Game Mastery

Game Wrap – NPCs as caricatures

by on Sep.06, 2011, under dnd4e, observations, organization, self improvement

Some time ago I wrote about trying to wear NPCs as hats.  I’m more of a method actor (assuming you can call what I do acting at all), so switching around between NPCs has always been a challenge for me.  In a previous post I discussed my plan to treat NPCs as caricatures, defining their outward traits first, never worrying about their inner psychology.

I’d link to that earlier post, but the method sucked and the beginning of the game sucked because of it.

Basically I gave each NPC an index card.  This part of the technique is fine.  It was utterly necessary for tracking plots in my Game of Thrones campaign a couple years ago.

The new part is that I wrote down 3 parts of each NPC’s appearance and 3 mannerisms on every single card.  My goal was to act like the NPC and show of a prop belonging to the NPC.  I figured the guy with the cigar and the halfing with the bobcat would each be more memorable than going by names for each NPC.  I wanted the character’s behaviors to trigger my PCs’ memory about the NPC.  And I wanted the behaviors to jumpstart my personification of the NPC.

But it was too much.  In the first session I introduced the players to Lucien’s adventures.  Lucien’s introduction went fine, although the players interpreted him to be just a little more of a dumbass than I’d intended.  The problem was the five or six investors.  Each with three appearance traits and three mannerisms.  Distributing thirty unique qualities to a group of NPCs was overwhelming.  There was no way the players could remember all that.  Why did I think this was a good idea again?

Not only was it overwhelming, it was also ridiculous.  In the process of writing up all those NPCs (plus all the ones the players didn’t meet) I got bored of traits like talkative, stern, and slow.  Everyone had weird, over the top traits, designed to make them stand out.  Instead of giving the players a bunch of people to work for, I’d surrounded them with circus clowns.  Ugh.

This problem was also compounded by the fact that the group traveled.  More on that later.  But the long story short is that these traits were ideas that were supposed to pay off in the long run when the players returned to a familiar NPC.  They didn’t return to NPCs.  Instead they went to new towns and demanded more NPCs.  This method might have worked in a stationary game, but it didn’t scale one bit when the players moved around.

Now, the answer to all this came pretty easily.  I think the method could have been successful if I hadn’t frontloaded it.  Why start with three personality traits and three appearance characteristics?  They were mostly arbitrary anyway.  In retrospect I would have been better off with just one thing per NPC.  But each time the  players met an NPC, he’d gain another trait.  I think that would have worked out better.

But even that was too formal.  Sometimes I just want to talk to the players.  Worrying about what the NPC’s new mannerism is going to be is a distraction.  I’m okay with a big, bogged down system for combat, but not for chatting with an innkeeper.

Anyway, around this point I scrapped the whole NPC traits thing.  I think it’s a noble goal to strive to improve my GMing deficiencies.  But it’s nobler still to run a good game.  I was spending time focusing on my weakest point.  The game was sucking and focusing on my weakness wasn’t improving things.  Instead I did a 180 and figured out how to use method acting to my advantage.

When I’ve played a character for a long time, I’ve always found it easy to slip back into that character.  This is why I’m in favor of recycling PCs as NPCs.  For little to no effort, I can have a strong NPC with personality and background.  I should probably refrain from using an NPC who has partied with the other players at the table, but I play at so many tables with so many groups that I’ve always got a few characters nobody has seen before.  Not reusing them would be wasteful.

Basically I decided to write each session around one NPC at a time.  Others could show up, but I’d only introduce one per session.  Kind of like how Lost did flashbacks for each character on the show.  Not ‘kind of,’ but ‘exactly’.  For me, in the two weeks leading up to each game, that NPC was my character.  I thought of that character as my own PC.  I got into his head and fleshed him out.  Sometimes even going so far as to practice conversations.

This worked.  It absolutely gave me stronger NPCs.  Well, stronger NPC.  The rest were still bland.  But after a couple months I built up a lot more functional NPCs.  And after spending a few weeks focusing on each of them individually, I had a much easier time recalling an NPC when it was time for him to make an appearance

1 comment for this entry:
  1. starwoof

    I’ve been stressing over how I’m going to run an encounter with a half dozen important NPCs for a week. Lately I have been trying something similar to what you did, having a card with some traits of the NPC in front of me. It does not work well for my GMing style.

    I’m going to try something similar to your solution and see how it goes. Focusing mainly on one NPC per session, that is.

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