Dealing with Bad GMing Habits: Better NPCs

edited February 2012 in Story Games
This is a follow up to this thread.

(One solution to many of the problems suggested is to play a different game, for example, if the issue is "not knowing the system" then changing the system would seem sensible. For the purposes of these follow-up threads, please can we consider that suggestion as a given.)

Lots of people had problems with NPCs. These include: naming your NPCs, giving them a variety of personalities and motives, and making them consistent.

The names. Usually I do make a list of names before the game. Last session I didn't and it showed - I dug around on the iPad, and while the names were real, I was slow coming up with them, and they weren't always memorable. But when I do, I mark the NPCs details next to the name on the list.

In the Keeper's Resource Book, we introduced Three Things. Each NPC has a physical mannerism - you can do this at the table; an attitude, accent or verbal tic (this can also be a real person you are attempting to imitate); and an adjective. Put those down next to the PC's name and it's likely you'll play them consistently. When you are imitating someone, it must be a sufficiently bad imitation that they can't tell who it is. A couple of times (rather naughtily) I've imitated the players.

Eg drums fingers, speaks quietly and gently , accomodating,

This one was a Bulgarian gangster in Madrid from last week. The three things were tactile, sweary Zoltan, friendly.

Tactile (I held out my arms as if to embrace the player)
Constantly referred to having sex with character's female relative. He was also a bit like Zoltan from Flash Gordon.
Friendly and loyal

I could really do with a lovely NPC record table which included this info plus a few other details, or even better, an iPad app which did this with some optional random generation.

I suppose if I was brave enough I could ask which personality types I tend to overuse, and attempt to use adjectives which don't do this.

What do you do?

Comments

  • It depends on the NPC. My favourite kind to do is shopkeepers. All my shopkeepers are based around their ridiculous personality quirks and irritating habits. They also tend to parody things I see people doing in every-day life. A recent one I did was 'David', the proprietor of "David's Things," an shop full of adventuring supplies he does not remotely understand. David believes that a grappling claw is a spider shaped back scratcher. His shop is organised by the meanings he has invented for the things he sells. He does not understand why people buy them, but he accepts it. I did another one with a cartographer who was his own butler, because he was a very important man, but not a very wealthy one. But a man of his station should have an intimidating butler so he does what he must. I guess that this style comes from my opinion that shopping should be strange and amusing, which I picked up from playing Zelda games. Almost all the NPCs in the more recent Zelda games are dominated by their misleading self-perceptions, and this is a useful idea for building weirdos that the PCs don't have any depth of understanding of - just like shopkeepers in real life. There's also the humour of it, which can help to balance out an otherwise heavy situation.
  • Posted By: bigglesIt depends on the NPC. My favourite kind to do is shopkeepers. All my shopkeepers are based around their ridiculous personality quirks and irritating habits. They also tend to parody things I see people doing in every-day life. A recent one I did was 'David', the proprietor of "David's Things," an shop full of adventuring supplies he does not remotely understand. David believes that a grappling claw is a spider shaped back scratcher. His shop is organised by the meanings he has invented for the things he sells. He does not understand why people buy them, but he accepts it. I did another one with a cartographer who was his own butler, because he was a very important man, but not a very wealthy one. But a man of his station should have an intimidating butler so he does what he must. I guess that this style comes from my opinion that shopping should be strange and amusing, which I picked up from playing Zelda games. Almost all the NPCs in the more recent Zelda games are dominated by their misleading self-perceptions, and this is a useful idea for building weirdos that the PCs don't have any depth of understanding of - just like shopkeepers in real life. There's also the humour of it, which can help to balance out an otherwise heavy situation.
    These two are perfect Dying Earth NPCs.
  • In one of my campaigns, we do the following when inventing PC's, but the same could be used to create NPC's.
    We each write a positive and a negative physical and mental aspect of the character to be created. The player who gets to play the character draws three cards from the physical stack and three from the mental. Of course, if it's a pc, the player can veto, but it works damn well for inspiration.
    I, for instance, ended up with a short, bald man of Arab descent, who's very attractive to women, intelligent and smokes cigars. Looking forward to playing him:-)
  • I try to do the three things thing, except I find it works better if I only use two -- the rest will happen more or less organically. Three is too many for me. The biggest trouble is keeping track of these things.

    The "Lost Procedure That Worked Well" for me, which I'm re-implementing now is to record NPCs on a sheet with 16-20 boxes on it: one NPC per box. When a sheet becomes full, transfer the NPCs that are still relevent to a fresh one. When a box becomes too small to hold an NPC, that NPC gets a separate sheet. (Or I guess I could have an intermediate stage with 4 NPCs per sheet.)

    Second procedure I'm re-implementing now, is to roll a die to choose the sex. Odd will be female and even a male, dice that fall on the floor are other. (Even being males is a bad joke in Finnish -- basically "having a pair", which makes it easy for me to remember and be consistent about it.)

    Third procedure I'm re-implementing is lists of names, but not sure if I have time to do it for tonight...

    I would like to start using pictures for NPC more consistently, but I'm not sure how to manage that. I don't tend to collect clippings like that, and don't seem to have the google-fu for effective image searches.
  • I think about motivation for NPCs. Do they care what's going on, how would they like it to turn out? Most NPCs are made up on the fly so I'm probably less good at characterisation.
  • edited February 2012
    This is all for NPCs I have to improvise in the middle of a game:

    Having a good list of names is pretty much essential for me, because that's my weak spot. I still go into a game without a list on most days, because I'm lazy. It's something I should start doing more rigorously.

    As I've mentioned in the other thread I've also adopted a random roll for assigning gender. This has helped a lot in creating more interesting characters with less cliche roles.

    Finally, I use a random motivation roll, of which I'm quite proud of. In its most basic form, this has two results:
    -the NPC wants out of her situation
    -the NPC wants to preserve her situation
    This means no NPC is ever just there, lounging in a status quo zone. The roll must be interpreted according to the situation, which is not always easy, but it certainly beats just me falling into a routine.

    So basically, first I need a context, for example, the PCs are at an inn and one says "I go talk to the bartender."
    First off I need a name. Sometimes I also need a profession, but in this instance we already know the person is a bartender.
    Next, gender. The dice say this is actually a woman. Cool.
    Finally, motivation. Maybe the dice say the NPC wants out. Her position is not happy. She's stuck with this inn, but her dream in life is to do something different, she wants to get rid of it. Or maybe she's in an unhappy marriage. Or debt.
    Maybe the dice say the NPC wants things to stay the way they are. Her position is threatened. Someone wants to buy her inn, but she doesn't want to sell, even if she's in massive debt. Or maybe her husband is intent on leaving her and she wants to save the marriage.

    So that's pretty much a fully playable character there. What I need to work on are descriptions, roleplaying cues like the ones described in the posts above. What is the NPC wearing? What are their mannerisms? Clothes? Accent? I'm trying to find a nice, compact solution to being better with that (other than just a big random table).
  • Posted By: TeataineFinally, I use arandom motivation roll, of which I'm quite proud of. In its most basic form, this has two results:
    -the NPC wants out of her situation
    -the NPC wants to preserve her situation
    Gold! Nicked.
  • I agree, some really good tips here.

    I actually organize most of most campaigns by NPCs - I list their overall actions at the bottom of each page of an Undated PlanAhead Jumbo Journal ($6 at Walgreens.)

    So from the last campaign, I had Emma Frost's stats at the top of the page, a few sentences about her general motivation, a couple of bullet points on current things she's dealing with, and then:

    * put PC in as leader of team for telepath supremacist reasons
    * blew off Cuckoos' protection during crisis
    * chicken match with PC over attending class
    * flew off the handle at Hellfire Club news

    And so on.

    That way I can come up with:

    * Consequences for her actions
    * The next thing on her list of things to do
    * Areas where she has been stymied (drama!)
    * When she last appeared in the game so I can keep the NPCs fresh.
  • Thanks guys!

    I found that I would often go well out of my way to avoid dealing with more than a couple NPCs in a game, but loved having players visit villages. The combination of those two things usually lead to the village being wiped out in quick order, leaving the PCs a motivation for dealing with whatever baddies I blamed...

    So I made a web-based tool for myself that automatically provides me with a relationship map of NPCs. I can specify what I want to know about each character, and what I want to know about each relationship. The result is editable, and prints okay (also to PDF). It's mostly been useful for filling out relationships around towns, but I did use it for some warring city-states once. This tool has been left in a sort-of-done-enough-for-me-to-use state, as my campaign ended a while ago, but proved useful.

    I would be happy to share it if that might be useful.
  • Posted By: johnSo I made a web-based tool for myself that automatically provides me with a relationship map of NPCs. I can specify what I want to know about each character, and what I want to know about each relationship. The result is editable, and prints okay (also to PDF). It's mostly been useful for filling out relationships around towns, but I did use it for some warring city-states once. This tool has been left in a sort-of-done-enough-for-me-to-use state, as my campaign ended a while ago, but proved useful.

    I would be happy to share it if that might be useful.
    Why, yes it would.
  • edited February 2012
    I accept your forthcoming scorn with good humour: http://powys.isnull.com/r-map/.

    Seriously, though, I welcome any feedback.

    Edited to add: Yes, I know there aren't any instructions or anything. Sorry.
  • This seems like a really cool first pass.
  • @JDCorley: Yeah, that's about where it stopped.
  • I always liked the idea of starting with a very simple character trait or motivation, and then subverting it when necessary to give a character depth. It's a good, easy trick.

    Typical character traits are things like "brave", "old-fashioned", "arrogant", "nurturing". Simple motivations are best described in Apocalypse World: this character has a simple drive towards something, they follow around one of their body parts and do what it wants, all the time.

    If the NPC gets more screen time, then you subvert that simple beginning. Either give them the opposite character trait simultaneously (someone who is Brave *and* Cowardly is by definition a pretty interesting character), or give them a surprising "except when" clause (so that guy who is incredibly Arrogant... EXCEPT when it comes to learning about the Lost Continent, or rock music: then the character transforms into a humble, devoted, wide-eyed fan/learner).

    That kind of juxtaposition makes a character interesting, gives a sense of depth, almost immediately. It's a contradiction, and it's unexpected: it suggests more below the surface.

    However, in practice I find that knowing what the NPC wants from the PCs is usually more than enough for effective NPCs, with the details (like personality) flowing pretty naturally from that once the game is in play at the table. (The players react to your NPC like they're a fun, party person? Why, now they are. Make use of their assumptions!) This part depends greatly on the game system, however.

  • If the NPC gets more screen time, then you subvert that simple beginning. Either give them the opposite character trait simultaneously (someone who is Brave *and* Cowardly is by definition a pretty interesting character), or give them a surprising "except when" clause (so that guy who is incredibly Arrogant... EXCEPT when it comes to learning about the Lost Continent, or rock music: then the character transforms into a humble, devoted, wide-eyed fan/learner).
    This is really special and it belongs in every RPG text. Thanks Paul.
  • I was just thinking about how to generate a bunch of different NPCs and I remembered this site:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php

    I'm still digesting some of the information here... Could start with:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/storygen.php
  • I was just thinking about how to generate a bunch of different NPCs and I remembered this site:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php

    I'm still digesting some of the information here... Could start with:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/storygen.php
    Apparently that story generator was made for monsterhearts:

    Setting: Building Tropes
    Plot: Witch Hunt
    Narrative Device: Puberty Superpower
    Hero: Monster Adventurers
    Villain: Cruella To Animals
    Character As Device: Audience Surrogate
    Characterization Device: Master Of The Index
  • I was just thinking about how to generate a bunch of different NPCs and I remembered this site:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php

    I'm still digesting some of the information here... Could start with:

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/storygen.php
    Apparently that story generator was made for monsterhearts:

    Setting: Building Tropes
    Plot: Witch Hunt
    Narrative Device: Puberty Superpower
    Hero: Monster Adventurers
    Villain: Cruella To Animals
    Character As Device: Audience Surrogate
    Characterization Device: Master Of The Index
    Huh. putting this kind of thing together was why I started hanging around tv tropes in the first place. well done!
  • I think one useful perspectives on NPC is that they are meant to interact with the PC and when designing them that should always be the top priority. If the intereaction with the NPC doesn't result in in interesting scenes, consistency, pretty name or cool backstories doesn't matter.

    Good interaction is about reacting to the PC actions and persons, having opinions, pushing buttons and letting the NPC buttons be pushed, to drive scenes, and to create emotions.
  • So I bookmarked this discussion and now I'm doing a game and I'm focusing on Teataine's suggestion above. All NPCs are divided into two types:

    Stuck - they are in a situation they hate and are trying to get out of it, change it or upend it
    Threatened - they are in a situation they like and someone is trying to knock them out of it, expose them or drag them down in some way

    I'm literally putting "Stuck: Surrounded geographically by people who hate her and want her gone" at the bottom of an NPC page. It's great for getting priorities straight.
  • I find the knack / instinct tables at the bak of Dungeon World, plus the Story games Name book a fabulous combination for instant NPCs :)
  • I like the Three Things in the Keeper's Resource Book. It reminds me of Over the Edge/WaRP System's chargen, in which all of the traits are associated with an overt, visible (well, sensable) sign.

    Lately I've been thinking that an Over the Edge character shmushed together with an Unknown Armies character makes for a pretty great brief NPC writeup. 4 traits with signs, a noble passion, a rage passion, and a fear passion.
  • Here's an npc trick I use: Think of someone you went to school with, but no one at the table knows. There you go! You've got a name, appearance, personality, strengths/weaknesses, interesting quirks, and family circumstance. After I discovered this obvious ploy, I almost never need to make name lists. And it's so easy to keep them straight because you can instantly picture them- you're like, "oh yeah, Sarah! She would totally not fall for this trick..." (Inspired by Kill Puppies For Satan and its "describe the layout of your high school" trick for making believable buildings.)
  • This works less and less as you get farther from school and Very Old.
  • This works less and less as you get farther from school and Very Old.
    QFT. High school is just one big blur of ugly marching band uniforms and sexual frustration for me now. Picking out details for NPCs would make me sad...

    On the other hand, I can certainly do this with former work colleagues.

  • Or even celebrities!

    (And if they catch on somehow... so what?)
  • I mean, you could take it literally as high school, or you could take it generally as "person or place you used to know well, that none of the players are familiar with." Whatever floats your boat, man.
  • Like, when my players meet up with their neurotic boss, I can easily channel that guy who ran the bookstore I worked at for a year, back in my twenties. Jesus, was that guy nerve-wracking. The idea is just that you don't need to always create something whole-cloth; not when you've got a massive cast of mostly-believable people right in your memories (warning: may not work if you have never left the house)
  • Two adjectives are actually enough for a physical description, along with an emotion for the character. Random generators can cover this quite quicly if you need to wing it. A couple of beliefs makes wonders for npc reactions, I'm currently using a "passion" (as in "something the characters loves to do and feels proud about") and an obsession (you could call it a Compulsion in english, I use the spanish tem Obsesión -and yes, it's something the character does when pushed into a corner, something he/she isn't proud of and sometimes can't avoid)

    Top that with a M.O. and/or current goal, some voice acting and you are good to go. Let this character be affected by the things the party does and remember them, and you've got the recipe for a memorable character.
  • Here's an npc trick I use: Think of someone you went to school with, but no one at the table knows. There you go! You've got a name, appearance, personality, strengths/weaknesses, interesting quirks, and family circumstance. After I discovered this obvious ploy, I almost never need to make name lists. And it's so easy to keep them straight because you can instantly picture them- you're like, "oh yeah, Sarah! She would totally not fall for this trick..." (Inspired by Kill Puppies For Satan and its "describe the layout of your high school" trick for making believable buildings.)
    Oh, that's clever. Especially because I moved around enough that nobody who I'd game with would know anyone from any of my schooling.

  • Oh, that's clever. Especially because I moved around enough that nobody who I'd game with would know anyone from any of my schooling.
    It seems so obvious in retrospect, right? Schoolmates or coworkers work best because you've seen how they interact with all different types of people and you know some of their more obvious quirks or interests.

    "Sure, Mark is a tall, all-american looking blonde guy who always follows the rules but has no problem befriending those who break them- he's very friendly. He played soccer and keeps in shape, and more than anything he wants to protect his family name. He will DEFINITELY try to talk them out of this insane plan but when push comes to shove, he won't try to stop them. He'll probably deny knowledge to save face, but he's a terrible liar because he's such an honest person." THANKS, MARK!
  • I agree that drawing on old classmates, co-workers, or family is a good trick - and generally works better than the common practice of basing NPCs on fictional characters. The latter often work oddly when disconnected from their own stories, and are more often recognized and feel jarring.

    For me, the key advice I would give to many GMs is to make half your NPCs either less confident or less knowledgeable than the PCs. Way too often - even in story games - I find that GMs play the NPCs as if they know what is going on, and aren't going to be pushed around by the PCs. It makes a huge difference when you have a bunch of NPCs who are humble, confused, and/or ignorant.
  • My general suggestion would be to crowdsource NPCs to the other players to play, whenever possible (yes, even when far-fetched). I feel that playing characters (one or more) is a full-time job, and if I'm also supposed to do something else then I can't do both right. Of course, some games my only duty as a so-called "GM" is playing characters: then it's fine.
  • One of my favorite NPC tricks is what I call mirroring (I know, not horribly original). I think of some important aspect of one of the PCs, some challenge or choice facing them or something they've done. Then, I flip that choice and that's my NPC.

    FREX:
    In the Avatar the Last Airbender game I'm running with Lady Blackbird rules the PC Keela is on the run from an arranged marriage, seeking freedom. She ends up fighting a water bender who was trying to capture her and take her back home. She defeated the water bender, named Hong Tse Dau. Hong immediately begs to serve her, swearing fealty. Now Keela the noble, trying to live like a peasant with the street kid she loves, is being followed around by a woman who constantly seeks to serve her, to let Keela's will shape her sense of self.

    It lets me push on the main pain points of the PCs through constant reminders and conversations about their challenge, issue or choice. Plus, its really easy to play them. I just say pretty much the opposite of what the player says, but come up with some generally logical underpinning for their worldview.

    In a group of PCs, I will often choose to mirror a PC not present in a scene if I can get away with it. It lets me push the player of that PC indirectly, lets the player of another PC have a chance to talk about their issue and bring it to the fore.
  • That's a great technique. Pick something about a character which is significant (a belief, a value, something they stand for, something about their nature), and either:

    1. Invert it, and create a character embodies that.

    or

    2. Exaggerate it, make it monstrous. Create a character who embodies that.

    Good NPCs, to me, are all about how they interact with the player characters--tools for the development of the story or the game. Interesting backstories or funny accents can be a nice add-on to that, but ultimately not the key thing. When you put an NPC into the game, you should have some idea of how they will push against the PCs, how they will create tension or pull the story in a certain direction, and then play to that.
  • My biggest challenge with NPCs is riding the line between making them competent and making them overpowered. I want the PCs to be the most competent people in the game, but at the same time I don't want all my NPCs to be pushovers. I have a hard time making confident, strong NPCs because I'm afraid of GMPCing my group; so usually I make them too meek. I like the mirroring technique, that's a good way to add twists or flaws to an otherwise capable NPC. Good stuff.
  • That's a great technique. Pick something about a character which is significant (a belief, a value, something they stand for, something about their nature), and either:

    1. Invert it, and create a character embodies that.

    or

    2. Exaggerate it, make it monstrous. Create a character who embodies that.

    Good NPCs, to me, are all about how they interact with the player characters--tools for the development of the story or the game. Interesting backstories or funny accents can be a nice add-on to that, but ultimately not the key thing. When you put an NPC into the game, you should have some idea of how they will push against the PCs, how they will create tension or pull the story in a certain direction, and then play to that.
    Also, NPCs that deal with "blind spots", areas that the PCs haven't really been tested in before.
  • This thread is so great! I am immediately stealing a bunch of ideas!

    Here's my own contribution, from a thing I'm writing.

    Some NPCs are hard to play, but sometimes, they are really easy! I tried to narrow down what it is about the easy-to-play characters, and came up with the following:

    1) Honest: The character says what’s on their mind, even when it’s not in their best interests.

    2) Cynical: The character doesn’t have any illusions about the world, their place in it, or the chances of things changing any time soon.

    3) Opinionated: The character has strong opinions, and will share them with you given even the smallest opportunity, or even no opportunity at all.

    4) Driven: The character cares about one thing, and only that thing.

    5) Hostile: The character doesn’t like the players’ characters, and will take every chance to show it.

    6) Friendly: The character just wants to please, just wants to be liked, just wants to be helpful.

    7) Intellectual: The character is better read, more educated, and more informed than you would expect for their position.

    8) Morose: The character has other, weightier things on their mind. Perhaps their love life, or a missing pet (or something more serious).
  • Easy-to-play characters can generally be summed up with a couple of snappy traits, like you describe. The best ones are the dynamic ones, with traits that drive them into action--which means bumping up against the PCs.
  • For me, the key advice I would give to many GMs is to make half your NPCs either less confident or less knowledgeable than the PCs. Way too often - even in story games - I find that GMs play the NPCs as if they know what is going on, and aren't going to be pushed around by the PCs. It makes a huge difference when you have a bunch of NPCs who are humble, confused, and/or ignorant.
    I can personally verify that this is awesome and it totally works.

    It also worked very well for addressing a sort-of problem I had in many of our games, which was increasing bloodthirstiness among the players, aka "TAKE NO PRISONERS" syndrome. Having enemies who not only wanted to surrender but were absolutely willing to sell out their bosses in exchange for...well, for anything that meant they wouldn't be another +1 to the body-count seemed to break that spell. The notion that interrogating someone could actually produce more than snide "I know the answer to that, but I'll never tell you" stonewalling really shouldn't have been something we arrived at so late in our gaming careers. So embarrassing.
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