January 27, 2020

What Fuels Your NPCs’ Motivations?

Discovering what motivates your various NPCs is a critically important step during your tabletop RPG worldbuilding. And when you really dedicate the time to identify and flesh out the source(s) of those motivations, you’ll more often than not find it to be both a fun & enlightening process, taking us in directions we may not have thought of previously.

Today’s #worldbuildingMonday post offers some tips on how tabletop RPG worldbuilders can best get to the bottom of the constant question of why NPCs do what they do.


Backstory is the traditional place to begin for any character you’re designing. “Jade Strom is a Moon Elf princess who lost her family to the giant invasion in her youth. She’s now become a powerful wanderer of the woods, her mind lost between revenge and sorrow.” is a brief example of a backstory for a non-player character in a fantasy story.

Jade’s backstory, as simple or as complex as we ultimately make it, begins to shape how she lives in, and ultimately impacts, the story world. For at least your critical NPCs, take the time to flesh out their backstory, their history, their trials & tribulations. You may not know everything ahead of time and that’s perfectly fine – add to your characters as time moves along. But get those basic building-blocks, those foundation elements of your characters in place.

Traits, Passions, and Regrets

With your character’s history in place, you can start to dig deeper. Discovering what makes a person or character make the choices they make isn’t just the sum of their history – it’s their traits, their passions, their regrets. Is Jade passionate about keeping nature safe from civilization? Is she fast? Stealthy? Wise? Does she regret not being there when her family was killed? Or not being able to do more to save their lives?

Some of the questions you’ll encounter during this phase are easy to answer and some are much more complex – especially as they begin to entwine with other parts of the world you’ve built. If we say Jade wants to protect nature, what happens if the party receives a quest from the nearby town mayor to purge the “evil spirit” which haunts the woods? Or if we say that Jade finds herself in the nearby town and overhears some anti-forest slander or pro-giant propaganda: how will she react?

We’ve talked in this space in weeks’ past about character mapping – delving into the NPC’s backstory, their passions, traits, fears, and regrets will ultimately empower you as the GM/DM to be able to live as that character in your story. You’ll rely less on improv – and be able to deploy that skill when it’s really needed – and be able to lean on your worldbuilding.

So please, take the time to discover what fuels your NPCs’ motivations!