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Keeping Kosher

When GMs Play

by Walt Ciechanowski
Mar 25,2004

 

Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

When GMs Play

One of my cardinal sins of gaming is the "prominent NPC." Anyone who's gamed for any reasonable length of time has met him at least once or twice. He's the NPC who knows all the answers, can handle any situation, and receives lots of airtime. His stock-in-trade is stealing the limelight from the PCs. I could bore you to tears recalling the number of times I've played in an adventure where the PCs were getting their butts kicked by some Servant of Evil until the heroic NPC leapt into the fray and dealt the tide-shifting blow. Aren't the PCs supposed to be the heroes?

And yet, even as I rank the "prominent NPC" (henceforth known as a GMC for brevity) among my cardinal sins, I still find myself using GMCs as a Game Master. The crucial difference is that while I consciously avoid creating GMCs from the outset, I find them sneaking up on me during game play. The players take a liking to a certain NPC and start dragging her into future adventures even when I hadn't anticipated it. They come to rely on her area of expertise so they never bother cultivating those skills in their own PCs. As time goes on, the GMC becomes a little smarter, a little wiser, and a protective shield forms around her. She soon becomes the focal point for many adventures, and enjoys a quasi-PC status. (I actually killed such a GMC after a year of play and suffered a severe backlash from one of my players).

This particular problem is prevalent in campaigns where most of the action takes place in a localized area, such as a small town or city. It's inevitable that the PCs are going to find themselves interacting with stock NPCs on a regular basis, such as the police detective, the school librarian, the ER nurse, or the occult bookstore owner. Over time, these NPCs develop into intriguing personalities of their own, and they become part of the PCs' resource pool. The players don't thing twice about tapping them, and they soon develop into GMCs who start hijacking the adventures. (As an example, I once introduced a private investigator into a Witchcraft adventure. After the adventure was over, he moved back to his stomping grounds in a city two hours away. I had no future plans for him, but my players liked him. For the next few adventures, he was tapped regularly by a rich PC, who purchased his services to run investigations that I'd expected the characters to run themselves).

After a while, you'll find that the game revolves more around the GMCs than the PCs. While this is a problem in and of itself, another problem is that it can destroy the credibility of your adventures. Why should four PC magical college students stand alone against Evil Servant #4 when their professor mentor, the occult bookstore owner, and the psychic police detective all have better abilities? Shouldn't they just point their army of GMCs in the right direction and let them do the work? Sadly, most localized campaigns in my experience invariably end up with this problem after a few adventures.

The final problem, and perhaps the most important, is that we GMs tend to fall in love with our own NPCs to the point where we start to care about them more than the PCs. We start to get used to the roles and enjoy teasing the PCs with them, and we may even start designing adventures around them, rather than the PCs. It can be difficult to resist this temptation, especially when we're initially encouraged by the players to keep GMCs around.

Below are some of the techniques I've developed to help combat this problem. I hope you'll find them useful.

The PCs, not the NPCs, are the heroes, and the campaign should reflect that.
The GM should craft his adventures to reflect the skills of the PCs. I make it a regular habit to collect character sheets at the end of every session so I can reference them while designing new adventures (this also has the side effect of cutting down on cheating). If you find yourself crafting adventures that rely on the PCs to regularly tap an NPC police detective, then you either need to redesign your campaign or bring a PC police detective into the group. If not, that NPC is going to morph into a GMC real fast.

Also, PCs are made of a different stock than NPCs. While PCs may not think twice before loading the back of their SUV with military grade firepower and go hunting a werewolf pack in the woods, an NPC is probably not going to be as eager (even if the NPC is a police officer, security guard, or soldier). The NPC may offer only token support or even possibly become an adversary (dialing 911 on the PCs or take them into custody for their own safety). By emphasizing this, you'll encourage the PCs to realize that they're on their own and must rely on each other to accomplish goals.

Finally, NPCs can be at a lower skill level than the PCs, even in their own area of expertise. A police detective doesn't necessarily have to have better investigative skills than the PCs. He's only in the adventure because the adventure called for it. If the players get used to the fact that they are often better at skill roles than expert NPCs, they will rely on them less.

There's a reason Contacts are cheap.
Many games allow players to purchase contacts. These contacts usually have advantages and/or skills that can be tapped by the PC at a far greater discount than if she purchased the abilities on her own. Since she spent points on the contact, she correctly feels entitled to be able to use it, and will probably call on her contact every time an opportunity to exploit the contact presents itself.

Most games with contacts also have limitations involved, which is usually reflected in the cost of an individual contact. There may be limitations on the availability of the contact or her skill level. These rules should be strictly followed, or the player could come to rely on the contact too much. If there aren't any relevant rules, make them up (just be sure to inform the players of the change prior to character generation or offer to given them their points back if they don't want to keep contacts after you impose the rule). If the rules don't dictate a skill level for the contact, assign one. One common mistake I make is that once a player taps his contact, I automatically assume that the contact will succeed in her area of expertise. I don't usually roll to see if the contact succeeds or fails, which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. Also, assuming the cost is the same, contacts purchased for reasons other than skills (such as a position of authority or access to a resource), should have lower skill levels than a contact purchased primarily for skills.

Another tool is to assign traits to each contact that will make a PC hesitate before tapping her. This trait should merely be an annoyance; if the player purchased the contact you should not throw major obstacles in the way of using it. For example, a contact may ask for a favor in return that will inconvenience the PC in some way. For example, to be clich, a nerdy computer hacker may insist that the PC take him out on a date. As another example, a police detective will definitely want to be kept "in the loop" if she's asked to research someone's background. The contact may also want to exploit the PC's own advantages or skills for her benefit (allowing the GM to turn the tables and leave the PC wondering why his corporate executive contact asked to borrow the Book of Magical Plot Contrivances out of his library).

Make your NPCs dynamic.
NPCs usually enter an adventure because they are relevant to the particular plot or subplot. Fate has crossed their paths with the PCs. Once the adventure is over, it can be assumed that the reasons that kept the NPC from partaking in the previous five adventures will prevent her from participating in the next five adventures (while not entirely realistic, it makes a certain game-logic) unless one of the PCs spends some points (and perhaps some roleplay) to transform her into a contact. You can always bar the player from turning the NPC into a contact if you feel it will damage the campaign.

Even stock NPCs (like the local police chief) are dynamic. They don't spend their lives with their cell phones on waiting for the PCs to call. NPCs have jobs, social lives, and vacation time when they simply cannot be reached, and the person covering for them may not be nearly as helpful as the standard NPC (or perhaps more helpful, giving the PCs a brief respite from a normally antagonistic NPC). For some NPCs, the adventure may take place outside their jurisdiction, making them unavailable for the duration.

Also, stock NPCs could move on. This is an especially good tactic if you find that an NPC has become far more helpful and integral to the campaign than you ever intended (a warning sign is when you start thinking about the NPC as much as the PCs). A police detective who starts solving impossible cases could get promoted or receive a better job offer elsewhere. The nerdy computer hacker may find love on the internet and move across the country to be with his newfound love. The local barkeep may find business slumping, so he closes up shop and moves to a better location. The Catholic priest may get assigned to a new parish. Their replacements are just as skeptical, if not more so, than their predecessors were at the start of the campaign.

The Blade Runner Rule.
In the movie Blade Runner (I haven't read the short story) the Replicants were created with a four year life span, after which they would die. My "Blade Runner Rule" is to create NPCs with a specific life span of sessions or adventures in mind, after which they become unavailable. When I stick to this rule, I find myself becoming less invested in my NPCs, which helps prevent the NPCs from morphing into GMCs.

The NPC's lifespan should be variable, based on your needs. It is best to set the lifespan at a point before the players become invested in the NPC, or too used to her presence (in horror games, you may want the players to become invested in the NPC so that her death provides shock value, but you need to use this technique carefully). The lifespan need not be consecutive; if you decide that the lawyer NPC will show up in three adventures before dying, she may show up in adventures #2, 5, and 8. If you do this, you should also make reasons why she won't be available in adventures #3, 4, 6, and 7. If she wasn't particularly friendly to the PCs, this will be easy. If she was friendly, perhaps she became involved in tough cases that consume all of her time and energy during the interims.

Remember why sequels generally suck.
It's a common perception that unintended sequels are usually inferior to the original. This makes sense; the characters were created to maximize the potential of the original plot. When taken out of that element, they are diminished. Sequel writers generally make up for this by adding new elements to the characters or making the new challenge merely a "bigger" version of the original challenge. Even when we want to see our favorite characters back on the screen, we usually end up disappointed when that dream is realized (Highlander 2, anyone?).

Non-stock NPCs are created the same way. The NPC was created to fulfill a need in the GM's plot. Once fulfilled, there is no further need for the NPC, no matter how well the players enjoyed interacting with her. It's tempting to bring a popular NPC back in a future adventure for no other reason than to give the players another chance to see her. This generally should be avoided unless you are truly inspired with a new plot that makes the NPC's inclusion relevant and natural. If you are using the adventure as the excuse to bring back an NPC, then you've just made the NPC the focus of the adventure, rather than the adventure itself. This is never a good thing.

I've fallen victim to this a number of times, and it usually results in either a GMC or a mere caricature. I once had an NPC in a Delta Green campaign that was willing to sacrifice the lives of an entire population of a small town in order to capture a creature for the government. She didn't come off as particularly cold, just passionately dedicated to her job. One of my players enjoyed the NPC, and I thought it would be fun to bring her back. Unfortunately, my impression of her was that she was coldly unemotional, and this was emphasized in her return appearance. The player's initial perception of her differed from mine, and he ended up disappointed. Thus, my sole reason for bringing her back was lost. I could easily have substituted another government agent in her place (and it isn't like the USA only has one government agent) and my player's reaction would've been different. I think it's best to leave one-shot NPCs as one-shots, and let the players keep their fond memories.

A point about recurring NPCs
Sometimes a GM will want a recurring NPC, usually an adversary, in his campaign. While one might consider this a "stock" NPC, recurring NPCs are a different matter and can add a lot to the campaign. They are designed to be a recurring thorn in the side of the PCs (for example, in an espionage campaign, the players may continually come across a counterpart from a hostile foreign government).

There is still the danger of a recurring NPC becoming a GMC. One way to combat this is to establish the NPC's personality from the beginning and stick to it (since the common indicator of a GMC is his helpfulness to the PCs). Another way is not to overuse him. If the PCs only face him twice in ten adventures, he still feels like a recurring adversary and will be treated as such when he shows up a third time in Adventure #11. Recurring NPCs can make for interesting "strange bedfellows" stories, where the PCs find themselves on the same side as the NPC against a common foe. If the recurring NPC does soften up or have a change of heart, it should happen dramatically and the NPC should probably be retired at that point.

Keeping Kosher
The crux of an adventure is for the players to overcome the obstacles and achieve the goals set by the game master. GMCs threaten that focus and can diminish an otherwise enjoyable campaign. Make sure that you keep your players and their PCs at the center of every session, and don't let the NPCs short-circuit what the PCs are supposed to accomplish.

Good Gaming!

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