Why is it Hard to Get NPC’s Noticed

NPC’s are often overlooked by characters as inconsequential and two dimensional.  A lot of the time they are and should be no more than that.  Take for example the thronging crowd in the marketplace, they are nothing more than set dressing as the players shop.  What made it this way.  In real life we are measured by our actions and the people that we associate with.  It seems that in RPG land though that the people we associate with are a sheet of paper complete with numbers and no name, or at best a name but no personality.  Today’s post is part one of two where I investigate first why I think RPG’s have regressed in the use of the NPC in my time (get ready for a “In my day…” talk).  Part two will give the GM some solid tips on how to address this perceived imbalance.

Why is it so Hard to Get an NPC Noticed?

Here comes the back in my day moment.  I have been gaming since around 1985.  During that time I have seen a lot of changes in games and the types of games that come and go.  I have also seen other influences begin to creep into the way games and modules are written and I think that the key is there.  In my experience the use of NPC’s and the player focus on building a network of NPC’s was a lot greater in games at the start of my career.  NPC’s were important as no character was an island and so it was good to interact with NPC’s and have a support mechanism around the character that could assist them.

Computer RPG’s happened.  At first it was not too bad but eventually computer RPG’s developed into games like Skyrim and the like where every person that you talk to needs something done but offers little in return except a boost to experience levels or the like.  Dealing with NPC’s in these style games turned from a gathering of information into a button pressing to get to the end of the talking bit, follow the little red arrow to the quest marker, kill some things, return, gain experience.

5th Edition DnD Starter Set box image
The new Starter Set for 5th Edition DnD

This is how modules are generally written in the mainstream of tabletop role playing games today and I feel it is because of that focus in computer games it has come about.  Let us take The Lost Mines of Phandelver for example.  This is the Starter Set module for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition.  I have run it to completion once and am on the final section of it for another group.  The module is aimed broad to try and appeal to everyone but the NPC interaction conforms to the above model I talked about.  I had a session with the group that have completed the module where they started to wander around in Phandalin (the provided town) and everyone they focussed on gave them a quest that needed them pretty much to travel to the quest marker, kill some stuff or complete a task and return to gain some experience.

The group I was running it with has a wealth of experience and they all laughed at how shallow and computer RPG it was like as they racked up the quests.  Pretty much all this offered the players was experience and no meaningful interaction at all with the NPC.  I was thinking about this in particular when I wrote the Pathfinder Encounter for yesterday that essentially involved an NPC that could become a useful contact.  A contact that knows stuff.  You scratch Ol’ Bert’s back and he will scratch yours.  Over time you may actually come to like Ol’ Bert and seek him out just to give him a helping hand for no other reason other than him being useful and a friend.

Mechanics in certain RPG’s have also been developed to support this.  Take Shadowrun (any edition) where they acknowledge that the character is a combination of their abilities and actions and those they associate with.  Part of building a character is building your network of contacts during character creations.  You get a bunch of “archetypes” to choose from and depending on the edition add them to the character and also maybe address how well you know them.  In play, unless the GM forces the issue, the player might say – “Hey, I have a fixer here that I selected and he is soooo totally in love with me so I hand over the data and get the Nu Yen baby!”  I have simplified that but in essence the player treats it just like any other mechanic and moves on.

Most GM’s I know would want the player to name the character but then be happy to action the request with little interaction.  My last experience with Shadowrun was different with the GM wanting to role-play the interactions and have a little bit of toing and froing that made it felt like the real deal so kudos go to Matt Guyder for that as the GM.  But today I play or watch too many games that the NPC’s are just treated as a mechanic or a quest enabler and at times that is supported by the rules.

My Favorite Moments as a Player Always Involve NPC’s

What is wrong with treating it as a mechanic?  Well, if you and your players prefer the tactical battle or problem solving aspects of the game, nothing at all.  Unwanted role-playing with NPC’s to get a drink at the Inn will not be appreciated and just get in the way.  But if you want to feel immersed as a player in a world then you need to know what it feels like to deal with the people there.  I am going to tell you the stories of two of my all time favorite moments in my gaming career.  They probably are familiar to you if you follow me on G+ but I feel they illustrate the point well.

  1. I had a character in MegaTraveller who was a psionicist that smuggled drugs into Regina on a regular basis.  This was an impressive effort as Regina is one of the tightest security planets in the Imperium.  My character spent a good deal of his career chasing a mysterious woman around and winning her heart while keeping things quiet from her about exactly what I did.  My character was the Errol Flynn styled dapper mystery man and I swept her off her feet.  But things turned sour in the drug game and I was ratted out to the Imperium in Regina and they came for me in a big way.  My character killed a lot of guards and escaped.  The characters wife ran from him after realising what he had done.  She went as far to set her brother (best bounty hunter in the sector) out to bring me down and turn me over for my crimes.  The remainder of my game was winning her back and then escaping with her from her brother (who had hated my character for a long, long time).  This game was run by Kel Dennis and to this day this character is one of my all time favorites.
  2. I had a half-orc cleric/fighter in second edition AD&D who was a worshiper of Athena.  He had participated in the take-down of the Minsel the Mad Mage in an epic fight that involved my character, another persons character that was a Paladin who had been polymorphed into a duck and the mage.  After the battle the Paladin was released and for my assistance he allowed me to take all the magic items, so I did and wandered off.  Sitting under a tree I was admiring all the new bling one evening when I heard a voice and a werewolf stepped out of the shadows telling me that he was there to get a ring that Minsel had once worn.  It was a tense stand off that involved at least an hour of back and forth role-playing in character that ended in my character capitulating and handing over the ring as I was sure that he was quite powerful.  The ring I handed over had a gem in it that Minsel’s soul was in and the mage was resurrected later from it. In the end my character ended up working with the mad mage and was a peer to the werewolf that once confronted me.  This game was run by Phil Cotterill and he is by far and above one of the DM’s I compare myself to to see if I measure up (in my eyes I don’t).

The reason that I highlight these two (and there are a few more in my memory) is that the game is about my interaction with the NPC’s.  It is all about building networks and stories from my interaction with these NPC’s.  The entire games revolved around these interactions that I as a player had pursued.  It was not a case of turning up to a game and finding out I was delving into a dungeon today, I was the driver of the game and the NPC’s in each world shaped that experience wholly.

Very few professionally written modules use NPC’s in this way.  The NPC’s are there to guide the player along a set or semi set plot progression.  Even the sandbox styled modules tend to not consider that NPC’s might have their own goals that players can explore, or uses past just guiding the plot.  It is fair though that professionally written modules maybe do not approach this in the way they write the module and leave that up to the GM to modify and use.  After all, who knows their players better than the groups GM.

NPC mechanic
NPC’s as a mechanic in character creation!

But every now and again you come across modules that do this.  The Adventure Path I am running at the moment online has a lot of NPC’s that can carry forward into further modules or become big supporters of the players.  Even then though it is often that these NPC’s are forgotten in the future modules and so they do not have fully realized profiles for the GM to understand, use and operate.

There you have it from my perspective.  I know there are a lot of games out there and some of those games turn these points on their head and make it all about the character and the NPC but as a whole I think that RPG’s have lost this focus.  There are so many games out there that turn NPC’s into mechanics rather than true elements of a living breathing story and that this limits the stories that can be told.  There are people that would be more than comfortable with this and that is great.  Play the game you want to play, but I do know that there are a lot of GM’s out there that want to make the games that they run have meaningful NPC’s that they do not need to push on the players to gain interaction.  Because of that I want to offer up the tips and tricks that I attempt to use to make this happen and that is what I will do with part two of this discussion in the next day or so.  Keep rolling!

4 Comments


  1. Terrific post. You put your finger on something that’s bugged me for a long time as well: the morphing of NPCs into nothing more that quest hubs and quest-info dispensers. It absolutely tracks back to the shallow limitations of coded NPC behavior in computer games, and has had an impact on how the newer generation of writers approach NPCs unconsciously, I think.

    It’s good to be mindful about how versatile and powerful well-crafted NPCs can be in an rpg. Looking forward to your next post on the subject!

    Reply

  2. Even though the following article isn’t *strictly* about NPCs, everything I wrote applies to them. See here:

    Jesse Cohoon
    – Sep 13, 2014
    #Sidekick

    Top 7 ways to have Kickass Sidekicks
    By: Jesse C Cohoon

    Sidekicks are one of the staples of roleplaying games. These sidekicks can be as simple as a fighter’s followers, to the magic caster’s familiar, to something like the collectable monsters of Pokémon to the card spirit monsters in Yu-Gi-Oh and the like. Unfortunately, they tend to be rather bland, cookie cutter types of things that are just “there” for convenience, to do as they’re told, and fade into the background when not needed. Both as a game master and a roleplayer, I think a lot more can be teased out of these relationships, with just a bit more work, with a lot more reward for having done so. Here are the top 7 of ways to make kickass sidekicks.

    1) Give them a personality all of their own. Let them have a role in the party’s decisions. Let them disagree with the party’s plans, and be able to suggest their own that may or may not necessarily work. Have them be able to communicate on a regular basis outside of combat. Give them likes, and dislikes, as well as plots based around their character. If they should happen to die, based on their interactions and personality, the players should genuinely care about the loss.

    2) Give them complementary powers. If you have a fighter’s follower, allow them to tag team an enemy, so that each of their attacks are more effective, as well as the ability to guard each other’s backs. If you have a mage’s familiar, let the familiar’s very presence amplify their powers in some manner. You could even have certain spells be able to be cast through the familiar. When dealing with fighting monsters, if certain combinations are on the field, they can give bonuses to everyone else or get bonuses from other monsters.

    3) Give Them Unique Powers. The knowledge, skills, abilities, powers that the sidekick has should be uniquely theirs. Having a “carbon copy” of another character is somewhat useless, unless the character(s) are meant to be viewed as an inseparable pair, or are able to be more effective only when they fight together. These unique powers can be as simple as an improved ability that someone else has, where they were able to get more training in it, to a unique combination of skills to be able to do unique attacks with, to an ability so unique to them that it makes them shine in a particular situation.

    4) Give Them Unique Equipment. Having sidekicks with boring, out-of-the-book equipment is boring. It also shows that the person having the sidekick didn’t put enough thought into putting them together. Also, giving them unique equipment may help the party get past obstacles, defeat enemies, or further the plot. Who knows that random ring may be the key to unlocking the whole mystery.

    5) Give Them Unique Contacts. Just because the players know their sidekick, doesn’t necessarily mean that they know who their sidekick knows automatically, or gets a “free pass” to be able to connect with them without any problems. Their sidekick(s) should be willing to introduce their contacts to the players after some time knowing them. How the players interact with the sidekick’s contact(s) is on them, to make them into friends… or turn them into enemies.

    6) Give Them a Personal Connection To The Players. This is one tip that is most often overlooked. Perhaps their sidekick is a person/ animal/ monster whose life they saved. Other options are to have them be a childhood friend, a person they met in a disaster and stuck with them, or someone who they met while training who was impressed with them. Whatever the case, they should have a plot related reason for being there, one that is not easy to dismiss or break.

    7) Give Them The Ability To Learn And Grow. Let them develop over time, developing in personality, gaining new equipment, learning new skills, powers, abilities, and meeting new contacts. Everything that they do. As they develop, grow, let them have a greater and greater part in the storyline.

    Reply

  3. Good article.

    I think there may be a couple other forces at work that may contribute to this…

    1) Page count – With published (hard copy) material, page count is so critical in the consumer prices, that editors may be cutting content to the bone in some instances. It’s possible that some drafts of the modules that eventually make it to print may have more NPC background, but it then gets cut out to keep costs low. Luckily, PDF publishing should alleviate some of this pressure.

    2) I completely forgot what I was going to write in #2. 🙂

    One module that does this well is Castles & Crusade – Assault on Blacktooth Ridge (A1). http://www.trolllord.com/cnc/8020.html

    Davis Chenault is a pretty darn good RPG designer and he made sure to sprinkle in some factoid or motivation for almost every NPC in the book. The characters may not find out about 80% or more of them, and most of the backgrounds have no more elaboration than a sentence or two… But it serves to bring those NPCs to life for the DM, which in turn help the DM bring them to life for the players.

    It’s a great example of how NPCs can be given that little extra something without worrying about exploding the page count.

    Reply

    1. One other thing to add — even if a current day modules are constrained by page count and can’t add small details for each NPC, games (and modules) should include guidance for DMs to make some of these NPCs come to life, so they are not just treated as a quest giver that is here today and and gone tomorrow.

      Reply

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