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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Categories: Crazy Ideas
  1. Dann Webster
    April 8, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    I agree with your 4 suggestions, and have a few more with which I have had some success. These suggestions are based around one single principle: Make the PC have some reason to seek out or value the NPC, and thus establish the care and relationship for themselves.

    Obviously, there are plenty of functional, “win condition” reasons why a NPC might be motivated to seek out NPC interaction (“She holds the Key to Argoth, so we must talk to her!”). The problem with those kinds of campaign-goal related NPCs is that, once the PCs milk the NPC for what they are worth, the PC tends to drop the NPC like a hot rock (“Got the Key to Argoth, lets roll!”).

    The following reasons, however, are non-“win condition” reasons. As such, these reasons tend to have no specific end point, so they linger throughout the campaign. So, without further ado:

    5. Character Goal Related – The NPC is a path to potentially achieving a goal for the character which is not strictly the goal of the Campaign. Moreover, the NPC is not the goal itself. For example, “The PC wants to get to know his estranged father to discover the origin of his magical powers” or “the PC wants to prepare his son for the responsibilities of Rule.” These goals give the PC a reason to start conversations with the NPC, and decide to bring the NPC along on whatever he is doing. And in those times, the bond forms. Moreover, since the PC has a Goal when talking to that NPC, it becomes easier for most players to formulate something to talk about that leads to an interesting scene. “How was your day?” is not likely to particularly excite a player, but “Tell me about where I was born” might lead to something cool.

    6. Soft Spot – The NPC fits into some soft spot the PC (or even the Player) has. Player cares about the homeless? NPC is a Competent, mysterious homeless person. Player likes horses? NPC is a rancher. I have never intentionally used this as a ploy, but I have often discovered a PC caring about a background NPC for reasons I did not fully understand until I realized that the Player had a Soft Spot for something related to that NPC. Once I figured that out, I promoted the NPC from the background NPC to the foreground and used them as a Campaign Lever.

    7. World Knowledge – The NPC has knowledge about some aspect of the setting the PCs are interested in, but does not necessarily bear directly on the outcome of the Campaign. This works especially well if there is a Non-Human race the PCs might have wanted to play, but weren’t allowed to because it would mess up the campaign. If you choose this route, it is important that the relationship between the PCs and the NPC is constructed in such a way that the exotic NPC not become a Magic 8-ball to answer PC questions. It is often good if the NPC doesn’t really know the answers to questions intellectually, but answers those questions through what he/she is or does. That way the PCs will want to keep that NPC around and observe him/her, and thus learn about the setting.

    Sometimes you can plan these things out, but more often these sorts of interaction come about organically (like what I described in #6).

    I have found that when you allow these non-Campaign-goal-related ties, to gestate for a while, they often deepen to the point where they are able to organically fuse with campaign related goals. It may require a quick re-write of some of the things you planned, but it often can turn into something much more satisfying.

    • Ben
      April 12, 2010 at 3:57 pm

      Great thoughts, Dann! Number 6 is especially interesting and bears some thought, I think. Thanks.

  2. January 13, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    I think (2) and (3) are good regardless of the PCs, and depending on the PCs, (5) and (6) may also be suitable. (As an example, my character has a goal to learn more mathematics (which isn’t really part of the campaign though), and soft spot about horrific monsters. Other character can have many other kind too!)

  1. July 1, 2010 at 9:11 am

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