za3k > archive > rich burlew's articles > emotional responses

Damn it, Spock!

by Rich Burlew - originally from

Last time, I talked about how adding detail to your description can enhance the believability of your game world. Now I'll focus on a very specific type of detail: emotional responses.

If you've played a lot of D&D;, you know that most of the time, the solution to a problem is based in logic. Whether it is the best way to fight a monster or the answer to a riddle, the answers will often fit into a fairly understandable pattern. Even the process of creating and advancing a character is a sort of logic problem: How can I make these rules reflect what I want to play? This deeply-rooted foundation of logic is a good thing, but it can lead to one unfortunate tendency: the assumption that the people players meet within the game world operate on a similarly logical level. But in the real world, people often act illogically, driven more by their emotions than any understanding of "how the game works." The goal of this article is to show how you can introduce seemingly pointless emotional responses in your NPC that can nonetheless be predicted and incorporated into the play experience as a form of texture.

Consider the following example: In an old campaign, I had introduced two completely evil villains. Both had plans to conquer the world, and I had let the PCs know that they had known each other a century earlier. When the players discovered that they were working together, they couldn't understand it. "Why help each other?" they asked themselves, "It would make more sense to go it alone."

"Wait," said one player, "I bet that one is planning on helping the other up to a point, and then turning on him." They all agreed that this must be the reason for their alliance, and even formulated a plan to "warn" the lesser of the two evils about the other's presumed treachery. This was a solution that was arrived at by a fairly logical process, but it was completely and utterly incorrect. What the players had failed to consider was that the two villains were simply friends. They had grown up together, and trusted each other implicitly despite having every logical reason to not trust one another at all. The fact was that the villains were letting their emotional attachment to each other override strict logic; they had made an agreement to share control of the world, and both were intending to follow through. Further, by contacting the "lesser" villain, the PCs had accidentally tipped their hand that they knew the two were working together, allowing the villains to set up an ambush for the players in a future session. By relying on logic and logic alone, the players had gravely miscalculated their foes.

So, how does one create realistic emotional responses? First, remember that alignment is a guide, not a strait-jacket. Not even for NPCs. Evil characters can love, good characters can hate. This alone will help you add some emotional interest; think of an NPC in your game and name three things he or she loves enough to die for (or hates enough to kill for). How about three rules they will never break, or three laws they feel aren't that important?

Next, realize that NPCs can't read the rulebooks. They don't know what manner of fighting is more efficient (except maybe in the broadest of strokes). They don't know that fighting monsters will gain them XP, which will make them more powerful. They don't know what CR a monster has. They only know their immediate visceral reaction to something: Combat is deadly. Magic is strange. Monsters are scary. Things that feel good are good, things that feel bad are bad. Ninety-nine percent of the people hope to live their life comfortably enough to pass something on to their children.

As a corollary, do not assume that NPCs with PC classes are necessarily different. In the real world, people with extensive combat training generally hope they never have to put it to use. In fact, it's not that much of a stretch to say that to the average 1st level fighter, the experience and skill that might be gained from battle is not worth the very real possibility of dying. Remember, the PCs and certain NPC adventurers are the exceptions precisely because they seek out this kind of thing.

Consider a character's level of comfort. People are far less likely to do something that goes beyond their comfort zone. This doesn't necessarily mean that every character is going to balk at getting dirty, for example; for a barbarian, dirt is well within his comfort zone. Public speaking, however, may not be. When creating an NPC, you should decide in advance what sorts of things are outside of his comfort zone, and stick to it during play. Don't allow Diplomacy checks or charm spells to push someone outside of their zone; the proper result would be to have the person be very polite and friendly while declining. Intimidate checks or suggestion magic may do the trick, but usually carries a penalty to the check involved, and the character in question will resist as much as he is able.

Also, keep in mind that a character's comfort zone may not make sense to anyone else. A wizard may be uncomfortable summoning creatures from other planes, despite the fact that he is in no more danger from summon monster I than he is from any of his other spells. Be careful, though, because players can perceive this sort of thing as a hamfisted attempt at railroading them, even when it isn't. If the players meet said wizard, they may well shift into metagame thinking and decide that the DM must not want them to summon a monster. Like last lesson's quill example, the players may make an assumption based on the fact that texture exists in a vacuum.

In order to realistically portray such a comfort zone, then, try creating a reason why the character has whatever emotional response you are giving him. The single best way to do this is through childhood experience. Following through on the example, if the wizard's father, also a powerful wizard, once lost control of a demon that trashed half their home, it makes perfect sense that the character is queasy when dealing with fiends. Of course, he has inflated this event into a moratorium on all summoning spells, but in real life we often go the route of "better safe than sorry" when dealing with our fears.

OK, list time. I'm going to try to end each article with a list of point-by-point ideas. I think people can digest and use information more easily in that format. Now I'll discuss specific emotions and how to add them into your game:

  1. Laziness: For players, it takes just as much energy to say, "I sleep for 8 hours," as it does to say, "I climb to the top of the hill." For NPCs, this isn't the case. While truly lazy characters are a possibility, keep in mind that most people are going to be interested in minimizing the amount of energy expended. A villain, particularly a small-time crook, might abandon the most efficient plan as being too labor-intensive. Instead, he cuts corners; perhaps this laziness is the only factor that allows the PCs to learn of his plot. And this isn't alignment-specific; a knight may not be lazy by any stretch, but he may still balk at the resources and time required to enact whatever elaborate plan is on the table. Just because there are no rules on getting tired doesn't mean it doesn't happen.
  2. Overconfidence: This is a big one with the villains, and in many cases is key to the concept of a long-term uberpowerful baddie. Think about it; if the villain is 25th level, and the players screw up his minor plan at 3rd level, why not just squash them, then and there? The reason is often a combination of laziness (above) and overconfidence. The villain believes that the PCs are incapable of stopping him, so why expend the effort? Again, remember that the bad guy can't read the rules, doesn't know that the good guys are necessarily gaining XP and getting stronger with every fight, and doesn't know that the villains always lose in the end.
  3. Family Relations: Consider how your NPC feels about their parents, siblings, spouses, and children. They may feel a bond of love that supercedes their alignment, or they may have utter contempt for them. Any emotional response tends to multiplied by factor of 100 when dealing with family. Perhaps a villain wants to destroy the world, but needs to find a way to save his family first. Maybe a good fighter is being manipulated into doing evil because his children are being threatened. A villain's entire evil plan may be the result of nothing more than a burning need to disappoint his parents!
  4. Spontaneous: Players can always think about their actions; even in the middle of combat, they have the entire time it takes to get back their initiative to decide what the best thing to do is. NPCs don't have that luxury; play them as if they were being run by a player who doesn't get to say, "Wait, no, I do this instead." Their first decision is usually going to be what thy stick with, even if it is foolish or inefficient. This should never be more obvious than when a character is in a rage. No, I'm not talking about the barbarian class ability, I'm referring to a level of anger where we lash out without thinking. If you've ever punched a wall, you know what I'm talking about.
  5. Irrational Likes/Fears: This is much like the comfort zone issue (above), but I'm expanding it here to include personal quirks that can become interesting traits for even minor characters. A shopkeeper who collects swords might pay more for a unique blade than a orc double-axe, even though the axe has the higher book value. A fighter who is afraid of spiders is going to run away from a monstrous one, even if he could kill it in one round. Remember, fear knows no Challenge Rating. Likewise, characters may enjoy a particular activity even if they know it is dangerous or unhealthy; I don't think anyone in this nation is under the impression that smoking isn't bad for you, but that doesn't stop people from doing it.
  6. Stupidity: Sometimes, it's just this simple. People with low Intelligence scores are incapable of coming up with efficient plans, and people with low Wisdom scores are incapable of determining whether a plan is efficient or not. When players are trying to puzzle out a villain's plan, they will often overthink things, discarding the bad guy's actual plot as being too stupid to be the truth.

Hopefully, this has helped you think about giving your NPCs reactions that are independent of their function in the campaign. These people are supposed to be living, breathing characters with an internal life that the players can't know about, and your world will be more vibrant if they act as if they do.

Next time: I'll put some of these tips to use in a step-by-step tutorial on making a three-dimensional villain for your game.