Monday, 26 January 2015

The Kings Of Feierland and other horrible NPCs.

It is not without precedent that town-dwelling NPCs are crueler and more horrid than the things from beyond the dark. Even a small injection of the selfishness, pettiness or cowardice you can bring with a squirrelly, unvirtuous or conniving NPC can be valuable, and might escalate into something seriously fun. It may even be a relatively unwretched trait that the PCs end up describing as wretched.

But the maiden said, "Rather than marry him, dear father, I will go away into
the world as far as my legs can carry me." But the king said that if
she would not marry him she should take off her royal garments and
wear peasant's clothing, and go forth, and that she should go to a
potter, and begin a trade in earthen vessels...

So she put off her royal apparel, and went to a potter and borrowed
crockery enough for a stall, and she promised him also that if she
had sold it by the evening, she would pay for it. Then the king said
she was to seat herself in a corner with it and sell it, and he
arranged with some peasants to drive over it with their carts, so
that everything should be broken into a thousand pieces.

(courtesy of Grimm Bros.)

 Anyway. I've tried this in my New Feierland sessions and found it can bring some great laughter and energy to the game. So what makes it work? What can go wrong? I don't profess to be an expert, but I have some observations to share.

Wonderfully Wretched NPCs:
- Are Memorable. They drive the players to connect with the characters that emerge from the story
- Can Create Rivalries, be they friendly, bloodless or violent. This is inspiration for your players.
- Can Disrupt. While actively thwarting the PCs plans can easily be overdone, the subtle application of unprincipled knaves can interrupt a scheme in subtle ways, forcing some adjustment or ad-hoc solutions. Ideally, this leads to the sweet-spot of chaos that makes for the most memorable games.

Beware Of:
- Neutering your PCs too much. Making your players feel too powerless, clumsy or disrespected is possible.
- Overthwarting. That wonderful chaotic sweet-spot I was talking about sits pretty close to a huge pile of disappointing failure for the PCs.
- Being too Wretched, too often. Remember that every experience is relative. Your disagreeable or unscrupulous guide is less fun if the barkeeper was also disagreeable and unscrupulous. You may interspace your scoundrels with some charming, helpful chaps and ladies. Also remember that the players will often escalate situations, so don't force it.

How do you do it?:
- Vices (or Virtues). Give a simple thing, just one thing, that the NPC is into and play it up.
NPCs have Lives. Whenever my players interact with a PC, or a do a thing in their vicinity, I think "What else does this person have to do today? What are they into? Is this a priority?" Keep the world alive around the players, let the nature of other people's lives be the cruel and wretched thing.
- Minor Complications. Rather than just saying yes or no to a PC request, have the NPC have the old "Yes, But" thing that is sort of in vogue at the moment. They have something more important to do, or are happy to do whatever the PCs are asking, except for they just need to go and do this thing over here first, or at the same time, whatever.
- Be Indirect. Have NPCs slightly impede something the PCs have done, or are doing, rather than with the PCs directly.
- Accents and Names.  So... This is a staple of NPCs, for me, but players bite really hard on a good accent, and love to screw with people's names (Primary School Style). These all help to make your jerky NPCs memorable and engaging and fun. Oh, and Ages. All NPC generators should have age. I use a D100.

I have a pretty neat example here, as entertainingly penned by the extremely talented and always-welcome-in-my-game, Logan Knight. Here is The Account, and I will highlight some of the tricks in play here. I hope that you enjoy reading about their impacts as much as I did.

General note: not all of these folks are wretched. Some are helpful, mostly, and others are straight nice. Teacher, Dorothy, Francisco, Barkeep, Old Man, Winstonsmith kind of... They're not jerks, but they were part of a wretched story and did their part. Moving on!

Day 2
- The teacher. A simple "Yes, But" situation.
- Francisco De Cosmos Fabuloso. He is just Hedonism emobodied, with a fancy name and terrible/overdone Spanish accent. He features heavily in many of my games, and actually does very, very little. Players love him. I think.
- Dick wasn't home, he was at work. (NPCs have lives).
- The Entire Lord Suchinson thing. 3 simply constructed, ad-hoc NPCs - The Lord (has Life/work), his Aide De Camp (Winstonsmith, Vanity emobdied), and Dorothy (A little foolish). Accents and names. Minor Complications.
- Then, after all that, they went to the school well after dark (the dinner events at Suchinson's were well explained to the PCs), and surprisingly, the kid had left already (NPCs have lives).
- The Orphans/Marines - the Marines saw a creepy guy soliciting children (the PC asked them all in uh... unusual ways). The Marines are guards down there, basically, doing their job.

- The Old Man. He was just old, senile, and fond of complaining. This led to a while thing about the players complaining about it being always raining when they were pretending to be the dead old woman, etc, which was great fun.
- The Guards. Indirectness, Having lives/doing their jobs, being superstitious, etc. Little things. 
- The Mortician. Indirectness, having a life.
- The Dead Old Woman became a Thing simply because she was old (and thus the PCs kept running with the jokes from the old man) and dead (they had to puppeteer her etc, which was great)

Thennnn they all went insane and threw a dead old woman at a church because... Well... maybe we'd fallen just over the edge of the sweet-spot of Chaos. I don't know. I think a few of us had a ball, at least.

So, anyway. There was one "monster", the Fletcher, and a pile of NPCs. I didn't even do heaps with the NPCs... Just little things, making sure they exist beyond the PCs, making sure they have a simple character and some thing they want to do in life. This all led to some crazy, NPC based adventure, a lot of laughter, and some talk of how horrible everyone in New Feierland is. I guess, having written this post, I must accept some responsibility for their horribleness. I hope it was fun.


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