Soap Opera Storytelling: What’s My Motivation?

“There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them”

These words ended the movie “The Naked City” released in 1948, and also the tv series of the same name in 1958 that ran for five years. The idea of that line was basically the idea that, to quote the song by Amanda Marshall, “That ain’t the picture it’s just a part, Everybody’s got a story that could break your heart.”

I collect RPGs for the fact that different systems and different books give you information that can help in ways you might not be able to figure out right away. For example, this is the opening quote from ‘Dogs in the Vineyard’ in their Creating Towns chapter:

There’s something wrong, of course. That’s what makes the game interesting, otherwise you’re just roleplaying being welcomed by the people and kissing their babies and shaking their hands. So when the PCs arrive, amidst all the baby kissing and being welcomed, some people are acting odd, or something bad has recently happened, or there’s something just not right. Your job as GM is to reveal the wrongness, in all its dirty little glory.

That sounds like the idea of a soap opera to me. The idea of a city with all these various hidden stories that the players will uncover, that is exactly the sort of thing a soap opera is, except this time the players are involved in these stories. It does not need to be as melodramatic, of course, but the key idea is for urban roleplaying, you want to be able to tie things back to the NPCs and their interactions with the PCs.

The first step in creating these stories is that we would need the people to interact with. There are so many systems to create NPCs, so you can definitely pick your favorite for that. However, to come up with how NPCs fit in with the PCs, there is a bit of extra work to make the NPCs realistic in their interactions.When thinking of ways to integrate NPCs in campaigns, I always find myself drawn to Hunter: The Reckoning from the old World of Darkness. I never got to play or run it, but I love the genre because it is everyday people who learn there are monsters in the real world and now they have powers to fight them. The idea of the genre is keeping the balance between real life and monster hunting, so much like say Buffy: The Vampire Slayer where the rest of the world is pretty much oblivious to what is happening. You still need to hold down a job, keep up friends and family relations, things like that. Just imagine going to work after going through what a normal PC goes through in the run of a plot. Bullet holes, couple of bruises with the occasional slashes and gouges missing from you, maybe walking with a limp, and trying to tell your co-workers it’s nothing to worry about.

One example they use in the Storyteller’s Handbook for Hunter is:

Imagine that a character and his girlfriend agree to attend a friend’s 30th birthday party. You can decide that a spirit has possess the friend and tries to pass itself off as him. The hunter senses something is wrong, based on the weird things he’s seen and intentionally or instinctively activates second sight to look at his buddy. Now he knows his friend is in jeopardy and feels compelled to save him. Suddenly you have the basis for a story[…]

[…]In time, don’t neglect the difficulties that relations with friends, family and co-workers can present on the hunt as well. Just as supporting cast members can be inspiration for stories, they can be obstacles in them too. The same hunter in the above example might distractedly agree to attend the party after his life as a hunter is underway. When the party comes and goes and he doesn’t attend, his friend may feel abandoned and resentful. So when that buddy unwittingly gets into trouble with the supernatural the very next week, he may not want anything to do with the character, who’s there to save the friend. It’s hard to do someone good when neither the other person nor the spirit that seeks to possess him want help.

Later in the same book, it talks about the advantages and disadvantages of the different people in your life as would be applicable to the Hunter campaign. These are things any DM would want to think about how they would interact with a PC, as knowing how they could benefit a player or cause problems for a player give you some options to use them in stories beyond just ‘The merchant sells you things’. For supporting cast, they suggest you need to remember a few key points:

  • What do they Want?
  • What do they Need?
  • What do they Do?

This builds off the idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who believed that people acted and behaved according to their current human needs, rather than as a result of having broken brains. He felt that some needs were universally more important than others, and he went on to create a prioritized list of the major ones:

  • Physiological Needs. Oxygen, food, water, shelter. These needs are the strongest because they are based on pure survival.
  • Safety Needs. To feel secure in one’s surroundings, stability, and future safety.
  • Love, Affection and Belongingness Needs. To be accepted by others, have friends, feel needed, and the ability to give and receive love.
  • Esteem Needs. To be competent and receive respect from others. If these needs are not met, the person feels inferior, weak, helpless and worthless.
  • Self-actualization Needs. A person’s need to be and do that which the person was “born to do”. “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write”.The early Dungeon Master Guides for Dungeons and Dragons had charts for interesting quirks and traits for NPCs to have to help give them character, and you can find various lists like this put online by searching for ‘Character Quirk’ or similar in a search engine. Having a character who talks with a lisp or is constantly sniffles or is jittery or is extremely thin or walks with a limp gives a question of the tales that person is not telling you. Usually, once you get a defining characteristic for a person and a reason why, this helps tie things together.

You also want to focus, much like in the Hierarchy of Needs, what the character is good at, those Self-Actualization needs, since this is what the character is likely to be focused about, something they would use to tie their personality around. Think of friends and co-workers, you could usually choose one thing about them that sums them up right away, like ‘sports guy’ or ‘computer person’ or ‘history buff’, or you could focus on other parts, such as an NPC who is always trying to find the angle in any situation, for example like Han Solo in the original trilogy. Another example comes from the first Jason Bourne movie with the exchange:

Jason Bourne: Who has a safety deposit box full of money and six passports and a gun? Who has a bank account number in their hip? I come in here, and the first thing I’m doing is I’m catching the sightlines and looking for an exit.
Marie: I see the exit sign, too. I’m not worried. I mean, you were shot. People do all kinds of weird and amazing stuff when they are scared.
Jason Bourne: I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab or the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?

The idea is to focus on key elements of the NPC, enough that you can get a mental image of this character. How do they talk, how do they act, what sort of personality do they have? Don’t focus on the character stats or skills, those will come into play when they use them, and you should be just trying to bring their personality out to feel comfortable with that. For example of this sort of mindset, I recommend thinking about it like voice acting such as this tutorial where they talk about how to come up with voice for characters based on concept details. You can also use various personality tests to come up with some of this as well, such as t he pictured results from the Myers-Briggs.

It may seem like I did this in reverse order, figuring out where the character would fit with your PCs, building what their core is, and then assigning them a personality from that. You can do it in the other order as well, and usually when you are in game that will be the order. However, starting off, you’ll have roles to fill and need NPCs to fill those slots in PC backstories and thus you’ll likely be in this order of design to come up with someone to be the character’s mother or neighbour or co-worker.

Next week will be more on the topic of building the community, where we focus on taking the NPCs we will come up with and designing ways that they can interact with each other so that we have stories for the PCs to discover. Remember the Peddler from the opening to Aladdin, beckoning us welcome? We will talk about that sort of city and how we can help build the type of encounters he is selling up.