Game Mastery

Nurturing NPC growth

by on May.05, 2010, under dnd, GM, observations, self improvement

I have trouble running NPCs.  It takes me a while to get into character and even longer to switch between characters.  This isn’t news.  I’d be surprised if less than 1/3 of the posts here mentioned  this fact.  It’s something I’m aware of and I’ve been trying to work on.
I was talking to one of my PCs today, expressing this problem, and we came up with a possible solution.  I don’t know if it’ll work or not, but it’s definitely worth trying.

Each game session I’m going to focus on one NPC.  Not at the expense of the party, mind you.  The NPC may not even get that much screen time.  But all my mental prep for the game leading up to a session will take place in one NPC’s head.
What I’d been doing up until now is spreading the love around all the NPCs pretty evenly.  I made sure to give them all memorable traits and I even tried to hit each of those traits whenever the players met with that character.  There were a couple problems with this technique.

  1. Mannerism overload.
  2. What’s really memorable?

In the first session I fed the players 20 quirks in 20 minutes.  They met up with 6 or 7 NPCs, all of whom had 3 unique mannerisms.  All in rapid succession.  No wonder they thought the game was weird and quirky.  Even if they liked all those quirks, there was no way they were going to remember which NPC had the eversmoking cigar or which one rode a bobcat named Fefnir.  All these details did nothing but stress them out (see previous post).

What’s more is that I tried to give the NPCs certain traits that I thought would be memorable.  This is backwards.  Instead I should throw the NPC out there and see what the players found memorable.  Then the next time they see that character, show them that aspect.  Telling them what they think is memorable is just silly.  I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea.

The other thing we discussed was how I divide my roleplaying attention over several characters.  I think my RP ability deteriorates exponentially.  For n characters in my head space, I’m roleplaying at approximately 1/n^2 of my capacity.  This is why I rarely like to be a PC in more than two games at once.  I just don’t have the brainspace to hold that many characters, so all of them get played poorly.  As a GM, I’m holding 10-25 characters in my head at any given time.  You do the math.

However, if I pick an NPC and stick with him I’ll have the whole week between sessions to get into that character’s head.  He’ll get a solid introduction to the party.   Even if it’s someone who was previously neglected, that’s okay.  From then on I’ll be able to reinvoke that character very easily by mentioning what the players remembered (instead of what I told them to remember) and hopefully I’ll have an easier time conjuring up a character I’ve already spent time with.  That’s the theory anyway.  We’ll see if it actually works.

I think this approach is actually very close to what Lost does.  Not the part about making up bizarre, inexplicable storylines, and giving the audience more questions instead of answering anything.  The character focus.  When the show started, everyone was vague and indistinct.  Each character got an episode.  You got some insight into their past and mostly saw the episode from their POV.  After those episodes, those characters became more real.  You could relate to them and you knew what they’d been through.  I think that’s what I’m aiming for with this idea.

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