Peter’s Principle*–Hum(e)an NPCs

TL;DR: An improvisational take NPCs creation, based on Apocalypse World’s motto—“Name everyone, make everyone human”—David Hume’s philosophy, and Cortex Prime’s ruleset. What could go wrong?

On-the-fly NPCs are essential to improv gameplay, especially with Apocalypse World‘s motto “name everyone, make everyone human” (which I follow, always). Still, imagination is a fickle thing, and not stereotyping is hard. My way around this is free-form skills, both a Fate thing (from FAE, although a “bad guys” thing) and a throwback from my Marvel Heroic RPG days. 

I updated the method from Fate to Cortex Prime (the evolution of MHR’s engine), a system swap (mentioned here) that was surprisingly impactful on NPCs. In retrospect, it’s really not a surprise. The campaign that prompted that swap incorporates an unusual amount of philosophy—as in “unusual for me,” not as “unusual in TTRPGs” (see that post)—including a good chunk about what makes folks tick.

That’s the reasoning-from-the-basics part of this post: Hume’s outlook on “human nature” is the wheel I’m reinventing (Peter’s Principle*’s backstory here) and you can skip it. Next come implications for NPCs creation, with an unexpected throwback to the logic of discovery in TTRPGs. That’s a bit all over the place, but there’s still some practical-ish stuff at the end.

Passions and Values

Figuring out motives goes a long way to explaining someone’s past actions, and in some cases, predicting their next one. Accordingly, the most simplified theory of human interaction, game theory, represents agents via preferences and action sets and assumes agents adjust means (actions) to ends (preferences). This, in turn, is a gross simplification of David Hume’s philosophy.

David Hume on Human Nature

In 1740, two hundred years before the first systematic exposition of game theory, Hume proposed the first-ever game-theoretic analysis of equilibrium selection to explain the origin of private property. That earned him some points with conservatives, but that’s a selective reading—because “Hume’s Guillotine” is the polar opposite of conservatism. It’s not relevant to today’s topic, but I feel strongly about it, so there’s a rant in The Fine Prints.

Hume hypothesized that human beings are driven by preferences he called “passions,” with a normal distribution of a few of them defining a “normal” human nature. For instance, he observed that human beings are on a Bell curve with selfless altruists at the one end and self-absorbed assholes at the other. None of the extremes are irrational (cf. quote below), nor is the middle ground rational or excellent or remarkable —it’s just “normal,” which does not mean “good,” only “average.” 

‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. ‘Tis not contrary to reason for me to choose my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.

 David Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, Book II, Part 3, section 3

Hume’s analysis was pretty radical and ahead of his time, anticipating game theory by two hundred years and evolutionary theory by about one hundred. Eventually, Hume applied his human-nature-based analysis to historical events and became a best-selling historian.

Values as Stats

When we ported our Queer Clokpunk Fantasy (QCF) game, we settled on a build cashing in Hume’s view of human nature, with actions driven by passions, using Cortex options illustrated Fig. 1. In Cortex lingo, the *-stat blocks as prime sets: every time a player assembles a dice pool, it includes one die in each of those categories (one Character Aspects, one Value, and one Action).

For clarification, Values and passions are not the same. In Hume’s terms, every Value started as a passion, one widespread enough that folks would start thinking about it, and elevate it to something worth cultivating (see, for instance, “family values” in The Fine Prints).

Fig. 1—Fate-to-Cortex transition build with Character Aspects, Values and Actions as prime sets.

Mechanically, it’s a variation on the Fate-to-Cortex transition from this post substituting group dynamics (Relationships) with Values motivating PCs to act or which PCs appeal to while interacting with NPCs.  

Narratively, the Value set reflects the kind of stories we wanted to tell at the table—fueled by Cortex’s version of “if you do it, you do it, so make with the dice”—not some particular insight into human nature. Still, the game has Humean themes, but they’re a story for another day because they’re centered on PCs, and the NPCs are the stars of today’s show.

Enter the GMC

The freeform method for Game Moderator’s Characters—GMCs, the in-system Cortex moniker for NPCs—works admirably well in Cortex. But having overlapping N/PCs stats has distinct advantages, especially with Values. That realization was an “emergent gameplay” thing, but it did not occur in a vacuum. So, let’s take that in order.

Monk the Dick Returns

Remember Monk, from that post? If you don’t, Fig. 2 should jog your memory. Now, picture a GM who has announced future badness (Fig. 2, left) but has not revealed the custom move yet. Still, players can infer Monk’s impulse (Seek Pain) from the foreshadowing and expect Monk to attack someone from behind. That’s because the Apocalypse World ruleset list both as “passion” (impulse) and action set (moves) for the Grotesque: Pain Addict Threat (AW, pp. 109-110).

A Cortex player could draw an inference to the same conclusion if some AW-Threats translation document is available for the Cortex game. Otherwise, the GM can reveal the right-hand card (Fig. 2) with Monk’s “passion” for pain ( Seek Pain) and inclination for attacking someone from behind (from the SFX). But what if the GM reveals only enough for PCs to start asking questions about Monk? Fig. 3 shows a Cortex card, redacted with that intention.

Fig. 3–Monk, a partially unknown threat.

If the game is an AW port, complete with Threats types, the players could infer Monk’s Impulse, and even take a guess at Monk’s Dick Move, from the foreshadowing note (“pain addict”). But even without a full port and reference document for Threats, there’s enough to expect aggression: Monk’s Impulse and Dick Move are “known unknowns” (see this post). Figuring out Monk is a guided discovery problem: the PCs know which question to ask.

NPC Traits as a Discovery Problem

Monk’s impulse is a free-form Trait: narratively, it’s an aspect of Monk’s personality that expresses a “passion” (in Hume’s sense) for pain and violence. Mechanically, Monk is an “extra”: a GMC with a single multi-purpose trait (here, and p. 116 in the print/pdf). PCs and players can make assumptions and hypotheses about Monk using foreshadowing as clues.

But what could players and PCs guess about GMCs built with the same stat sets as PCs? And what about partially revealed GMCs? Of course, the answers depend on the game and the game lore. So, what about a Cortex build based on the Humean theory of human nature, where motivators are passions that have made it into Values?

Well, simply put, by reproducing the Humean basis for a means-ends explanation, a Value-Action cortex build can foster a sense of interpersonal discovery. I’d love to have figured that out myself ahead of porting the game to Cortex. Discovery is my academic specialty and it would make me look smart and competent. But the truth is, it was a player-initiated accident.

It started with a GMC/NPC Fari pre-set for a character with only one distinction—his/their professional occupation in the game world (Fig. 4, left-hand). My plan was to ask some questions around and fill the card based on the answers (a trick I learned for Randy Oest). But before I could, one of my players said: “Oh, cool, something to discover! Let’s find out what makes that guy tick!” And my players started to check Xuefeng’s office (where they met him/them) for clues.

I had nothing on Xuefeng’s beyond his/their distinction and pronouns. So I used the conversation with the player—including their selection of Distinction, Value, and Action—and fed back into Xuefeng’s card. From the player-PC standpoint, it felt like discovery with the associated emotional payoff but remained an improv through and through. 

The actual story leans heavily on the campaign lore, so its content would be a distraction. My point is more about the method, but there’s not much to it anyway: ad-lib a description of the environment, let the players pick up on details, and match them with possible Values. The magic comes from the players glossing over their own dice pool choices and hypothesizing the NPC’s motives. Snowball on that, and you have your Hum(e)an GMC/NPC.

The Fine Prints

Hume’s Guillotine. Hume’s reputation as a conservative thinker comes from his analysis of the origin of private property. Scarce natural resources coupled with the part-egoist, part-altruistic human nature explain why private property emerged (as an equilibrium) in human societies. With more egoism, folks would not respect other folks’ stuff. With more altruism, they would share without risk of conflict. And none of that would even matter without scarcity. Still, private property is not a “right” earned by commodifying stuff (that’s John Locke, the real origin of political conservatism). It’s an equilibrium resulting from an interaction constrained by human “passions” and environmental conditions. Those constraints could change, and conservatives co-opting Hume always forget that part. Indeed, Hume holds that governance can change “passions” in the long run by altering the environment, making some “passions” better to follow than others. In other words, governance can replace ecological pressure, which Hume identified a hundred-odd years before Darwin.

Here’s an example: according to Hume, “strong family values” are a projection of a (widespread) “passion” for protecting children to the point of self-sacrifice—a guarantee for the species’ survival. But unlike conservatives, Hume would not oppose LGBTQ+ rights for “it’s not good for the species” bullshit reasons because heteronormativity is not necessary to survival. More generally, conservatives hold that things ought to stay the way they are, and that’s precisely what Hume’s Guillotine—the principle: never infer how things ought to be, based on how they are—undermines. Its corollary, the Is-Ought Fallacy, is a thorn in philosophers’ side, both serious and amateurs. For the serious ones: Plato, who believes that you can reflect on “the Good” and figure out “the good thing to do.” But it’s an Is-Ought Fallacy—you’d be merely projecting your preferences (“passions”). For the amateur? Jordan Peterson, whose “philosophy” is just a big-ass joke of an Is-Ought Fallacy, and a proof that conservative “thought” is as dumb and clueless today as it was when it claimed Hume as its own.

Wrapping up: Name Everyone, Make Everyone Hum(e)an

Values can be an alternative to skills (as in Fate Condensed), a basis for moves (in PtbA games, such as Fellowship), and dice pool builders telling stories of PCs’ motives, as in the defunct Smallville and the upcoming Tales of Xadia—which, even if you’re not into The Dragon Prince at all, is an excellent (and free) Cortex-based game.

Cortex has options that can give players more value from their Values (gods, I love a bad pun). Posting about the “value of values” for emergent gameplay is on my to-do list already. Today barely scratched the surface, using Values as a priming tool, to leverage how folks put in one another’s shoes for improv gameplay.

Values encourage storytelling to focus on moral drama and exploration of motives. That may be a tad too “philosophical” and introspective for some, but it’s not exclusive of action drama, and I may come back to the “action” part of our Queer Clockpunk Fantasy campaign.

But that will be all for today, folks.

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