Thursday, June 26, 2014

Making Memorable NPCs: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 31

With summer comes a slightly more regular schedule to our podcast episodes. This week Play on Target takes on NPCs and how to make them compelling. We’re again joined by Sherri Stewart, who brings a player-centered perspective to the question. I think we manage to get through the episode without digressing into tales of our favorite GM characters. That’s for the best.

Sometimes when gamers talk about old-school I think not about system but about the kinds of stupid play we engaged in “back in the day.” Going berserk and shooting our allies in James Bond 007, attacking other players at the drop of a pin, playing chicken with the GM trying to break the game. There’s a whole period of my early days of gaming  I remember fondly in the general, but when I actually think about specific incidents, it wasn’t nearly as much fun as I remember. Of course we were young and more than a little stupid.

I recall a Rolemaster campaign, the third or fourth one we’d done with this GM. He always had wild plots, borrowed background elements from interesting sources, and we met highly archetypal NPCs. We were a ways into the game, perhaps a session or two after we’d lost another batch of PCs to E Tiny Crits, when something occurred to me. I turned to one of my fellow players, “R-----, have we ever met a woman in this campaign?” He thought about it for a bit and we went carefully back through every NPC we’d ever encountered. All of them were men. Then we thought about the previous campaigns, and realized everyone there had been male as well. It wasn’t that there weren’t women in these worlds- just that none of them had ever been presented as a significant NPC.

When we confronted the GM about that, he shook his head. Clearly we were wrong. The next session we met a Priestess. The GM played her uncomfortably- briefly trying to do a falsetto voice. After the first couple of scenes he mercifully dropped that. From then on, we met characters of various genders.

I don’t know exactly what the lesson there is- expect perhaps to say: take a look at your cast every once in a while. I consider diversity a positive feature, so I’ll enjoy a game more if I have a diverse set of NPCs.

It can be easy, especially if you’re improvising or not as comfortable with fully playing NPCs, to fall into a mode. You find a particular tone or approach that works for you and use it for all of your NPCs. You may not even realize you’re doing it. Everyone the party meets might be sagacious, gruff, or flowerly. Just as changes in pacing and up/down beats create contrast and therefore interest, varying your NPCs makes the world seem more dynamic to the players.

A number of years ago I had a GM who ran a Vampire campaign. It was good for the most part, with interesting plots and hooks. But eventually I came to dread playing it. Every time I spoke to an NPC they were condescending, snide, and arrogant. And it was a game where we mostly interacted with other vampires, so actually responding in kind didn’t work. Later I played in a Cyberpunk-esque game run by that GM. Again every NPC spoke from a position of superiority, treated us like dirt, or refused to even vaguely acknowledge our competency. Even when we were in a clearly dominant position, the NPCs smarted off and mocked us. After that I avoided playing with that GM.

While I’ve seen GM’s fall into other modes, the Always Superior NPC’s a particularly bad one. And I don’t mean that the NPC steals the spotlight or outshines the party. That’s a different issue. More they consistently act like they’re smarter and better. I don’t know exactly where that comes from. It may be that the GM doesn’t realize it comes across like that. When you hear your recorded voice, it always sounds different from the voice in your head. It might also be a question of self-confidence, of worry that the players might not think your the smartest person in the room. I played in a Steampunk game where I got that vibe from the GM- using his NPCs to show that he himself was better than the players. Of course that was the same game where the GM ignored our character builds and made us assume alternate identities at the start.

I thought I’d pull together some of my earlier posts on NPCs and NPC building. The earliest ones are pretty rough, but there’s some useful material and ideas there.

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