The final installment of Lowell Francis’s Gamemastering NPCs series discusses the use of dialogue in a roleplaying game.
NPCs as Dialogue:
Interacting with NPCs forms the dialogue of an rpg story. In a conventional narrative, dialogue ought to serve at least one of three purposes:
- Advancing the Plot
- Revealing Character
- Advancing the Theme
In a role-playing game, you have a fourth possibility: giving the players a chance to act. That’s the gaming and shared narrative nature of the rpg. The player gains some control over what the purpose of an interaction is. Conventional narrative has the opportunity to go back and trim, edit and revise– making sure that any dialogue has at least some tension or conflict inherent in it. In an rpg we keep moving forward, improvising and developing. The GM should keep the possibility for these purposes open in a game. Games with a plot centered approach focus on the first of these purposes and think much less about the others. If you’re playing with new players be aware that they may have come out of these kinds of campaigns. It may take them time to see that NPC interactions can do other things.
Doppleganging: One technique to consider in choosing NPCs for players I call Doppleganging—which isn’t exactly a precise term here. By this I mean presenting NPCs for particular characters who echo or reflect certain characteristics from that PC. This can be used for several purposes. It can be used to provided an expository opportunity for both the GM and the player. For example, in the Libri Vidicos game, my friend Scott’s running an Elf, one of the two non-humans in the party. From the beginning the issue of his racial identity became central to perceptions of his character. Scott and I have always had very different takes on the Elves so one of my goals has been to explicate their identity. In the first year of the campaign, I only had a couple of Elves on campus, but in the second year an oddly large number of the incoming first-years have been Elves, drawn from the various groups and clans across the continent. This has a plot relevant purpose, but it was also intended as a specific character opportunity. Scott’s had the opportunity to interact with a couple of them– including one from his own people who has a very different take on things. On my side, I’ve had the chance to show how different the Elves can be. On Scott’s side he’s been an advocate for his vision of what it means to be an Elf. I feel a little bad that we haven’t gotten to explore this as much as I’d hoped, but I’ve laid the groundwork for future interactions in the coming campaign years.
The Changeling campaign I run also lends itself to this kind of approach. Characters in the Changeling setting come from one of a set of six fairly distinct Seemings which are the equivalent to races or classes. Within those Seemings they have several sub-types form by having starkly differing experiences during their time of imprisonment by the Fae Overlords. Built into the structure of the campaign then is a kind of echoing. One of my favorite scenes so far was a lunch meeting of the different Ogres of the Freehold, allowing me to show a variety of takes on the idea of Ogre-dom and having that interact with the two PCs who share that Seeming.
Another form of Doppleganging is more tricky and I’ve had mixed success with it. If a player character has definite negative traits or attitudes you can model those habits in NPCs. For example, in the Crux campaign we had a PC who seemed to be built on being angry– about his family, his background, his situation. I put him into contact with an NPC from another like group who shared those traits and outlook. In this case, the PC took a dislike to the NPC but didn’t come to any realization about that moment. I can identify several reasons for this– the scenes being handled a little too subtly, too much else going on, and too much of the PC’s attitudes being actually the player’s attitudes.
I think one of the key difference lies in how some players see those negative traits: inherent and vital to the character or else something which the player hopes to overcome through the course of the game. Traits intrinsic to the player themselves can’t be affected through this method, either because the player doesn’t recognize them or they revel in them. If, however, the PC begins in a bad place, then an echoing NPC can give them a incident which can help them begin that journey to make changes. Anger, Arrogance, Laziness, Self-Centeredness, Suspicion– the classic rpg disadvantages can evolve into something else over time. If the player wants to evolve the character, the GM should recognize this and provide opportunities for evolution. At the same time, the GM shouldn’t push this too hard. You don’t want to force changes in character conception on a player. Instead, give them the tools to make those developments naturally.
Sometimes you can provide kind of end game models for the PCs. In one of the L5R campaigns, we had a PC who had suffered a deep family betrayal which drove him to become a Ronin and have a generally bad attitude, especially towards a rival clan, the Scorpion. Throughout the campaign, I tried to provide models– for example, that the destructive path he found himself on in fact echoed that of the father who had betrayed him. I also tried to provide a doppleganger character from the clan he hated– someone who had gone through the same kind of betrayal he had, but had risen above it to become a noble and sacrificing person, unlike others of the Scorpion. I have to say generally that particular gambit failed in part because the player had a very narrow take on their own self-justification. Ironically, the other players recognized the differences which made for some odd role-play. The campaign ended with that PC being ordered to commit seppuku. To give him props, he did manage to role-play a character destroying himself through a desire for vengeance better than anyone else I’ve seen.
I’ve had some more literal Doppleganging in the Changeling game, including a character sharing many traits with a player character who seems to have embraced the path of the villain and been put down. In the Freakish Band of Adventurers campaign, we had a player character who turned out to be the negative traits the major villain of the piece had made manifest in order to destroy. He’d escaped. Throughout the campaign I watched what the player did and shaped the villain to be the opposite of that– or at least someone who had self-loathing towards those impulses. On the other hand, another tactic is to hit a PC with a complete opposite of themselves who ignores all of those differences– I’ve gotten some good interactions from the character of the Larker in the Changeling game who inversely dopplegangs not just my friend Shari’s character. He’s unabashedly direct in opposite to some of her character’s social interactions, but at the same time draws his form from the dark river that originally swallowed her character and drew her into the Hedge.
Of course with these approaches you want to be careful not to be too heavy-handed. Present them and allow the players to explore them as they wish. Try not to sink into parody of a particular PC– treat them respectfully. Give them the tools and opportunities to become the character’s they wish to be.
Live With It: Sometimes when you’re caught in the heat of an interaction, you’ll say something you don’t mean to. I don’t mean something nasty like an insult, I trust people to have common sense about that. However it will happen that an NPC will reveal a detail about a plot point, make a misstatement, talk about things which they really shouldn’t know about.
Don’t do takebacks.
Be ready to run with it. Accept your mistake and move forward. You have to do this for several reasons. Primarily: doing so undercuts your illusion of GM infallibility. You want to maintain that. The players trust you’re saying what you mean and know what’s going on. You also model good behavior– if you’re willing to go with something when you misspeak, you encourage them to do the same. If you give yourself a takeback, you’re obliged to give them the same benefit of the doubt. Not that you wouldn’t otherwise, but you do help make players comfortable with errors. Obviously don’t draw attention to the mistake, just keep moving– sometimes players won’t catch it. And sometimes you have my wife at the table, who will.
If you have to correct something, correct it immediately. Avoid retconning things later– if you demonstrate you’re willing to go back and change something then you undercut player trust in your narrative. How are they to draw conclusions or put things together if you might go back and change things. Trust is a vital GM currency. Also– and I always have to watch for this– if someone corrects you at the table about something you’ve said– a plot point, a game ruling, whatever– don’t say something like “OK I’ll let that fly for now,” as if you’re giving a gift. That creates a barrier between you and the players– a position of arrogance that seems to suggest all good things come from your benevolent hand and any mistakes are really a misperception on the player’s part. If you suffer a plot correction, agree, apologize and thank the player for their perceptive input. Well, unless the player has gone to the rulebook and starts quoting things in the heat of combat– in that case you need to crush them mercilessly underfoot. Sometimes.
OK, 1700+ words and well past the limit I wanted to set for myself, but I want to finish this series.
Romantic Subplots: Romance and desire figure heavily into conventional narratives– if you know Harry Potter, think about how much the addition of those issues begins to complicate and deepen things from Year Three on. Sometimes it gets in the way of the plot, like say Batman Begins where it feels tacked on, and sometimes it humanize it, as with The Dark Knight. Anyway, even though we’re sitting around a table in a basement, playing with figures and dice, we shouldn’t throw away these kinds of plots and ideas. Obviously some kinds of campaigns lend themselves to romantic tropes better than others.
You have two things you need to figure out if you’re thinking about having romantic plots: which players will be interested in those plots and if the group as a whole will react well to those things at the table. In the case of the latter, if you know that certain players will catcall and make comments about romantic scenes at the table, you have to handle those carefully. Either handle those interactions off-table or by careful table management. We had a player who was notorious for short-circuiting other player’s romantic interactions– so you’d have to distract him with other things before you moved on to handling those with other players. But you also have to know which players are interested in those kinds of plots. More than any other kind of NPC interaction you have to work with these interactions carefully. Never, ever push those things– keep an eye out for NPCs a player seems interested in a try to work through those scenes. Take them as seriously as possible– there’s a real trust issue in those interactions and breaking character can be bad.
Avoid sex. Except for the suggestive Mata Hari type tropes– stay away from this area generally. This kinds of things can be implied off-screen, but don’t delve into them. You run the risk of embarrassment or dipping straight into juvenile stuff if you work those kinds of narratives. As goofy as it sounds, desire, love and romance works best with a kind of chaste affection, long-term development and delayed gratification.
The problem is that a successfully concluded romance is kind of a dead end narrative path for an rpg. What’s important is the courting, the figuring out, the ups and downs, and the development. If you look at my campaigns, you’ll usually note that romances are only successfully concluded towards the end of the game. There are a couple of reasons for that. Once PCs have, for lack of a better word, hooked up, it limits their dramatic choices. What’s more interesting and parallel to the course of the campaign’s length is the back and forth difficulty of finding love and making it work. Break ups and betrayals are emotionally resonant, so you’d think that would be good for the story– but the potential baggage coming from that doesn’t balance out against the gain. Players get involved with their characters– an rejection or a violation of trust from an NPC can have spill over. At the very least it can make them seriously gunshy about future interactions.
It bears repeating: be certain that your players are interested in and comfortable with romantic plots before you delve into them. On the flip side, be sure that your GM is comfortable with running those plots before you try to instigate them. Emotional and relational baggage can really destroy a game. Don’t have Mary Sue characters trying to interact with PCs– I’ve seen that a couple of times and it is nothing but creepy. Respect gender boundaries– I’ve seen GMs use NPCs to hit on female characters or run through weird stuff. Again, that’s nothing but creepy. Be careful.
As I suggested, the real sticking point for romantic plots in a long term campaign is that the romantic plots themselves have to be long term. Think about how that works in episodic fiction– Mulder and Scully from the X-Files, the interplay on Bones, the several loves of Harry Potter, even to a certain extent the Angel/Buffy relationship. They’re drawn out. If you remember Northern Exposure, you may also remember the back and forth relationship of the two main characters and how settling that kind of killed the show. Now in some cases, those relationships are consummated, but they’re torn apart by outside circumstances– the Angel/Buffy turn evil thing or the various problems in Veronica Mars. Those problems keep the romance truly unsolved and remove a certain degree of emotional blame– I think that if you do have a somewhat finished relationship in a game going on, the outside world has to intrude on it. It makes things more tense and shifts the weight of any emotional blame.
I’d say generally my model for romantic relationships in games comes from two places. The Three Musketeers, one of my favorite novels, which has the long and courtly interplay of the main character and his lady love. I think that’s a great example of drawing out the plot and having an ultimately satisfying resolution. I’d also say that many manga present great examples– Fruits Basket, the early part of His and Her Circumstances, Blue Seed, Ouran Host Club, etc. There the romance is a vital part and we’re never sure exactly where it is going to go.
On the other hand, some manga and anime presents a problematic version of the romance tale. As an example– most of the “harem”-type stories, like Tenchi Miyo. These reinforce a particularly bad set of images about romance– that a character only has to be good to have women swarming on him. What bothers me is a kind of objectification of the females there. There’s also a lack of real understanding and effort on the part of the main characters usually. I think that plays into a particular geek trope about being “friends” with a female and she’ll come around. But that’s a whole topic I don’t necessarily want to get into– something I might come back to. Suffice as to say, sometimes players will not make good choices about the kinds of NPCs they want to develop a romantic relationship with. Not unlike real life. One of the problems lies in the distance implied with running a character in a fantastic setting– in the past I’ve had some players want to develop romantic sub-plots with particular NPCs while at the same time clearly not understanding anything about that NPC’s personality and motivation. I know one player had problems with that in the L5R campaign– he was expecting things to move in a more Western or even Anime romance pattern which doesn’t fit with the social hierarchy there and he had a hard time working within that. In the Cyberpunk version of Saviors I ran, another player got really bent out of shape because his attempts to hit on an NPC kept failing, despite all of the signals I sent about her sexual orientation. What I’ve learned from that is, especially with these kinds of tropes, you have to be more generous and you also have to be a little more explicit if the player is missing the subtext.
OK, 2900 words or so. I think I’m done with this topic for the time being. I know I’ve gone off the reservation a couple of times in my articles, but I hope if gives you some insights into how I see NPCs and their roles in my games.