Monday, February 22, 2010

Building Better Worlds: Making the Most Out of Your NPCs.


So tell me, gentle readers, how many times has this happened to you? You're in the thick of a gaming session, and the time has come to meet with a contact. So you get to the appointed meeting place, you size each other up and someone asks the question, "So, what's this guy look like? Any distinguishing features?" or a million little other questions that players want answered and the game master shuffles through his papers and says, "uh, I don't know. Guy McPersonson? It's not important." and bang, you're out of the story. Why do gamers ask these questions? Why do they care? Are these details even important? Yes, yes they are, and I'm here to tell you why...

Gamemasters, part of your job as host and storyteller is creating a world compelling and enjoyable enough that you can keep the fickle attention of players for more than a session or two. There are dozens of tricks you can use, props, music, maps, etc, but one of the easiest and most direct ways of engaging your players with the setting is by giving them consistent, memorable NPCs to interact with. Strong, detailed NPCs help your players in a number of ways. They help the players interface with the story better, they can be used to drop hints or misdirect players, to give them friends and allies, and to allow the players an amount of control in this exercise in collaborative story telling that you all have embarked on together.

I'm not suggesting that you need to have a four page bio with a full set of stats for every NPC you may ever want to use, far from it. All you need are a handful of notes and a few stand out character traits, in greater or lesser detail depending on the importance of the NPC.  In our Harn game, GM Munin has the most important NPCs roughly sketched out with a quick bio and a paragraph or two notes on each one. These are the guys we interact with all the time, our contacts, the rival crime families, the priestesses across the street, my character's bent friends in the City Guard. For the rest he's got a name and a quick note. If we need to interact with them in more than a straight role-playing situation, like a contested action or if it comes to blows, he just rolls to see how high the NPC's relevant attribute or skill rank is.

GM Munin is also very good and thinking on his feet and coming up with characters off the cuff. For instance, in a session about two years ago we had a random encounter on a journey where we were waylaid by a charismatic highwayman named Manzanar the True. He held us up on the road with only the threat of a team of archers, none of us we could see but he assured us that they were there, and was able to make off with our purses with no bloodshed. Us, he held us up on the road. We're thieves, by the gods! We're the ones who do the holding up, not the ones who are held up. Manzanar was little more than a name and a couple of rolls by the GM to see how big a threat he was. Calling him a tertiary character would be giving him too much credit, but to this day all you have to do is mention his name and you'll be met with a chorous of, "Manzanar the True? F@%# that guy!"

Giving NPCs little bits of background and personality like that make for outstanding role-playing opportunities as well. Think about it. As a player, who would you rather interact with, Vinnie the Screw who uses a straight razor and loves a uncommon Italian wine of a certain vintage, or "Generic mafia button-man number four"? With an NPC like Vinnie up there, the players now have some idea of who he is, and enough information to help them in their dealings with him. This gives them that control I mentioned earlier. Say they pick up a bottle of this weirdo moon wine to give as a gift to Vinnie at their first meeting, this maybe gives them an edge that they couldn't have in an interaction with a generic NPC. Little details like that can also lead to other tangential encounters that could open dozens of opportunities. That wine is rare and spendy, maybe Vinnie needs more and the players can convince him that they have a steady source. Maybe your players can bluff well enough to convince him that the gift was a pleasant coincidence and that they have a good eye for wines that will impress Vinnie and make him even more positively disposed toward them.

Now NPCs, at least the major ones, don't simply exist in a game for the amusement of the players. They should be part of the setting, extras moving in the background with their own lives and motivations. They should be dynamic, growing and changing along with the players as the story progresses. Having said that though, the only thing more frustrating for a player than an NPC with no detail, is an NPC whose details constantly change with no rhyme or reason. One very important thing you need to keep in mind is that when you state that an NPC has this personality quirk or that, or likes one kind of ale over another, it must be ever thus. If it's not, if there's some change in their habits or disposition between sessions, those changes should have an explanation that makes sense within the NPC's world. Does Vinnie love wine in one encounter and not in the next? If so, you'd better have a damn good reason for it or your players will lose a little bit of trust in you. Keep it up and you'll lose them altogether. Why should they have to remember an NPC when you can't even do it? The difference between you saying, "Uhhh, no I never said that. Oh, did I? Okay, I guess so." and Vinnie saying "My doctor said my livah is in real bad shape, you know? So I hadda give up the drinkin' if I wanna see my Maria get married next year." can make all the difference in the world between characters who are engaged and those who aren't. Take notes, stay consistent, and your players will repay your hard work with good role playing.

I know what some of you are saying, I can hear it now. Don't give me any of that, "But I'm no good at making NPCs" or "I can't think on my feet that fast" malarkey, you've been making characters on one side of the screen or the other for years, and I have faith in your ability to do it now. So, that's it. Get yourself some good NPCs, keep them consistent or have them change over time in ways that make sense in their situations (I hadda give up the drinkin'!) and really give your characters something to sink their teeth into. Good luck, and good gaming.


Jason Richards said...

Strong post. Well said. I think too many gamers view NPCs as Griswold the Blacksmith who stands outside his hut to repair your stuff when you come back from the Catacombs. He's always there, always does the work, and never figures into the story unless he's giving you a side quest.

Shawn said...

Great post. The games I remember, the ones I tell stories about,and the ones who make me fight for a seat at the GMs table are the ones with the good NPCs (as you know, since you're the creator of at least one of those most often mentioned).