No One Cares!
I’ve been thinking recently about NPCs and players’ investment in them: basically how to get a player to care about an NPC. I think it’s clearly a common trope in fiction for a character’s family to be threatened or killed as a major motivation for them. However, this only really works if the author can form a positive bond between the audience and the threatened character. In movies or books, the author has a lot of control over how much time the audience spends getting to know the family members, as it were, and if the trope is well done, there will be an attachment between family and audience when the Evil Dude comes in and slaughters them all while the Hero is off gathering fire wood. Similarly, the author has control over how the main character reacts to their family. If the protagonist acts sympathetically towards another character, that’s a signal to the audience and a starting-point for the audience’s perception of that character. Both of these things are not really under the control of a GM.
I think there’s a fine line with NPCs that have close relationships to players. On the one hand, you want the fact that they exist to matter; especially if the player was the originator of the idea, you want their character to interact with the NPC in meaningful ways. On the other hand, if they get too much screen time, you risk edging out the other PCs. Specifically, I’m cognizant of the fact that the GM talks a lot during a session. Or maybe that’s just me. But I’m wary of any situation there it seems like the best way to handle it is for me to talk more, whether it’s a meeting between a bunch of NPCs that the PCs are at, but aren’t really participants in, or an NPC who’s always around.
Also, I think there’s a line of interaction between companionable-but-out-of-the-way and annoying. The Valve team talked about this a bit in their Developer’s Commentary for Half-Life 2: Episode One. In an effort to instill a sense of urgency in the player and also because they felt it was realistic for the character, they has originally scripted Alyx Vance to frequently say things like, “Let’s keep moving, Gordon.” when things were tense and dangerous. While that might seem realistic, they started noticing a really big spike in their test-player data of the number of friendly-fire incidents to Alyx’s head. She’d crossed the line from helpfully instructive and adding to the atmosphere of tension into this region of stop-telling-me-what-to-do-you’re-not-my-real-mom annoyingness. The solution was generally to have her shut up (I’m paraphrasing the commentary, here, of course).
That’s well and good for Valve because even if she’s not saying anything, you can turn around and see that, yes, Alyx still has your back. In roleplaying, unless the GM says it, it isn’t likely to be in the players’ minds. It’s really hard to have something just sort of be there without having the spot light on it. So the PC’s wife who’s smart and capable and not supposed to be a major hindrance (until she get’s captured by the Big Bad) can’t just sort of sit around not talking and form any kind of bond.
If you were hoping for some solutions, you may be disappointed. Like all posts labeled “Crazy Ideas” this isn’t a fully formed thought ready for use in a campaign. Instead, I’m going to finish off by offering up some leads that I think are fruitful, but that I haven’t managed to follow up on all the way. If you’re wanting to make an NPC likable, consider this grammatically inconsistent list:
- Competent – The players are going to like NPCs that can get things done. Especially if they’re surrounded by people who are working at cross-purposes to them or at least uninterested in helping them, the PCs will be glad to be able to ask someone to gas up the Mystery Machine without their needing to intervene.
- Distinct Voice – I think this is important for any major NPC, but doubly so for sympathetic ones that’ll get a lot of screen time. If you can just say the line without the players having to wonder who was speaking just now, then that seems like a good step on the path to their realizing that character in their imaginations. This doesn’t have to be an auditory tone, but can include speech mannerisms.
- Personality – Like having a voice, it really helps if an NPC is witty or droll or has some kind of eccentricity as long as it’s not annoying. This ensures they don’t think of them as a short-sword vending machine like the NPC shop keepers in Final Fantasy.
- Non-Adventurey Conversation – The NPC should be capable of having conversations that don’t have directly to do with the campaign’s events. This one seems hard to me, but I feel like it would go a long way towards making the NPC feel like they’re a real part of the PC’s life outside of whatever crazy events warranted focusing the narrative lens on this time and place.
I really don’t have this one nailed down, so I’d appreciate any further thoughts or experiences in the comments. I have a feeling that my next campaign (set in the Firefly ‘Verse) will present an opportunity to exercise this skill set quite a bit, but I figure there’s no reason to start from a blank slate in session one, as it were.