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Keeping Kosher

Dreading the Speed-Dial

by Walt Ciechanowski
Apr 30,2004


Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

Dreading the Speed-Dial

Welcome to my first feedback-inspired article!

Last time, I talked about handling GMCs (NPCs with too much 'face time'). After some inspiring feedback (shout-outs to Emprint, Old Geezer and Lisa!), I thought I'd revisit the topic with a narrower focus.

Long ago, in days of old, before the first Unearthed Arcana hit the shelves, there was an NPC called a hireling (or henchman---Old Geezer, some help here?). A hireling was someone purchased by a PC to follow her around on adventures (more commonly called 'scenarios' or 'modules' back then). The hireling either had abilities the PCs lacked or reinforced areas where the PCs felt they needed reinforcing. Hirelings were more common in small groups, especially in groups where the GM didn't allow players to play more than one character.

This was the era in which it was common for the GM to purchase a module, head to the game session, and unwrap it in front of the group. The players would match their characters against the suggested party size, character levels, and necessary classes (ah, the good old days...). Ideally, the PCs would at least fit the 'character levels' category and would then head to the nearest town to hire some, um, hirelings, especially those who fit the 'necessary classes' category (often, a module would have suggested party size and levels printed on the module cover, but necessary classes weren't revealed until the GM already put out the cash for the module and read the opening paragraphs). Sometimes, the GM would allow players to run the hirelings, but after running a few sessions where hirelings were used as suicide bombers, the GM would start to run the hirelings himself.

The GM soon grew tired of running two to four hirelings while trying to stay one room ahead of the players and began to craft his own scenarios. Predictably, these scenarios were tailored to the strengths of his particular party and the need for hirelings lessened (the rise of the multi-classed PC also helped). Players spent less time trying to negotiate with independent contractors and more time killing and looting. The GM was content, at least until point-based systems like Champions and GURPS came up with Allies, Contacts, Mentors, and Dependents.

Okay, that was a very trite anecdote. The point of that lengthy prose is that nowadays, GMs prepare their adventures with the party skill set in mind. He normally doesn't count on the party gathering outside resources to help them with the adventure (and if he does, watch the players' reactions while he explains "well, of course you got your tails kicked! I expected you'd bring Skippy the techno-pagan assistant fries manager along!"). The problem is that many modern campaigns take place in localized areas, such as a city, town, or rural county. Unlike the classic dungeon crawl, the PCs aren't isolated from the rest of the world as they spend nine sessions clearing out six levels of the Dungeon of Death. Adventures tend to be shorter and PCs come into contact with many NPCs, a lot of whom were simply added for color or to flesh out a scene (if you design a school library, you'll need at least one school librarian). Over time, the players will become attached to certain NPCs (perhaps even pursuing relationships) and will want to give them "face time" every session.

A related problem is the "Specialist." There are generally two types. The first is an NPC who is designed to aid the PCs in a particular adventure and then rides off into the sunset. The second is a public NPC whom the PCs have probably never met but are certain would "take care of business" if informed of a problem (this guy usually either wears a red cape or wields control over the local vampire population). Normally, the GM doesn't plan on Specialists horning in on his adventures. He expects the players to solve it themselves and gets flustered when a player shrugs, picks up a cell phone, and calls in the Big Guns. This problem is prevalent in any campaign where long distances can be easily traversed through superpowers or technology.

Let's deal with the lesser of the two problems first.

If you put her there, expect the party to use her.
Let's return to the Old School for a moment. If you put a magic sword +6 in Room #10 of the Dungeon of Death, you can bet someone in the party will be swinging it around from that point on (at least until something more potent comes along). Similarly, if you toss a computer wizard into the school library while a PC is having trouble locating the Book of Occult Nastiness, you can count on that source being tapped whenever the PC needs to do research in the future.

This isn't necessarily a problem. If you've introduced Jenna the computer wizard into the game, then you can rely on Jenna being tapped whenever the PCs need to do research. If you didn't want that to happen, then you probably shouldn't have dropped Jenna into a scene in the first place. You could also use a stopgap measure, like a conflict of interest, to limit Jenna's future accessibility.

If a player (or players) has grown fond of an NPC enough to drag them along on an adventure even when it's inappropriate (read: you didn't count on it), then it is usually enough to "enforce a little reality." Not every pre-med student is going to want to lose a good night's sleep in an abandoned factory looking for a nest of wererats. Unprepared and non-heroic NPCs stand a good chance of getting in the way or even getting killed (if the player has a problem with that, a friendly warning from the GM is usually enough for them to reconsider). They may even freeze under pressure or contract a severe personality disorder once they discover The-Thing-That-Lives-Under-The-Boardwalk-Carousel. Finally, in the ever-increasing genre of "secret supernatural" campaigns, the more NPCs the PCs let in on the secret, the more trouble it's going to cause for them later.

In sum, treat NPCs the way we Old Schoolers (and current D&D Dungeon Masters) treat magic items; carefully consider the ramifications of the NPCs inclusion before dropping him into the campaign. Even if you don't foresee it, ask yourself how you would handle it if the players grew attached to him.

Now, let's turn our attention to the greater problem.

Genre conventions should always trump logic.
Okay, not really, but many of the problems with Specialists can be resolved simply by adhering to the genre. Let's take a look at two: the superhero universe and the occult pyramid.

Superhero universes are notoriously overpopulated with superbeings. Surprisingly, this rarely affects the modern world in any significant way (the Watchmen universe being one notable exception). Superheroes and supervillains tend to cancel each other out. For every dastardly plan hatched by a supervillain, there is a superhero or superteam of comparable power waiting to foil it. Imaginary cities and nations are also made up on the fly for the specific purpose of allowing superbeings to interfere and trash them without affecting the "real world."

Keep this in mind when running adventures for the PCs. Sure, they could call Omnipotent Man to save the day when Wild Turkey threatens to demolish the city, but he's probably busy foiling the Golden Skull's latest plan for world domination. If the players are calling because they feel frustrated, perhaps Omnipotent Man can give them a tip or two on Wild Turkey's vulnerabilities ("I know you lack my armor skin, Bocci Man, but Wild Turkey's suit needs to recharge for three seconds after throwing six energy bolts. His force field is down for those three seconds, so make them count! I know you can do it, Bocci Man!").

If the scenario is sufficiently large scale, like an alien invasion, then there will be plenty to do for everyone. Omnipotent Man can't be everywhere at once, and the PCs can take on a smaller scale problem without feeling like their contribution was meaningless (while Omnipotent Man was holding off the main fleet, Bocci Man and his friends discover and shut down a dastardly plan to pollute the city's water supply and turn the city's population into docile slaves. Bocci Man's buddy the Laughing Alchemist concocts an antidote to deliver to other cities that have already fallen prey).

To some degree, this same logic applies with the occult pyramid. In large magical covens, powerful mages are usually dealing with powerful threats and rely on the lesser members to deal with minor problems on their own. They may be able to offer limited advice, but can't just ride in on a moment's notice.

In Machiavellian games, the scene is a little different. Powerful NPCs will only do things when it's in their own interest, and clever ones will demand favors for dealing with a problem that was in their best interest to deal with anyway. Also, getting one powerful NPC involved may upset another powerful NPC who will now have a bone to pick with the PCs. In some cases, the NPC you go to for help might actually be the perpetrator of the problem! In these kinds of games, it is extremely important for the GM to adhere to the conventions of the genre and make the players appreciate it, even if it means losing a character or three (to use a vampire example, the PC's own sire may be the nicest vampire on the planet, but if the PC does something that upsets the vampire prince so much that he orders the sire to eliminate the problem, imagine the shock on the player's face as his sire simply nods and drinks the PC dry!).

Just because we're allies doesn't mean we're friends.
Players sometimes grow attached to NPCs simply because they were friendly and helpful the first time they met. One way to combat this is to give the NPC some undesirable traits out of the gate. Players are less likely to want to call on assistance from Luke the Vampire Hunter if Luke is so ruthless that he'd blow up a club full of innocents in order to bag a vampire, no matter how skilled he is. They may also hesitate before calling the Televangelist Spirit Hunter if he spends more time trying to convert the party than he does actually chasing spirits (although that could provide several hours of entertainment by itself). What about a monster-hunting Knight Templar who refuses to aid anyone who doesn't follow Church Doctrine? What about a secret government psychic who not only hunts down rogue psychics, but would also like to bring one or more of the PCs under government control? Other Specialists may only get involved in certain situations. Charlie may be good at hunting werewolves, but don't expect his help if there's an evil necromancer in the city. Jillian the police detective may be an excellent investigator, but what if she merely sits around stumped whenever magic factors into the investigation?

Remember the "three fingers" analogy.
If you're pointing a finger at the players asking them why they keep going to NPCs for assistance, remember that three fingers are pointing back at you. Are you crafting your challenges in parity with the PC's abilities, or are you throwing things at them that are too big for them to handle? Have you actually been encouraging them to utilize NPC support all along and only now see the problem? Why are the players constantly frustrated? Are your clues too vague or are your expectations misaligned? Many of these issues can be resolved simply by talking to the players outside of game play.

When all else fails...
A GM can always appeal to player greed. If the players decide to short-cut an adventure by calling on NPC aid, it's fair to give the NPC a proportional share (or all) of the experience reward. While this should be used sparingly, it is a very effective technique to keep players from requesting NPC aid too often.

Keeping Kosher
NPCs are a vibrant part of any game's background. When players grow attached to them, they are also growing more attached to your game. Try to look ahead when introducing NPCs. If you don't want the players to get attached to an NPC, give them in-game reasons not to.

Good Gaming!

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