Interrogate Your NPCs—No Man is an Island, part 2

In role-playing games, techniques on March 13th, 2008 at 12:18 am

In part one of No Man is an Island, I discussed how characters that have relationships can make a roleplaying campaign more fun, and I gave some guidelines for creating relationships that are good at generating drama in an RPG. Now, in part two, I will expand on how to make dramatically interesting relationships by discussing the four most consistently dramatic types of relationships.

This was to be the last part in this series, but as I wrote, I found I had much more to say than I thought I did. As a result, there will be one more part in which I discuss Relationship Maps, the simplest way of organizing the relationships in a campaign.

The Four Dramatically Interesting Relationships

Most people have relationships of some sort with dozens or hundreds of people. Very few of those relationships have the potential to form the basis of a dramatic story, though. You may chat with the bartender at your favourite pub every time you seen her, but that does not mean that there is a good story to tell about the two of you.

Some types of relationships are most likely to provide the kind of drama you need in a roleplaying game consistently. In this article, I want to discuss four of them:

  • Family
  • Love
  • Hate
  • Status

As you can see, they are broad categories, so they won’t run out of steam any time soon.

What makes relationships so dramatically powerful is how they are very hard to ignore. Even if you run away, your family is still out there, somewhere. Who you love and who you hate is something that you have little control over, and your brain will draw your attention to those people even if, consciously, you don’t want to be bothered with them. Power dynamics exist wherever you have more than one person. These four types of relationships are universal, and they will speak to almost everyone.


When I talk about family relationships, I primarily mean a character’s direct blood relations – parents, siblings, children – as well as their spouses. Spousal relationships overlap with Love, of course, which means that they have double the dramatic potential.

Normally, extended family members are only important when a character has no immediate family. The best example of this is Aunt May, who is a surrogate for Peter Parker’s dead parents.

Immediate family usually spend huge amounts of time together, at least until children become adults and start their own lives. This creates a complex history, and strong emotional bonds. When those bonds are positive, they can be threatened or leveraged.

The most powerful thing about family relationships, though, is their permanence. No matter how you feel about a relative, no matter how far away you try to run, the relationship still exists. The only permanant end is the death of one of the parties.

Actually, death doesn’t always marks the end of a family relationship’s relevance, either. Consider a character who is trying to live up to the legacy left by a dead parent who was larger than life. A promise made to a sibling that is on their deathbed, a grave that a character visits to think through troubles, or new information that changes how a dead relative appears in a character’s eyes can also drive drama.

Not all family relationships are healthy, either. Estranged family and dysfunctional relationships are at least as dramatically useful as healthy relationships. How will your character react when his abusive father shows up, saying that only the character can save his life? What will happen when the superhero’s little brother, who grew up feeling like he was always in the hero’s shadow, becomes a supervillain just to prove something to big sis? Maybe your knight is a hero to everyone in the kingdom except his daughter. What will he do to get her to love him?

Finally, don’t fall into the trap of only thinking about the classic family structure – mom, dad, and little June and John. Is your character in a committed homosexual relationship, and raising children? What if your character was raised in a polyamorous family?

If you are playing in a fantasy or science fiction game, you may be able to play with the idea of asexual progeny or relationships that involve more than two genders. Maybe one of those genders doesn’t normally play a role in post-conception family life. What if one of your parents always dies as part of procreation? Don’t limit yourself to the conventional.


Who you fall in love with says volumes about who you are as a person. Insecure people tend to seek lovers who will give them affirmation or, less healthily, fall for people that use their need for love as a trap, paving the way for abuse of various kinds.

More optimistically, people tend to fall for people that they have a lot, but not too much, in common with. Creative people are drawn to other creatives, although possibly someone that works in a different field. Religious people, even when they are not required by their beliefs to do so, are often more comfortable in relationships with people of the same faith. Contrary to what Hollywood tends to depict in movies, free-spirits are usually drawn to each other, not to stodgy stick-in-the-muds that they see as a project.

These kinds of tendencies come about because love is not a choice in the conventional sense. A loving relationship is (hopefully) consensual, but it operates on a level that has as much to do with brain chemistry and instinct as conscious thought.

Of course, love doesn’t just express itself as stable healthy relationships, either. Sometimes it is unrequited, or becomes a consuming lust that soon burns itself out. These have just as much dramatic potential as love as we normally think of it.

The questions that these possibilities raise seem limitless:

  • What sort of efforts will someone go to to try and woo the object of their affection?
    • Will those efforts stay acceptable?
    • Will the swain only succeed in embarrassing himself?
  • Do the characters that are intoxicated by lust let other parts of their lives slide?
    • What are the consequences?
    • What if one, or both, of them are already in committed relationships, but the power of chemistry overwhelms them?
      • What if it only overwhelms one of them, and the other, without denying the passion, resists the temptation?

Love can be a source of strength for a character, as well. A person will take on tasks for a loved one that they would never do for their own sake. When life is just kicking you, being able to take solace in the love of another can give your batteries the recharging you need to overcome your troubles, too.

This can leave you vulnerable, too, though. The hoary old classic is the villain threatening a lover to get the hero to do his bidding. Sometimes your love will get into trouble on their own, though, and the only way to save them is to plunge into the danger right behind them. Doing things for your love that you would never do for yourself can have a dark side, too.

Like family relationships, most of us turn reflexively to what we think of as “normal” relationships first. Alternative lifestyles are an expression of love, too, though, so do your best to avoid this trap. Maybe the person you love is the same sex as you. Or maybe you express your lust, and your love, with bondage. Trust me, no matter how strange a kink you come up with, someone out there practises it.

If you do go down the alternative lifestyles route, though, beware of stereotyping. Their sexual or romantic preferences are not the whole of their identity, any more than your sexual identity is the sum of who you are. People with sexual practises that you find unusual are still people. They have families and goals, and most of them would like to settle down with someone they love, maybe raise some children. Don’t dehumanize them just because they like to do things in the bedroom that make you squicky.

Don’t let all this talk of sex and marriage make you underestimate the power of fraternal love, either. People who have gone to battle together, literally or figuratively, have a bond that is very different than normal friendship. If you pull a business back from the brink of bankruptcy with the aide of a passionate business partner, and then go on to flourish, you will likely be open to doing more for him than you would most people. Same with the guy that had your flank on the offensive line for ten years.


The people that your character hates are, surprisingly, going to be less useful than the other major relationships. Compared to family and love, especially, there is very little nuance to relationships based around hatred. Once you know what provoked the hatred, and how far the parties are willing to go to pursue their hatred, you’re about done.

This may be because hatreds say very little about who the involved parties are. Someone hating you does not mean that you are a bad person – good people have lapses that can lead to people hating them. That means the story of why the bond of hatred exists is normally more important than who the people are.

There are interesting twists to be found in hate. The old saw “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” can help to draw a group of relationships tighter, creating reasons for characters to form new alliances with people they did not know previously. And what if a character forms an alliance with someone out of hate, without taking a good look at who their new allying is?

Also, you can put some serious pressure on players if two people that a character cares about suddenly hate each other. Will the PC choose a side? How will the characters react if the PC tries not to choose a side? If she does choose, who she chooses and why will say a lot about her.

Also, a lot of mileage can be gotten out of the tendency to hate what you fear. If player’s can suss out when this is the root of the issue, they can turn a villain’s hatreds against him. Sometimes, a villain will be able to turn the tables and use a PC’s hatreds against him, as well, although player buy-in is crucial to this sort of storyline.


Status is an umbrella term for relationships rooted in several related causes. Depending on the character, status may mean money, power, fame, preeminent skill, or one of many other interests. What they all have in common is that they can be used as measuring sticks to show that you are better (or worse) than someone else.

Pursuit of status is often rooted in insecurity, which is quite revealing about a character, but you have to be careful about falling into the trap of applying this rule of thumb to everyone. While it’s not as common, people do pursue status in order to help others, as a means to another personal goal, or just as a way of finding direction in life. Some people even find themselves with status that they do not want. Being The Chosen One, as Buffy liked to point out, is not always fun and games.

Relationships that are rooted in status are just as varied as the forms of status themselves. The one element that they do have in common is that one person in the relationship enjoys more status than the other. Jealousy, rivalry, or other negative emotions do not have to be involved, though. A subordinate can follow the hero willingly, basking in his reflected glory and happy just to be part of the team, or hoping to learn from the master before striking off on his own.

In fact, positive status relationships have their own dramatically interesting dynamics. What happens when the student surpasses the master? What if someone wants to join the team, but the person of superior status is uninterested in having followers?

Of course, the negative relationships are the the juiciest ones. What ends will a character go to in order to surpass his great business rival? Will an also ran try to sabotage the star pupil? How much humiliation will a student put up with before lashing out at his teacher? Once you dig into the idea, possibilities start to appear everywhere.

  1. Nice article. I especially like your section on hate and how quickly you can be done with it. I definitely agree.

    Looking forward to part 3.


  2. Thanks. I’m not sure when I’ll get part 3 done, but it’s a priority.

  3. Credit where it’s due:

    I knew that Ron Edwards had talked about dramatically interesting types of relationships in one of the Sorcerer books, but I couldn’t find a good reference for his thoughts. I knew that Sex was in there somewhere, and for some reason I thought he only listed three.

    When I was rereading an article over on Sin Aesthetics, I saw Mo reference them, and it turns out that he lists four, and they mirror my four pretty closely.


    The primary difference is that Ron’s list is a bit more focused than mine.

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