Saturday 14 August 2021

Elements of incongruity

I've written before about the dangers of simply doubling down on the same ideas ad infinitum, leading to extremely one-note characters, settings, and situations: barbarians primarily characterised by their barbaric barbarism, rogues notable for their roguish roguery, and so on. Not only does this tend to make scenarios more boring on a conceptual level, it often also leads to less satisfying actual play. If the Pyromantic Fire Coven of the Burning Flame Witch are totally all in on fire magic, then once the PCs have developed viable anti-fire-magic countermeasures they really have no reason to respond to each thing the Coven throws at them with anything other than 'the same again, but more'. But the best play thrives on complexity, on situations fraught with tensions and contradictions that the PCs can get their claws into and turn to their advantage. 

One easy way to create this is to ensure that each creature, community, organisation, or whatever includes at least one element of incongruity. This is the wrinkle in their otherwise smooth conceptual facade: the thing that not only makes them more interesting and memorable, but also provides hooks for more nuanced play, making them resistant to the overconfident and vulnerable to the well-prepared. 

So here are some examples. To come up with one for your next NPC or faction, try rolling 1d3 and 1d6...

Incongruity type (roll 1d3)

  1. Incongruous character trait.
  2. Incongruous individual.
  3. Incongruous nature.  

Incongruous character trait. Children's fiction uses this sort of thing all the time. ('It turned out that the dragon secretly loved dancing!') This sort of thing can serve to trip up players who make over-hasty assumptions about how such characters will behave, while also providing resources for those who bother to get to know them properly, allowing them to be more easily befriended or manipulated by the PCs.

Assign an incongruous trait by rolling 1d6:

  1. Incongruous belief. This person has one sincere and deeply-held belief that could not easily be predicted from their general worldview or ideological position. Maybe an otherwise-rational person has one superstition they take really seriously, and cannot be argued out of; maybe an otherwise-conservative traditionalist has one topic on which they have surprisingly liberal views, or vice-versa. An important sub-type is the incongruous moral position, whereby an otherwise-decent person turns out to harbour some horrible prejudice or moral blind spot, or a seemingly-wicked or amoral person turns out to have at least one moral line they genuinely will not cross.
  2. Incongruous personality trait. This person has one character trait that is apparently out of keeping with their social role. Immense personal vanity is predictable among aristocrats, but perhaps more surprising in an orc raider; tremendous interpersonal aggression might be common among street thugs, but is more unexpected in a librarian. They may have found a way to make this trait work for them - maybe the librarian has terrorised all his rivals into submission! - or it may form a barrier that they need to work around in order to fulfil the role expected of them. 
  3. Incongruous interest or hobby. This person is fascinated by something unexpected, like an absent-minded sage turning out to be a bare-knuckle boxing enthusiast, or a brutal ogre who actually has a deep and genuine appreciation for music. They may be ashamed of this interest and keep it secret, which will only make them more eager to share it with non-judgemental fellow enthusiasts.
  4. Incongruous background. This person wasn't always the way they are now. Maybe they've experienced a massive rise or fall in social status (e.g. the street thief was actually born into a noble family, or vice versa), or maybe they've undergone some huge cultural shift, moving into a religious, cultural, or ideological position very different from the one they originally held. They consequently possess a body of skills and knowledge incongruous with their current position - that street thief may actually have a surprising knowledge of aristocratic etiquette left over from their privileged childhood!
  5. Incongruous relationship. This person maintains a relationship (personal, familial, or romantic) which connects them to a sphere of life otherwise remote from their own. Maybe the bandit chief's sister is the city archivist. Maybe this weird, smelly hermit was once the baron's childhood friend. The relationship means a lot to both parties, even though they might feel some embarrassment about it. 
  6. Incongruous ambition. This person has always aspired to something utterly different to their current life. Maybe they wanted to pursue a very different career, like a sailor who always wanted to be an artist instead, or vice versa; or maybe they harbour a secret crush on someone from a very different social sphere, and dream of running away with them and living happily ever after. Depending on context, this ambition may be something they talk about all the time, or something they keep carefully hidden. 

Incongruous individual. When it comes to individuals in groups, lots of RPG adventures tend to go for the 'chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce' approach: so if the group are violent savage, their leader or champion will be notable for being even more savagely violent. But you can get much more mileage out of having a difference, instead: something that sets them apart in kind rather than just degree, a difference which can serve as a source of strength or as a wedge to drive them apart. Assign an incongruous individual by rolling 1d6:

  1. Incongruous ideology. The group all do the same things - they wouldn't be much of a group, otherwise - but one of them does them for different reasons to the rest. Maybe, in a band of outlaws otherwise motivated by greed, one actually sees their criminal activities as a way to strike back against the unjust social order. Maybe most of the soldiers are fighting because they actually want to win the war, but their commanding officer is only here to pursue a private vendetta, or out of a sense of religious obligation. Whatever the split is, it's not enough to stop them from working together on a day-to-day basis (or they'd have gone their separate ways ages ago), but it might well come to the forefront in moments of crisis. 
  2. Incongruous quality. One person in the group is just much better or much worse than the rest in some significant way. Maybe the thieves are mostly mere brawlers... except for one of them, who's the best knife-fighter anyone's ever seen. Maybe the hobgoblins are hardened warriors... except for one of them, who's someone's little brother out on his first campaign. Either way around, this difference probably arouses a complicated mixture of positive and negative feelings in the others: unusually strong characters will be regarded with mingled respect and envy, while unusually weak ones may be viewed with a mixture of protectiveness and resentment.
  3. Incongruous culture. One individual in the group has a very different social or cultural background to the rest. Maybe they're part of a different ethnicity (or a different species, in a fantasy setting); maybe they follow a different religion, or were born into a different culture or social class (e.g. one member of a band of aristocratic rakehells who was actually born poor, and is extremely self-conscious about it). This difference may be a source of strength, providing skills and knowledge that the group would otherwise lack, but can also be a source of tension that scheming adversaries may use to pry them apart. 
  4. Incongruous ability. One individual in the group has some surprising ability that the others lack: a scholar in a band of beggars, a skilled diplomat in a gang of orcish raiders, a talented huntsman in an office full of bureaucrats, etc. For fantasy games this may also take the form of a magical talent. 
  5. Incongruous virtue. One person in the group has some important positive quality - e.g. mercy, loyalty, tolerance, courage, compassion - that the rest of them lack. This virtue can't be something that gets in the way of the group's day-to-day activities - a pirate who refuses to steal isn't going to be a pirate for long - but may well surface at crucial junctures, when one member of the group unexpectedly breaks from the rest to take some kind of moral stand.
  6. Incongruous vice. One person in the group has some important negative quality - e.g. sadism, cowardice, deceitfulness, addiction, greed - that the rest of them lack. Depending on the context, this vice may be something they perform openly or something they try to keep secret, but it's a big enough part of their personality that anyone who observes them closely is likely to pick up on it. As with virtues, such vices are particularly likely to reveal themselves at crucial junctures, when one member of the group abandons or betrays their comrades or otherwise gives way to their worst impulses. 

Incongruous nature. The character is not who they seem to be. The face they present to the world is a performance, but their true nature is very different to what they pretend, and at moments of crisis the real them shines through. Their true nature could be anything as long as it's sufficiently distinct from their public facade, but to pick one that'll work for almost anyone, roll 1d6. (And, yes, these are all Natures from the old World of Darkness system...)

  1. Covert monster. Whatever the person pretends to be, the reality is far worse. If they pretend to be good, it's sheer hypocrisy. If they pretend to be normal, it's protective camouflage. If they pretend to at least be loyal to their mates, then they're actually just waiting for the right time to sell them out. Everything they do is actually intended to multiply their opportunities to benefit themselves at other people's expense. Even the things that seem most benevolent. Especially the things that seem most benevolent. 
  2. Covert caregiver. Whatever this person appears to be, they're actually a real softy at heart. They might still do harmful things, but it's only because they believe in tough love, or because they hope that the ends justify the means, or because they're trying to protect their friends or to teach you a lesson. At the end of the day they will always try to nurture their allies and minimise harm to their enemies, although they might pretend otherwise for appearance's sake. 
  3. Covert conformist. This person only acts the way they do because they feel it's expected of them. They might appear to be cruel, or kind, or artistic, or scholarly, or shy, or whatever... but it's all just a show, a performance for other people's benefit. Put them in a different social context and they'd act completely differently. Put them in no social context and they might even start the long and painful process of working out what they want, instead. 
  4. Covert judge. This person is actually a moralist at heart. They might pretend to be anarchic or forgiving or amoral or nihilistic, but secretly they are always, always judging. Everything they do is secretly a test, even when it's disguised as an act of mercy or sadism or hedonism or indifference, and when it comes right down to it, the way they treat you will depend on the secret score they've been chalking up for you in their heads this whole time. 
  5. Covert child. This person never really grew up. They can manage a passable performance of adulthood, including pretending to have proper adult motivations, but underneath it's all just childish curiosity and clinging and tantrums and I WANT THE THING NOW! Such characters will often gravitate towards substitute parent-figures, although they'll usually claim that these relationships are romantic or political or professional, instead. 
  6. Covert idealist. This person really, seriously believes in some kind of big ideal: Freedom, Justice, Faith, Honour, that sort of thing. They probably don't make a big deal of it, because they know most people will either laugh at them or assume they're lying, but when push comes to shove they are actually, genuinely willing to kill or die for their ideal, in a fashion that is likely to be equal parts inspiring and terrifying.

Incongruity in Action: the Backwood Bandits

Let's apply all these possibilities to that most uninteresting of fantasy cliches, the bandit gang. Hopefully it will be clear how any or all of these could lead to more interesting actual play! (And yes, if you wanted to, you could apply all eighteen at once...)
  • Boring version: The bandits are robbers who live in the backwoods. Their leader is the biggest, meanest robber of all.
  • 1.1: The bandits are, in their own idiosyncratic way, deeply religious. They refuse to rob on holy days, and will not harm members of the clergy.
  • 1.2: The bandits hate lying. They may kill and rob you, but at least they'll be totally honest about it.
  • 1.3: The bandits love music. Their rousing sing-alongs echo through the backwoods, and they'll go out of their way to steal musical instruments and kidnap musicians.
  • 1.4: The bandits actually started out as a bunch of university drop-outs who took to robbery after being expelled. For a band of forest-dwelling robbers they're a surprisingly learned bunch.
  • 1.5: The bandit chief is in love with a local cleric, whose temple he's been surreptitiously visiting by night, though both men are deeply conflicted about the relationship.
  • 1.6: The bandits actually intended to become legitimate merchants - the robbery was just intended to raise enough capital to start a business. But one thing led to another and now they're all wanted by the authorities and stuck living in a wood...
  • 2.1: Most of the bandits are just in it for the money, but one of them really believes that robbing people is her holy duty, and that she is the instrument of heaven's vengeance upon an unjust society.
  • 2.2: One of the bandits is so much better at woodcraft and archery than the others that it's positively obnoxious. All her comrades hate her.
  • 2.3: One of the bandits is a goblin, who acts as the group's scout, but is acutely conscious that the others will never really regard him as one of the gang.
  • 2.4: One of the bandits has natural magical talents, though he's totally untaught and has little control over how they manifest.
  • 2.5: One of the bandits is totally committed to the gang, and would happily lay down her life for them. (They would never dream of doing the same for her.)
  • 2.6: One of the bandits is an awful alcoholic, unable to resist the lure of alcohol even when he knows that he really should.
  • 3.1: One of the bandits is a sociopathic monster who is just biding her time, waiting for the chance to sell out her 'friends' and escape with all the loot.
  • 3.2: One of the bandits always secretly tries to make sure that no-one on either side gets hurt during their robberies - he claims his motives are purely pragmatic, but actually he just genuinely hates cruelty and violence.
  • 3.3: One of the bandits only got roped into a life of crime because of peer pressure. He talks a lot about the love of freedom and the injustice of the law, but would happily resume a blameless life of honest labour if given half a chance. 
  • 3.4: One of the bandits is secretly testing the rest of the gang to see if they're truly worthy of her loyalty, willing to dedicate her life to them if they pass, or to betray them to the authorities if they fail.
  • 3.5: Beneath his ferocious exterior, one of the bandits is secretly a mass of insecurities, clinging to the bandit chief for reassurance in a world he's never really learned to understand or deal with.
  • 3.6: One of the bandits is an absolute true believer in personal liberty, and would rather kill or die than accept any kind of restriction or restraint. 


  1. This is really, really, really good. The kind of RPG advice people SHOULD be writing all the time, but you only rarely see.

    I think you could get a lot of mileage out of inverting the covert results: a covert adult, for example, who pretends to be carefree but is in reality far more mature than most people, or a covert nonconformist who acts like a free spirit but rebels against things they agree with just because they're afraid of fitting in.

  2. I agree with Malcolm. This is the sort of thing that can make any game better, since the results are broad enough to apply to any genre, while the examples give a lens for seeing how they work in action. I also like the idea of inverting the coverts - an inverted covert idealist who pretends to support an ideal because they think it will get them ahead with the rest of the group but really doesn't care about the ideal could be a bit harder for the group to suss out in normal play, but as a recurring character could be a great NPC.

    Meanwhile, the inverted covert monster would be something like the (prior) Dread Pirate Roberts, always threatening to kill Westley but actually training him to be the successor to the role.

    1. Thanks, both! I agree about the flippability of the covert natures, and I always thought the old World of Darkness Nature/Demeanour system (where I got the concept from) was an underrated bit of design tech. You can see instantly how a Judge/Monster would be different from a Monster/Judge, and how both might easily be compelling characters: facade of amoral monstrosity hiding a core of judgmental moralism vs. facade of judgmental moralism hiding a core of genuine monstrosity. And so on down the line...

  3. I'll certainly be applying the idea behind it to my new Morrowind inspired campaign I am working on. Unexpectedly odd but believable people are a big aspect of that style.

    1. As I recall, Morrowind also used the *physical* version of this to great effect. A little fantasy village, some shops, some elves... and a giant insectoid silt strider standing right outside it. It's one of the reasons why it's still remembered so fondly twenty years on!

    2. That is more a case of unexpected unfamiliar strangeness, though, I think. It is unexpected of you've never see it before, but you quickly realize that a silt strider is simply an elephant, a guar simply an ox, a giant mushroom simply a tree, and even the kwama egg miners are essentially just bee keepers.
      It is strange because it is unknown. Not because there is any kind of cognitive mismatch. The incongruity of NPCs or customs remains even after they have been explained.

  4. This puts me in mind of an old post by Deeper in the Game, about the PC's relationship to faction members, It characterizes the relationship to the pc and also whether the it is Our side vs Their side.

    The most interesting of the 7 relationships described were the incongruous ones:
    The Hater: helps our side, hurts you -- you are both loyal to the same faction but the hater acts against you for whatever reason, e.g. you are rivals.
    The Tempter: helps their side, helps you -- you are both loyal to opposing factions, but the Tempter likes you and sometimes aids you, e.g. the Tempter has a crush on you.

  5. My PCs recently stormed the bandit stronghold only to discover one of the bandits was in the midst of giving birth. The party cleric offered to help deliver the baby, leading to most of the rank and file bandits turning their allegiance to the adventurers and helping them take out the head honchos leading the gang.