Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where Did All My NPCs Go?

I had this frankly rather bizarre revelation the other night. I think I've mentioned on here before that the last couple of games I've run just haven't been fun. I couldn't figure out why, and it was bugging me, because I used to love running games and lately it's just been an exercise in frustration. I still haven't, really, but I have a pretty damn good suspicion, once I realized --

I'd stopped building my games around interesting NPCs and what they were up to.

The Traveller game? NPCs were all stock figures. Made up on the spot, didn't have much in the way of motivation. I thought that was how "sandbox" worked, for some reason. The players moved around too much for them to get interesting, anyway. The LotFP game was all dungeon crawl. There were a handful of NPCs but they were a side note, not driving the action. That wasn't where my design was coming from. Is This Foul? was all about PC interaction and scheming, which was great, but it meant there was almost nothing happening on my side of the screen.

This is weird. Back in the day, my games pretty much all started out with, "Okay, here's this dude and he's trying to..." and then somehow the players would get tangled up in whatever it was. Or not, but there was always something going on in the background like that. Basically what I did between games -- what kept my interest -- was explore various character issues and figuring out how they were going to change their plans in response to whatever dumb thing the players had done this time. A lot of the work I did between games never came up in game, and didn't need to. Figuring out how the long-lost prince felt about his brother who was probably never going to get involved with the game didn't make a difference one way or another to the PCs quest to get that prince to the ancient sacred volcano (long story), but it gave me something to do in between sessions, and it kept me tuned in to what was going on in the campaign.

One of the things I've come up against lately is that I do not think in dungeons. If I don't specifically sit down and think, "What this game needs is a good location-based adventure," I won't build them. Trollsmyth builds them naturally out of his campaign's situations. Somehow, sooner or later, a social or political problem will lead to a dungeon crawl because that's what he reaches for to solve particular kinds of problems. I don't. They're not in my blood. That's not how I was raised, as a gamer.

What I do think in is relationships. There's a lot of stuff that I struggle with coming up with, either on the fly or in prep. I can do it, and do it well, but it's exhausting. New monsters, interesting treasure, weird things for the critters to be doing, just events in general -- it takes time, it takes mental effort. Even personalities, histories, secrets, motivations can be difficult. But relationships -- ah, that's another thing entirely.

You put me on the spot, and I can tell you:
This wizard guild is run by a guy who loves evocations. He's straightforward, not particularly principled but he doesn't lie or manipulate. At least, not for business reasons -- He's got two lovers in the guild and they each know about each other but pretend not to, because both of them have other lovers as well -- one is in the guild, the other is a member of the town guard so she's really in the closet about it because all the other wizards would make fun of her for dating someone so mundane. He's in charge because most of the guild likes him; the guild hasn't exactly prospered under his leadership, but he's affable, and leads with a fairly light touch and lets them get on with their work.

There's a significant minority who don't respect him, feel he isn't as skilled and subtle a magician as their leader should be, and that he hasn't done enough to advance their power in the world. They're led by a somewhat humorless man who's well-respected for his power within the guild by disliked and distrusted outside of it; the boyfriend of the leader's first lover is also a significant player in that faction, and he's probably more dangerous. He's not likely to lead any coup given his own precarious personal situation, but he's also much friendlier and personable than the leader of the faction, and not much worse of a wizard; he's likely to end up the de facto leader of the guild if it's significantly destabilized for some reason.

Five minutes, easy, and I've got myself a whole adventure.

What I'm coming around to that this means that there are certain kinds of games that I basically can't run. Episodic? Out. Mission-based? Out. Picaresque? Sadly, out. Likewise, I can't run anything that's entirely player driven, even when I've got great players and they'd love that kind of thing. I probably can't run a megadungeon for any great length of time, at least not without doing some unusual things inside it and around it. I almost certainly can't run a true West Marches style game, and I might not be able to run that general sort of large, irregular player base game.

If I'm right, anyway. And I hope I'm right. I'd much rather think that there are certain kinds of games that I'm always going to have trouble with than that there's just some mysterious something that's keeping me from being able to enjoy running games anymore. I can run a pretty kick-ass game with a few good NPC schemes to play with. Or at least, I used to be able to.


  1. Personally I think this sounds awesome. I'm fascinated by the style of play and adventure generation you describe. I probably could go a little overboard with the relationship elements given the chance but I try to regin it in. I mean, as thick a plot as I enjoy its fun to slice through it with a bit of ass kicking now and again.

  2. Remember the sandbox is just a way of organizing a setting so if players go to B instead of A you can look up things quickly and have some useful notes to come up with things on the fly.

    Thanks to some folks over on TheRPGSite I come with a term with how I manage my campaign and it is called "World in Motion." This is a technique where you as a referee use the setting to make a living and breathing world.

    And a group of NPCs and their web of relationship is a great tool to achieving that.

    I tend to focus on culture, religion, and organization as a source of adventure. All of these are source of motivations for the individual NPCs. I further personalize it so that not all NPCs in a given group are the same.

    The reason I do all this is that I feel, for long term play, the RPG works best when it is about people interacting with people i.e. roleplaying. This engages what I call the Soap-Opera effect and like Soap Operas will keep players coming back week after week for more.

  3. I have a little chart that makes relationships between NPCs for me since thinking about relationships bores me and my players to tears, but then, we are porn actors, so, y'know...

  4. Coming up with interesting npcs is difficult for me. I always end up with inconsistent and wishy washy characters. Do you have any tips?

  5. There are a few games that cater to those preferences. Off the top of my head, in ascending order of crunchiness, there's In A Wicked Age, Trollbabe, Apocalypse World, and Burning Wheel. The characters in each of those games come with motivations and relationships baked in. The first two hardly require any between-session prep at all, and the later two have all sorts of room for NPC schemes.

  6. My games are all character driven and their respective NPCs are very involved in things. This is particularly the case in my Champions campaign when it was rare when an adventure didn't involve one or more of the players' NPCs of one of mine.
    It was less the case in my Chivalry and Sorcery campaign, but that is for pretty much the reason you gave for Traveller, the players simply didn't settle down long enough.
    Been working on a "Serenity" game, and I find that I'm actually having a interesting time just coming up with a bunch of NPCs for it.

  7. A few years ago I read "The Sorcerer's Soul", which is a supplement for Sorcerer by Ron Edwards. The booklet has an extensive section on relationship webs and how they can be used to drive a story. Interestingly, Mr. Edwards was inspired by detective novel writers, who rely extensively on relationship webs.

    The fascinating thing is that once you get going, there is no such thing as sitting down to write a module. Sessions are driven by the alliances, conflicts and various power relationships within the web.

    Initially, the GM has to put forth a great deal of effort to develop a stable of NPCs, but afterward this decreases somewhat. For my recent World of Darkness chronicle, I have a group of 30 NPCs and am astonished at how many sessions those NPCs have driven.

    It's neat to see this concept get more and more exposure on the blogs. My own theory is that old D&D's experience system based upon slay and loot contributes to a de-emphasis on NPCs, but perhaps complex relationships and dungeon exploration are not mutually exclusive.

  8. One of the things I've come up against lately is that I do not think in dungeons.

    so? who said you need to? i fail to see the problem. :)

    everybody has problems running some kinds of games. i wouldn't worry about that at all.

    I'd stopped building my games around interesting NPCs and what they were up to.

    why did you do that? your problems started when you changed the way you went about designing your adventures. maybe going back to your roots will solve them.

    all the games you mentioned (that you supposedly are unable to run, something i doubt very much) can be run the way you used to. (well, maybe not megadungeons, but they suck anyway ;)).

  9. @shlominus

    Megadungeons suck?

    Oh do tell.

    That seems as silly as saying "relationships suck".

  10. Barking Alien: Personally I find that relationship drama and ultraviolence go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Or at least like chocolate and peanut butter would go together if I liked peanut butter. Yuck.

    Anyhow. Nothing better than interrupting the continuing soap opera that is your PCs lives to put their girlfriends (or whatever) in serious and credible danger.

    Rob Conley: That is how I tend to run my games, even before I knew what "sandbox" was. I just got some silly ideas into my head vis a vis the terminology. Ah, youth.

    Zak S: Hee! ;D

    I've played with enough people by now to realize that my tastes in this area are odd. When people dig it, they really dig it, but I'm just as likely to get, "What on earth are you idiots wasting your time with?"

    Aberrant Hive Mind: Not sure. It's something I tend to do by feel. For recurring NPCs I usually use archetypes that are meaningful to me, but I'm not sure how useful that is as a "tip," per se. I've been rolling over in my head some ideas about effective shorthand for describing NPCs, so hopefully there'll be a post on that soon and you'll find that useful.

    Tim Jensen: I do need to play Burning Wheel sometime. Strongly suspect it won't fit my style for regular play, but I need to check out its ideas.

    Christian: "Perhaps complex relationships and dungeon exploration are not mutually exclusive." I find they're not: http://revolution21days.blogspot.com/2009/09/dungeon-soap-operas-are-best-kind-of.html Though the XP system is a recurring problem. We've basically ditched it in the solo game.

    shlominus: Man, if I could tell you why I would have written the post about it. ;p I love a good megadungeon, I just strongly suspect a game entirely focused on one wouldn't hold my attention for long.

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