Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Two)

Feeling better today after getting knocked down by something yesterday. The second scattershot entry on NPCs below-- third and final part will come next post.

Gamemastering NPCs (Part Two)

Previous Installment: Part One

Pick-n-Choose: I've focused on inner life and knowing details, but of course I leave these kinds of considerations for characters who are going to reappear or serve a more permanent role. Sometimes I'll know that beforehand-- certain characters fit into vital roles for the plot. We know they'll be recurring and worth developing. However we know that some characters just don't stick. They don't generate interest among the players. You can bring a character back and try to add some element to them that might make them more interesting, but in general because I operate with a large cast, if someone doesn't work I will retire them. They'll still exist but probably won't get much time at the table. If they served a particular minor role, I'll transfer that to another existing character or develop an entirely new one.

The trick for noticing this at the table is twofold. Obviously if the players actively seek out the characters to talk with them, that's an indication that they're interested in them. A more subtle clue is to listen when the PCs talk amongst themselves and see who they mention. Those mentions indicate that the character has made an impression. Take advantage of that. Bring the character back for a ply-through or make them more integral to the plot. If you're keeping a list of quick scenes for the PCs make sure to use those NPCs.

From the player side of things, if you find an NPC intriguing, seek them out. Tell them GM that you enjoy how a particular character plays at the table. A good GM will take that into account and bring them back. By the same token don't push that point-- sometimes a GM will not enjoy an NPC as much as the players do. They may be bothered at how the character's actually rolled out in play.

Sometimes a weird dynamic arises from this. One of the most frustrating things for me as a player is to have an NPC I liked never reappear or be available. I've had a couple of times where I've pushed hard, in part because talking to or allying with a particular NPC makes sense but the GM avoids it. Sometimes this makes sense-- the NPC has another role to play or has other circumstances going on that means they react that way. The GM ought to communicate that.

Dead NPCs: I kill NPCs, but I do that more sparingly than I have in the past. I've learned over the years that being ready to kill NPCs at the drop of a hat is a certain way to make players avoid making real connections and investment in the world around them. The same thing applies to trust and betrayal by NPCs. Both death and revelation of the traitor scenes need to be handled carefully. While they might seem like potent dramatic moments they have serious consequences on the players' mindset. Obviously the Gm can't rule these things out-- but assess the consequences carefully.

Keep in mind that players at your table are constantly trying to get a sense of the world around them. And in another sense they're trying to get a feel for what kind of story they're in. If you signal that death is cheap, players will act accordingly. Some players naturally avoid NPCs because of this-- assuming they're unimportant or more likely some kind of trap for the players. You can usually pick these players out early in a game. Dealing with them is a more difficult task. If they're clearly gunshy, then you need to probably talk openly about that issue. If they just don't care about NPCs or take them seriously then you have a few options. You can concentrate on other plot details for them-- concrete things, puzzles, rumors or capers. You can also try to provide them with NPCs who might demonstrate the value of these interactions. Someone who can get them something they need or want, but only if they're treated respectfully.

Puzzling out how different players see the NPCs is important. Some players seem to think NPCs function as they do in videogames-- possessing limited dialogue branches, providing fetch quests, vomiting exposition, or to be killed without consequence. If possible, rid these players of that conception early. Some players haven't played in an “open game”-- where NPCs serve as a kind of floating pool of information. I've had some frustration in games where I've provided lists of NPCs and then had players decide they've come to a dead end in an investigation because they don't have the appropriate skills. The GM has to make clear a few times in a gentle manner that the campaign has a certain logic to it-- model and reward play to help players who feel stuck. Some players play defensively across the board-- they've come from games where the GM and player have an adversarial relationship or else they're generally risk-adverse. They avoid all but the most superficial engagements with the NPCs or, in fact, most background and setting detail.

Another player approach worth watching out for and dealing with, on some level, are players who take a proprietary approach to NPCs. They interact with a particular NPC and then assume that this character is their's and their's alone. If other players interact with that character, especially when they're not present, they become irritated. That gets played out as a certain amount of tension and irritation at the table. On the one hand if another player is deliberately moving to step on another player's toes, that's one thing. But I've seen this happen as both a GM and a player-- usually without any basis except a feeling that an NPC represents a very personal thing or a resource to be written down on a character sheet. A GM has to keep a close eye on this for a couple of reasons. First, it creates inter-party tension, especially when you have players operating in different modes-- a player who doesn't see anything proprietary in interactions may not understand why another player has suddenly become angry at the table. Second, if you've invested plotlines in a particular NPC and a player has decided that no one else should interact with that character, it can bring those plots to a screeching halt. If the player doesn't follow up then those plots become lost. On the other hand, if you do activate those plots and they by necessity broaden to impact the whole party they you run the risk of irritating the possessive player again.

Selfish players and players who overly invest in their characters are just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, to the smooth operation of a group than apathy. In some ways, I'd rather deal with apathy-- as the other set of problems requires disentangling personal and play behaviors.

Authority: It has been my experience that players generally tend to react negatively to authority figures. I'm not saying constantly, but more often than not if a figure seems to be part of the establishment, players may react out of preconceptions rather than who the character is. A person who is in charge when the PCs meet them will more often than not be seen as an obstacle or as wrongly holding their authority. A GM has to be prepared for those kinds of reactions. You can sometimes spot that pattern with players and begin to shape your narrative in reaction to that. Not that authority figures then all have to be sunshine and roses, but you can taken the opportunity to complicate their reactions and deepen the scene. I'd take this authority-reaction as a general idea and not a strict rule. It varies from player to player and from campaign to campaign.

Next post-- romance, rivals, the paradox on rpg narrative, email voice, living with the consequences, pandering and more.


  1. I haven't GMed much, really only one session since I got out of college in 1992. Which is a lot like not having read a comic book since 1992. Lots has changed, and some stuff I wasn't ready for back then I'm ready for now. Issues I'd never considered, like PC 'ownership' of NPCs, and floating plot points that the GM hasn't affixed to a specific locale or NPC are really making me think.

    In my limited experience, I've never had a problem with NPC rebellion against authority. I suspect this might be because when I'm earnest, I'm obviously earnest. So my honest authority figures are obviously trustworthy to my players. At least in game, Lowell, you have infectious fun with being sinister. A nice, dry sinister that would seem campy coming from me.

    It could also be a difference in player groups, but I haven't been around the block enough to know.

  2. The authority thing's an interesting thing-- after playing with some players for a time, you can begin to gauge how they'll react to certain kinds of figures. But often before you get there, you'll have odd reactions you're not sure about. That means situations where a player reacts to an NPC in a way that doesn't seem to make sense in terms of the context, the NPC's attitude or actions, or the player-character's personality. I've gotten better about being able to recognize that over time. Just as there are certain kinds of plots players have visceral reactions to. For example, some players shut down when 'mystery' situations occur in fantasy worlds. Some times this can come from the assumption that such things actually can't be solved because 'magic' means there's too many options. Or they focus on motive rather than an analysis of clues.

    I'm not saying all or most players have that authority reaction, but I've seen it enough times to be aware of it. One of the advantages to playing with people for a long time comes from a certain degree of...well, I don't want to say predictability, but I do want to say knowledge of what they want or expect of of situations or interactions. And, quite frankly, if they do have a weak spot about always reacting in X way about Y thing, that's to my advantage. Not that I'm always going to tweak them on that, but I can lead them down the gilded path to answer the Bone-a-phone.