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The Conflict Rule of NPC Design

Conflict makes characters interesting, and creates roleplaying opportunities.

This principle can be tweaked slightly and applied to NPC design, where it becomes the Conflict Rule: Every NPC who isn’t just there for color needs a conflict.

Note that in both variations of this rule, the NPC’s conflict can be internal, external or both. Examples of internal conflicts include temptation, clashes of values, justified or unjustified hatred, past wrongs and the like. External conflicts generally involve enemies — rivals, the oppressive government, feuding families, open warfare, etc.

Minor NPCs

Here’s the Conflict Rule for minor NPCs:

If an NPC is going to be involved in more than one scene, that NPC’s background needs to include a conflict that could involve the PCs.

For example: In a mystery-themed modern campaign, the party sometimes turns to a corrupt cop to acquire inside information on the targets of their investigations. This cop has recently been fingered by Internal Affairs, and is now reluctant to help the PCs.

The next time they go to her for information, she — and by extension, you, the GM — will be faced with several choices: help the party and risk her job, refuse to help, demand more money or perhaps even ask them to get IA off her back somehow.

This conflict involves the PCs, but not in a major way — the cop has no beef with them, nor any real personal connection to the party. At the same time, it opens up roleplaying opportunities for you and for your players, and resolving this conflict could be the kernel of an adventure.

Major NPCs

For more significant NPCs, the Conflict Rule changes somewhat:

If an NPC will be an integral part of the campaign, that NPC’s background should include a conflict that explictly involves one or more PCs.

For example: Twisting the first example slightly, now the corrupt cop is related to one of the PCs (everything else stays the same). Let’s also assume that what the PCs have been doing with her information isn’t entirely legal, and that it falls under the purview of another branch of the police department. IA has told the cop that if she can hand the troubled branch a big arrest (in this case, the PCs), they’ll back off and drop their investigation.

Now her conflict has been heightened: she wants to help her family, but also doesn’t want to lose her job — and she has an incentive to not only say no to the party the next time they need help, but to actually turn them in to the police.

This is a juicy roleplaying situation for everyone involved, but most particularly for you (as you get to roleplay the cop’s internal conflict, and decide on the fly how she would handle the situation) and the player who she’s related to (who is suddenly faced with one and possibly two very unpleasant surprises).

However that conflict gets resolved, the game will be different afterwards. There’s no sure course for either the party or the NPC, and that makes for a fun situation to play out during the game.

Improvising with the Conflict Rule

The Conflict Rule also makes a useful shortcut when creating NPCs on the fly. If you’re forced to create an NPC at the spur of the moment, start with his conflict. (You’ll need an idea of his appearance and at least one personality trait, too.) You might be surprised how many things flow from that initial decision — just ask yourself “What is this NPC’s conflict?” and then run with the first thing you think of.

Once you know the NPC’s conflict, you’ll start getting ideas for how to roleplay his interactions with the PCs, what his mannerisms are and so forth. And if you come up with a really juicy conflict for a minor NPC, you might find that it transforms him into a major NPC, taking the game in a new direction.

What do you think of the Conlflict Rule? Do you apply a similar principle when designing NPCs?

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#1 Comment By robustyoungsoul On July 9, 2007 @ 9:44 am

I definitely apply this principle, and this is a good summary.

In D&D this was something I just sort of did by instinct. In BE it’s sort of built into the system via the Belief mechanics, and I make sure that at least one or two (if not all) Beliefs in some way directly oppose the Beliefs of the PCs. This means that anything I do to drive towards them by definition rubs the PCs the wrong way, and bam: instant conflict.

I love this post, a great rule that will work for any system.

#2 Comment By BluJai On July 9, 2007 @ 12:04 pm

Wonderful post!

Conflict is at the heart of any good story, since conflict drives the story. I can’t say that I always follow this rule, but will definitely do so in the future!

Anyone know a good list of motivational/story conflict types to jumpstart creativity, e.g. “owes money to,” “once hurt,” “secretly despises,” “has long-standing crush on”? It would be great fodder for an Inspiration Pad Pro (free) generator list.

#3 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On July 9, 2007 @ 1:10 pm

I’m not sure I buy this as “realistic”. In real life, not everyone has some great driving conflict (not even great and driving to them only). Most are just happy to maintain the status quo with a minimum of effort on their part.

I’m especially warry of the second part. “If an NPC will be an integral part of the campaign, that NPC’s background should include a conflict that explictly involves one or more PCs.” That means (to me) that every mover and shaker in your campaign with which the PCs will regularly interact should in some way have a prior relationship with them. This strikes me as coloring your campaign in an overly incestuous soap-opera feel.

Further, it strikes me as a bit heavy on uneccesary prep. Every conflict has to have at LEAST two sides and each side has to have an opposing motivation or desire. Keeping the whos and whats fresh so that not everyone has the same thing going on.

Can you expand a bit on what minor and major NPCs mean to you, what is acceptable conflict, etc… I’m probably just not following you well.

#4 Comment By Telas On July 9, 2007 @ 2:24 pm

I’m with Rick on this one, but I’m only going to comment once. 😉 It seems to err on the side of “needless overdesign”.

Especially in the wrong genre or campaign. (I’m thinking specifically of the “Schwarzennegar as Hamlet” scene from Last Action Hero.)

Clarification would help; examples, please?

#5 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On July 10, 2007 @ 7:10 am

Going back and re-reading I think I got your tense wrong in “If an NPC will be an integral part of the campaign, that NPC’s background should include a conflict that explictly involves one or more PCs.”

I read: “If an NPC … that NPC’s background should include a conflict that explicitly INVOLVED one or more PCs.”

Whereas I’m thinking now you mean: “…should include a conflict that explicitly WILL INVOLVE one or more PCs.”

You’re not saying “make sure the PCs have history with everyone important to the campaign” which is what boggled my mind, but rather “make sure the NPCs have a conflict that will draw in the PCs.” Right?

#6 Comment By Martin On July 10, 2007 @ 7:31 am

Pretty much, yep. You could go the “everyone has prior history” route, but that would get soap opera-y quick, like you said. So present or past tense, whatever best suits the needs of your game.

#7 Comment By Darrin On July 10, 2007 @ 7:34 am

I disagree with Rick. Everyone in life does have a driving conflict, even if it is to maintain their comfort zone. Unless you have everything you want, you have desire. That desire will instigate conflict as you work to obtain the object of your desire. I guess I do not see this as every NPC should have conflict. I see it as every NPC should have desire and that desire should somehow cross the PC’s path.

I never thought this concept implied that every PC’s background is intertwined with everyone important to the campaign. It would make the NPCs more interesting if they have some kind of connection to at least one of the PCs. Otherwise, why should the PCs get involved?

#8 Comment By Martin On July 11, 2007 @ 7:42 am

(Telas) My most basic complaint is that it’s like when a minor movie character is so complete that they actually take away from the main story.

True enough — you can definitely overdo this, just like any aspect of NPC design. Making sure your NPCs don’t overshadow the PCs is always a concern, and in the case of minor NPCs and their conflicts, it’s important to also make sure that they don’t derail the adventure.

“Bob’s deep in debt? Oh, no! We must stop saving the world and help him!” would be something to avoid. 😉 Good point.

But why focus on conflicts? There are many important facets to a person.

(Suspicion: I smell a cool mechanic from a cool game being applied to all gaming.)

Conflicts are a great starting point, though — so many other aspects of an NPC’s personality and demeanor, as well as their actions, can stem from and be suggested by a single juicy conflict. You’re absolutely right that they don’t need just one dimension (the other stuff’s important, too) — but if you only have time for one, or need a place to start, a conflict is a good option.

As for your game mechanic hunch, if I’ve seen this before I don’t remember it. It’s a facet of the relationship map concept, and is definitely supported to some degree in the Burning Wheel rules, but I can’t think of a game that codifies the Conflict Rule as a mechanic.

Gerald: That’s an awesome post — thank you for linking it in.