up have to be hyper competent to make up for the leadership, but clearly not all, because some are purely favoritism promotions.

This is way more typing than what kind of notes I would put for myself, mind you; I’d probably write “Omega- standard navy ship org, young admiral – entitled” or something like that. You only have to make cliff notes for yourself, and don’t be afraid if those cliff notes are very referential if it allows you to get the idea very quickly (“Like the guardian cult from The Mummy”), after all, the players don’t see this side, they just experience whatever you generate FROM your notes.

From Groups, come NPCs

So, I keep these groups in mind or small notes while playing. It may turn out the players never directly interact with the group, in which case I haven’t made too many notes but I can draw upon enough to figure out what that group is doing in the background and if there’s ripple effects to the players (“Well, the Mendoza family who usually specialize in fake IDs went in hiding because things got too violent, it’s going to take longer and cost more to get that passport…”).

But more often the players will encounter one or more of these characters from a group and I have to come up with someone quickly if I haven’t thought up specific characters. The sorts of characters who would fit within the group, based on what I know about it.

If I don’t alrady have an idea, I will often think of a range of type of characters, and roll a D6 – the lower the roll, the less capable, functional or stable the person is for the groups’ goals, and the higher, the more capable, etc. they are, based on the range I’ve made.

So, a solid, cohesive group that has the person who is low on competence, etc. you have to ask why are they there? Are they bad at their job? Did they have a life emergency that has left them reeling? Maybe they’re competent but working for other goals against the groups interests? (Embezzling funds, small scale abuse, etc.). If you have a poorly run group with a hyper comptent/loyal person, are they the overworked person in the background desperately trying to keep it running? How much history do they have and what sort of insider knowledge might they bring?

A tool for improv, not full world building

This is basically a solution I developed for RPGs because you have to come up with characters on the fly so often. Random rolling characters should not be the norm for building every characer in a group, nor should you have to list every possible group/organization the characters interact with – odds are good the Weavers Guild and the quality of shopkeeps is not going to be that important in your fantasy game.

But I do find this good for situations where instituations or group actions happen as well as jamming together NPCs quickly and easily.

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