Monday, September 3, 2012

Lost In A Cast of Thousands

At one time, one of the things I was well known for among the gaming circles I was associated with (and something I was pretty proud of I might add) was my NPCs.

Not only did I have NPCs in my campaign universes that players enjoyed 'seeing' and dealing with but the sheer number of them was staggering to many of my fellow GMs.

There were Star Trek campaigns where at least a third of our vessel's crew compliment of 350 were jotted down with enough tips and tags that helped me to remember them as if they were three dimensional characters with co-starring roles. I recall Supers games where, not unlike the one I just finished, the New York or Metropolis based heroes were on friendly terms with teams of heroes from Detroit, Coast City, London and Tokyo. Even in my D&D-But-Not campaign world, heck especially there, PCs are often visiting allies and relatives in far off lands, checking in with contacts and favorite merchants across the sea and getting to know the common folk who live and work in the town that serves as their base of operations.

I love NPCs. I love thinking about them, making them, doing different accents and strange alien speech patterns and getting honest to goodness tears out of players when they are threatened or, heavens forbid, die.

Just the other day, one of my players, the often inscrutable Lee, remarked that he enjoyed one of my previous one-shots quite a bit as it didn't feature my usual 'cast of thousands'. I have to ask myself (partially because I didn't get the chance to ask him) why he liked not having so many NPCs around?

Knowing what I know about Lee, his perceptions of things (which are quite often so unlike mine it's hard to sync them up when gaming) and his feelings on what he likes and dislikes in a game, I can make some educated guesses about why he, and others of a like mind, would prefer a game where fewer fleshed out, allied NPCs existed.

Some players, especially in games based on or set in a known licensed universe, feel overshadowed or threatened by the presence of so many popular and powerful NPCs...automatically. They think, "How is my hero ever going to be the coolest, most powerful guy out there if Superman or Captain America exist in this game." How can my female Jedi ever rival Luke Skywalker?

Good question. My answer is that they won't if that is your default mindset. No actions on the part of the established NPC heroes in the Champions setting I created prevented or overruled actions by the PCs in a direct fashion. In fact, numerous successful actions by the PC group's least powerful character won him a higher and higher level of notoriety, privilege and respect among the NPC organization the PCs operated under. Could he have someday taken the top spot from a retiring NPC? Sure. Why not? No one is stopping you from being more heroic than Superman but you.

Another reason for not wanting so many NPCs is distrust. While I don't see this on Lee's part, I have seen it in other players in this and a few other groups. People used to the old school D&D style of play seem to know in their hearts that there are only three kinds of NPCs...The ones who hire you, the ones who steal from you and the ones who work for you. Often, these types mix and match and the first and middle ones can easily evolve into the ones who want you dead. Therefore, the only good NPC is either a dead one or one you can ignore.

My answer to this is, well, how sad. I've never run NPCs quite that way. Rather, those three types are among a dozen or more other types that occupy my game worlds. Some NPCs are friendly and want to get to know you because their lives are boring and talking to you is a moment of excitement in their daily monotony. Some think you're cute. Some are experts in their field and enjoy letting you know this every chance they get. NPCs are people too and there can be as many reasons that they do things and as many things that they can do as there are for PCs and real life people.


A different view of the 'lots of NPCs in a campaign' idea is taken by my good buddy and player Dave (which matches many of the players I have gamed with in the good ol' days). It should be noted that Dave's very first RPG was a Superhero game.

Dave said that he finds the aforementioned old school approach, which he experienced first hand playing D&D with Lee and his old group, disinvolves him. According to Dave, what he means is that it makes him feel like he is not fully immersed in a living, breathing, functioning place. The world feels more like a game and less like a setting where his character lives.

This is because he notes the existence of NPCs, helping, hindering and just plain being there, in virtually every other medium that inspires our games. Video games, MMOs, comic books, TV shows, movies and books are all full of characters who aren't protagonists but aren't out to get or hinder the main characters either. Every last barkeep and city guard can't be a threat or it becomes weary very quickly from Dave's point of view (and mine as well).

Now, there is one drawback to a large cast of extras that I hadn't ever experienced until this recent campaign that is making me rethink the use of so many powerful allies (not necessarily those more powerful or as powerful as the PCs even). NPC over-reliance.

In our Champions campaign, it seemed like no one was brave enough to do anything when they could either go into battle with an NPC by their side or heck, send in the NPC while they sat on the sidelines planning John Madden. By Einstein! It drove me crazy I tell ya! Players were treating this Superhero RPG like a real-time strategy computer game where they moved pieces around the field but made sure they were in little danger themselves. It was so opposite what I was used to in Superhero RPGs.

I thought that by the time I got to the end of this post, I would have come to some answer or epiphany on how to handle my NPC allotment with this current group in the future. Nope. Instead, I think it's going to depend a lot on the game I'm running. I am likely to make the PCs the first or only Superheroes in their town if I run another Supers game. Our next Fantasy game may be more focused on just the small group of them with no larger guild family to be seen for some time. For Science Fiction, perhaps a small trading vessel where the PCs are the only crew.

Hmmm. Sounds boring. Sounds like it could be anybody's game.

Sorry, I gotta be me. Extras...this way please...

Auditions for parts are on Sound Stage A.

Barking Alien


  1. Make your players the Supervillains. No allies to depend on (villains, right?). The NPCs are there to be exploited or fought, so the players will all feel the same way about them.
    And to funnify it more, have their secret identities (the villains) be that of the insurance investigators assessing the claims for all that Superhero damage (Superheroes carry liability insurance, right?). They can get the Heroes coming and going.

  2. Heheh. That's pretty creative SAROE. Very clever indeed.

  3. I tend to make up a lot of my NPCs on the fly, as my players run with the ball in directions I don't expect. What's great is when a 1 minute NPC, with a basic quirk and one above average skill becomes a supporting cast member, n=based on nothing more than the players getting into the game.

    1. I certainly do this to or rather did this fairly often in the early days. As time went on, I developed a 'shorthand' way of tagging NPCs with notes and ideas should they ever be needed for more than one scene or comic book panel as it were.

      I may write out 30 or 40 Starfleet officers, with only as much detail as name, rank, position, species, major skill and hobby but they won't 'appear' in the game until needed. Otherwise, they may be viewed walking randomly down halls and into and out of rooms (wink).

  4. One method I've used to deal with player overdependance on an npc is to allow things to proceed to their natural conclusion, NOT the most desirable one for the players. Perhaps the npc that is always being pushed to the front of battles gets killed, or gains levels faster than the pcs, or gets recognized as the true hero by the leaders within the setting and he gets rewards or invitations to prestigious organizations, while the pcs are increasingly regarded as henchmen of the npc. Shun the spotlight and it shines on someone else... ;-)

    1. Nice approach Spiralbound. In a manner of speaking that did start to happen in the Champions campaign.

      The world's most powerful and popular 'Superman' type hero was a British chap called Ultramarine. Since the PCs knew he was essentially Superman, one PC or another often had him 'help', directing him again opponents in their stead. News programs, the Internet and other sources would then report, "While the new heroes of Project: Unity fought the henchmen and low levels villains, The Ultramarine proved yet again why he is the world's greatest superhero, as he battled it out with the powerful Dr. Megaton all by himself!"

      Sometimes they got it. Mostly they didn't. :(