Know What Your Monster Wants - In Moments

April 20, 2022

Finding Alignment & Character Backgrounds difficult & unwieldy? Know What Your Monsters Want & It All falls into place.

Gary Gygax invented two dimensions of sentient 'alignment' of one's personality: chaotic / lawful tendencies started in Basic and then in, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, there was 'good / evil' spectrum. This was supposed to serve to know what the monster wanted and how they would go about getting it. For example, a chaotic and evil Black dragon may also value torture and suffering - and may even pay some of his or her deeply loved gold-wealth to get this. Contrast that with a Silver dragon that may sacrifice gold in order to save a friend (casting Raise-style spells costs gems of specific value). Though both would gladly kill to gain gold, both dragon types gravitate to very specific targets and situations. Some of this is covered by the nine alignments, but not much.

Player's Characters ('PCs') have backgrounds allowing them to know where they are from - but the design of the game doesn't specify what they will do. This is for two reasons: for one, D&D is always a game about choices and having a fixed and planned course of action means one runs out of options (when a character must do a certain thing it is called 'railroading' in this game). The other problem about the background impacting game play: it demands spotlight. This is why both DMs and fellow players alike resent long, story-based elaborate life-tales - it requires both more work and attention to be spent on that specific character.

Is there another way? Yes. Thankfully,

On stage, in shows and on film one needs a character's motivation to play it well. Imagine a female wolf - it is an animal so what it wants will be simple: food ('meat'), rest ('find a place with cover'), water ('clean tasting') and possibly sex ('at the right time of year'). Other than not getting killed, this is the entire list. How would you know when it flees from combat? Why would it fight in the first place? The alignment is 'neutral' or 'unaligned' - so there isn't much to go on. One could write up an entire background for this wolf but it seems arbitrary and it doesn't solve anything.

Compare the actions of this non-player character or encounter once it has a motivation. Say it wants to 'feed its young'. Now you know what it will do and why. Will it attack? Yes, if it thinks it can get meat off of its targets ('it will not attack golems, elementals nor undead'). If the target throws meat that is large enough it will take it and leave. Where? To its pups, of course. Will it fight to the death? No - it will instinctively know that if it dies the young will probably die as well. Can it be tamed or befriended? No, not until the den is abandoned. In fact, two words of motivation answers thousands of questions better than any alignment or background ever could.

How To Generate Random Motivations:

A motivation needs two things: what they want and why. This can be placed in three tables:

  1. The Seven Deadly Sins: The Pull To Cravings.
  2. The Seven Noble Virtues: The Urge To Do The Right Stuff.
  3. Maslow's Needs: where these two forces meet most strongly.

'Seven-ish Sins: The Seeking Freedom From Some Entity Or Force:

  1. Lust - Luxuria-Fornicatio
  2. Gluttony / Ravenous - Gula / Rapax
  3. Greed-Avarice - Avaritia / Cupiditas
  4. Sloth-Decadence - Acedia / Desidia
  5. Wrath - Iram
  6. Envy - Invidia
  7. Pride - Vanagloria
  8. Pride / Hubris - Superbia
  9. Depression-Dispair - Distrahendo
  10. Idolatry - Veterum Cultura Deorum
  11. Discord - Discordia
  12. Roll Twice: they may contradict - and that makes it even better!

Seven Noble Virtues - Moving Towards Social 'Good'

  1. Chastity-Purity
  2. Faith - Fides (Fido!)
  3. Good Works - Operatio
  4. Concord - Concordia
  5. Sobriety (clear or logical thought?) - Sobrietas
  6. Patience - Patientia
  7. Humility - Mens Humilis
  8. Courage - Animo
  9. Kindness - Humanitas
  10. Temperance-Restraint -
  11. Diligence - Diligentia
  12. Roll Twice

Remember: none of these virtues are necessarily good. For example: restraining a group or population the king doesn't like is called 'genocide'. Forcing a population to agree with you (concord) is usually oppression, censorship and 'shooting all the intellectuals'. Some of the most terrifying and brutal overlords were extremely humble. You are not trying to solve the problem of good vs. evil here. You are just finding out what your character wants - and why.

What A Monster Wants, What A Monster Needs!

Next, cross this goodness vs. nastiness against how basic or sophisticated this urge is using Maslow's hierarchy of meaning, use and 'needs':

  1. Physiological: air, water, food, sex-stuff, sleep, exposure-moderation (clothing, housing, shelter and heat sources).
  2. Safety: health, personal / emotional / fiscal confidence.
  3. Social: family, friends, intimate, trust & acceptance
  4. Esteem / respect: fitting in (acceptance) vs. standing out (fame) - paradox
  5. Cognitive: brain needs to think like a rat's teeth need to chew
  6. Self-Actualization: "What a man can be, he must be."
  7. Transcendence: leave your mind behind!
  8. roll randomly twice: it fits both!

... And let's throw in a d4 for good measure - Freud's Mind Theory!

Each level of the mind can have its own so-called 'good' and 'evil' motive. How that is expressed in the character's life pends on what part of the mind this impulse lives in:

  1. Conscious: thoughts you control: logic, daydreams, plans, etc.
  2. PreConscious: thoughts and actions you partially control: memories, habits, skills.
  3. Subconscious: thoughts you are aware of but cannot control: urges, cravings, hungers, sensations, the five+ senses.
  4. Unconscious: thoughts that think on their own that get back to you in one of the above three formats. Dreams, repressed feelings, reactions, automatic skills ('walking down stairs'), addictions, compulsions and the entire automatic nervous system (heartbeat, digestion).

Using This Thang:

  1. Roll on a 'good' or 'evil' table. Note that you don't have to roll on both - there are natural contradictions to any of these traits right on the tin.
  2. A character is made up of aughts becoming what is. Roll on the Hairarky o' Needless and find out what that impulse 'good &/or evil' relates to in their world (as they perceive it).
  3. You may want to script a primal urge or force in the character's life. For example, in 5e D&D (and most other versions of Dungeons & Dragons), even animated skeletons and zombies have an innate hatred of all life and seek to kill things - even if it means no gain for them. Contrast that with many shows or movies that suggest that zombies are little more than reactivity from a survival reflex that failed to die when their body did. In some movies (like Warm Bodies), zombies can learn to love better than many humans can.
  4. Many creatures have powerful motives in their unconscious minds. Crows will avoid an area where they find one dead crow. Much smaller birds have an urge to make a nest even if mating is impossible for them. Spiders nor bees know how to develop their homesteads yet they do so with perfect precision. Research has shown that humans have motives that are even more complex.

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