Antagonists and Motivations: giving enemy NPCs depth


by Adrian Bott

You can’t have only one favourite scene from The Princess Bride, but if I had to choose, it would be the moment when the vengeful Inigo Montoya finally confronts the evil Count Rugen.

Inigo has been waiting for this moment for twenty years. He has visualised it countless times. He has done nothing but study swordplay, in preparation for this duel with the man who killed his father. There can only be one outcome. He delivers his line:

‘Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’

He stands en garde, ready to fight. Count Rugen stares at him, sword drawn. We brace ourselves for the epic clash of blades.

And Count Rugen turns and runs as fast as his legs can carry him.

It’s a beautiful, hilarious, jarring moment. Villains aren’t supposed to do that. They are supposed to face the heroes in exciting duels with the advantage swinging back and forth. That is their role. But Count Rugen’s behaviour is a splendid reminder that antagonists are more than just roles. They are motivated individuals, driven by self-interest. Why should Count Rugen stand and face an expert swordsman? The sensible thing to do is to flee.

In role-playing games, we’re used to coming up against multiple antagonists. Back in the days of early D&D, those antagonists were monsters, and they wanted to kill us. Given that the ruleset evolved from what was basically a wargame, the motivation to simply wipe out the opponent’s pieces was prevalent and pretty much unchallenged.

Before the door to the dungeon room was opened, the antagonists existed in a sort of limbo state. This led to satirical cartoons in which groups of monsters were shown sitting around playing cards, with the comment ‘what did you think we did while we were waiting for a 1 to come up on the wandering monster roll?’ There was very little motivation, only role.

In these far more sophisticated times, there are several good reasons for taking the time to explore antagonists’ motivations. It doesn’t take long to do, and can enrich a planned scenario significantly. A GM who has a handle on a given antagonist’s motivation is much freer to improvise, and give the players thinking, breathing NPCs to interact with. From the players’ point of view, gleaning something of what an antagonist truly wants allows the conflict to play out in varied and subtle ways, such as through bargaining, bluff, intimidation, compromise or subterfuge.

So, my intent here is to have a bit of a ‘workshop’ and show how we can come up with fresh approaches to familiar encounters.

Classic monsters and monstrousness

Monsters, both in folklore and in the games that draw from it, frequently exaggerate the basic drives of human beings. A monster’s motivation is like ours, except deformed and blown up to hideous proportions. Gluttony, arrogance, lust and greed are all found in profusion. Ogres gobble you up, goblins deceive you, dragons demand beautiful maidens.

Monsters in the classic sense are, as a rule, either too stupid or too confined by their own nature to have complex motivations. Monsters don’t just play a role, they are the role. They exist to embody, rather than to possess, abstract moral attributes. The normal limits on behaviour don’t apply to them because they’re too strong and too alien to care.

And yet, examples do exist of traditional monsters having desires beyond the immediate gratification of their grotesque appetites. The ogre in Puss in Boots is tricked into turning into a mouse by an appeal to its pride. Other monsters are overcome by appealing to their curiosity (e.g. the ogre’s wife in Molly Whuppie, who becomes convinced that there is something astounding to see inside a sack) or their willingness to imagine something better in the future (‘don’t eat me, eat my brother who’s much fatter, he’ll be along in a minute!’)

In fantasy gaming, bestial monsters are occasionally constrained, whether by a deal of some sort – ‘we pay the Ettin in beer, and it guards the gatehouse for us’ – or by physical constraints – ‘there’s a young dragon chained up in the cave and it’s eaten everyone who tried to sneak in’. In fact, the classic dragon-and-maiden scenario is an example of just such a deal, in which a beast accepts tribute rather than ravage the livestock. From the monster’s point of view, this is an appeal to its laziness. The monster does not have to exert itself hunting, and the townsfolk suffer a terrible but sustainable (and predictable) loss.

Monsters of the bestial sort surprise us when they reveal motivations that don’t jive with their apparent purpose in the story. The point of King Kong’s climactic scene turns out to be the giant ape’s tenderness. The dragon comes to carry off the maiden from the tethered stake each year – but what if the dragon only wished to turn the maidens into immortal companions, and not devour them at all? What if the dragon’s hoard was similarly not assembled out of greed, but a wish to preserve things of beauty?

We tend to assume that bestial monsters will fight to the death. They’re used to being the biggest and the fiercest, so fighting is what they default to, and it doesn’t occur to them to stop until they’ve been vanquished. A reliable way to make a ‘monster fight’ unusual, therefore, is to have a monster exhibit an unexpected drive for self-preservation in the same manner as Count Rugen did.

Example: the fleeing tarrasque

I once had to write an encounter in which the players were up against the Tarrasque. On the slim offchance you haven’t heard of it: it’s a bit of a legendary death machine, with loads of hit points, horrifying attacks and ludicrous defences. At level 20, monsters don’t come more monstrous than this.

The obvious thing to do would have been to include the Tarrasque as an ‘end-of-level boss’, with the big fight coming after the players had worked out what was going on. Nah, bit too obvious.

What were the Tarrasque’s motivations? There seemed to be only one very simple one: to be at the top of the food chain. So how would a Tarrasque react if something else had attempted to prey on it? The final version of the encounter had the Tarrasque already recently wounded by something even bigger and nastier than it was, so when the players attempted to slay it, it surprised them all by running away.

A monster running away isn’t enough of a challenge in itself, so I had a think about what damage a battleship with legs could do if it was stampeding and panicked. In the final draft, the Tarrasque ends up fleeing in the direction of a huge border wall that keeps the kingdom safe from the savage creatures on the other side. If the players can’t stop it or divert it, it ploughs into the wall, creating a much larger problem along with a sticky political situation.

The tribe

Antagonists that function as a self-identified part of a group (as distinct from bestial monsters who are often solitary hunters) almost always have motivations that relate to their role, status and responsibilities within the group, and the group itself will have collective motivations of which all its members partake. Tribes will often react to perceived threats, or act in concert to achieve imagined benefits.

A simple question such as ‘why are the hobgoblins attacking’ can thus have a wide variety of answers, leading to a great many possible counter-strategies:

Collective motivations (defensive): Protection of territorial boundaries, defence of the young, observance of ancestral taboo (do not allow the burial mounds to be defiled), safeguarding stockpiles of resources, misdirecting threats away from the actual lair, ensuring continued access to crucial natural resources (such as water), keeping important ceremonies from being interrupted (such as initiation, burial, naming, marriage, weather rituals, blessings on hunting parties)

Collective motivations (offensive): Expansion of territory, seizing new assets for the tribe (slaves, mates, horses, livestock, food), fulfilling the commands of the tribal deity (scriptural or as relayed through a shaman), claiming new natural resources, avenging insults made by other tribes, destroying the images/sacred sites of rival religions, pre-emptively attacking potential threats before they grow too large to contain, artificially induced frenzy (drunkenness, narcotics, hallucinogenic plants), enhancing the tribe’s collective reputation (causing fear in rivals), gathering tribute, taking prisoners to be used as bartering chips later

Individual motivations in a tribal context: Proving oneself (such as through a trial of manhood or other initiation), seeking honour and recognition, atoning for a wrong, attempting to secure new resources for personal use or for one’s own immediate family, standing out from one’s kinsmen, avenging a hurt done to one’s family or clansmen, repaying a debt of honour, undermining a hated tribal authority figure, rebelling against archaic tribal strictures

Schemers

Complex motivation is especially appropriate for powerful, kingpin-type figures who have the resources to carry out major schemes. An antagonist who has motivations (rather than mere appetites or a single all-encompassing plan) can adapt. When the players thwart one approach, the antagonist can try another. Also, if the players manage to discern the antagonist’s real motives (as opposed to the ones he wishes to communicate) they can capitalise upon that.

Example: The Baron and the Princess

Let’s look at one of the hoariest clichés in the book: the wicked baron who takes the princess prisoner in his castle. The players in this scenario would default to the role of rescuers. Their challenge is to fight their way through the castle, defeat the baron and free the princess. So far, we are firmly in 80s video game territory.

But what’s the baron’s motivation for taking the princess prisoner? What does he actually want? And beyond that: why does he want it? And why does he act on his desire in such a brutal way, by kidnapping and imprisonment? Stock answers come readily to mind: he thinks she’s the reincarnation of his lost love, he’s convinced she will grow to love him, he wants to sacrifice her to his demonic patron. Here is a selection of more complicated answers, derived from variant motivations. In accordance with the guideline ‘ask why twice’, each desire is founded on another desire.

  • The baron is genuinely in love with the princess, because he sees in her a possibility of redemption from his own sinful nature. In taking her prisoner he’s expressing a secret desire to repent. What he really wants is to escape from himself. However, he’s so fixated on her as his route to redemption that he’s unable to make any progress.
  • The baron is gay, but noble society would reject him if that information ever got out, so he has kidnapped the princess because he is trying to project an image of heterosexual machismo. He lives under the shadow of his now-dead father, a towering impossible-to-please tyrant, portraits of whom fill the castle. What he really wants is to run off with his young man-at-arms.
  • The baron knows that the princess is actually a werewolf, who hasn’t yet suffered her first transformation because she’s not reached her 21st birthday. He wants to find a cure. Her family don’t know, and he doesn’t want to shame them by revealing the truth. What he really wants is to rid her family of its ancestral curse, which was his family’s doing.
  • The princess has bribed the baron to take her prisoner, in order to escape a horrendous arranged marriage. She hopes the suitor will either give up, or be pressured by her family into mounting a doomed rescue attempt. The baron has a bad reputation already, so he has nothing to lose. What he really wants is money to pay off his gambling debts.

Quick NPC-Polishing Process

Decide on the action first, then find the motivation.

What does the antagonist desire?

Why do they desire it? And why, in turn, did that situation arise? (The rule of ‘ask why twice.’)

To what extent is the antagonist conscious of his motivations?

How are the antagonist’s motivations communicated to the players? Are there any clues to the antagonist’s deeper motivations?

Why do the normal social limits on the antagonist’s behaviour not apply to them?