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An AI Chat about NPC Motivations

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue.

I recently needed not just one but half a dozen or more NPC motivations. One is easy enough but faced with several, at that point I start thinking about random generation to save some brain power and to ensure that I’m not stuck in the same old mental ruts of habit or biasSee for example ‘Beyond our Ken: Describing Research Bases in Traveller’ in Freelance Traveller, no.118, produced for exactly the same reason. .

As it happens, Traveller has just such a thing in Traveller: The New Era with its ‘NPC Motivations’ in the core rulebook (pp.60-61). Here you can find a system that uses a deck of cards to produce motivations in four ‘suits’: Clubs: Violence, Diamonds: Greed, Hearts: Sociability and Spades: Ambition.  The idea is that you draw twice and have a major motivation and a minor motivation. Lower numbers represent less important drives.

I recall thinking it was an excellent idea when I first read it but being unhappy with its execution for various reasons.

Things I disliked:

None of them deal breakers perhaps for something that is just supposed to be a quick and dirty way of adding a bit of life to NPCs, but I wanted something more, at least for characters that might be around for a little longer than ‘generic publican’ or ‘bored shop owner’. On one occasion a long time ago, I tried to come up with something based on more traditional Traveller D6 rolls. I wasn’t happy enough with that to keep it (or maybe I have but have no idea where – see below).

Revisiting motivations

I thought I would have another go at my own version and, trying to keep it compatible with the TNE table but expanding it, produced a 2D6 table with six columns of Ambition, Sociability, Physicality, Acquisition, Justice and Honour. I tried to reduce the ‘negative’ connotations and come up with motivations that were neutral such that low numbers would be the negative aspect and high numbers would be the positive aspect. This confused two things: strength of drive and direction of drive so it would need some work on it (or perhaps simply two rolls). Onto this table I then mapped the face card values from the TNE system just for interest to see where they lay. ‘Wise’ was rather hard to place, but then as I said above, some are more an attribute than a motivation. A couple of others were similar. Is ‘violence’ actually a motivation?

I was relatively happy with this and going to replace the TNE version in my ‘referee’s handbook’ of quick reference tools such as this (a document wallet collecting print outs of various rules and tables from Traveller books and other sources). It just so happened however, that I spent a work day in a webinar on AI. At one point we were given a short break and asked to use a large language model to produce a bit of text for later discussion. With motivations fresh in my head I thought I might as well see what ChatGPT 3.5 came up with.

Now, when it comes to creative writing for Traveller I avoid generative AI like this for the pragmatic reason that it tends to be a bit bland and limited and the ethical reason that, like the complaints in the art world, it may well have been trained on material acquired without permission. Not to mention that as a librarian in an academic environment, I’m aware that commercial companies aren’t going to share what data they’ve used for training and how the algorithms work – with the possibility that they introduce (or exacerbate) bias. Plus, for me, half the fun of creative writing is the creative part of it. I’ve not yet struggled with writer’s block – I recently measured my ‘in progress’ folder of possible Traveller ideas and articles at over 12GB. If I’m ever wondering what to write, I’ll just browse through that and pick something up I’ve long since let fall by the wayside.  [Writing this, I’m now wondering what on earth, or not on earth, is in that folder? I really ought to have a look if not a weed.]

A 1980s list

Anyway, my first prompt looked like this:

TC: Hi there, please can you imagine you’re a role-playing game designer in the 1980s trying to come up with some categories of motivations for non-player characters? Say half a dozen to be chosen by a single die?

I was curious to see what it might come up with had this been part of the original (or early) classic Traveller rules. You’ll also note that I don’t seem to be able to resist being polite just in case AI takes over and I want our overlords to remember me fondly…! Clearly, I also take the ‘chat’ in ChatGPT literally. The results can be seen in Table 1. One of the keywords in the prompt is ‘categories’. I didn’t just want a handful for specific characters; I wanted something of broader use.

Editor’s Note: The text of the ChatGPT response has been left as provided; only the formatting has been changed.

Table 1

ChatGPT: Greetings, fellow game designer from the glorious 1980s! Creating motivations for non-player characters (NPCs) is a fantastic endeavour. Let’s roll the dice and come up with six intriguing categories of motivations:

  1. Greed
    Description: The NPC is motivated by a relentless pursuit of wealth and material possessions.
    Behaviour: They might engage in trade, theft, or mercenary work to accumulate riches.
  2. Vengeance
    Description: The NPC seeks retribution for a perceived injustice or a personal vendetta.
    Behaviour: They may plot revenge, carry out covert operations, or seek allies for their cause.
  3. Altruism
    Description: Driven by a sense of duty and compassion, the NPC is committed to helping others.
    Behaviour: They may provide aid, join a noble cause, or dedicate themselves to charity work.
  4. Ambition
    Description: The NPC is hungry for power, influence, or recognition in the world.
    Behaviour: They might climb the social or political ladder, form alliances, or pursue leadership roles.
  5. Curiosity
    Description: The NPC is driven by an insatiable desire for knowledge and discovery.
    Behaviour: They may embark on quests for ancient artifacts, study arcane arts, or explore uncharted territories.
  6. Fear
    Description: The NPC is motivated by a deep-seated fear, whether it be of a specific threat or the unknown.
    Behaviour: They might seek protection, avoid certain places or situations, or even collaborate with darker forces to feel secure.

Feel free to roll the dice and let fate determine the motivation of your next NPC! May your campaigns be epic and your adventures legendary!

I quite liked the AI’s role-playing introduction which was nicely in keeping and I was impressed that it bothered to number the results and stuck to the ‘half dozen’ exactly – but perhaps that is just its literal mindedness. (When I use words such as ‘mindedness’ or ‘role-playing’, I’m aware that ChatGPT is doing no such thing, but is simply very good at predicting next words or phrases having digested large chunks of the internet). I liked the way it divided each entry into ‘description’ and ‘behaviour’ – which I hadn’t asked for but didn’t mind and thought was helpful. I particularly like #5 in a Traveller context. I thought the results were pretty good as a match for the kind of thing you might have seen in White Dwarf or Dragon, or perhaps even JTAS at the time.

Moving on to the 1990s

So, now I asked it a question which I was then curious about:

TC: That looks really good and just as it might have been done back then, thank you. Now can you imagine you are a role-playing game designer from the 1990s when RPGs took a turn for the darker and do the same exercise, please?

On reflection, the last part of that was perhaps a leading question and I wonder if I had not put that whether it would have produced the same results. In any case, the results can be seen in Table 2. At this point I was very taken with its immersion in the role and with the results it offered. I can’t say I was role-playing in the 90s much – having children will do that for you – but this really seemed to capture what I’ve read of games from that era. It was also interesting how little overlap there was with its first set. I had thought that perhaps it would just run ‘darker’ variations on the same themes. Only vengeance directly maps although you might argue that greed and obsession are closely related.

Table 2

ChatGPT: Greetings, dark and brooding game designer from the 1990s! Let’s delve into the shadows and create six categories of motivations fit for a grittier era:

  1. Survival
    Description: The NPC is motivated solely by the primal instinct to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world.
    Behaviour: They may resort to ruthless tactics, betrayal, or align themselves with dangerous factions to ensure their own existence.
  2. Revenge
    Description: The NPC seeks revenge, not just for personal reasons but as a means to inflict suffering on others.
    Behaviour: They might engage in acts of brutality, manipulation, or form alliances with sinister organizations to achieve their vendetta.
  3. Desperation
    Description: Driven to the brink, the NPC is motivated by desperation, be it financial, emotional, or existential.
    Behaviour: They may turn to illicit activities, dark rituals, or make morally compromising choices to alleviate their dire circumstances.
  4. Corruption
    Description: The NPC is seduced by the allure of power, willing to embrace forbidden knowledge or dark forces.
    Behaviour: They might engage in occult practices, pursue forbidden arts, or seek out artifacts that grant them unnatural abilities.
  5. Nihilism
    Description: The NPC believes in the inherent meaninglessness of existence and is motivated by a sense of nihilistic apathy.
    Behaviour: They may engage in destructive acts, revel in chaos, or actively contribute to the decay of societal norms.
  6. Obsession
    Description: The NPC is consumed by an all-encompassing obsession, whether it be a forbidden love, a cursed artifact, or a twisted ideology.
    Behaviour: They might go to extremes, disregarding morality and reason to pursue their fixation, potentially dragging others down with them.

Roll the dice, and let the shadows guide the motivations of your NPCs in this darker era of role-playing games. May your campaigns be haunting and your narratives filled with gripping suspense!

“Contemporary” RPG Motivations

Now I asked it the question I really wanted the answer to (bear in mind that all this took just a few seconds – only as long as it took me to type the text of the three prompts). The answer can be seen in Table 3. The only change I have made to the article from the response ChatGPT gave is the addition of the left most column. I’ve subsequently added the text in italics to make the table’s use a little clearer.

TC: Excellent, that captures the era nicely. Now, how about something that’s up-to-date for the 2020s please.  Ideally a ‘comprehensive’ set of motivations like that, either six or twelve if you prefer.

Table 3

D3/D6 2D6 Motivation

Description: The NPC is motivated by personal goals, career ambitions, or the pursuit of self-improvement.
Behaviour: They may engage in education, career advancements, or networking to achieve their aspirations.

2 The character has no ambition whatsoever and is content in their life.

3-5 Somewhat aspirational

6-8 Moderately aspirational

9-11 Very aspirational

12 The character aspires to the very greatest heights of their field or interest.

Description: The NPC values relationships and seeks connection, whether through friendships, family, or romantic entanglements.
Behaviour: They might prioritize social activities, form alliances, or engage in community-building efforts.

2 The character has no desire to connect with others and is a recluse.

3-5 Somewhat values connection

6-8 Moderately values connection

9-11 Very desirous of connection

12 The character is desperate for connection either as a ‘party person’ or focussed on one individual

Description: The NPC is driven by a sense of fairness and a desire to make the world a better place.
Behaviour: They may involve themselves in activism, pursue legal careers, or join causes aligned with their sense of justice.

2 The character has no sense of justice and doesn’t care about unfairness in the world around.

3-5 Somewhat driven by justice

6-8 Moderately driven by justice

9-11 Very driven by justice

12 Single-minded in pursuit of justice, supporting the underdog and improving the world. May find low Law Level worlds difficult.

Description: The NPC values freedom and independence, seeking to live life on their own terms.
Behaviour: They may resist authority, pursue unconventional lifestyles, or engage in activities promoting personal autonomy.

2 The character looks to other for leadership (partner, boss, captain).

3-5 Somewhat driven by autonomy

6-8 Moderately driven by autonomy

9-11 Very driven by autonomy

12 The character desires freedom above all else and might be a lone-wolf escaping society or a leader making the decisions

Description: The NPC is inspired by creativity, technology, and the drive to push boundaries.
Behaviour: They may involve themselves in cutting-edge industries, pursue scientific breakthroughs, or immerse themselves in the arts.

2 The character has no interest in anything new or creative. A luddite, or unimaginative.

3-5 Somewhat inspired by innovation

6-8 Moderately inspired by innovation

9-11 Very inspired by innovation

12 The character is a true original, inspired inventor or cutting-edge technologist.

Description: The NPC is motivated by environmental concerns and the pursuit of a sustainable future.
Behaviour: They may engage in eco-friendly practices, support green initiatives, or actively work towards preserving the planet.

2 The character doesn’t care a jot for any environment they might find themselves in.

3-5 Somewhat motivated by environmental concerns

6-8 Moderately motivated by environmental concerns

9-11 Very motivated by environmental concerns

12 The character cares about the environment and sustainability above all else. Locally, planetwide, shipboard.

Description: The NPC seeks escapism, whether through virtual realities, travel, or other means.
Behaviour: They may explore different cultures, indulge in immersive experiences, or adopt a nomadic lifestyle.

2 The character lives in the ‘here and now’ and is rooted to one world or habitat.

3-5 Somewhat motivated by escapism

6-8 Moderately motivated by escapism

9-11 Very motivated by escapism

12 The character has their head in Jumpspace and barely has any interest in the real world.

Description: The NPC is concerned with leaving a lasting impact or building a meaningful legacy.
Behaviour: They might engage in philanthropy, pursue influential positions, or establish institutions for future generations.

2 The character is unconcerned with the future or any kind of legacy.

3-5 Somewhat concerned about leaving a legacy

6-8 Moderately concerned about leaving a legacy

9-11 Very concerned about leaving a legacy

12 The character is single-minded about leaving a last legacy for the generations to come.

Description: The NPC desires acceptance and validation, either from specific individuals or society at large.
Behaviour: They may conform to societal norms, seek approval through achievements, or actively work on self-improvement.

2 The character does not care at all about others’ opinions.

3-5 Somewhat concerned about acceptance and admiration

6-8 Moderately concerned about acceptance and admiration

9-11 Very concerned about acceptance and admiration

12 The character craves acceptance or admiration above all else.

Description: The NPC prioritizes safety, stability, and the assurance of a secure future.
Behaviour: They might pursue traditional careers, save diligently, or align themselves with organizations providing a sense of security.

2 The character is careless about self-preservation and future security. On board starships etc, this could be risky.

3-5 Somewhat prioritizes security

6-8 Moderately prioritizes security

9-11 Very prioritizes security

12 The character is almost paranoid about safety and security.

Description: The NPC is driven by an insatiable curiosity for knowledge, exploration, and discovery.
Behaviour: They may engage in continuous learning, scientific pursuits, or embark on quests for new experiences.

2 The character has no interest in anything, or in nothing but themselves.

3-5 Somewhat driven by curiosity

6-8 Moderately driven by curiosity

9-11 Very driven by curiosity

12 The character is curious to a fault and pokes their nose into anything and everything.

Description: The NPC thrives on unpredictability, revelling in chaos, and seeks to disrupt established systems.
Behaviour: They may engage in activism, challenge societal norms, or actively participate in subversive activities.

2 The character is extremely ordered and predictable.

3-5 Somewhat ordered and organized

6-8 Moderately chaotic

9-11 Very chaotic

12 The character revels in chaos, anarchy and disruption. They probably love low Law Level worlds.

Whether it’s navigating the complexities of modern life or exploring the depths of the human experience, these motivations should add depth and nuance to your NPCs in the contemporary RPG landscape. May your campaigns be as dynamic and diverse as the world we live in!    Whether it’s navigating the complexities of modern life or exploring the depths of the human experience, these motivations should add depth and nuance to your NPCs in the contemporary RPG landscape. May your campaigns be as dynamic and diverse as the world we live in!

At this point I really was quite blown away by the response; even though technically it wasn’t a question. Firstly it ‘chose’ to offer twelve rather than six options. I have no idea why it did this unless the prompt pointed it in that direction. Secondly it again seemed original in terms of not rehashing the two sets of six it had already given me. I should say that I have no idea how original in it is being in terms of RPG motivations for games which offer them as I have not until recently read widely outside of Traveller. Thirdly, once again I felt that it had captured something of what I see in newer games or in discussions on social media. It felt to me, perhaps a naïve gamer, that these had a modern sensibility to them which I would be happy to use as given. Fourthly, I was rather taken with the way the three results looked almost as if the AI had guessed what was coming and planned ahead. Not only did each answer seem complete, all three together seemed a coherent whole.

It is tempting to tweak and edit the set of three results or to lump them together for a larger number of options but I think it is actually more interesting to see what ChatGPT presents as its idea of game ‘development’. Again, I appreciate that it is doing no such thing, but simply interpreting my prompts according to algorithms and, in this example at least in my opinion, some excellent ‘next word’ prediction. Its introduction and tag to the set of 12 are also part of Table 3.

Any Sources?

Finally, I had a short conversation with it to see if I could get it to reveal its ‘sources’. This can be seen in Table 4. While I’m not entirely convinced it wasn’t giving me a curated cop-out of “there isn’t a direct influence” to avoid any issues around copyright, it did still name some examples and again, with my limited knowledge, this seemed to be a fair representation. I thought it was a reasonable analysis.

Table 4

TC: Thank you.  Having had a go at this myself and found it difficult, I think that’s an impressive series of answers.  Well done.

ChatGPT: Thank you very much! I’m glad you found the series of answers impressive and helpful. Designing motivations for characters can indeed be a challenging yet rewarding aspect of game design. If you have any more questions or if there’s anything else I can help you with, whether it’s related to role-playing games or any other topic, feel free to ask. Happy gaming!

TC: Are you able to identify what major role-playing games you used as inspiration?

ChatGPT: Certainly! The inspiration for the role-playing game (RPG) motivations I provided comes from a broad understanding of the evolution of RPGs over the years, drawing on common themes and tropes present in the genre. While there isn’t a direct influence from specific RPGs, the categorization reflects the general trends and narrative styles that have been prominent in RPGs across different eras.

The 1980s inspiration draws from the classic Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) era, where character motivations often revolved around archetypal themes such as heroism, treasure-seeking, and personal quests.

The 1990s inspiration leans towards the darker and more mature themes that emerged during that time, influenced by RPGs like Vampire: The Masquerade, which embraced a gritty and morally ambiguous setting.

For the 2020s, the motivations are shaped by a more contemporary and diverse approach to storytelling found in a variety of modern RPGs, including games like Fiasco, Apocalypse World, and Blades in the Dark, which emphasize character-driven narratives and nuanced motivations.

It’s important to note that these inspirations are generalized, and the RPG landscape is vast and diverse, with countless games contributing to the evolution of storytelling in the genre.

TC: Good answer, thank you.

ChatGPT: You’re welcome! If you have any more questions or if there’s anything else I can assist you with, whether it’s related to role-playing games or any other topic, feel free to ask. Happy gaming!

Unfortunately, my ‘play’ time in the AI webinar was over and it wasn’t until later I was able to come back and ask the obvious follow-up question about what might such a table of motivations look like in RPGs in twenty years’ time. Unfortunately, the answers were not as impressive. It gave a reasonable response on what developments there might be in computer RPGs but it seemed to have lost the connection with actual categories of NPC motivations rather than how NPCs might work in the future. It wasn’t uninteresting but despite a couple of attempts at rephrasing the question and being more specific about pen-and-paper games, it wasn’t really what I was after. (Though that may be my narrow focus and missing the value of the results it did give.) I don’t know if this was because my prompting was bad, its ability to ‘predict’ is poor or whether it had lost the ‘thread’ because I was now in a different session of ChatGPT and it had no memory of all the above. It may be a combination of all of those. Perhaps it is worth rerunning the experiment in one go but personally I’d rather be scribbling down new ideas, writing my own words and creating my own things so I’ll leave that for others who are interested.

In any case, I thought this was interesting enough to share and perhaps by including the prompts, any ‘letters to the editor’ Jeff receives might point out where I could have done better for next time. In the meantime, I hope some of this helps with producing more rounded NPCs in your games or provides some inspiration for your writing. I might tuck all three of the motivation tables in my handbook. The ‘dark’ ones might particularly suit antagonists of the nastier kind. Perhaps it might even help players flesh out PCs and add that extra soupçon of flavour to their gaming and motivate them to be that much more interesting.


Having written all the above and submitted it to Jeff, our kindly editor then reminded me of his own article ‘It’s In the Cards: Character Motivations for Traveller’ which I’m ashamed to say I must have read but had completely forgotten about. Doubly shaming because it was not only published just two years ago but also a decade previously. (July/August 2022 and March 2011 respectively). (This is one reason I do my bibliography work, to try and keep track of the wealth of Traveller material there is so much of it. But of course, I’m way behind on adding Freelance Traveller entries – mainly because the search feature is so good it’s not a priority).

Jeff charitably pointed out how similar the lines we’d been thinking along turned out to be. I had to point out the other possibility, that my subconscious had done a better job of recalling his previous work. Although it should be said that my very first go at an alternative to TNE was a couple of decades back. Anyway, my apologies to Jeff although I think I’ve perhaps added something novel with the AI generation (as well as moving away from the limits of cards). I’d still warmly recommend his article for some useful and interesting ideas and, of course, yet another set of potential motivations. It also prints very nicely to a four page ‘booklet’ to tuck in my files so hopefully I won’t forget it again; perhaps I can use it as a bookmark in my TNE rulebook.

Finally, two things have just arrived in the post.  Wired for Story by Lisa Cron (Ten Speed Press, 2012) recommended by Jim Vassilakos, mastermind behind the Plankwell Campaign in Alarums and Excursions as well as a denizen of TML. Although it is not Traveller, it really excellent on character motivation and worth reading whether you’re creating a player character, NPC or writing your novel. Also, Anders Backman happened to post this on Vector Movement just in time for me to catch it, and which is particularly interesting because it suggests how characters might respond to certain motivations and also offers some default motivations that Traveller races might have. He also suggests motivations, under his scheme for the Firefly characters and some selected real-world people.