Boingboing has a link to a great blog article today, with advice from Michael Moorcock on how to write a novel in three days. Eric Rosenfield breaks down the advice Moorcock gives drawn from a book of interviews (Death is No Obstacle). I draw out a few of them to point out their relevance for rpgs:
"'When in doubt, descend into a minor character.' So when you've reached an impasse, and you can't move the action any further with your major character, switch to a minor character 's viewpoint which will allow you to keep the narrative moving and give you time to think.”
We don't switch the players to a minor character, but when in doubt, throw an NPC at the party. Players might enjoy interacting with the character if they have some hooks to them. But NPCs can also provide another perspective to the players on events. They might present or raise the stakes for the PCs, if they're uncertain about purposes. They can set a clock ticking, presenting a deadline in a way that feels more organic to the scene. Throwing in an NPC for color for a moment can also give you as the GM a chance to catch your breath while you figure out where things could go from there. In conversation, you might discover a way to introduce information or ideas in a new way.
“"There's always a sidekick to make the responses the hero isn't allowed to make: to get frightened; to add a lighter note; to offset the hero's morbid speeches, and so on.”
I see this as closely tied to the idea above in a couple of ways. First, NPCs can model bad behavior for the PCs. Panic, fear, laziness, goofing off. Their weakness and goofiness can offer a contrast for PCs. I think that's more useful than presenting the PCs with paragons for them to live up to- especially if the players are going to be interacting with them. The Mighty and Graceful work at a distance, but they're less fun to have to measure yourself against as a player.
Which suggests the second point- NPCs ought to be rewards in games. A GM can reaffirm a player's attitudes and actions through NPCs. They might mention positive things people are saying about the heroes, ask the PCs for help based on on past action, or even just desire friendship based on their reputation. Repeating a PCs successes back to them through these characters rarely hurts. As a GM I'm often hunting for ways to validate the players in ways other than treasure and experience.
Related to that when players set things up and investigate situations, NPCs can serve as useful rewards for that work. Investigation doesn't have to be just internet hunting, forensics or book hunting. Gathering allies, building contacts and establishing networks can draw in NPCs to present the information the players need. This can get around the parrot effect- where a player applies a knowledge skill, gets the information from the GM and then has to repeat that back to the group or just say blah. When an NPC's arrive to provide that information, make sure to cite/stress the work the PCs did in establishing trust or a relation. Sometimes when I provide these kinds of characters, I worry that it appears I've stolen some of the players' thunder- a character who arrives with “exactly what they need.” But if the players have done the legwork for that- socially- then that's as valid as a Gather Information or Search roll. More valid, more colorful and potentially more interesting in many cases. But it is important to show and reinforce that process.
“You need a list of images that are purely fantastic: deliberate paradoxes, say: the City of Screaming Statues, things like that. You just write a list of them so you've got them there when you need them. Again, they have to cohere, have the right resonances, one with the other.”
That's a nice idea- I try to have a list of NPC names for each game- with a different set of sounds or approaches. I hadn't considered a list of paradoxical places and things. I tried something like this recently in a different way. For the Microscope game on Saturday, I made a list of fifty names, places and events- just a crazy list of strange things. Using those wasn't required, but I thought it could be a useful starter for the players' ideas. Plus if they had a great concept, but got stuck on a name, they could pull from their if they wanted. I think it worked- although it does undercut a little of the Microscope purposes.
But having a list of things like this for a game, just written up and able to be thrown in at any time could be useful. I know Risus Monkey's been using an inspirational words mechanic for his stuff- I need to look at that.
"I was also planting mysteries that I hadn't explained to myself. The point is, you put in the mystery, it doesn't matter what it is. It may not be the great truth that you're going to reveal at the end of the book. You just think, I'll put this in here because I might need it later."
Moorcock mentions planning- which for me at the rpg table means some outlining and ideas- not full plotting. He's talking about a denser take on this than I usually do. But despite that planning, he does introduce a lot of unknowns. A GM needs to be able and willing to do this. Throw in crazy stuff with the confidence that you'll get to that later. You don't have to know everything about everything you put in the game. I'd say that's the most key thing the advanced GM ought to know. You throw it in- like from the list of strange things mentioned above. Those things appear in passing, and you later build on them. You give the illusion of completeness and complexity. You don't have everything planned out at the start. Something dense and cool like Fables manages this- Willingham puts in details and ideas that bloom later. If you reread them, you can see in the early books where these get planted. With careful reading you can even spot ones that haven't been pick up on. That's the work of an amazing illusionist.
"The imagery comes before the action, because the action's actually unimportant. An object to be obtained -- limited time to obtain it. It's easily developed, once you work the structure out."
Absolutely. Set a cool scene, a cool place to fight and then wing the fight. If the fight has dynamic and interesting imagery to it then it will be remembered by the players (battling on a crashing helicarrier, fighting a vampire in a flooding crypt, dueling in room of conveyor belts, etc).
There's a lot more interesting ideas in the article- go and take a look at it.