Some days I hate NPCs.
But I also love NPCs. They're the engine that drives great and memorable campaigns for the players. In the kinds of narrative and dramatic leaning campaigns we play now, these characters offering sounding boards, connections, and windows into the setting. I've written about how great and important they are in many, many, many, many posts.
But sometimes....sometimes they drive me crazy. I want to clear the deck, kill them off, and tear the game down to players, plot, scenery.
Let's start with a basic problem- keeping track of the cast. I run six campaigns, and remembering all of the characters between them, is hard. I usually have to scan through the list before each session. And of course for the longer running campaigns, we've an assembly of personalities to rival Game of Thrones. I can usually remember the who and why of characters, but what I lose is the name. Which makes me feel stupid at the table. And I don't like going through my notes while I'm running. I get especially frustrated if I've done a particular 'voice' for a character and I can't remember it- either cadence, accent or tone.
A friend of mine ran a game with a large cast of NPCs. He's a good GM and does an excellent job of creating interesting characters. Each of his players had an affiliated group. However some of his players didn't get along- there were arguments between them and conflicts of agendas. As a result players played less and less with each other, and more and more directly with GM. That created greater fragmentation of the plot and annoyance among the players when the GM actually put the PCs together through the NPCs. I've seen that in my games, where some players will ignore everyone else and go off to talk to NPCs by themselves- deliberately ignoring plot hooks or even short circuiting the arc in order to have the table to themselves. Essentially the player uses the positive of the NPC to justify a kind of selfishness at the table. I like to give players individual scenes and moments, but I like it even better when I can put two or more players together in a scene.
The even greater danger arising from this we can call Mr. Jealousy. In this case players decide to consider certain NPCs as their own. Some do this from attachment, some from paranoia, and some as a way of taking control of the table dynamic. Players who operate this way become hugely defensive when other players attempt to interact with "their" NPCs. I've seen players get actually furious at the table when other players have suggested talking to or bringing in an NPC they were attached to. In other instances, I've seen players use those reactions to bully other players to keep them from stepping into plots they believed they own. In one case, another players became furious when we talked to their character's family, despite their being at the center of the adventure and despite the discussion being fairly innocuous.
4. FICKLE LOVE
I know some tables handle romance fairly well- and that's an element in many of our campaigns. I'd say the play more echoes anime more than anything- light and stereotypical. It is more about affection and misunderstandings, or offering plot complications. But sometimes players will start down the road of romantic sub-plot and then suddenly a shinier or more interesting NPC will catch their eye. Or more likely the NPC doesn't precisely validate their character's self-image, doesn't fawn over them the way they want, or actually presents some obstacles to overcome. Then the player decides to drop that NPC and wants to completely ignore previous developments in favor of a new tact. If you've spent any time as a GM on that, or have built any plots on the relationship, it can be maddening.
I've played in games with omnipotent NPCs- or Mary Sue NPCs that take center stage. So I try to avoid that, but I also want to demonstrate competency and have characters in positions of authority for real reasons, not just goofs with a title. And some players react badly to NPCs in leadership positions. That's fine and something I can usually work past. But sometimes players assume that the NPCs are omnipotent and won't even attempt to engage with them. They just get angry. Ironically, in most cases that's been the reaction from players who GM and have those very same omnipotent figures in their games. Because that's what they would do, they assume an NPC will be invulnerable or unassailable. So a NPC who ought to be an interesting foil or interaction suddenly becomes a stumbling block. You're left with the choice of bending over backwards to show the agreeable or useful nature of NPC or just dropping the thread.
6. THE TRAIN
Having a large cast of NPCs, especially ones the players really like mean that as a GM you want to offer a chance to interact with them. That's fine if you have a static campaign setting, like a city. But for classic fantasy or exploration games, it can be a bigger problem. You have to plan around those NPCs showing up or the players returning to the NPCs location. If they're spread around the setting, then you want to make sure each player gets time with the NPCs they like which may mean more travel or strange coincidental devices. The Gm doesn't have to, but once the door's been opened to this kind of play, the group may expect it. An obvious but even more problematic solution is to bring the NPCs along, effectively doubling the group size and creating more things for the Gm to worry about. If you're at all considering the struggle for survival in dangerous environments as a theme, a host of camp followers undercuts that quickly.
7. AT THE TABLE
And of course bringing along all of those NPCs leads to a logistical problem. I'll admit combat's where I'm weakest at the table. I get flustered and I want to race though as quickly as possible. I cut corners but I tell myself that's in the interest of maintaining the pace. As well, I'm just not a tactical thinker. When I pit my forces against the combined skills of a table of gamers, I'm at a huge disadvantage, even with "all the points." I want to balance winning, providing a challenge, and making it feel fair. So the last thing I want is to have to deal with extra characters. With allies, I'm suddenly responsible for defeating the players and helping them at the same time. The details I have to track and worry about expand- in detailed games like Champions it becomes even more difficult. Its why I don't usually allow pets for characters either- one more thing to track.
I dread that moment in a combat when I've just got the rhythm going and I hear a player say "What about Sir Dorkus, he hasn't gone the last three turns...?" If I forget about the NPCs, then the players may think that I'm cheating them or that the NPC's just useless. The former only comes up with bad players or those in really tense situations. But I've also had players get angry at NPCs for not really 'being there' in combat, something not in the NPCs character but more in my desire to focus on the PCs. I certainly don't want to swing the other way and have the NPCs steal their thunder. The problem gets more complicated when you have a detailed system- one with plenty of combat options, styles and maneuvers. I don't want to track those options for NPCs. But that runs the risk of making them seem more incompetent than they are on one hand, or more powerful on the other if I completely wing it. I don't want to be asked afterward how X NPC was able to do Y thing that they players can't. I could spin a story about it, but I've already stepped on the players' toes there.
Here's the other thing: players like the idea of their NPCs being in conflicts alongside them (for utility, to show off to them, to deepened connections) but they hate when those NPCs get damaged, seriously injured or killed. I can certainly understand that, but on occasion they flip out. I suppose that ought to be a good sign- that the player or players have an emotional connection to the NPC, but every once in a while it can create a problem. We had a session years ago where one of the PCs effectively got an NPC killed and some of the table lost it. As a GM, I have to asses the cost benefit of targeting those NPCs- knowing that players will scrutinize those actions even more tightly for "fairness."
For my first six points I don't have any quick solutions- beyond monitoring and balancing. For actual table play, I have come up with a few approaches. These may be obvious to veteran GMs, but I hope someone will find them useful. You'll note that I avoid giving players the actual NPCs, fully-statted, to control. I don't like that option for a couple of reasons. First, it means having to write up other sets of characters. Second, unless everyone has a 'buddy' then some players don't get the cool advantage. Third, when players control more than one figure in a combat, it feels less like an rpg and more like a tactical wargame.
1. Get the NPC Off the Table. If there are support tasks or things which can be done elsewhere (finding the winch to lower the portcullis, getting someone to safety, hacking a console) then say that the NPC will do it. A couple of caveats on this approach. First, those tasks shouldn't step over a player's role. For example, if you have a Rigger in the group then they should be the one to hack the electronics. Second, if you want to use this tactic, then don't screw the players with it. If you as the GM suggest that X NPC can move someone to safety, then they should get that person to safety. They should not get captured as a plot device. If you do that, the next time you make a suggestion that an NPC could do something off table, the players won't trust you. On the other hand, if the players suggest that an NPC could undertake a task, then the gloves are off. You haven't pushed them and they've made their own decision.
2. Trade-Off: This works if you have the players facing hordes or overwhelming odds (which you can, of course, engineer). During the first round or so, offer to have NPCs tie up a certain number of mooks or minions for the fight. The players can say where they want the NPC(s) to operate as crowd control. Essentially pawn neutralizes pawn. Don't roll for resolution or track damage, just let them keep a position secure. Again you're offering the players a benefit in exchange for making your task as the GM easier. The NPC should be effectively off the table in terms of attacks, at least until the stakes get raised or the situation changes.
3. Support: Pair up NPCs with PCs and give them a straight bonus. The NPC effectively vanishes into that bonus. The bonus or effect may vary depending on what the NPC does. If you don't want to directly pair up, say that the NPC serves as a floating bonus one player can use each round. A player can't use the bonus again until everyone has used it.
4. Advanced Support: As with the idea above, but with more complexity. This takes a page from FATE and HeroQuest, where NPCs can be aspects or abilities. You could, for example, pair NPCs up with PCs and have them offer a benefit- but they can also be sacrificed (K.O'd) to do other things, like prevent damage, use a special ability or give an uber-bonus. Another option might be to say that any NPC offers a power which can be called on by the players. However, once the players opt to do that, the NPC becomes 'at risk' and can then be targeted by bad guys or taken out as a consequence. This puts that choice in the group's hands.
HATE'S PERHAPS TOO STRONG A WORD
Of course, I'm exaggerating on most of these points. I can’t imagine a campaign without some interesting NPCs, especially recurring ones. Most of my campaigns are built around a cast of NPCs first- and I get a real delight when players become interested in their stories and ideas. But every once in a while, they do lead to frustrations. The vast majority of the time, they add to the campaign. But I do have to watch some players to make sure that they don't fall into bad play patterns with background characters. I've played in campaigns with zero NPCs. Or at least all of the NPCs were exclusively "roles" or "questgivers," like early computer RPG characters. I played with a GM who never introduced a female NPC, mostly because it never occurred to him. I played with a GM who put the only interesting NPC into a coma. Strong and returning NPCs are huge part of a solid story- in a tabletop rpg, a computer rpg (any Bioware title), television (Buffy) or elsewhere.