Reliance on NPCs

Lev Lafayette from RPG Review (and tcpip on LJ) asked me a few weeks ago to write and article for the journal. I had been talking with a friend about why players so often seek out NPCs for meaningful relationships rather than their fellow players and that discussion turned into the seed for my article.

The article was published in last month’s issue, which can be found here:

Reliance on NPCs

Six friends sit down together, enjoying each other’s company and preparing for a game to begin. The GM and is sitting at the end of a table, collecting notes, arranging books for reference and preparing for the game. He might not even be taking part in the conversation the players are having, his mind is on the game to come.

When the game starts, the five players, who up to moments ago had interest in each other, all turn their attention to the GM and begin interacting nearly exclusively with him. Specifically, their characters are interacting with his characters (the NPCs), instead of their fellow players (the PCs). When the PCs do interact it is often to agree on a plan or share information or do other administrative work, but the excitement comes from interacting with the GM’s characters. Finding out what secrets they know, becoming friends, lovers, rivals, or bitter enemies. The problem is that the GM is one person trying to provide interaction to all of the players, who for the most part, are ignoring each other. Does this ever happen to you? It happens to me all the time.

I’ve been thinking about why this happens and what the players get out of NPC interactions that they don’t get out of relationships between the other PCs. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m not addressing any kind of GM knowledge that the players might get from the mouths of the NPCs. I appreciate that has a valid place in the game. I’m really focusing on building relationships, and why players prefer to build them with the GM’s characters instead of their fellow players. Here are the two reasons I came up with: safety and agenda.

What do I mean by “safety” and “agenda”? Let’s start with the easy one, safety. Players are protective not only of their characters’ well being, but also of the group status quo. If the group turns against each other, it can very easily be the end of a game. However if a player wants her character to do something which will affect another fictional character’s emotional state, doing that thing to an NPC does not endanger the group status quo. My swashbuckling miscreant can make a fool out of the governor while seducing his son and that might make for a great story of tragic love, corrupt power and daring heroics, assuming the governor and his son are both safely in the hands of the GM. But if another player controls those characters, I might have just broken a social contract by de-protagonizing the governor and trapping his son in romantic entanglements. If I’m successful in getting what I want, I may just have damaged the group fun.

And what if my roguish cunning fails me? Were the son to be an NPC, I can engage in the game mechanics to see if my character seduces him. But another player? Even if we’re using a game with social mechanics such as Burning Wheel, if the other player doesn’t accept my offer, they can shut me down, creating a dead end for my character. In this instance the group status quo may be preserved but my own pride is wounded. One way or the other, if my fellow players don’t like the story elements I propose, it is much safer for me to introduce those elements to the NPCs, where I can at least hope that the GM will be receptive to them and if my character fails or succeeds she can do so on terms that don’t upset the other players or humiliate me.

Assuming I get over the fears of rejection or peeving another player, I still need to consider the agenda of my fellow players. My experience is that most players are interested first and foremost in their own character, followed by elements like plot, other player characters, and the quality of the story being told. There is good reason for this prioritization. In many games that limit the narrative control players have, their only sense of agency in the fiction comes through their character, so naturally, it is their own character they focus on.

Can you get a sense of the problem here? If each player is focused on her own character’s agenda, how is she going to react when I bring my character into her life? Sure, if we happen to have shared goals, the characters may unite around them. But if my young delinquent approaches the governor’s son (in this case a player character) with a romantic proposal and the player is focused on the son gaining power in legislature, the politics will win out every time. In this case I’ve made an offer and rather than hurt the other player or feel shut down myself, the other players just don’t have any interest because it’s not central to their agenda.

We have five players all trying to get emotional and meaningful interactions out of one GM, rather than acknowledging the potential for creating those interactions with each other. The game might be wonderful, and everyone might be having a good time, but they are getting less out of it than they could, and they are taxing the poor GM with the ridiculous responsibility of wearing every important hat in the game.

Here are my solutions, and like every other idea about gaming, they might work for your group or not. So pick and choose or adapt as needed. Start with talking to each other. At the table, during the game, and OUT of character. I think there is a stigma about not breaking character and not being willing to discuss what’s going on in the game between players. That is a topic on its own, however. Assuming we can get past this barrier, talking to your fellow players and telling them your intent upfront gives them a chance to process your ideas and see how they resonate before being confronted with them in game.

If I tell another player I’m interested in our characters forming a romantic relationship, it gives them an opportunity to discuss their own comfort level and negotiate with me as a player before we make it happen (or not) in game. This particularly takes the sting out of antagonistic relationships. If I tell another player I think our characters should become enemies because of something in game then it immediately makes it clear that as a player I have no ill feelings. Sometimes we can’t prepare for tense moments, they are just sprung upon us and we realized we’re navigating unknown waters in game. Despite the desire to maintain the illusion of the game, I still advocate taking a break and asking the other players if what is happening in the game is something they really want to do before proceeding. Personally, I like to do as much of this before the game even starts as possible. Spirit of the Century has a great character creation system that forces the players to negotiate their characters into each other’s lives before the game even starts as “guest stars” in their pulp novels.

The GM has another tool to use as well, NPCs that foster player character interaction. When GMing I make NPCs that are connected to more than one PC so as soon as one player starts interacting with then, the other player is interested. When a player comes to an NPC looking for something meaningful, I’ll offer it but I drag another player in the middle as well. If the first character has a blood feud against an NPC, that NPC has been working with another PC, or has wronged them as well and both PCs want their own brand of justice. Either way, my hope is to deflect the interaction away from the GM and back to the players, giving them grist for the mill. I use the NPCs to create a common interest between the players.

My last solution is a cheat, but it works. Kill the GM. Seriously, the most moving game I’ve played in recently was inside a hotel room at GenCon, where all four players were playing high school friends seeing each other for the last time as they went to college. What kept that dramatic energy inside our group was that Ribbon Drive (the game we were playing) doesn’t have a GM. There was nowhere to turn but to each other.

Special thanks to Kevan Forbes (), Alec Ransdell (ramtoast), and my brilliant wife for support, feedback and editing.

9 thoughts on “Reliance on NPCs”

  1. For what it’s worth, my experience with forum games has been that they’re much more about the relationships between PCs than PC/NPC relationships. How much of the conditions creating that could transfer to tabletop? Not sure.

    The biggest factor is necessity. With 30-60 players and 2-6 GMs, NPCs can’t possibly fill all the slots. This doesn’t translate well to tabletop–unless you have a *really* big table. I’d expect LARPs to flow in this direction too.

    Also, characters usually have some motivations that simply can’t be met other than through their fellows. This is partly because of the strong factions within the setting (L5R). Faction A has resources of some sort that a person in faction B might want, or the factions have built in rivalries. This can get rather PVP–a problem alluded to in the ‘killjoy’ examples above. At the same time, those built-in rivalries can also make it easier for those rivalries to be ‘nothing personal’. I think this tends to translate well to tabletop.

    Sometimes the resource is in-character access to plot. If the governor’s head priest is missing, and three PCs know about it, they control access to information that could allow other PCs to adventure out searching for the priest. I don’t think that particular angle translates as well to tabletop, at least not as broadly.

    The less antagonistic relationships actually develop more easily than the rivalries. Gamers generally have a cooperative streak that can be leveraged as easily in tabletop as on a forum or LARP.

    Another barrier in tabletop games to the kind of break from NPCs you’re looking at, is that the group is together to play a game [b]as a group.[/b] Heavy interaction between player A and B creates a side game that can be distracting, particularly if it creates people talking across each other. Fine for short scenes, but annoying if there are 2-3 separate groups chattering away all night. A central focus on the GM can be seen there as ‘easy-mode’ to creating the group experience people are expecting. ‘Killing the GM’ solves this one.

    I’m kind of leaning toward trying something Ars Magica-esque in the next game I do–partly for the relationships angle, partly for the ‘I don’t have anything to do while sneaky Joe is off being sneaky,’ angle.

    1. Yeah, this was definitely written with a tabletop environment in mind. LARPs are a fantastic example of the opposite. NPCs are often just there as part of the pacing (triggering events, introducing new information, etc.) but aren’t the “meat” of the game.

      I don’t have much experience with forum games, but one thing they have in common is the ratio of players to GMs. The larger that ratio gets the more players have to interact with each other as a result of bandwidth. I also thing that in those games the players are presented as the interesting characters rather than strictly the protagonists.

  2. hmm…let’s see if LJ lets this one work. Apologies for the double post if there’s more screwiness.

    Jumping into the article, I totally neglected to spot the “this is something headed off to be published.” Congrats on the broader audience.

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