Entering the Story: There’s an interesting paradox in role-playing games, in some ways presented right there in what we call them. Players take on roles, characters, that they’ve created. That step, that stage separates roleplaying games from other forms of fiction and narrative.
John Gardner says, “The first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters.” In most stories we connect to the world and environment through the characters we read about and see. They’re the gateway to everything else and we view them passively, but (in a good story) with emotional connection. We learn about their inner lives, see their suffering, and uncover the plot through them.
But an RPG removes that distance. The players take a part and have an emotional connection to themselves, but they also need to have sympathy and connection with the larger story since, in some ways, as PCs they still serve in the audience role. NPCs can help manage that– a play within a play– as the PCs see some of the trials and sufferings of those characters. There’s some other dimensions to this paradox I’ll come back to perhaps in a later post– the main one being that good players know that main character’s suffer and go through turmoil in fiction and react accordingly. Less good players shut down when confronted with the kinds of challenges that you’d normally expect in a story.
Details: Good use of sensory detail is important in being a gamemaster. It goes without saying that these kinds of details help to flesh out an NPC. Consider the various ways you can express the obvious nature of a character and perhaps their contradictions: how do they dress in what situations, what does their workplace look like, what do they keep in their wallet, is their car nice or messy, what do they listen to? That’s kind of an obvious set of things, but also consider– what do they sound like? what do they smell like? how do they move? Just choosing one or two odd details can make a character much more distinct for the players.
Memories: NPCs hold grudges. They remember how the players treated them before and act accordingly. I’ve have a few players, in the more distant past, be surprised when an NPC wouldn’t deal with or help them because of how they’d been treated before. Likewise, I’ve mentioned the ecology of the NPCs, so if a PC treats an NPC badly, if there’s a closed community word will get around about how the PC behaves. On the flip sides, PCs who treat NPCs fairly and respectfully– or get the better of disliked NPCs– should get credit for that. That’s a nice, tangible reward for good and careful play on the PC’s part– that their reputation precedes them.
Email and NPCs: Depending on the campaign, I can end up doing quite a bit of material via email. Rarely, players want to run through facts for an investigation. That’s a good way to handle side plots and personal investigations as it doesn’t eat up time at the table. Do avoid dealing with major plot threads or group vital matters this way– unless you have a host of things that need to be gotten through. If you deal with group invested material individually, you run the risk of having a player feel slighted or left our. Emails also allow players to ask for background info. You can easily answer those kinds of questions and then, if you’re using a wiki, post that stuff. I do try to make clear that I won’t answer big, broad questions via email– otherwise I can end up spending hours writing things. If someone asks a question that’s too broad I’ll answer with “Green” or “Ham” and then suggest they narrow their question.
But most often I use emails to allow PCs to interact with NPCs one-on-one. You can flesh out these characters and give players a chance to explore their own backstory and that of the NPC. I’ll admit it also serves as a decent writing exercise– though often you’re working through long bits of expository dialogue rather than writing a full interaction. I try to encourage the players to ask directed questions or suggest what they’re trying to get from interacting with an NPC in emails. If they simply say “Hi” and then want me to fill in the rest or spin stuff out from there, I tend to respond minimally. If they’ve set up the scene, however, I’m willing to do more fill in for the players. Email interactions also allow the GM to provide more filler explanation within the dialogue– “Beletan heard what she’d said but could tell that something was missing, that she was holding something back.” Those kinds of cues, subtle or not, can help the player. While email serves as a great tool, it can also overwhelm you. I don’t usually read a player’s email until I actually have time to respond. Otherwise I end up with too many current tasks I’m thinking about and I don’t get anything done. I also generally try to respond to a particular email thread only once per day, unless I don’t have any other emails in my queue.
I’ll also admit that I’m a little more of a bastard with email interactions. Players have a goal in a scene– perhaps to find something out or to make a connection with an NPC. My goal is different — I want to counter expectations and switch things up to keep them interesting. That’s how I keep my head in the game when I’m doing numerous emails. I’ll throw challenges and tricks that I might not normally do at the table. I’ll admit that I also manage my words and details more carefully in NPC email interactions. I figure I can afford to provide more subtle clues and hints as well as broader ones since the player can go back and reread those interactions. Some of it is foreshadowing that won’t pay off for a long time.
Name Carefully: Say the names of your NPCs aloud– especially in a fantasy game with more fantastic names. I you don’t you might find yourself stumbling over pronouncing them when you get to the table. Or worse you’ll find that the NPC’s name can easily be mangled into a more colorful version. As my witness I call the major villain who was immediately redubbed “Sufferin’ Nutsack.”
I Am Spartacus: Unless you’re trying to send a strong and particular message– generally avoid having the NPCs show up the PCs. Generally I mean this for allied NPCs. If you have a mixed party, then try to keep the spotlight and narrative focus on the players. NPCs can do cool things, but they shouldn’t solve the challenges the PCs face. However, skilled NPCs can serve to fill in gaps in the party’s repetiore– the tech support, street connection or online researcher.
A number of years ago my friend Scott and I had an interesting discussion about PC centrality, where we essentially agreed on this premise but had slightly different takes on it. We were playing in a campaign with a large cast of NPCs. I never felt like any of them showed us up when we actually played out challenges.
However over time our plans expanded and we had many fires we needed to put out. My logical conclusion was to organize groups of the NPCs to send out into the field to deal with certain things. We concentrated on those events and issues most vital and dangerous. Scott objected to this, feeling that it took away from the PCs’ role.
In this case, I don’t believe that it did– for a couple of reasons. First we still had the role of leadership– deciding who went where and what they were trying to do. Second we had too many things for us to possibly handle them all simultaneously. I think those two factors mitigated the potential theft of spotlight from the PCs. In this case, the structure of the campaign lent itself to that kind of approach. While I disagreed with Scott’s assessment in that particular case, I still keep his words in mind and try to be cautious about having NPCs sent off to handle a challenge unless the players seem to feel like they still have the central role in setting that up.
In making NPCs, the GM faces the same conundrum that the players do– separating themselves from their characters. If you like an NPC too much and want to show how absolutely cool you think he is that will come across at the table. In fan-fic they call these “Mary-Sue” characters. The GM usually presents them as their idea of smooth or cool which may be very different what what the players think is smooth or cool. If players seem to take an instant dislike to a particular character take a moment to evaluate if that’s what’s going on.
If you’re running a game and you become overly protective of a particular NPC or react emotionally when a player offends or gets in that character’s face, you probably need to take a step back. NPCs, despite the investment of time you’ve put into them and the backstory you’ve created, should in the end serve as devices to help provide the players with a deeper and more interesting story. The only infallible NPCs should be master villains who will get theirs in the end.