Game Mastery

Taking some time for self improvement

by on Sep.12, 2008, under GM, self improvement

So far in this blog I’ve been trying to show my answers to common GMing questions. I’ve come across with a much more elitist tone than usual because of it. I’m sure I could preface each of my sentences with “in my experience” or some such, but these posts have been lengthy enough already.

At any rate, I called this site game mastery, not because I feel I’m a master GM spreading wisdom as a Dunkin Donuts employee spreads delicious low fat veggie cream cheese on my onion bagel every saturday morning. It’s because I want to achieve GM mastery. I think I do some things very well, but others come off extremely poorly. It’s time to examine one of those factors. It’s a biggie. I’m talking about my flat and lifeless non player characters.

By and large I play RPGs as a player. I think about GMing constantly and I enjoy it a great deal when I do GM, but it’s something I’d like to do for a couple months out of the year at absolute most.

As a player I like to play characters with depth. Characters who grow and evolve over the course of the game. Characters who don’t fit neatly into an alignment chart. I like to understand what really makes the character tick, and emulate their mind. Once I’ve done that all sorts of mannerisms emerge and I can act out the character. I have to play characters this way or else I get bored. In the world of theater I think they call this method acting.

The problem with this kind of play is that it takes a lot of brainpower on my part and it takes a lot of time to get in and out of character. I basically need to reboot my mind between characters.

This is detrimental to my NPCs. Unless I’m going to take a two hour break between NPCs I just don’t have time to get out of one character and into another. Long story short I suck at NPCs.

Well, that’s not really fair. My NPCs have interesting stuff going on. I just suck at showing it to the players.

A couple years ago I was watching another player get ready for a D&D game. He didn’t do a backstory. Didn’t know his character. He just picked some mannerisms. He was going to be a dwarf and he was going to mumble. And that was all it took. He was hilarious and fun. And as the game progressed he found depth for the character. Until I saw him play that way it never occurred to me that anyone could do that and come up with a character.

And that is what I need to be able to do to get my NPCs up to speed. Screw their history. 99% of the time the players won’t need to know it. If they do take an interest in an NPC, I’ll probably be able to see it coming and come up with something. Or just improvise it. Besides, the important NPCs have always had some amount of character. It’s the random innkeepers and bartenders that really need work. I need to be able to wear NPCs like hats – easily identifiable by players, but I can swap them out at a moments notice.

Anyway, I’ve written up with some lists to help me learn how to do this with NCPs. My GM screen has always held names (specifically it has males, females, surnames, and taverns). Why not personalities too?

I came up with two lists. One is description – it’s what an NPC looks like. The other is disposition, which is how they act. Some of these options are meant to lead to plot. Some are there for no good reason at all. Random NPCs will have one of each trait. Important ones may get more. Ideally I shouldn’t need these lists, but I won’t forget to use them if I keep them on my GM screen. Without further ado…

Knows too much
Out of place
Beady eyed

Out of place

I really want to see how “out of place” and “knows too much” work out. They seem like good material for accidental plot hooks leading to greater things. I also want to see an NPC come up with “fat/fat”. I don’t know what exactly I’m supposed to do with “red” but I think there’s potential there.

I’m also trying something new with important NPCs. Instead of keeping a page in the notebook for each NPC I’ve got a box full of index cards. It’s less space, but I’m more likely to make use of it I think. My notebook only opens to one page at a time. Index cards can come out in addition to the notebook. I’m going to make sure that important traits, which may or may not come from my lists, are as prominent as the character’s name. I may even give them mannerisms and catchphrases. Won’t have as much room for stats, but I can probably manage with a simple stat block instead of a whole character sheet. Oh, and the index cards are of course going to be color coded by faction.

I suppose I’ll have to provide a follow up once I actually see how my NPCs turn out this way. Later.

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2 comments for this entry:
  1. Maliseraph

    Definitely recommend what you’re doing. Index cards are a great way to keep track of the stats on important NPCs in your game, though I recommend also keeping a plot-bubble map on a sheet of paper somewhere linking characters to each other and plots they’re involved with. Cards are great, but there’s only so much info you can put on them, and it’s hard to “link” cards in the sort of way you can do on a sheet of paper.

    Oh, and something I have to say, I love the PC’s you create. They’re always awesome. Sometimes in retrospect we’ve realized they’d make better NPCs, but to a one they have all been interesting and memorable. I still wish we could have done more with that school counselor that played in like one or two sessions.

  2. sagotsky

    Why thank you. But you haven’t played my games so you haven’t actually seen how I run the NPCs. They’re flat and boring, even if they’re interesting on paper. It’s not that I have trouble coming up with NPCs, I have trouble alt tabbing between them. The more characters I multitask, the worse each of them gets.

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