Good Idea, Bad Idea – NPC motivations

May 16, 2022

Here’s a simple tool for creating NPCs with motivations a bit more than “good guy” or “bad guy”. It’s a variation on my X but Y method, and fits perfectly into the Flag Framing method of running a campaign and improvising events.

Good Idea Bad Idea

You start with knowing your setting and general situation (“A struggle for the throne” “Superheroes vying to be on the officially recognized super team for the city” etc.) and you set up your NPCs with that in mind. Ideally, you are playing an RPG where the game has the players set up Flags, so you have those ready as well.

For each NPC you are making into a major player (someone who can potentially be proactive and take counteractions in the situation), you list out two ideas, values, or drives on how they plan on dealing with that large scale conflict/issue at hand.

One of those is the good idea – something that is generally morally decent and/or reasonable/effective to their goals. The other is the bad idea – something that is morally problematic, or unreasonable/going too far in their goals.

Some simplistic examples:

“Ace Guardian Hero” is one of those Captain America type ripoff heroes, but entitled and arrogant. He wants to be the leading hero of the New Town’s Superhero Team.

  • “If I’m going to be the leader, I have to never run away from the big threats – I have to show everyone I’ve got what it takes to be there.” (good idea)
  • “Only people who will do what I say, the way I tell them to do it, should work with me. Everyone else is a fool & needs to be put in their place.” (bad idea)

Now, you could play up either one of these a little more, but it seems like the perfect sort of spoiler character you can’t directly fight, but who is constantly getting in the way of the PC’s plans. (The Hater archetype of my 7 Types of Antagonists list).

“Mutate-o – the Human Potato” is one of those goofy side heroes, but think a bit “person down on themselves but potent if they could get the self confidence they need”.

  • “I hate seeing people getting hurt – I’m always going to use my strength to protect people” (good idea)
  • “Everyone thinks I’m a monster, and the problems I cause when people see me, means I should hide and let the other heroes be the ones to act.” (bad idea).

Obviously, both of these are cartoonish archetype characters, but you get the idea, right? You can go more complex and subtle appropriate to the genre or setting. And of course, if you craft these in ways that intersect with the PC’s Flags, values, etc. you get some fun, easy to use tools.

There’s no reason that characters HAVE to lean more towards antagonistic or allied, but I usually find 60/40 or even 70/30 works fine. It’s rare to create a character who can be split on a morally grey space and well communicated to the players with the limited spotlight time they’re likely to receive.

Course Corrections

Just as much as players need to refine or alter Flags in play as they get a better thematic grasp on what their character is about or fighting for, you, too, will need to adjust these in play.

Sometimes you’ll find one of the ideas falls flat or never comes up – in which case, replace it. Maybe the NPC takes a stand on something that happened (“I just saw half the city burn. What are we even doing? I’m going to be hard on heroes to do better.”) or you think up something that’s a plausible backstory bit to highlight (“Yeah, I used to be ex-military. And a contact reached out to me for a different supers team. One that gets things done…”).

Ideally, though, you get some good roleplaying in and the NPCs change their views based on interacting with the PCs and they either become better folks, or more committed to being not-better folks. It makes the game a living world and gives the players agency to shape the story and affect the characters.

The Big Pitfall to Avoid

So, just because I’m placing a “good idea/bad idea” with each major character, it doesn’t mean you need to have a major “redeeming value” to every villain. Some folks crossed a line a long time ago, and the fact they won’t kill children doesn’t make them a good person. Likewise, you don’t have to make every good character into a war criminal edgelord.

This is one of the problems of a lot of modern media based out of decades old IP – they ran out of ideas for the characters so they have them do a heel turn or face turn, and often times, done in absence of any other meaningful resolution, you just have stuff like “Oh the Space Nazis aren’t that bad” and it just makes a horrible story and message.

And So…

  • Make major NPCs w/one good idea & one bad idea
  • Try to aim them at ways that intersect with player motivations
  • Figure out how hard they lean towards either, what lines they’ve crossed vs. potential to cross
  • Feel free to change them in accordance w/events in play, or if the motivations aren’t coming up
  • Understand this isn’t the entirety of the NPC’s world view, just relevant handles for this current conflict/situation in the game
  • Not every good idea is fully a morally redeeming one, not every bad idea is a war crime or atrocity

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