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.
As the category of this post indicates, this is another somewhat embryonic idea I’ve been batting around. Generally, I look for the ending of a campaign to be heroic. Most of my campaigns are fairly adventurey and that leads to some kind of confrontation with some kind of villain and, in the end, the PCs “win” in some sense. They vanquish an evil or whatever; they upset the status quo. That is, I’d say, also probably the most common ending in adventure fiction, as well. The Evil Empire is defeated, the Federation is saved from the Borg, The One Ring is destroyed, Buttercup is rescued and Prince Humperdinck disgraced. You get the idea.
However, there is a class of fiction that doesn’t end that way. In the end, the protagonists aren’t heros to the masses and probably haven’t even upset the status quo on a temporary basis, let alone a permanent one. In fact, the victory seems to be that the events of the story didn’t kill them (or didn’t kill all of them). In the last few scenes, they all sort of look at each other and say, “Phew! Well, I’m certainly glad that’s over.” They still ride off into the sunset, but only to go back to what they were doing before, more or less. The ending of the pilot episode of Firefly has this feel. To a certain extent, the ending of (at least the most recent remake of) 3:10 to Yuma is like this, too, though with a high death toll. The ending of a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is like this; The Road or The Postman (not the movie). A lot of horror movies fall into this category as well.
So what I’m wondering about is whether this kind of ending would play well in a campaign. On the one hand, I have always personally liked this feel. It makes for a smaller scope story, but that’s OK to me and isn’t common enough. I think, though, that it could potentially be a bit of a let down for the players. Or too easy to make it not feel enough like an ending to the story and, so, feel like the campaign just sort of stopped for no reason.
Take a post-apocalyptic setting, for instance. The PCs are a group of people scratching out an existence 15 years after The Day near your home town, say. They’ll fight some motorcycle bandits in football-pads-with-spikes. They’ll explore some ruined sky scrapers, that kind of thing. There’s a bit of an impulse, for me, to have the plot end up being about the apocalypse. Since it’s so central to the setting, it ends up feeling like the plot should involve it. So do the PCs learn what happened and how? Do they learn how to undo it, or prevent it from happening again? Suddenly, I feel like it’s turning into a super hero game.
On the other hand, if the PCs don’t solve the apocalypse, will the players feel like whatever ending (saving their little junk town from bikerbarians, say) is too small and wonder what knocked over all the sky scrapers and killed off 95% of the population? Will they be left unsatisfied that their PC, who was doing heroic things yesterday, is going to go back to rooting through the ruins of Walmart for tools they can adapt to farming in the hopes of getting something to grow in the bleached soil?
In fact, this brings up another interesting angle: Genre. Is the small ending a vital component of certain genres (horror, disaster, and western)? Maybe the reason I feel like undoing the apocalypse feels like a supers game is because the small ending is required for post-apocalyptic stories. Similarly, if I tried to have a story in another genre with a small ending, would it fall flat? Can space opera or action stories have these kinds of endings without feeling like they’re really a western (or whatever)?
What do you think about fiction that uses this device? Would you enjoy playing in a campaign that ended thus? Have you done so? Or run one? Can you think of any off-genre examples, or maybe genre I missed? Let us know in the comments.
I don’t mean having flashbacks of gaming and I don’t mean dealing with PCs who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; I mean having scenes every once in a while that have happened in the past. This idea came out of a discussion Stewart and I had about campaign ideas (as is so common with posts here). We were riffing on the themes from The Usual Suspects, which, without too many spoilers, is effectively told through a series of flashbacks. That wasn’t the aspect we were interested in, but we got sidetracked onto it. It’s not an uncommon trope in fiction and so I spent some time thinking about it and arguing with Stewart about it. This idea is still very embryonic and I haven’t quite figured out how to use it or whether it would even be fun.
I’m envisioning scenes where the PCs are all doing whatever, learning about the plot and trying to uncover What’s Really Going On and they unearth some clue. It seems to be an arms cache of some kind with lots of laser rifles and explosives. They open a Batman-style armor closet and you describe it, then kick everyone but the pilot out. You play a flashback scene with him which, in the end, features a bounty hunter dressed in just such a suit of armor which ruined spectacularly some job. Then you cut back in to the present and move on. You could use this method to disseminate additional clues, tie in PCs more tightly to the story, present new questions that need answering. I’m sure there are more things.
What Purpose Do Flashbacks Serve in the Narrative?
I’m not overly enthralled with the show as a whole, but I do have to admit that the folks working on Lost (over)use flashbacks pretty effectively. I’ve got the idea that it would be really cool to do something like that in a game. You’d have to get a lot of information about your PCs… maybe ask your players things like, “Tell me about a time a job went bad.” or “Describe the way your last relationship ended.” or something. The idea would be to get vague stories that you could work into the plot. If you can do it right, you make the story of the campaign about stuff that has already happened to the PCs, sort of. Like when, in season… I think it’s 2 of Lost when we meet Desmond we also learn that one of the other main characters had met him before ever coming to the Island.
What I’m getting at, here, is the idea that a flashback is generally a way for a storyteller to tell the audience (in our case the player, considering the Circular 4th Wall) that something they’ve just seen or something they’re about to see is important. In our medium, I think it’s important to include player authorship in it, hence my invocation of asking them lots of questions. Spoiler warning, but consider the episode of Firefly where the crew goes to pick up their mail. That episodes flashes back at the start to the Unification War in order to introduce the young guy and show his relationship with Mal and Zoe. That way, when he shows up a few scenes later (back in the main timeline), his presence and the characters’ reactions to him make sense to us. If the flashed back scenes are from a PC’s history, it seems like you could increase their buy-in dramatically.
There are some problems I have, or, if you want to be more optimistic, hurdles I haven’t yet figured out how to address. Chiefly, if you set things in the past, you’re getting into railroading country. You can’t have the character die or lose an arm or anything. You’ve also probably already talked over the scene with the player so they know how it ends, which is sort of the player self-railroading. I’m thinking maybe you just keep it short short short. If they (in the past) were breaking into the office building to steal files and things got hairy so they had to escape down the garbage chute, well, they know the ending is they escape down the garbage chute. I’m thinking you end before then, then. Maybe you just cut in while they’re dodging security and breaking into the secure room so they can see the corporate logo (which just “reminded” them of the flashback events in the main stream) and you end with them being discovered, which they then know goes on to the garbage chute. I’m not sure.
Also, there’s the question of how, how much and when to start tying the PCs’ histories into the main plot. Do you try to get them all to tell you about events that might have to do with your mafia plot idea or do you just try to get them to tell you stories and then piece something together given what they told you? This one, I don’t even have a clue on. You could end up with something that isn’t linked strongly enough to the PCs, with something that plays like a Mad Libs RPG or just plain tipping your hand by being too suggestive asking for stories.
Lastly, there’s balance. Not game balance of the TPK-worried sort, but in that you have to try to make sure all the players feel that their flashbacks are roughly as relevant as everyone else’s. Especially if your campaign (as is my thought) were to make flashbacks a central theme or rhetorical style, if you will, you have to spread it around evenly. Which comes back to how many stories do you get from each player and how leading are you in asking for them. Because the content of those stories is entirely player-based and necessarily when they’re least familiar with your campaign world, you might get nothing useful from one player and all gems from another.
This is, as I said at the outset, a hare-brained, early-stage idea. I’d love to hear some thoughts from readers on the topic. Have you done anything like this? Have I missed some obvious and fatal flaw with this idea? Can you even envision a way this would be fun? Let us know in the comments.