Today’s guest article is by Brian Holland, whose previous guest article was about the Butterfly effect. In this one, Brian tackles a Dungeon World inspired way to set up NPCs goals and motivations. – John “Better target than an archer” Arcadian
My struggle with building NPCs
In the past I’ve struggled with building NPCs because I felt overwhelmed by trying to create too much detail. How does the character look, dress, talk, walk, and feel? I was spending a lot of time to make an NPC LOOK unique, but was failing to make them a part of the story.
So when I found Masks: 1,000 memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game by Engine Publishing, I LOVED it and found lots of ways for my NPCs to be a part of the story (my favorite is Thaddeus Quickmire on page 28). Masks is a great book, and has some great tips and templates for building your own NPCs , but I realized all I really wanted was a few short pieces of information to tell me what the character DOES. As long as I had a list of descriptions, quirks and names, I could improvise how the character looks, dresses, talks and walks during the game.
I’ve been thinking a lot in Dungeon World (DW) terms lately, and have built a template for NPCs using some of the ideology and terminology from it. You don’t have to be familiar with DW to use this system (but it is a FANTASTIC book to own). I don’t create stat blocks, gear, or anything else with this method. It is system-neutral just as Masks is, and has you fill in just four data fields.
Find an NPCs AIMS
An NPCs AIMS are not the NPCs goals. The word aims CAN be used as a synonym for goals, but AIMS is an acronym for four fields: Agenda, Instinct, Moves, and Secrets.
- Agenda: That’s obvious. What is the NPC trying to accomplish? This can be as minimal or expansive as you like or need. A shop keep will have a fairly narrow Agenda, while a villain will have a much broader one. An example of a shop keep’s Agenda could be “Build a steady customer base so I can sell the business”.
- Instinct: At his/her core, what does this NPCs gut tell him/her to do? What’s in his nature to do? This can either support or conflict the Agenda. Conflict is fun because you can build against type. An Instinct of “Punch everything in sight” paired with the Agenda above provides internal conflict! It will be difficult to build a customer base when your instinct turns you into Punchy McPunchface.
- Moves: Okay, this comes directly out of DW, but I use “moves” for practically everything now. Think of moves as little AI Nodes in a computer game. They’re “moves”, which means they’re actions. Make them actions that are actionable – they should create opportunities for your PC’s to act and interact! What is something this NPC does? List two or three. Following the example above, a Move for this character can be <Refrain from punching customers> and a second could be <Blow up and punch an annoying customer>. Both of these are actionable. Add <Always offer fair prices> and <If I don’t have it, find it for them> make a character who legitimately wants to build a great customer base, despite his penchant for punching.
- Secrets: What secrets does this character have? I like to list secrets with multiple parts, or multiple secrets. Doing so gives me the option to decide how much/many of an NPCs secrets are known to others. This gives you some hooks and keeps the rumor mill spinning. Also, the secrets open up a web of connections to play with. Mr. Punchy has the secret “I’ll kill that damn watch guard next time he comes near my daughter”. That’s two more NPCs, and a third if you let someone know this secret! Are these new characters, or people the NPCs have already run into (or a mix)?
What about the other details?
What about name, sex, age, and race you ask. As I mentioned above, I don’t care about those things, at least not right now. I want only enough information to know how the character acts.
Background? I especially don’t like building a background. By not pre-defining the background, I’m letting my NPCs exist in the fiction that my players and I create, rather than creating his fiction and bending the players’ story around it.
I created a tavern owner, stranded adventurer, and villain using this method as examples.
- Example One: Tavern Owner
Agenda: Retire one day and leave the tavern to his/her son/daughter.
Instinct: To give great service.
Moves: <Diffuse tense situations> <Be courteous in all interactions> <Create an amazing meal>
Secrets: He/she has a coffer with more than enough coin to retire with, but fears the son/daughter is not right for this business.This is a service oriented owner who gets lots of repeat business because of how he runs his operation. But look at the secrets. How many people know either part of this secret? How much coin is in the coffer? Where is it hidden? Why does he/she feel that way about the offspring? Answering these questions can create several hooks, but I don’t paint myself into a corner by pre-determining these answers.
- Example Two: Stranded Adventurer
Agenda: To get out of this damn [area].
Instinct: To use others.
Moves: <Resist PC help at first> <Always act and speak very confidently> <Tell the party whatever they want to hear to get what I need>
Secrets: Killed his party (but says it was a specific kind of beast) and fled, but then became lost. He has an item taken from one of his fallen comrades.Why did he kill his party? Was it for the item he took from his fallen friends, or was that just an opportune find? Did he intentionally kill his party, or was it an accident? What is the item? The instinct and moves depict him as a con-man. Fiddle around with these (but keep Agenda and Secrets the same) to create an entirely different stranded adventurer.
- Example Three: Villain
Agenda: Reignite the Blood-iron Forge to begin Iron Golem production.
Instinct: Protect self.
Moves: <Taunt enemies, then leave and let underlings do the fighting> <Reveal false information about plan> <Promote underlings when they show great service>
Secrets: If this plan doesn’t work he always has the Ring of Targus to keep him safe. He already possess a map to the forge, but is stalling to ensure he’ll be properly rewarded when all is said and done. He makes a big show of “promoting” underlings, but has them killed soon after because he doesn’t want anyone gaining enough power to rise up against him.Where is the Forge? What is the Ring of Targus, and how will it keep him safe? And from whom? Who is he stalling? Are there examples of underlings that have been promoted? Did one of them escape death and is now working against him? Determine this with your players.
Remember, too, that the players don’t know these AIMS. Let the NPCs actions speak louder than your words.
Using the AIMS form
Playing around with this form has helped me by giving me SOME structure, but allows me to focus on how a character acts rather than what that character has done in the past. It offers me just enough detail that I know how to portray an NPC and some of the things they’ll do around the player characters, but gives me room to fit them into the story in a very organic way.
There are two other advantages of this form: Modularity and Ease of Use.
Because I’ve not written a background for any of these NPCs, they can be dropped in anywhere, at any time, to give you exactly what you need. They can also be changed very easily by adjusting one or two of the fields. You wanted your villain to be very hands off when it came to the PC’s, but based on some other things going on you’ve decided that you’d rather have him fight the characters directly. Adjust his moves and you’re done. However you change them, you still know how to play him, because it’s his moves that informs his actions.
Ease of Use:
AIMS allows you to very quickly build a new NPC from scratch because you only have four fields to worry about. Although the order is Agenda, Instinct, Moves and Secrets to make it an easily remembered acronym, you don’t need to start out with an NPCs Agenda in mind. If you know how you want an NPC to act, start with its Moves. If you want a specific secret to be known by a character the players have already met, start with the Secrets field and build the rest around it.
AIMS works very well for me but I know everyone has their own method for building NPCs. I’d love some feedback about how mine might be tweaked!
Do you have a form or template that you use to hit the important notes for your NPCs? What do you consider the most important information for an NPC quick template? Does the information needed vary by the game you are playing?