In Part One of a five-part series, longtime gamemaster and game writer, Lowell Francis talks about the importance of NPCs to a roleplaying game campaign. NPCs (non-player characters) are run by the gamemaster (GM), who handles their interactions with the players.
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of NPCs to a campaign. Characters, done well, allow the GM to provide depth and texture to what would otherwise be text box descriptions of things and events. I watch a lot of crap TV and most of the time it isn’t because I’m amazed by the plot, but rather that I like the characters. That’s what separates the various CSIs for me — some have more interesting characters. It keeps me watching bad shows long after they’ve passed their expiration date.
I wanted to talk about some things to think about regarding characters, from a player and GM perspective. I’ve put together a set of ideas rather than one long analytical treatment of the idea. For many of my campaigns, NPCs serve as the engine that drives the action. I have plot, incident and environment, but the NPCs serve to help explicate all of those things. Some stories will obviously have more or fewer NPCs, but generally I fall back to them as a tool and a device. Some player characters (PCs) work with and enjoy NPCs more than others — and some interact with them on a more serious level. That’s an assessment GMs need to make about their players and play styles.
NPCs consistency is tough but necessary. One challenge as a GM comes from establishing a character vividly and then remembering that character’s personality later. I juggle many NPCs across many games, and right now I have two character-intensive campaigns going. While some NPCs will show up every session, some will reappear more rarely and as a GM you need to be ready to pull up quickly. You need to be close to that character’s previous portrayal: attitude, interests, voice, and so on. If you don’t you’re throwing away one of your most powerful tools.
The trick is this: if you establish behavior– read generally as all of those markers you’ve provided for the character previously — you can then have a behavior shift at the table as an indication that something has happened. They’ve heard something about the players. They’re protecting something. Their family is being held hostage. If you don’t establish that consistency, then players will either not read what you’re doing as being any different and therefore ignore potential developments, or they will spot changes when there are not. That can be a frustrating cycle for the players. Missteps can be little things. At a session the other day, I dropped into character but didn’t bring up the NPC’s established voice. The sharp PCs assumed, since we were on an intercom, that this wasn’t in fact the NPC. I had to switch to the voice quickly.
In that case I’d established the voice several times before. If I’d done it once or twice, it might not have been a big deal. I’ll say this quite honestly — that consistency is what I worry about most when I do voices for NPCs. Will I be able to remember that voice later? Generally I try not to do a distinctive voice unless I know the character will reoccur again fairly often or the character is never going to reappear.
The running joke, with a deep truth to it, is that my wife Sherri remembers the names of all of the NPCs. She does — and remembers them for campaigns long gone by. What I try to keep organized in my mind is a character’s role and motivation. I also try to remember what they thought of the PCs when they last spoke of them. I focus on that, so I often forget the names and have to look them up. Or I would, but usually Sherri’s already shouted out the name by the time I’ve started leafing through my notes.
Remembering motivation and needs is vital. There’s a writer’s edict that says when two people have a conversation in a scene, both of them are trying to achieve something. They each have something they want. The trick of the scene lies in conveying something of those desires through the subtext. That’s important when you have a PC talking to an NPC. If the NPC simply serves as a “talking head,” providing information, then the GM ought to communicate that at the beginning of the interaction — through body language, voice or even phrasing like “. . . he begins to tell you a tale . . .” In those cases the NPCs are event points rather than real interactions.
Real interactions have context and meaning. If they’ve met before, that should shape how the NPC reacts. If the NPC doesn’t like something about the character, that should obviously impact the exchange. If they have something to hide or something concrete they want, that should be hinted. I restate the obvious here, but really NPCs should have their own inner lives, ones which don’t necessarily sync up with what the PCs want.
NPCs can serve as both devices for moving the story forward and also obstacles for the PCs. They can do this at the same time. Sometimes when players hit obstacles in a game, they don’t see a challenge — they see a wall. I’d say this happens most often with player interactions with NPCs. If they’ve had a bad encounter with a particular character, they will be gunshy about dealing with them again. They’ll assume they’ve burned a particular bridge and can’t get any further. In some cases they do, but more often solutions can be found — other people can be influenced, other approaches can be used. Strangely enough, apologies can work.
I like to visualize social skills as the equivalent of lockpicking skills for NPCs. Players should balance out their approach to a character by considering what skills or abilities they have that can help with the approach. They can state those things up front, like mentioning a high skill with Etiquette or a knowledge of the Arts, if appropriate. Not that the player is asking to necessarily make a roll based on those, but instead they’re making a kind of argument about the scene — i.e., when I meet with X, I’m going to try to put him or her at ease — which I can probably do because I have X and Y skills. If I’m on as a player, I’ll do that before I actually launch into the conversation. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: it is not a sign of weakness to fall back to the mechanics of one’s character sheet. Those skills and points you’ve spent serve as support for the arguments you’re making about how the scene is going to go.
Part of my task as a GM is to filter what players say into what their characters say. If characters have invested in social skills or abilities and mention those, I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt about how what they say is taken. Sometimes I’ll offer them a take-back (used to represent advanced social skills). In other cases I’ll try to make explicit the subtext of a particular comment or approach for a player. By virtue of an RPG being, a system model, we have to make allowances for those things.
The catch is this: if I, as a GM, don’t have an understanding of a player’s intent before they go into a social situation, I really can’t make those kinds of allowances. At that point, I have to take the players completely at face value. So if you’re a player, it is worth taking a moment before interacting with an NPC to state what you’re trying to do. Not that you have to stick to that course, but at least at the beginning you can help the GM in that way. On the other hand, if you’re trying to catch the GM off guard or aren’t sure what you want to get out of an interaction, you don’t need to make those statements.
Most NPCs don’t exist in a vacuum. I’ve mentioned their inner lives, but we also have to know something about their daily lives. I find it easiest to remember roles and duties. That’s often the first thing a player picks up on — what job an NPC performs. Related to that, what social level or position they hold. Those traits open up a range of details and allow the player to get a basic impression. They’re also a catalyst — does the NPC fit strongly to the mold of that role or do they act askew from expectations? Do we have the lazy butler or the one so strongly in that role that they turn their nose up immediately at any whiff of impropriety on the character’s part? Do we have the sinister high adviser, or one more focused on a game of croquet? These details come easily and often can be enough to give a fairly broad impression to the players.
That impression has huge implications. As a GM you want to give the players enough cues and materials that they can reasonably play off of and approach the NPCs. I like to mix up matching and countering expectations with NPCs. They shouldn’t always throw the PCs off, but they should do it often enough that players learn to take a moment to do an assessment before an encounter. Or at least to be open and responsive when first meeting someone. You don’t want to make the PCs gun shy, but you also don’t want them always jumping to the easiest assumptions and running with those.
Beyond those important surface details, I like to know something about the ecology of the NPC. If, as I’ve said, NPCs don’t exist in a vacuum, that means they know other NPCs. Just as in real life, those relations hold significant weight. We learn something about a person in how they act when we’re speaking to them. But we learn more when we see how people talk about them when they’re not around — and we learn even more about a person when we see how they talk about someone who isn’t there. Those interactions allow a GM to complicate and refine the portrayal of an NPC. You hint at other stories and entanglements. You create a sense that these people have their own real lives.
Two related considerations to this — consider showing how an NPC interacts with their family and their community. Family forms a set of involuntary bonds for people. How have they dealt with the good and bad of those lives? Do they change their behavior drastically when they interact with them? Meeting an NPC’s family can often go a long way to explaining some of their motivations or even their stranger behavior.
Likewise, being a member of a community — neighborhood, religious, social — can demonstrate an NPC’s inner lives. Do they change when they deal with that group? Do they laugh at the ideas of their community or take them dreadfully seriously? Do they search for acceptance from their peers? We place less emphasis on these communities in our lives, but in some settings they’re as serious and important as family.
For example, on the Third Continent of my campaign, everyone has a faith and belongs to a cult devoted to a god or gods. People judge, note and react in part based on that. But perhaps even worse to people than being a member of a strange cult would be not demonstrating membership in any cult. That would be taken as a sign of exile and of not being a person who could fit in.
Next time: Types of NPCs and throwaway characters