Non-Player Character Group Dynamics

NPC groups in roleplaying games often seem very monolithic; they present a single, unified front. It’s the villain and his loyal henchmen, or the tight military unit, etc. Maybe there will be a single dissenter or traitor if the plot calls for it, but that’s usually about it.

How realistic is this? Think about you and your co-workers for a moment. Or you and your friends. Are you a monolithic, perfectly content and coherent group of people? Probably not. Even the best of friends can often find small things about each other that annoy them. Co-workers deal with the morass of office politics. And many people have at least one secret that they keep from those who are close to them, particularly in the intrigue-filled world of an RPG setting.

Here are a number of ways in which the use of group dynamics can help you out as a GM, and some suggestions of ways to make use of them. We’ll follow it up with some ideas for how you can create group dynamics if you don’t know where to start.

Group Dynamics Are A Source Of Plots

Is a researcher trying to back-stab his colleague so he can become head of the department? You can turn his plans into a plot. Does a character want to find a way to make his colleague fall in love with him? You can turn that into another plot. Is someone else sick and tired of having to bail his friend out of the messes he gets himself into? Turn that into another plot!

You can make these large or small plots, depending on how powerful the people involved are, and what stakes they’re playing for. That potential department head could be trying for a small public university department or a prestigious, powerful organization with ties in all sorts of industries or governments. The means to his end could be a small, simple way to humiliate his rival, or it could be a complex plot involving drugs, guns, blackmail and secret weapons.

For example, let’s say that the player characters (PCs) kill an NPC in the course of a plot. His relationships with those around him will tell you what happens next; do his coworkers care enough to seek revenge? Did someone hate him enough to reward the PCs for their actions, or help them get away with it? There’s your next plot for you!

Group Dynamics Are A Source Of Personal Relationships

Group dynamics also provide the perfect way to draw your PCs into the world on a personal level. If an NPC is frustrated with his partner’s unwillingness to listen to him when he’s having problems, then he might latch onto a PC as a substitute. If a shy NPC is in love with a co-worker then he might recruit a PC to help him get her attention. This pulls your party into personal relationships with NPCs — friendships, acquaintance-ships, rivalries and so on.

Emotions are what cement relationships. If an NPC was in love with someone the PCs killed, she’s likely to hate the party. If the PCs cure the illness of someone an NPC cares about, he’s likely to be grateful — the perfect way to start a friendship. Emotions between NPCs can also draw the party into things. Your standard RPG combat system doesn’t tend to inspire a lot of emotion in people. Seeing the emotional after-effect that death and destruction have on your NPCs, however, can really bring things home and involve the party with other people.

Group Dynamics Provide Solutions To Plots

Group dynamics allow the PCs to play NPCs against one another. They allow the PCs to blackmail people. They provide ways for the PCs to manipulate people and take advantage of them. Group dynamics can result in NPCs who are willing to spill their guts when drunk or to the right sympathetic ear. They provide caches of notes taken by someone who’s collecting blackmail material on his co-workers.

If you have trouble coming up with non-combat ways for your group to solve your plots now and then, group dynamics can help. They can provide all sorts of alternate solutions to plots. They can also help you to give your players more than one possibility to play with. Maybe there’s one major way to solve the plot, but if the party pokes around a bit and uncovers the rivalry between a couple of NPCs then the solution becomes easier. It allows your players to make greater use of their creativity.

Group Dynamics Provide Color

NPCs are much more interesting if they have little things to bicker about, if the PCs can see them grating against each other, throwing coy glances at one another, or standing by one another to the point of being unreasonable. It’s an easy way to give NPCs personality and make them stand out. It’s a simple way to make NPCs different from one another.

You can also use it to support the mood or theme that you’re playing with. If you want your game to be about paranoia and intrigue, you can support that by having NPCs who follow each other, tap each others’ phones, tape their conversations with each other, worry about what their co-workers are doing behind their backs, and so on.

Group dynamics give your world an entire layer of plot, interaction and personality for your players to play with. They add depth and mystery. They tap into that part of people that likes to gossip and speculate about others’ motives and relationships. All of which gives your players more to think about, talk about and get caught up in.

Group Dynamics Make Things More Realistic

Having characters who like each other, hate each other, love each other, and get irritated by each other is more realistic. It makes the world feel more comfortable to your players, more “real,” which will make the gaming experience that much more intense. It also means that when you want to creep them out, you can do it easily by throwing a group at them that doesn’t follow the normal rules of group dynamics. A solid, totally loyal group of people can seem remarkably disturbing and odd in the real world, and you can take advantage of that in your game as well.

Group Dynamics Reward Research

Group dynamics can make it worthwhile for your party to poke around your world, explore things, and research your plots. They provide lots of material for the party to uncover, piece together, and take advantage of. This encourages them to get out there and interact with your world, rather than just sitting at home waiting for you to throw them their next clue or plot. This allows you to seed the world with all sorts of interesting possibilities, people, locations and items for them to come back and play with. It also gives you many more opportunities to work material you’ve prepared into the game.

How Do You Get Started

It can be tough to come up with group dynamics when you’ve never done it before. You might find yourself coming up with something way too complex and time-consuming, or with something too superficial and not useful enough. So here are a few hints to get you started.

Start With Characters

You can’t have interesting group dynamics without interesting NPCs. NPCs with interesting histories and backgrounds lend themselves well to useful group dynamics. If you write up a teenager who chafes at his mother’s control-freakish tendencies, then this segues perfectly into a relationship with his drug-using uncle. Already you have an interesting set of dynamics in this family: the mother tries to control her son; the son rebels against his mother; the son tries to emulate his uncle; the uncle leads the boy on to spite the mother. This suggests all sorts of other relationships, attitudes, possible plots and events.

Interesting NPCs and interesting group dynamics feed on each other. You’ll probably find that you come up with both together, bit by bit, each encouraging the other. This is also where character history comes in handy; past events help to dictate how characters feel about each other, and the feelings NPCs have for one another suggest past events.

Pick Five People To Start With

Pick five people to start with. If your NPCs are members of a huge over-arching group, then start with just five members. Figure out how each one feels about the other four, and why. Does the first resent the second for making him look stupid in practice last month? Is the second in love with the third? Is the third dependent on the fourth for a sympathetic ear when things get at all stressful? Does the fourth behave parentally toward the entire group?

You don’t have to go all soap-opera-ish over it, although you can if you want. The emotions can be low-level, simple things, or they can be huge hatreds and loves, or they can be complex interrelationships.

Think Outside The Box

Or, rather, group. Don’t just keep relationships among group members in mind. Give them a couple of relationships to outside people. This will affect the group relationships: members of a tight-knit group cannot help but be affected by the other members’ outside relationships.

Keep It Simple…

…Unless you have lots of time to spare. You only need a sentence or two for each relationship; you can expand on it later, if you need to, when it becomes relevant. If you have the time and energy, though, feel free to go into a fair amount of detail on a group’s dynamics. It can provide you with lots of fodder for roleplaying, plots, and so on.

What Your Players See

Okay, so you’ve got a couple of groups that have interesting group dynamics going. How does this enter into your game? How can your players see what you’ve created? Group dynamics show up pretty much everywhere: plots, body language, things people say about each other, emotional reactions to events. It helps if your party is willing to talk to your NPCs; if they don’t get involved, they won’t see a lot of what’s going on. Let’s use our earlier example of the rebellious teenager, his controlling mother, and that lenient uncle.

Moments Overheard

Let the PCs see or overhear moments from the NPCs’ lives, particulary partial scenes. If the woman and her son live near the party, the PCs could see the son leaving the house with his mother yelling after him about how he’d better be home before 9 PM. Which leads to the son making a sarcastic remark about his mother to a PC. Later they see the son at a nightclub he isn’t old enough to get into, taking a plastic baggie from an older man who resembles him.

This could be an interesting way to drag the party into a plot about tracking down drug dealers, trying to get the son back onto the right track, or something entirely different that the uncle or the mother is into. The boy could be used by the party as a pawn if they need something from one of his older relatives, or maybe they have to protect him from someone else who wants to use him as a pawn.

Physical Cues

Group dynamics can be revealed easily when the party talks to one NPC about another, spies on NPCs hanging out together, listens in on a phone conversation, and so on. Remember to play with eye contact, tone of voice, body language, etc.

The boy might stand stiffly with his arms folded when he’s confronting his mother; perhaps he won’t look her in the eyes. He might affect an older, disinterested air to impress his uncle. His uncle half-suppresses a smile when the boy isn’t looking. The mother’s tone of voice could be tense and tightly controlled. If someone talks to the mother on the phone, she might break the flow of conversation to yell at her son in the background.

Reveal History

Remember how people talk when speaking to someone they know well and have a history with. Once in a while use in-jokes and out-of-context comments that refer to past events. Try to know what the comments and jokes refer back to, though, in case your PCs investigate the matter. If you’re feeling ambitious you can hide clues in these stories to how the NPCs think and act that could help your party with their plot.

Try not to throw in huge bits of explanatory exposition; people don’t usually talk like that to people they know. Play instead with interesting back-and-forth dialogue. Oftentimes, coming up with interesting background that links NPCs can pretty much take care of this issue for you. If you familiarize yourself with that shared background, you might find references to it cropping up automatically in conversation. For example, if the boy and his mother had a huge fight over his not cleaning his room, then if she mentions the state of his room it could send him into a rage that seems totally out of proportion to anyone watching.

Try to start small and work in a detail or two at a time, particularly if you aren’t used to it. It’ll seem more natural that way than if you suddenly dump a whole load of body language into a conversation. It’ll also be less distracting. Try to concentrate on the histories and personalities of the NPCs involved, and the details should flow from that.

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