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Ulterior Motives
The Dungeon Master Experience
By Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.


MONDAY NIGHT. Arkhalia Kelx is a noble dragonborn widow who, according to some, hides a dark secret. There are rumors that she was involved in the assassination of her husband — a high-ranking officer in the Dragovar Empire. However, no proof of her involvement was ever found. Still, the scandal pushed her to the fringe of noble society. Much earlier in the campaign, two of the PCs (the elf ranger Kithvolar and Oleander the halfling rogue) broke into Arkhalia's residence, hoping to find something they could use against her. Finding nothing, they concluded that she was either innocent or masterful at covering her tracks.

Recently, the heroes thwarted another conspiracy against the Dragovar Empire, this time a plot to supplant the legitimate imperial heir with a usurper with ties to two corrupt noble houses. The heroes killed the usurper and exposed the various conspirators in the midst of a dragonborn masquerade. Many in attendance were grateful to see the vile conspiracy thwarted, including Arkhalia Kelx, who was counted among the guests. As things settled down, she took Kithvolar aside and quietly confessed to the murder of her husband. When asked why, she replied, "I see now that the Dragovar Empire can no longer survive on secrets." If the admission was a clever ploy to gain the party's trust, it worked perfectly. Kithvolar was so struck by the confession that he didn't even think to ask Arkhalia why she conspired to murder her husband. He simply let her go. As the campaign spirals toward its imminent conclusion, one wonders if her reasons will ever come to light. . . .

I relish campaigns laced with intrigue, and I enjoy the depth it brings to the worlds I create. However, creating intrigue is not easy. For intrigue to exist at all, you need the player characters to feel like they're tangled in a web from which there's no easy escape. As I've stated previously, one way to add intrigue to your campaign is to give every NPC a secret. Secrets make your world a much more interesting and confounding place. But it takes more than secrets to create intrigue. Secrets must somehow be revealed, preferably when it makes the most dramatic sense. What could be worse than a campaign littered with secrets that never come to light, or a secret revealed without so much as a gasp or shriek?

So let's talk about motives and ulterior motives, and how we can use them to deliver and exploit NPC secrets.

NPCs need motives — logical reasons why they act and behave they way they do. Player characters want to understand what makes an NPC tick, and a logical motive does exactly that. A motive by itself doesn't need to intrigue players; it merely provides context to help players make sense of the NPC's mindset and behavior. Here are three examples of NPCs with motives around which we can build some serious intrigue:

NPC #1: The overprotective half-orc sheriff of a rural township gives adventurers a hard time because he thinks they're a threat to his authority.

NPC #2: A racist innkeeper incessantly badmouths the half-orc sheriff because he's a cantankerous dwarf with an unbridled hatred of orcs and their ilk.

NPC #3: A shady tiefling wizard pays the innkeeper a hefty sum for a private room because she's working on a new spell and doesn't want to be disturbed.

The half-orc sheriff wants to protect the town, the dwarf innkeeper wants to make the sheriff's life miserable, and the tiefling wizard wants to be left alone. These motives define what the NPCs want and provide clues to how they might act.

Now imagine building an adventure around the idea of the local inn catching fire shortly after the PCs arrive. How might these three NPCs react to the situation? Well, the half-orc sheriff might organize a chain gang to help put out the fire, hoping to win points with the cantankerous innkeeper while accusing the PCs of starting the blaze. The innkeeper might hire the PCs to determine the cause of the fire because he wants to make the sheriff look bad. Whether she had anything to do with the fire or not, the tiefling wizard might try to sneak away amid the chaos, or she might stick around, blame the incident on her invisible imp familiar, and promise to pay damages to avoid a drawn-out investigation.

Players can usually figure out NPC motives by using logic, by paying attention to described behavior, or through roleplaying (coupled with the occasional Insight or Intimidate check, perhaps). It's the ulterior motives they have trouble discerning.

Ulterior motives are the bedrock of great intrigue. The wonderful thing about them is that they're logical, and yet not readily apparent. You have to dig to learn an NPC's ulterior motive, and when you find it, you realize that it makes perfect sense given what you know about the individual. NPCs keep their ulterior motives hidden because to expose them would cost them some advantage or opportunity, and there's something sinister about that. The other important thing to note is that any NPC — even the good-aligned ones — can have ulterior motives.

Not every NPC needs an ulterior motive. The shopkeeper who tries to sell the party an overpriced magic item doesn't need a more sinister underlying agenda. Save ulterior motives for NPCs who are more inclined to get a lot of "face time" in your campaign, if only because it takes time to unearth ulterior motives. Like regular motives, ulterior motives must be logical. They must always run parallel to an NPC's more obvious ambitions and desires, such that the motive and ulterior motive never collide. An insane wizard trying to summon a demonic horde can't have an ulterior motive that involves the restoration of his sanity; that just doesn't make any logical sense. If the wizard knew he was insane, he probably wouldn't be opening a portal to the Abyss!

By way of illustration, let's dream up some logical ulterior motives for the three example NPCs described earlier:

Half-Orc Sheriff (NPC #1): The overprotective sheriff wants to impress the king by maintaining law and order, but he feels politically threatened because of his mixed heritage. A bitter rival sends spies to watch over him, and the sheriff is convinced that the dwarf innkeeper has been feeding them false reports. The innkeeper's dealings with adventurers fuel the sheriff's worst fears, and he'd like nothing more than to change the innkeeper's opinion of him or, failing that, run the dwarf out of town.

Clear Motive: The overbearing sheriff wants to protect his charges.
Ulterior Motive: The sheriff wants to remove a thorn in his side.

Dwarf Innkeeper (NPC #2): The innkeeper has been trying to ruin the sheriff for a while, and not just because the sheriff is a half-orc. The sheriff's predecessor was secretly allied with evil brigands and relied on the innkeeper to serve as a "middle man." The innkeeper's establishment was used to shelter fugitives and sequester stolen goods. The innkeeper would like nothing more than to rekindle his relationship with the brigands, even if that means setting fire to the inn to make the sheriff look bad.

Clear Motive: The innkeeper opposes the sheriff because he's a half-orc.
Ulterior Motive: The innkeeper wants to do business with evil brigands.

Tiefling Wizard (NPC #3): The tiefling wizard means no harm, but she seeks to join a secret society of mages, and her acceptance into the lower ranks hinges on the successful casting of a difficult and complex spell. She has summoned an imp to help her in the days leading up to a fateful meeting with a member of the society, but time is running out. The conniving imp has convinced the wizard to entreat with infernal forces that have the power to help her achieve her goal, but at greater cost.

Clear Motive: The wizard needs seclusion to research a spell.
Ulterior Motive: The wizard will do whatever it takes to gain membership in a secret society.

By ascribing motives and ulterior motives to a small cast of NPCs, we can set the stage for an adventure in which a half-orc sheriff, a dwarf innkeeper, and a tiefling wizard all have reasons for setting fire to the local inn. It then becomes the your job to embroil the PCs in the mystery and the players' job to discover who actually did it. Intrigue, after all, is about possibilities, doubts, and the discovery of truth.

Lessons Learned

"There's the truth . . . and then there'sTHE TRUTH."

— Troy McClure (Phil Hartman)
The Simpsons

Years ago, before I started writing The Dungeon Master Experience, I brainstormed a list of topics that I hoped to cover before the end of the series. "Intrigue" was the #1 topic on that list. Sadly, it's not the easiest thing to talk about. In fact, I have an easier time creating intrigue in a D&D campaign than I have explaining how to do it. (Would it surprise you to learn this article took six hours to write? It sure surprised the hell out of me.)

It's easy to create simple, straightforward motives for NPCs that help to steer their behavior and actions: A bandit lord robs from the rich to feed the poor. A nobleman conspires to murder his tiresome wife and marry his younger mistress. A knight hires the heroes to help slay a marauding dragon and deliver its head to the king. Motives get at the truth of why people think and act they way they do. Motives never lie. In a D&D campaign, you need NPCs with motives to foster intrigue, which comes when you start layering on secrets. Ulterior motives are secrets, but coming up with good ones is a challenge for which I have no simple workarounds.

An ulterior motive makes a terrific secret because it speaks to an NPC's hidden desires, and while most NPCs don't care if their base motives are readily apparent, they usually try to keep their ulterior motives under wraps. It's not enough that the bandit lord robs wealthy caravans to feed the poor; he also carves his initials into the sides of plundered wagons because he's vainglorious and wants to be remembered in the history books as a true "man of the people." The noble who marries his secret paramour does so because he's strapped for coin and needs her dowry to pay off his gambling debts. The dragon-slaying knight is a coward at heart and knows he cannot face the wyrm alone, so he expects the PCs to do all the fighting while he stands before the king and takes the credit. Every time an NPC's ulterior motive comes to light, the players feel like they've just turned over another stone in the campaign and found something crawling underneath. But that's not even the best part . . .

Once players begin to realize there's more to your NPCs than superficial motives, they begin to see mysteries and conspiracies and ulterior motives everywhere (sometimes where none exist), and in that exhilarating and terrifying moment, you see the intrigue begin to take on a life of its own, and you realize how readily it feeds on itself and grows, and how little effort it takes to keep it alive.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

In your current party, what’s the ratio of “core characters” (characters essential to the plot and the campaign’s survival) to “supporting characters” (important members of the party who are nonessential to the plot, without whom the campaign would probably survive)?
All party members are core characters. 118 13.2%
Mostly core characters, with fewer supporting characters. 250 27.9%
Mostly supporting characters, with fewer core characters. 343 38.3%
No core characters, yet every party member has time in the limelight. 164 18.3%
None of the above. 20 2.2%
Total 895 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #100

 Which of the following races is most “at home” in campaign rife with intrigue?  
Changeling
Dragonborn
Gnome
Half-Elf
Human
Tiefling

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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