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The Douchey DM » Adventure Design, Advice, Alternate Views, Inspiration » JiB on GM’ing: Handling NPC Actions

JiB on GM’ing: Handling NPC Actions

A shadow spilled through the open door as two big men lumbered into the back room from the alley. That in itself wasn’t unusual, that they were basically carrying a third between them was.

“What happened,” Stock’s voice was heavy with long years of hard drinking.

Carmine shifted nervously looking down at his feet.

“Well?” the boss’s eyes narrowed at the delay.

It was Tony who responded, “Schmidt wasn’t there boss. No sign of ’em.”

“So, what happened to Frankie?”

“We was ambushed in the clock shop there was at least four of ’em,” Carmine still wouldn’t meet his boss’s eyes.

“The cops?” Stock knew that no cop in the docks district would mess with Burns’ men.

Tony shook his head, “No, boss. Don’t know who they were but they weren’t cops.”

… You can see where this could go …

So you have built the ultimate villain and he’s harried and annoyed the pc’s and built up a level of hate with them, then in a flurry of sword and spell the pc’s have just reduced his plot to a gooey paste. What do you do?

One possible answer is to try to write up a list of possible actions, or a flow chart that defines what the villain will do or what will happen as a result of the pc’s actions. The problem is, that creates a fairly narrowly defined course and what if the pc’s do something totally different than what the gm thought of.

I know what will happen in the game right up to the point where the pc’s get involved. After that, all bets are off. For this reason I take a more organic approach to the question, “what will the bad guys do now?” To do that there are three things I really need to know:

  1. What are the bad guy’s real aims?
  2. What resources does he have available?
  3. How committed to this course of action is he?


The bad guy’s real aims tell us what he really wants and what matters to him. It might be that something is more important to him than this particular plot. A simple example is the villain who’s life means more to him than this particular bank job. If things start to look bad he may very well bail out on this caper in favor of getting away and staying alive. (This very much figures into question 3 as well). There are a number of ways to approach this information, but I like a simple ranking system. Let’s say for example that the bad guy has three plots in progress.

1. Run the local brothels out of business so that they have to come to him and he can take them over.
2. Extort protection money from the merchants.
3. Start a war between two rival gangs to weaken them both so they won’t get in his way later.

These are pretty open plot lines and gives us a fair bit to work with. They also tell us some additional people we will probably need to know something about. (Who run(s) the brothel(s) now? Who are the merchants and what resources do they have access to? Who are the gang leaders and what sorts of resources do they have available to them?) Now that we know what he’s up to though we need to know what matters to him.

1. The brothels are an important source of information about the city and it gives him leverage over the leaders of the city that frequent the establishment so this one is the most important to him.
2. The protection money is an important source of revenue but he’s been at that longer and has a couple of minions that run that part of the operation now so he cares about it but it isn’t his highest priority.
3. The local gangs fight amongst themselves all the time anyway so although he wants this to happen if it doesn’t happen right now he won’t lose any sleep over it.
4. He does not want to get killed or captured by the city guard, this is more important to him than anything else. He will sacrifice his plots and his minions to make sure that he stays free.
5. His minions and soldiers are a useable resource. He has no particular loyalty to them one way or the other.

Now we know what matters to him and start to have some idea of what he resources he has (minions) and what he will do to protect his plots (not much)

In addition to now having a better idea of what the bad guy might do and why it’s time to add a little flesh to the bones. We know that not getting caught is his highest priority so what would he do to make sure that happens? He always keeps a boat at a hidden dock underneath the warehouse that is his headquarters ready to make his escape should things go badly. Which raises a question, is this something the pc’s could find out about and use against him? Do his minions know about this and what does that mean to them? It could be that his lieutenants are aware of his escape plan. One of them thinks that the boss has this set up for all of them to get away, but the other knows better which (of course) leads us to another question, could the lieutenant be flipped to work against him or to provide information?

The point here is that we are dealing with who is involved and what they care about and what they can use to accomplish their aims. We don’t know what they will do but we have the tools with which to decide when the time comes.

I usually end up with layers of intrigue and people and the critical element is what do they know and what do they NOT want the boss to know about. A really good example of this is the movie Payback. Mel Gibson’s character has to wade through layers of the “Outfit” with each one not wanting their boss on the next level to find out about it. At one point the boss makes it very clear to one of his minions that if he wants to remain part of the outfit (ie alive) he’ll take care of this problem (Gibson) right away. This is a really useful model particularly with anything resembling an organization.


Burns Wannabe the Crime Lord is our main villain at the moment. He wants to become more important in the criminal underbelly of Cityville. He is trying to impress one of the important crime families in the city. (We dont’ actually need to know anything about them just yet because they won’t figure into the game yet, but they will eventually so knowing that they exist is probably a good idea.) Burns has gained what position he has through extorting protection money from local shop keepers. He has two lieutenants that work for him Stock and Bristle. He also has a dozen or so bully boys that he employs as enforcers. In a minute we’re going to want to know about Stock and Bristle but let’s deal with Burns first.

1. Who is Burns and specifically what are his strengths and weaknesses? Burns got his start as a street tough and as such is not terribly bright. He is, however, cunning and pretty good at reading people. He is enormously strong and used to being able to intimidate people and cowing them into submission. He is not particularly creative nor versed in such things as tactics. The truth is that Burns would probably ultimately come to a bad end no matter what the pc’s do but he’s the problem that’s in front of them at the moment.

2. What resources does Burns have? Stock and Bristle are his lieutenants. Stock is fanatically loyal because Burns saved him from some bullies when they were children so no matter how badly Burns treats him Stock will not knowingly do anything against his boss. Bristle has motivations that are a bit more complex and as such he is somewhat less loyal though capitalizing on that might take some doing. Burns runs two businesses. First is the Burns’ Shipping Company with a warehouse in the docks district of Cityville. Not far away is, “the Rusty Dagger,” a tavern that is run by Bristle for Burns. (Note: Bristle skims from the till for his own ends.) Burns keeps a boat hidden at a dock under the warehouse in case he needs to get away in a hurry. He does not intend to get dead, or to decorate the inside of a cell in Cityville. Burns employs a dozen or so bully boys from the docks as enforcers.

3. What is Burns up to? First he is extorting protection money from local shopkeepers. This is his primary source of income so this matters to him, but Stock takes care of most of the day to day operations. He is trying to gain control of the two local brothels (Pink and the Bunny Hutch) which provides both a source of income and of information about the city as many of the city’s officials are frequent customers at one or the other brothel. Third he is trying to set two of the principal waterfront gangs against one another. These two gangs, the Blades and the Nines are constant rivals for the drug trade in the area and other criminal activities. This is the least important of his plans to him because it is likely that soon enough the two groups will be at war with each other anyway.

4. To what ends will Burns go to protect his plans. Burns cares about himself first last and always and his primary interest is in staying free and staying alive so anything that threatens those two aims will cause him to try to flee the area if other options are not available.

With relatively speaking little information we now have a pretty good idea of who Burns is and what motivates him so when inevitably (because that’s what the game is about) the pc’s come into conflict with Burns (most likely through his minions or enforcers) we can organically decide what he will do rather than be constrained by a set of predefined actions.

One important thing to keep in mind is that none of this actually has much if anything to do with the game system. This is all about story elements. The mechanics come later when they’re needed to make sense out of what has come out of this exercise.



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Software developer, gamer, ice hockey player, sometime musician.

Filed under: Adventure Design, Advice, Alternate Views, Inspiration · Tags: , , , , ,

3 Responses to "JiB on GM’ing: Handling NPC Actions"

  1. SizikNo Gravatar says:

    Payback. Paycheck is the movie with Ben Affleck.

  2. JazzIsBluesNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for that edit. I meant Payback and missed that in proof.


  3. MookNo Gravatar says:

    Treating NPCs as real people, with real goals and lives, can only lead to more awesome. 🙂

Leave a Reply to Mook Cancel reply