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Generating NPC Psychology

This article was originally posted to the pre-magazine Freelance Traveller website in 2002, and reprinted in the September 2015 issue.

The problem of simulating the human psyche in a role playing game is a difficult one to solve adequately. There are undercurrents of thought and emotion that are little seen, but form the entire rationale for a character’s actions. While a player has no trouble ‘acting’ out the persona formed by his own imagination, the referee has to generate dozens, or more, and role-play each one in a convincing fashion without merely following some hackneyed stereotype. The referee needs some aid in making this as painless as possible.

What follows is a small attempt to provide such an aid without resorting to simply choosing broad characterizations from a chart. Saying that a non-player character is brave, romantic or some other basic description offers no clue as to how or why a character feels that way. An NPC’s personality should be more complex than that.

By describing an NPC’s personality with a short series of common features, it should be easy to flesh out how he feels and may act. This short series of personality features can be found in the one of the oldest scales weighing the frailties of the human condition: the seven deadly sins.

The seven deadly sins form a map of man’s constant internal struggle between good and evil. Whichever side is winning this struggle within a man, often determines that man’s view of the world and his opinions in it. It is his views and opinions that guide his actions and choose his allies in life. Lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, vanity, anger, and jealousy all belong to a list of weaknesses of a man’s heart and can be used to describe the weaknesses that an NPC can fall prey to. Conversely, this list can also be used to chart his strengths as well. In each area, he can be on one side or the other, or mostly likely, somewhere in between constantly struggling with moral dilemmas.

This characteristic governs a person’s views on the carnal pleasures. At one extreme, one might be a sex maniac, driven by insatiable lusts and sexual desires, while at the other extreme; a person might feel that all sexual contact is disgusting and to be avoided at all costs. While sordid details have no place in the game (unless such inclusion is mutually agreed to be appropriate), the effect of sex on a person’s emotions are strong and should be considered in any worthwhile description of an NPC’s personality.
This is a measure of an NPC’s drive for material wealth. This characteristic ranges from insane desire for more of any material possessions, to being a generous ascetic who spurns the material world for spiritual enlightenment. This characteristic determines the risks and actions an NPC might take for the sake of wealth.
Here, one can see a man’s ability to be frugal. A glutton would waste what he desires by taking more than he could possibly need. On the other hand, he might be frugal to the point of being a miser. There is a difference from being under the spell of greed. A greedy man wants for the sake of having; a glutton wants things for use. An ungreedy man eschews the material; a miser attempts to hold on to what he has.
This is how responsible one is. A man guilty of sloth would rather play than work, tossing of his responsibilities aside in order to pursue his own frivolous dreams. Someone who plays RPGs while his rent goes unpaid is slothful. Likewise, A man who works to the exclusion of any recreation is at the opposite extreme.
Someone who is vain cares overly much how others see him. He cannot allow himself to be seen as less than the best. He will hide his own shortcomings and magnify his own strengths, even at the expense of others, in order to look the best. At the opposite end of the scale is one who doesn’t care what others think of him. He may be blunt, crass, or rude. He doesn’t live his life for other people’s benefit, so he doesn’t worry about their opinions of him.
This is a measure of how prone to violence and confrontation a person is. This ranges from a readiness to commit violent acts at the drop of a hat to complete pacifism even in the face of attack. As this is often seen as a quick temper, wrath seemed the right place for this.
Jealousy is a measure of contentment. When one is jealous, he covets others’ things. He always feels that other people have better or more than himself and tries to remedy that. This is similar to gluttony, but a glutton wants more things; a jealous man wants better things. On the opposite side, the person is fully content with his lot in life, regardless of what that is. He accepts happily his position and is happy for others’ good fortune to be able to have better.

All of these characteristics have their place in describing a complete person. By taking a few moments to consider how each ‘sin’ plays off the others, a fairly complete psychological profile can be formed. A person’s persona is a conglomeration of each of these characteristics. The manner in which these characteristics mix determines how an NPC feels and acts. Anger, lust, and jealousy may combine to form the profile for a brutal sadistic rapist, while vanity drives him mad with shame, compelling him to hide his desires. It is up to the referee to determine whether he merely fantasizes or actually commits heinous crimes of passion.

Generating the Profile

Roll 2d6 in order to generate the values of each ‘sin’ for the NPC. Be sure to record each value, as it will be used in determining interpersonal relationships. These numbers will probably never change in the course of a character’s life, but it is possible if the character comes under extreme psychological pressure. As these ideas are being developed for the sake of describing NPCs and not necessarily player characters, this is usually not a great concern.

Once the values are determined, the referee can use them as a guide to provide an in-depth profile. This should be an aid to fleshing out important NPCs. While this is in itself not a great improvement over established methods, the use of the results will be an improvement for interpersonal tasks.

Determining Relationships

The rules for relationships are based on the relationship rules from Marc Miller’s Traveller: Pocket Empires. In that game, the social profile of a world is compared to another world, and the average difference is used as a modifier for a roll on an alliance chart. This chart determines any diplomatic ties between the worlds. If the same principle is applied to individuals instead of governments, using the character psychological profile as generated above, it should be easy to see what level of friendship or animosity there is between characters.

The process of determining friendship is more easily shown than explained, thus an example is in order. Only the psychological profiles will be looked at, as the physical characteristics will have almost no impact. The intellectual statistics should have an impact as people will associate better with people of like intelligence and educational background, and social standing will determine the sorts of people a character would be expected to ‘hobnob’ with.

Psych profiles can be compared for similarities. The more alike they are, the better chance there is of good relations existing. Let’s look at Jon and Dave:

Sin Jon Dave Difference
Lust 3 7 4
Greed 6 8 2
Gluttony 9 3 6
Sloth 7 11 4
Vanity 8 9 1
Wrath 10 4 6
Jealousy 4 9 5

The average of the differences are (4+2+6+4+1+6+5)/7 or 4. This value then becomes a die modifier for the relationship table.

To find the value to use for the relationship table, roll 2d6 and subtract the modifier from it. Other modifiers could be fast talk, diplomacy, persuasion or streetwise as (uncertain, confrontation) tasks. The actual mechanics are left to the referee as there are several differing rule sets in use. To attempt to find out the other person's personality profile values, use interrogation, psychology, recruiting, interview and/or streetwise as (uncertain, confrontation) tasks. Disguise can be used to hide your own personality profile due to acting skills.

Level Reaction Description
2 hatred Will physically attack if provoked
3 hatred Will verbally assault if possible
4 strong dislike Will avoid when possible
5 dislike Will not enjoy being in presence
6 neutral Will not like nor dislike person| will typically ignore
7 like Will enjoy being in presence of person
8 like Will enjoy conversing with person
9 like Will seek out person's company
10 like Will cultivate friendship
11 like Will trust person sufficiently to permit sharing/loan of possessions
12 strong bond Will be willing to support person in arguments due to friendship
13 strong bond Will be willing to physically defend person
14 love Will be willing to share home with person
15 love Will be willing to make gifts of possessions
16+ love Will propose emotional partnership (marriage or cultural equivalent)

Once the relationship is determined, it can only be changed by voluntarily lowering it or attempting to raise it. At most 3 levels of change are allowed at any one attempt. Each difficulty level in an attempt allows a one step change in whichever direction the attempter desires. Any interpersonal skill may be used in an (uncertain, confrontational) task. The time increment is left to the referee’s discretion.