From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Gamemastering NPCS: Part IV

**Esoterica/Theoretical Blather Warning**

Basic Rule: One of the unspoken rules of GMing is that a game must be tailored for several different players with different expectations while at the same time remaining coherent. That’s another way in which an rpg differs from other conventional narratives. There’s an immediacy to response and feedback– and while something like Improv Comedy might have a similar back and forth– even that doesn’t have to target the individual. NPCs, used well, can be among a GM’s most important assets for serving all the players at the table. Mind you, some players don’t get into NPCs, and for those you have to come up with other approaches.

Emotional and Intellectual Approaches: I’m susceptible to a certain impulse for categories and typologies for things. I like being able to look at things in groupings to see similarities. At the same time I also realize that such efforts have an inherent risk of simplification. I don’t know if my attraction comes from an analytical bent or it just like seeing things organized. Despite my move to less rule and mechanic intensive gaming, I still like seeing the various categories of things games use: skill sets, character classes, orders of magic and so on. Anyway, I say all that by way of saying that I know sometimes I tend to break things into groups which don’t always fit. For example, how players react to the narrative.

I don’t know if it could work as a set of classes, but I do think you can examine player’s reactions in terms of their intellectual and emotional engagement with the story. In the case of NPCs as I’ve been discussing, how they relate to those NPCs. I’m still working through these ideas, but let me elaborate a little.

Players with a more Intellectual approach tend to see the game as a game or perhaps see the narrative as plot points, challenges, and incidents. There’s a focus on the meta-structure of the narrative. Not that the players necessarily see things in a purely mechanical way or that they see combat and problem solving as the whole of a game, but they tend to approach things first from that perspective. That gives them a kind of distance from the narrative.

Players who are less role-play invested with an Intellectual approach will then be more likely to see NPCs as devices– switches or dispensers for particular resources. There’s an incident and that incident needs to be dealt with. On the other hand, players who take role-play seriously but have a more Intellectual approach will usually build characters who by design maintain a distance from NPCs. They’re outsiders, loners, have non-empathetic personalities, or character flaws that they can fall back on to avoid or reduce connections (a temper, greed, a vow or some kind for example). They can play defensively, trying to avoid entanglements that they perceive as potential traps– these connections being in the same category as a literal pitfall in a dungeon.

On the other hand, emotional engagement players try to see the story and the environment first. This may seem like an obviously good thing, but it can have drawbacks. For example, I’ve often referred to a particularly shitty kind of play response called, “I was just playing my character.” That’s where a player does obnoxious things to another player or to the GM and then claims that any blame should be exorcised by the fact that they really had no control over their actions. It is the equivalent to sending an insulting email and ending it with a smiley face, claiming that your soul won’t let you say anything less than the “real truth” or saying “just joking.” Sometimes that’s a mechanical or intellectual approach, in that it recognizes the social rules of the setting and twists them to its own benefit. But an more Emotionally engaged player may do the same kind of thing and not recognize that the playing of their character could be problematic– in that they don’t see the meta-level of the social interaction of a game table. Excessively Emotionally engaged players may also react badly when bad things happen to them, taking the events personally. All of these are extreme examples– and one of the things that pleases me is that I do have to reach back several years to be able to find examples of this kind of play.

What does this mean in terms of GMing? It goes back to being a careful observer of your player’s behavior. For example, when my friend Derek’s playing in my games, I know he’s not going to engage emotionally with the NPCs. He’ll interact with them, be intrigued by them, and even like them, but I know he maintains a certain distance. That’s not a bad thing– it simply means that I have to choose which kinds of plots and characters to put in his path. As a counter-example, I know my wife Sherri will emotionally engage with NPCs– will try to form bonds with them. If I want to keep an NPC non-sympathetic, then I need to keep them out of her way. She will try to bore down to get at what is happening in that NPC’s head. I’d point to Mr. Fenris as another example– keeping in mind I’ve only played with him in a couple of campaigns and always as a fellow player. He role-plays strongly, but in the games I saw, also made sure his character’s had an emotional distance– which allowed him a kind of escape clause. If I were going to run for him, I’d have to calculate accordingly.

A Long Digression on Craft: The application of analyzing a player’s play style and their wants lies in adapting and adjusting the game on the fly for the individual players. This leads me to a conversation I had a number of years ago with Derek– and I’m going to apologize in advance for possibly misstating his position. We’d been talking about having to adjust games for the benefit of the players– reducing or increasing challenges, removing or adding themes, and so on. I favored compromise, but Derek, while willing to allow for some compromise, said that he didn’t want to change a campaign into something he didn’t want to run. Now to a certain extent I can agree with that position– but on the other hand, if you’re going to run I think you have to take seriously that you’ve got to entertain a group of people, people willing to commit many hours to the campaign. In that case I don’t think you can really sustain a challenging piece. For example, some works of art get in the audience’s face, drag them through the muck, make them culpable in the awfulness going on. In cinema, that’d be something like Audition or Funny Games; in novels maybe something like William S. Burroughs; in comics Black Hole by Charles Burns; and in painting maybe Roger Bacon. The difference is that those things have a brevity to them– and regardless of the engagement or attempts to accuse the audience of being part of the situation, there’s still a narrative distance.

A role-playing game has to deal with length, interactivity and a reduced emotional distance. I think you can get away with a really challenging and possibly unpleasant game for one or maybe two sessions. Likely you won’t get players back. I’m not saying that’s what Derek or any GM wants in their desire for lack of compromise, I’m making an extreme comparison. But my view is that an role-playing campaign (or session) isn’t Art with a captial “A”. It is an art, with a little “a”– closer to the sense of techne, like a craftsperson who creates with a sense of practical use included, rather than an artist who creates something intended for objective aesthetic appreciation. Gamemasters are craftsmen and if they make a bike with a spike for a seat, they won’t get people coming back for a second ride unless they’re masochists.

So I guess what I’m saying is that while a GM is trying to create something transcendent, they still have to realize that players will be looking for the handlebars, the gear-shift, the pedals. Which actually is a terrible analogy since people don’t handcraft bicycles. Interactivity is at the heart of role-playing which implies dialogue and compromise. Throwing that away undercuts the potential satisfaction on both sides. I’ve run nihilistic games, but I realize that’s there’s a limit to how far you can push that.

And again, all of which is to say: GMs, don’t be afraid to pander to your players. Keep an eye out for what they like and give that to them. Make it sweet and delicious. Because all of that sweetness will make the bitter which comes later that much more poignant and potent. I know some people put it the other way around– that you need to put some bitter in to make the rest seem sweeter, but I think, from a GM’s perspective you go the other direction.

Next AND LAST POST IN THIS SERIES Romance, Living with the Consequences, and Doppleganging.

Lowell Francis loves stories. He spent four years acquiring books for a university press. He’s an avid board and role-play gamer who believes there needs to be a niche for collecting video game strategy guides. He’s currently working on a secret project with Gene Ha. He blogs at, where this column originally appeared.

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