Using UA Passions to Develop Depth

During the Moral Ambiguity in Gaming panel at NorWesCon, the charismatic Clinton J. Boomer — a fellow Unknown Armies fan — made a great point about creating characters of depth using some ideas from UA: specifically, the three passions. This came from a conversation about how everyone is the hero of their own internal story, and no one self-identifies as evil except for the mustache-twirling villains[1].

For those unfamiliar with the best RPG in existence, I say to you to buy it. It’s available in PDF now. Still, it wouldn’t be much of a blog post if I just said “hey, buy it, mic drop.”

There are three Passions: the Fear Passion, the Rage Passion, and the Noble Passion. (They are also called Stimuli in the text.) Each is something that is a hot button for a character: what terrifies them, what enrages them, what causes them to raise above their id. The important thing is that every single character has all three[2]. And that’s something that can be brought to a game to make every character something beyond a cardboard cutout of good or evil.

They are always form the imperfect perspective of the character, sometimes internal struggles and sometimes external issues. I’ll skirt the spirit of copyright by pasting the example passions below:

Fear Passion Examples

  • Fire. Fire claimed your house, and with it your wardrobe, your record collection, not to mention all your photos and yearbooks. It’s bad stuff, not just dangerous and painful but unpredictable as well.
  • Foreigners. When you were overseas, you always knew they were talking about you behind your back, jabbering away in that weird monkey language. Now they’re all around you, even in the streets of your home town.
  • Temptation. You don’t drink anymore. When you get drunk you do terrible things, so you don’t drink. Much. No, not at all. In fact, you’re careful to stay away from bars, restaurants, and that liquor store on Third and Main.
  • Possession. You don’t like to talk about the exorcism. You don’t like to say the creature’s name. You know it’s still out there and calling it could bring it right back.
  • Dogs. You’ve got marks on you from the red jaws and white teeth. Even those barky little shit dogs make you nervous, and big beasts like a Doberman or Saint Bernard? Forget it.
  • Victimization. You weren’t the one who got hurt, you were just the one they made talk. You tried to be tough, and that made it all your fault. Now you can’t stand to see people get hurt. To you, watching the victim is worse than being the victim.

Rage Passion Examples

  • Backchat. Is it too much to ask that people be polite? You understand someone who throws a punch at you, but a sarcastic loudmouth really gets your goat.
  • Enemy Drivers. You’re an excellent driver. You wish all the bad drivers around you would just realize it, hang up their cell phones, and get the hell out of your way.
  • Laziness. When someone does a half-assed job, they’re not just disrespecting their duties or their boss. They’re flipping the bird to everyone who has to put up with their shoddy work. God help one of your employees if you catch her slacking.
  • Sleaze. Booze. Pornography. Foul language. Toilet humor. The country is swimming in filth, and no one’s doing anything about it. It’s time someone took a stand. Someday a real rain is gonna fall.
  • Stuck-up Assholes. Just because you didn’t go to college and don’t drive a Lexus doesn’t mean those rich fucks get to look down at you. Goddamn snobs. Someone ought to take them down a notch.
  • Those Fat Cats in Washington. Democrats and Republicans are just the competing teams in the “Screw the Taxpayer” Super Bowl, brought to you live by the Army, the Post Office, and your local Police Department.

Noble Passion Examples

  • Entertainment. How much better would the world be if people devoted as much effort to making one another happy as they do to getting rich or becoming powerful? You believe laughter is the best medicine—so if you cheer someone up now, the future takes care of itself.
  • Historical Preservation. If we can’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it, and all those who suffered did so in vain. Preserving our links to the past gives us a firm foundation to build a better future.
  • Landmine Removal. Landmines are deadly, indiscriminate, and a bitch to remove. You’ve seen their carnage firsthand and you’re dedicated to removing them physically (by working as a minesweeper) and politically (through activism to get landmines banned).
  • One for All. Most people are crap, but you’ve made a tight bond with your friends. They’re all right, and your loyalty to them is unshakeable.
  • Pedagogy. Education is the key to it all. Knowledge rinses away prejudice, eases misery, and exalts all that is good about the human condition. Educating others is your mission in life.
  • Protect the Elderly. Most old people have already had seven courses of misery and heartache in their lifetimes without an extra helping in the eleventh hour.

How to Use This Elsewhere

This should be straightforward: when you have a significant character, come up with their passions. It doesn’t matter if there’s a mechanical hook, though some games (like Fate) make that easy to do.

It’s easy to make a one-dimension good or bad person. It’s far more interesting if there’s more going on. Take one of the heavy NPCs in Unknown Armies, Eponymous. He’s a straight-up sociopath[3], and as described: “When Abel says jump, Eponymous throws you off a building.”

  • Rage: Betrayal.
  • Fear: Poison. Dying of a stab wound or gunshot doesn’t scare Eponymous nearly as much as the thought of dying from some slow, agonizing venom.
  • Noble: Throughout it all, Eponymous has always wanted to do a good job

Now we have something more interesting that “powerful sociopath that will kill you as soon as look at you.” We now know what makes him mad — enough to motivate or enough to cause a mistake. We know what he’s deathly afraid of. We know what he believes in.

That’s a take on a villain. What about the other side, someone who is on the surface totally good?

Lili Morgan, agent of the House of Renunciation (which doesn’t need more explanation for this), who believes in helping people:

  • Rage: People who are as selfish and uncaring as she used to be.
  • Fear: Unpredictable ascensions scare Lili.
  • Noble: The abstract, general welfare of humanity. She doesn’t care about individual people.

The noble one is obvious, much like Eponymous’ rage one. But seeing how this genuinely nice person would get angry & break her sense of peace gives us a bit more. And her fear stimulus is the sort of ones that creates a drive, something beyond “hey, everyone should be compassionate and caring.”

What About Your Game?

Do you have a villain in your game that just exists as a foil for the PCs? What’re his/her/its passions?

Do you have a benevolent character in your game that just exists to help the PCs? What about his/hers/its?

– Ryan

[1] The first time I remember seeing this in full effect was in playing Final Fantasy VIII, where Seifer, after capturing your party, exclaimed about how he was the hero and his day of bringing the villains — your character — to justice was at hand. Fuck yeah.

[2] There’s a mechanical incentive to make interesting ones, but that’s beyond the scope of this. Again, go buy it. :)

[3] Which UA has mechanics for. And they aren’t positive ones.


2 Responses to Using UA Passions to Develop Depth

  1. Jess says:

    I think most villains should really be foils for the characters themselves, or perhaps the players. In reality though, I don’t like to do villains as much, because even if I’ve expanded their characters and fleshed them out more, they usually just end up becoming one-dimensional in how the players approach them.
    Instead I tend towards the use of rivals. In this I’ve had more success in engaging the players and characters in moral ambiguity, especially when the rivals step up to the noble level that the PCs abandoned. And there’s always the opportunity for teamwork among them, and further betrayal later.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      How to run morally ambiguous games is its own, rather weighty topic. But it sounds like you’re talking about execution rather than this creation technique.

      – Ryan