S.O.M.O. (so•mo) | noun: Scared of Missing Out. A version of Fear of Missing Out that replaces the first word for a synonym so that the author of the blog article can maintain his alliterative title.
I have a problem with my campaign prep, but if you have the same problem, there might be hope for us. See, I’m the kind of GM who cooks up a bunch of plot threads and throws them all at the wall spaghetti-style to see what sticks. Lately, though, all of my plot pasta has been sticking, and now the wall is covered in pasta.
Invested players are a blessing; that’s not my problem! This is my problem: time.
Whether you’ve got too many plot threads or just too much world with interesting corners and compelling story potential, there’s just not enough real-world time to see and do everything.
In character or out, a single group cannot solve all of the mysteries, uncover all the forgotten secrets, and punch all the bad in the world.
So what’s to be done?
“Write fewer plot hooks,” You might say.
To which I reply, “No. Too simple. It would never work, and you can’t make me.”
Instead, let’s solve this problem by giving your players a way of harnessing an often untapped reservoir of power: their network of NPCs.
Activating Their Network
The campaign is the PCs’ story. They should be at the center of the action. Understandably, they’d be hesitant to delegate important story stuff to NPCs.
After all, it’s not satisfying to have a situation resolved off-screen, but also, no one wants the GM to hog the spotlight for two hours by roleplaying with themself.
You could just hand over the NPC sheets to the players and play the game normally, but then you at least run into the time problem again, and depending on your group, they might not enjoy stepping away from their characters for an entire session (or more).
That’s why this system agnostic system (yes, I’m aware of the oxymoronic vibe of that phrase) empowers your players to make significant plot decisions on NPCs’ behalf while also allowing them to experience more of the world, see more of the story, and tackle more plot threads. All in less than thirty minutes of real-world game time.
A Systemless System
STEP ONE: Set Up The Obstacles
The GM sets the scene, calling out the location and 1 to 3 major obstacles based on the task at hand, with more obstacles for more complex tasks. If you like, source the group for the obstacles!
For Example: Let’s say the PCs have finally uncovered the location of the Big Bad Cult Leader, and they’ve decided to chase him down. It’s going to take them far afield, on a raucous adventure through swampy jungles and ancient temples. BUT, they also know the cult leader’s lackeys are trying to acquire an ancient artifact of great power from the capital city’s black market. They can’t stop the artifact trafficking AND catch the big bad, so they send some trusted NPCs up against the lackeys.
The GM sets the scene: the shadow-filled back alleys that make up the city’s nefarious black markets.
Since this is your group’s first time using the systemless system, the GM sets two obstacles in the path of the NPCs – suspicious bruiser rogues who keep narcs and do-gooders out of the market, and an artifact dealer who’s afraid of what the cult will do to him if he doesn’t sell.
STEP TWO: Choose the Approach
At this point, the players decide how the NPCs would handle this situation. To choose an approach, no one has to worry about stats, spells, or abilities of any kind. Play it narratively. Would the short-tempered librarian they sent to fetch the artifact pull out daggers, weave some spells, or try to talk their way into negotiations with the black market dealer?
|Assault||Do a violence to a target. How do they plan the attack?|
|Deception||Lie through their teeth. What’s their cover story? Bribes and coercion could also fall into this category.|
|Infiltration||Sneaky sneaky heist time. What’s their goal?|
|Powered||Magic! Superpowers! High-tech gadgets. What sort of SFX are they using?|
|Social||Negotiate, bargain, or otherwise persuade via social channels. What connections are they calling on?|
OPTIONAL: Faustian Pacts
Source up to a total of two tradeoffs the player-controlled NPCs would be willing to make to accomplish their goals. Each trade-off should have a kiss/curse element to it. It’s an immediate bonus for a later trouble.
COMMON PACTS INCLUDE:
- Unintended collateral damage to a friendly or neutral area
- A significant loss (either of reputation, money, or equipment)
- Finding themselves on the wrong side of a powerful faction
- Suffering some sort of physical or mental harm
- Incurring a debt or a favor to someone they don’t want to be in bed with
For each Pact your players create, give them a +1 bonus to their final roll result.
STEP THREE: Count the Assets and the Obstacles
Narratively speaking, add up every major asset or advantage the NPCs have at their disposal. Things like leverage with important government figures, access to magical artifacts, or juicy blackmail material.
- For every major asset, they get an additional D6 added to their die pool.
- For every major obstacle in their way (as described in Step One), they lose a D6.
Example: Your players have sent a short-tempered librarian, a himbo barbarian, and a street-wise urchin to snatch the artifact out from under the noses of the cult lackeys.
The librarian, while knowledgeable in the ways of ancient artifacts, doesn’t know know how to deal with criminals. However, they DO come from a wealthy family, so they can bring lots of gold to help in the negotiations. That’s one D6 in the pool.
The barbarian has a smooth brain but a bad reputation for smashing heads. That serves him well here. Add a D6 to the pool.
The street urchin knows her way around the nefarious merchants in the black market. That’s another D6.
That’s 3 assets minus 2 obstacles for 1 die to roll.
STEP FOUR: Roll
Roll your pool of D6s and choose the single highest result. Add any bonuses to the roll based on Faustian Pacts. Then determine how well the task goes by consulting the results below.
Example: The group decides their NPCs are willing to go into debt to procure the artifact, so they have +1 on the roll. They roll 5 + 1 = 6. Success at a cost!
|1 -3||Failure. The NPCs fail at the task at hand.
Depending on the approach, they may be very injured or have had their reputations harmed in some way. Players may choose to narratively incapacitate an NPC for a significant portion of time or take a severe loss for an attempt to try again as their main PCs, but their opponents plans will have progressed and adapted, so the baddies will have the upper hand.
|4-5||Failure, but… The NPCs fail at the task, but all is not lost. The players can find a glimmer of hope in the failure and decide what doors are left open for future attempts, either as NPCs or as their own PCs, though they will be at a disadvantage.|
|6||Success at a cost. The NPCs succeed! But they are injured in some way or have taken a loss to achieve their victory.|
|7+||Critical success! The NPCs pull off their task like seasoned pros and return victorious.|
STEP FIVE: Collaboratively Narrate the Scene
The GM will set the scene and then toss narrative control over to the players, who get to describe how the events play out, succeed or fail.
If the roll result calls for it, the PCs can decide what doors are left open for future attempts.
As the GM, your job is to make sure each player gets to narrate at least one aspect of the scene, ensuring that everyone gets a chance to contribute.
Example: The players describe a tense bidding war with the cultists. They eventually win, but they have wiped out the librarian’s savings. This will prevent that NPC from financially aiding the PCs in the future, but for now, they have the artifact, the cult does not, and the Big Bad’s evil plans have taken a hit. The cult leader will be at a distinct disadvantage when the PCs finally chase him down!
A Few Tips
This system is designed to be zero prep, but it’s helpful to have a few obstacle ideas. One or two words written in the margins of your GM notes are enough.
The first few times you use the system, your PCs may try to play it safe. Especially when it comes to creating their own obstacles and creating A Faustian Pact, be sure to emphasize that big risks = big rewards.
If your players vibe with this system, use it for PC downtime activities. Use it to bridge large time gaps in the narrative or even handle single-player side quests!
Lastly, keep an eye on the impact these delegation scenes have on the world of your campaign. Too massive, and you risk de-centering the players as the main characters. Too inconsequential, and what’s the point?
You’re looking for a Goldilocks impact: not too much one way or the other. There should be consequences, and changes should occur, but don’t forget who the main protagonists are.
The Last Caveats
For those who have played a Forged in the Dark game, it’s probably obvious that this delegation system was hacked out of the engagements rules. Blades in the Dark is a product of One Seven Design, developed and authored by John Harper, and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
All that is to say, this is a constantly-evolving work in progress, with plenty of room for making it your own.
How would you change this system to fit it into your current campaign? How do you encourage your players to delegate to their NPCs? What kind of shenanigans happens when you do?
Drop your thoughts in the comments.