Between a prison sentence and a NPC-starved game, what's the same?
No one to love, no-one to blame.Picture Credits:"Where Angels Cry", byD Sharon Pruitt (2007, djibnet)
Atlantis is a Ghost Town...
don't play pinball: rather, I run duets. Sometimes though, I run the most
crappiest duets. Sometimes I run games, wonderful games with rich settings and
twisty-turny plots, straight into the ground. How is it that great games,
almost Atlantean in scope and detail, sink into a crud-ocean of boredom?
about that analogy, and you find the most come answer: Atlantis, like any city,
couldn't exist without people?
game, whether solo or crowed with players, may be suffering from that
same disease of dispopulitis (aka, lack of NPCs). This disease particularly
incubates in GMs that focus on crafting those extremely rich settings,
complicated plots, new mechanics or new rule sets. A lack of NPCs causes the
PC's progression along those neat plotlines and cool settings to slow down or
even stop, building frustration in the GM and in turn the player. The game,
like a girdled tree, dries up and dies down.
does a lack of NPCs do this though? Shouldn't a player be able to push their PC
along without anyone's "permission" or "prodding"? What
about ultra badasses that "don't need nobody *gunshot*".
about this though. In Tolkien's TheLord of the Rings, one could argue Frodo was
the main character (since the novels focused on him for a significant portion).
Yet the little guy was surrounded by a wagon-load of characters. When Frodo was
visited by Gandalf, he revealed to him a dark secret. That secret led to a
grand adventure filled with dozen of other players, so many that the focus of
the story split in half for much of the time. The power of the story is so
great that people that people have analyzed the Gospels
of Christianity though the lens of those books (see The Gospel according to Lord of the Rings).
for a thought experiment: lets take Gandalf the Gray out of the
story entirely. Rob him, strip him naked and leave him for dead. If
Gandalf had never come over, Fordo would have whiled away his time in his
village, creating quite boring story.
is true even for the "dark badasses" that seem
so independent and self-driven. Take Batman. No
guy-in-the-dark-that-shot-my-parents, no kindly Alfred, no bats, no bad guys
(especially Joker), no Batman. Hell, nearly every character in the Justice
League, especially Superman, brings out
more interesting aspects of the Dark Knight. Double hell, lets
consider other badasses and their head-butting counter parts:
Wolverine/Sabertooth or Vampire Hunter D/his talking palm. Every buddy cop
movies in existence has this dynamic!
"Help me, help you!"
you are thinking to yourself that your player is being lazy, and resisting the
plot, think to yourself if there are any NPC's actually associated with this
plot. You want your character to discover his father's killer all by himself,
you need to at least introduce the first clues, or a motivation, or a threat,
from another NPC.
duet I ran recently went incredibly, incredibly well, I think, in part for
about 60 distinct, non-cookie cutter NPCs. All my favorite games, in fact,
had dozens of NPCs. Look at any movie credits, for that matter, and even for
the most laser focused film on one solitary character, you will find most
likely more than ten real creditable characters.
Blow up the punch-clown
being said, these NPCs that need to be sprinkled in your game don't need to be
pre-fab. They too, need to have life: they need to be fleshed out a enough for
them to be able to make their own decisions regarding the PC's actions. NPCs
are partly put their to react to the player, preferably in interesting and un
don't need multi-page bios for all your NPCs to do this. An NPC who has a stake
in a multi-million dollar business that pollutes the area in which the main
character lives is sufficient. A wizard who has no apparent back story other
than knowing the main character's uncle is sufficient, if he has something to
this meanings squeamishly putting your NPC's in harms way, allowing that flesh
you put on them to be wounded. This could mean that the NPC resists
the PCs actions, perhaps with violence, perhaps with only words, perhaps even
with the words that would encourage the PC to be violent to them. These
interactions between NPCs and PCs are important to any story, even some more
hack-and-slash type games.
great NPC's that I have made are somewhat like those annoying inflatable punch
clowns: they provoke the PC to react to them (i.e. punch their lights out), but
they just come back for more, and provoke him/her again. That being said, let
you PC pop the enemy NPC (or win them as an ally) at some point. But allies can
Gaming ecology, behind the pinball machine glass...
a PC, a girl who works at a Pizza shop, and an NPC, a filthy rich vampire
actor. Actor comes into her pizza parlor with his friend, and is captivated by
the girl's expert ability to toss pizza. He tries the typical "hey baby
wanna go out with a big shot actor? I gotta BIG surprise for you..."
business and gets no where.
the thing is the plot involves the PC falling for this sexy vampire man. Both
the Player and the GM know this. How does this romance get started?
intervenes, and then the characters act on fate. That's how.
nameless unseen thief steals the pizza girls car (this is fate). The Pizza
girl's culinary school is having a major test today (more fate). But, the
vampire sees his way into her heart: by offering her a ride (this event requires an NPC with enough
development to be able to decide to take a ridiculous risk).
what though? The vampire swoons the girl, then what? Conflict gets introduced,
when the PC tells her new boyfriend that her father has killed her boyfriends
before (here, another NPC gets introduced). Her father is a oil hand in a
oil-rich part of the country, booming with new huge oil companies and somewhat
rough-and-tumble oil field workers and small town scenery. The introduction of
that NPC not only created conflict, but it created more setting, more plot, and
most important, MORE NPCS.
you think of your games like an ecosystem, think of all your NPCs being linked
together to occupy certain niches in your story. The Vampire provided the
lover, the Father provided the antagonist. Children usually have mother and
father at least biologically, but this father had a family: his wife provided
the Voice-of-reason, one brother was the Dark-Bad-Boy, and so on. Even details
like the Fathers place of work creates NPCs (his evil vampire CEO, that evil
vampires CEO's master, that vampire master's enemy, that enemy vampires
of those NPCs reacted to what the PC did when they found out. They spread
information about the PC's actions continually. The PC reacted to their
reactions. Some were favorable, others unfavorable. The PC, a pinball, bounced
among the other pinballs, the PC's, in one massive pinball machine called the
paddles at the end are manned by the GM. Used judiciously, they keep the balls
moving, and therefore the story moving. With a plot in mind, one can eventually
maneuver even the most unpredictable players along and leave behind a story
that can be remembered well past the last day.