“What’s My Motivation?” is 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. Last time we looked at how the official alignment system can assist with roleplaying.
This week’s installment will look at how building relationships between characters and NPC’s leads to stronger characterization on both sides of the screen, greater depth to your campaign, and thus enriching the overall roleplaying experience.
One of the reasons I enjoy Game of Thrones is because George R. R. Martin is so good at writing human relationships in all of their glory and depravity. The characters, while fictitious, seem compellingly real because they respond to each other as real people would.
I have come to realize that most player characters are created somewhat detached from deep relationships. Orphans and widowers are just two examples of stock backstories that many players and DM’s rely upon when creating characters. My hypothesis is these particular backstories easily explain why a character is willing to possibly traipse around the world (or even the planes), delve dungeons dark and deep, and otherwise put their life at grave risk adventuring. Personally as a father of three I would find it hard to leave my family in the face of a national or global crisis – so I might be uncomfortable with my character having similar ties to the characters of the campaign world. But I have experienced a few characters leaving the exciting life of adventuring due to in-campaign relationships: the first that comes to mind was a half-orc barbarian who left the group to protect a love interest. While it “split the party” it was a genuine and authentic choice for that character. It then lead to the PC evolving to an NPC who could still interact with his former comrades.
I suggest that even if you play an orphan or widower that your character needs to have strong relationships. I once ran a virtually orphaned half-elf cantor (bard) of the goddess of death who was completely disconnected from her biological family because neither parent would accept her. But she was so connected with the dead that she sang threnodies and laments in her sleep. In hindsight it would have made for even better development to have her consciously speak and relate with a variety of particular spirits. She also was a surrogate aunt for her neighbor and her brood of children. This allowed the DM to heighten the tension throughout the campaign as a threat to the city was a threat to those souls she cared for deeply (both the living and the dead.
Every character is connected in some way to every other character and the stronger the relationship the stronger the emotional response. Sure peasants across the world from each other have very little in common experience and even less in terms of personal interaction but global threats are global threats. In terms of the microcosmic, that is the world surrounding your campaign, it is important to have strong relationships between characters.
Family is the first source of relationship. What is the character’s place in the birth order? Are the other family members living or dead, proud or disapproving, heroic or villainous? What about extended family? Is it large or small, influential or vulnerable?
- mother/ father
- step (step-sister, step father, etc.)
- half (half-brother, half-cousin, etc.)
Friends and neighbors are also good places to start. At the creation of every PC I offer that the player and DM create at least two NPC’s in particular, one positive the other negative. This allows the DM to use the NPC’s as appropriate for any given situation, already knowing that there should be a strong emotional response from the PC. When a party is being formed for the first time it might even make for stronger ties to the group if some of these relationships are shared or even found between the party members. Playing siblings, neighborhood friends (or enemies) can lead to some great character dynamics and hopefully better roleplaying.
Friend/neighbor/other relationship roles
- next door neighbor
Other relationship roles: , etc.
But as in real life relationships change. Perhaps a curse, spell, or a natural 1 on a diplomacy roll leads to broken ties with an NPC. Death also severely changes relationships. Perhaps a cleric cuts ties with their deity out of an experience of loss or a loved one becomes distrusting of a resurrected character. As a DM, you have ultimate control of the NPC’s and so you can determine their fate or how they would respond to particular events or stimuli. Perhaps the PC now sees it as her goal to avenge the death or heal the relationship; or perhaps the NPC becomes a nemesis or foil to the PC. This gives you a small amount of emotional control over the PC’s but only use a drastic change in relationship if it serves the story. In other words, do not kill an NPC or make a friend an enemy unless it serves to further the story and entertains the players.
Be cautious of not overusing this story tool or you slip into what I like to call the “Daredevil Effect.” As a comic book fan I must admit that I am a fan of the Daredevil character. But in recent years they took every single meaningful relationship away from him and as soon as he hit his third rock bottom they collapsed the ceiling. After a while it just was not entertaining anymore.
Lastly, new relationships spring up all the time. As the PC’s interact with the NPC’s in their world they do not have to become deeply involved with every single one. But take note of particularly striking interactions like natural 1’s and 20’s in performances, haggling, bragging and other skills; or when a PC giving a street urchin a gold piece. These may lead to a future patron, spouse, cohort, or nemesis.
If there are any other roles you think would be the list, please add them to the comments below.