27.8.12

NPCs, Game failure, and Pinball

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", by D Sharon Pruitt  (2007, djibnet)















Atlantis is a Ghost Town...

I 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?

Think about that analogy, and you find the most come answer: Atlantis, like any city, couldn't exist without people?

Your 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.

Mugging Gandalf
Why 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*".

Think about this though. In Tolkien's The Lord 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).

Now 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.

Same 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!"
If 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.

I 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
This 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 predictable ways.

You 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 say.

Often, 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. 

The 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 betray...

Gaming ecology, behind the pinball machine glass...
Imagine 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.

But, 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?

Fate intervenes, and then the characters act on fate. That's how.

Some 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).

So 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.

If 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 minions...)

Each 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 Game.

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.

Keep Gaming-
Adrian


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