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Motivating Your NPCs

Motivating Your NPCs

TLDR I was looking for a quick and light way to play around with NPC's motivations that I could use for all kinds of different encounters and I think I found it.

“What’s my motivation?” is a line uttered in almost every film about actors as the actor tries to find a reason for the character that they’re playing to do or say whatever it is that character is doing or saying.

The same question is useful for a GM when playing NPCs. For myself, I sometimes find my NPCs can become one-note if I’m not paying attention so I started thinking of some quick tools I could use to inject some variability into my NPCs. This is one of those tools.

I’m very fond of the tables in the first edition DMG that determine hireling loyalty and battle morale. Looking for something a bit more nuanced and useful across a wide range of circumstances, I’ve tried my hand at creating a light system for helping me generate a mental state.

Mind Mapping

In my (in)finite wisdom, I decided to broadly split up an NPC’s possible mindsets into three general categories that define how they will act and react:

  • Duty: the NPC will act in accordance with whatever task it’s been assigned or assigned itself, ie. it will do it’s job, whatever that job might be;
  • Self-Interest: the NPC will respond in accordance with its own selfish needs, despite or regardless of it’s job or duty at hand; and
  • Survival: the NPC will operate in accordance with its most basic need to survive.

The categories are aligned as a linnear motivation track with duty as the highest order and survival as the basest.

Flexible Minds

There is flexibility and a certain amount of overlap built into these categories, an advantage of their general nature. A creature’s survival mindset, under certain circumstances, might provoke an attack rather than a retreat if, for example, it was trapped in its lair or trying to protect its progeny. By the same token, a selfish NPC might still act according to its duty if, under a certain circumstance, those actions aligned.


A merchant acting out of duty would sell supplies to an adventuring party equipping for a long journey at the book or list price. However, a merchant acting out of self-interest (for reasons to be determined) might charge an inflated price for the same goods.

At this point, the merchant can become more than just a conduit for goods: why does the merchant overcharge? does he owe money? to whom? do the players notice the price gauging? These are all questions I can use to flesh out the NPC and, perhaps, integrate him into whatever’s happening in the world-- maybe he’s price-gauging because he’s working with whatever force is arrayed against the adventurers?

In Action

With these categories in mind, for a given NPC (or group or race or species), I can map how prevalent a given mindset is under stress, or, to put it another way, how quickly their resolve can deteriorate from their best intentions into raw survival mode.

For a given individual (or group or race or species), I can adjust at which points on their motivation track (I use 12 steps), they slip from a higher mindset to a lower or rise from a lower one to a higher.


Goblin motivation: duty 10, self-interest 8, survival

What Does It Mean?

As long as the goblin’s motivation track is at ten or more, the goblin will operate within the confines of its duty. If its motivation slips to nine, it will begin to act out of self-interest. If it goes below eight, it will act purely in terms of survival.

By setting its track in this way, I am proclaiming the goblin to be a cowardly creature.

So where does a creature begin on its motivation track?

Motivational Speaker

I can assign or randomly roll (2d6), generally or at the start of an encounter, for a creature’s starting point on its track. To go back to the goblin, I’ve added in a general starting point.


Goblin motivation (10): duty 10, self-interest 8, survival

What Does It Mean?

I’ve decided that goblins, generally, begin with ten points on their motivational track, indicating that they, under most circumstances, are not fully motivated, in addition to having only a tenuous grip on loyalty, before devolving quickly to selfishness, and then into survival mode.

Making Tracks

Having established a starting point, at the beginning of an encounter, I can adjust it up or down depending on circumstances. Additionally, during an encounter, it can also be raised or lowered. If the motivation crosses a threshhold, the NPC’s behavior should change accordingly.


Modifiers can come from any circumstances appropriate to the encounter, generally awarding a +1 or -1 per applicable circumstance, and can be awarded at any point during the encounter when those circumstances change.

Circumstancial Evidence

What an applicable circumstance is becomes up to the GM to decide. During a social encounter, it might be the success or failure of an Intimidation or Knowledge check. During combat, it might the felling of a comrade or the defeat of an opponent.

Example 1: Combat

A group of bugbears have set three goblins (motivation (10): duty 10, self-interest 8, survival each) to guard their lair while they sleep.

An adventuring party approaches the lair entrance, unseen. Pressing their advantage, the party looses arrows into the goblins before advancing into sight. Two of the goblins are struck dead before they can react.

I decide that this train of events leads to a net -3 modifier to the remaining goblin’s motivation (-1 for being surprised, -1 for each of his comrades that has fallen), for a new motivation of 7, putting the goblin, straight away, into survival mode.

At this point, I still don’t know how this goblin will specifically respond. What I do know is that it’s response will be purely motivated by its drive to survive.

Looking at its options, it could:

  • run into the cave and warn the bugbears (though they might be wroth with it and probably be forced to return and fight);
  • surrender to the adventurers (though they might kill it for its troubles); or,
  • make a break for it– if it drops its weapons and runs, the adventurers might not bother with it.

I figure that the last option is its best bet so that’s what it does: the goblin drops its spear and flees into the trees.

If one or both of the other goblins had survived the initial volley, I might have rolled to give them some variation on where their motivation tracks were at that moment. From there, it’s possible each of the goblins might act differently depending on what step on the track their motivations ended up.

Example 2: Social

The party is investigating a shady merchant (motivation: duty 11, self-interest 5, survival) in the town they’re staying in. After finding some stolen goods in the back of the shop, the party rogue decides to approach the merchant directly.

When the rogue enters the shop, I roll 2d6 for the merchant’s starting motivation and get 6, in a selfish mindset but edging towards survival-- perhaps he’s getting nervious about being discovered and fears he may already have been.

The rogue begins the conversation innocently enough but soon drops enough hints to give the merchant the idea that they know about is thievery. At this point, I subtract 1 from his motivation track. He’s now one step away from descending into survival mode.

Sensing an opening, the rogue attempts to intimidate the merchant. Unfortunately, the attempt fails, returning 1 step to the merchant’s motivation track. The merchant believes the rogue has overplayed his hand-- they don’t quite have him pinned down yet.

Had the rogue succeeded at his intimidation attempt, the merchant might have reacted in several different ways: panic, surrender, sudden aggression, etc. but, since the rogue failed, the merchant was shaken but remained unbroken.

Long Story Short (Too Late!)

TLDR; I was looking for a quick and light way to play around with NPC’s motivations that I could use for all kinds of different encounters and I think I found it. Let me know on Twitter if you find it useful (or not) or if you have any suggestions or ideas.