“What’s My Motivation?” is intended to be a regular column that uses a variety of methods found in the disciplines of acting, writing, and improvisation to help Dungeon Masters create compelling NPC’s and further flesh out their campaigns.
This week’s installment will look at how the standard alignment system, which many times is derided as a hindrance to roleplaying can actually be a boon, especially for the DM without much time on her hands.
Law or Chaos, Good or Evil? And what in the Nine Hells does Neutral actually mean? In terms of characterization I like to replace these particular terms with synonyms or at the very least related terms so that I can better imagine how a particular character will act on the fly.
For example, Lawful Good might be better understood as “Honorable Selfless”, which might roleplay differently than “Legalistic Benefactor”. In the first case I imagine an honorable character who is willing to sacrifice his own life even though he comes from a place of poverty. The second character I imagine is a noblewoman who follows the letter of the law and is quite generous with her wealth. Both of these characters are expressions of the Lawful Good alignment but lead to two completely different characters. Chaotic Evil might be better understood as “Bloodthirsty Selfish” or “Schizophrenic Sadist”. Those sound like some seriously unnerving NPC’s (and even creepier PC’s). Whether I’m using a pre-generated NPC or if I’m rolling up an NPC from a table I have a lot of other information at my disposal to fill in any cracks.
I find that this technique helps me with the extreme alignments in particular (lawful/chaotic or good/evil) but how does one play “neutral”? I find “personality neutrality” a lot harder to define so I need to ask myself, why? “Why is the character neutral?” leads me towards a sense of the character’s background. But what typically leads me to a much more interesting character history is the question, “when is the character not neutral?” This usually leads to all sorts of interesting character quirks.
For example, in my current Pathfinder campaign I play a Lawful Neutral dwarf bladebound magus. In place of the Lawful I have imagined him as Honorable and Traditional. This has lead him to argue with the party when they tried to sneak up on a party of sleeping kobolds or rebuked a fellow companion who uses circuitous logic to justify a shady course of action. But the neutrality is harder for me to pin down. So I tried to imagine him as Balanced. This seemed to be to be just as hard to wrap my mind around. I began to ask myself what would lead him toward good or what would lead him toward evil. I came up with the following: when he encounters innocence he leans toward good and wishes to protect it and nurture it. When he encounters lying and dishonor, especially towards himself, he becomes extremely irate to the point of spitefulness. This then lead me to envision him as being a victim of some grave lie. Sharing some of this information with the other members of my gaming group lead to another player creating the half-brother of my dwarf magus who joined the party to atone for the grievous dishonor and we have some real fertile ground for roleplaying. And honestly, some of the best roleplaying I’ve been a part of for quite some time.
And that’s my motivation.