Wednesday, October 02, 2013


I watch way too much TV, sometimes.  And too many movies.  And I probably read too many books, too.  Especially when every thought I have while reading or watching is game-related.

At times, it's led to some really entertaining conversations.  "Wow," I'll say to Stephanie, "That author relies too much on his NPCs."

I love conversations that you see here and there where players try to generate [character] from [media] in [system]. I don't tend to participate, but I love some of the discussion that springs up.

My favorite game these days is "spot the NPC."  There are characters who are obvious NPCs - assuming a traditional game structure.  Which you can't always do these days.

See, Smallville - the TV series, that is - was good, and in a traditional game, the party would have been Clark, Lana, and so on.  As the overall villain of the thing, Lex would have been the villain of the piece - and an NPC.  But when Smallville the RPG came out, it was structured in a very non-traditional way and Lex was one of the sample PCs.

But there are other - larger - media properties where the author(s) have wielded NPCs poorly.

And here I step into the role of heretic.

I think that it's hilarious every time someone writes up stats of Gandalf, because - to me - he's clearly an NPC.  Think about it.

Start with The Hobbit - who assembles the party and starts the adventure moving?  Gandalf.  Yes, the Dwarves were already known to one another, but Gandalf set the meeting point - and really, it's a party that ... um ... wasn't well-assembled.  Who is conveniently off-camera and/or completely ineffective every time something important is happening?  Gandalf.

Now look at the trilogy: Who recognizes the Ring?  Gandalf.  Who tells the hobbits where to go?  Gandalf.  Who generally only shows up to dispense wisdom or information before disappearing again?  Gandalf.

Yes, he fought the Balrog and saved the party - at the same time, that could have been the GM realizing that the party was relying too heavily on Gandalf's Navigation and trying to remove him from the picture.  Even though the entire Moria sequence is filled with Gandalf saying, essentially, "I think it's this way, but I'm not sure."  Honestly, it sounds to me like a GM who wants the party to do some exploring on their own.

Later, the party was split, and they weren't doing so well.  Who got most of the party back together?  Gandalf.  Honestly, if Tolkien was my GM, I'd have been pretty annoyed at this meddling wizard who was really only helpful under duress most of the time.

It's a common problem with NPCs.  You need them to fill your game world - and it can be nice to have one in the party to help keep them on track - but you need to balance that with the need to make sure the players are having fun.  Because the game is all about the players.

If the party is stumped because they've encountered a puzzle that they can't solve due to a run of bad die rolls, then find a way around the puzzle.  Don't have Bob the Torchbearer suddenly remember that his dad (the clockmaker) had constructed something similar.  You can drop hints.  Maybe Bob the Torchbearer has a similar pattern stitched onto his coinpurse, and you can allow the PCs to roll again.  Maybe Bob has an idea that doesn't sound like a good one - but it puts the party on the right track.

The NPC is there to keep the party on target, not to solve the party's puzzles and problems. NPCs can be part of the party's plans, but they shouldn't be the ones coming up with the plans.

Here are what NPCs should be used for:

  • Setting flavor/Background
  • Plot hooks
  • Villains
  • Knowledge Resources
  • Carrying Things
  • Clues (not solutions)
  • Skill Gap-Fillers (though this should be rare -a party should never face an obstacle that they are incapable of overcoming)
Here are a few things NPCs should not be used for:

  • Essential Skill Gap-fillers
  • Problem solvers
  • Party Salvation (unless the party cashed in a favor or called for help, in which case some of this is acceptable)
  • Railroad Enforcers to keep the party from straying off the path
I'm a sandbox gamer.  I like creating worlds and then setting things in motion.  In my current Cthulhutech game (that I need to get back to running), for example, the PCs are all cops.  Their Captain is an NPC, as are the other authority figures.  In general, they are assigned a case (or cases), and are left on their own to solve them.  I have a chart in my head that lists each case and what is happening in what time frame on these cases.  If they focus on one issue, that won't stop the looming gang war.  It won't stop the Feds from transferring the cultists that they need to question to the Puyallup Valley Correctional Facility.  The Deep Ones won't stop their planning just because the party is chasing down an Occult Drug Dealer instead of following up on that unusual firearm that some kid fished out of the Sound.

I recently acquired an excellent tool for building NPCs.

See, most NPCs don't need full stats.  They often don't need any stats at all - they just need personalities.  In my Cthulhutech game, for example, the party doesn't have a Techie - they just turn to Askrob for help, and he tells them what they find out.  Now, I could roll for what he finds, but if I need them to have information, then I need them to have information. Leaving the disclosure of that information up to a die roll is silly.

So Askrob - despite being an important supporting character - doesn't need stats.  He needs a personality.

Left to my own devices, most of my NPCs would be almost the same - Sarcastic and argumentative or timid and jumpy.  In fact, too many of my NPCs are ... flat.  I'm willing to admit that. It's one of my (too many) weaknesses as a GM.

A few months back, I backed a project on Kickstarter called Short Order Heroes.  I've since received my copy, and it's now available for pre-order.  It's a deck of personality traits.  Need a quick NPC?  Pull a trait or two (or three).  Boom! Instant NPC.  You can even tell your players which personality traits your NPC has, so they know how to react to him (or her).

Of course, I may be a bit biased. One of the Kickstarter-exclusive promo cards was loosely based on me ...

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