In most games, each PC has their own arc of personal development. The events of the campaign, the actions they took (and didn’t take) and their interactions with others combine to change the PCs in a variety of ways.
Major NPCs often follow similar arcs, especially if they interact frequently with the PCs. But what about the NPCs on the sidelines? The ones the party sees from time to time, but who don’t have a whole lot of impact on the game?
Oftentimes, those NPCs don’t change much, if at all. They’re imbued with some fun, memorable character traits, and they remain static thereafter. And there’s nothing wrong with that — but why not mix it up, and give some of those NPCs character arcs as well?
For example: In a cyberpunk game, the party periodically visits Hektor, a shady surgeon who specializes in the installation of black-market implants. Hektor walks with a slight limp, speaks with an Australian accent and keeps his OR spotless, in direct contrast the rest of his filthy shop.
When the PCs visit Hektor, this is what they expect to find. Imagine their surprise, then, if after going a few months without seeing the surgeon, they return to find him in a wheelchair, with the walls of his OR pocked with bullet holes and laser scars.
These changes don’t screw the party out of a valuable contact — Hektor can still hook them up with implants, and his prices haven’t changed — but they show the players that the game world continues to turn while they’re busy with missions.
As the GM, you get a chance to play Hektor a bit differently, and to play out some fun interaction with the PCs. What happened to Hektor, and why? How does he act now?
You also open up the possibility of the party getting involved in whatever’s going on in Hektor’s life. Maybe they’re quite fond of him, and they decide to undertake a side adventure to get revenge on whoever shot up his OR.
That can be a tricky issue, though, as you might not have planned for a side trek. If you intended Hektor’s character arc to simply be background color, you need to make that clear to your players. And if it is the hook for the party’s next adventure, you need to make that clear instead.
If your group assumes that everything you describe in more than cursory detail is important to the adventure at hand, this technique will cause problems for you. On the other hand, if you’re trying to change your GMing style to include more descriptive color, this can be a pretty good way to do just that.
As a player, I’m always a fan of getting the sense that my character is interacting with a vibrant world. While I want the party to be the center of attention, seeing evidence that the wider world changes without my PC is pretty nifty, and this can be a good technique to convey that impression.
Do you give relatively minor NPCs in your games character arcs? Do your players like it? Has it ever backfired on you?
I do give character arcs to NPCs who appear frequently. The owner of a coffee shop that the PCs might frequent, or perhaps the PCs have struck up a friendship with a college student while doing some research. I try to keep the story arcs simple though because you have to keep in mind that these NPCs aren’t adventurers (I’m amazed at how some GMs always have NPCs who are suddenly ex-military whenever a fight breaks out in the game). Perhaps the coffee shop owner and his wife just had their first baby so he gives out a free doughnut with baby blue icing to every customer for the following week. Or that college student graduates and goes on to pursue a Masters degree.
I do simple things like this because it is my personal experience that players will build friendships between the PCs and NPCs, and if you throw in something like the NPC being mugged the PCs will always treat it like a hook. They are the heroes of the story after all, and they want to avenge their friends and help them out. So I think your advice about making clear what is colour and what is a hook is right on. I just haven’t figured out how to do that very well yet for any tragic event that occurs to the favored NPCs.
One way to make sure that the arcs of an NPC are just background (if that’s the way you want to take it), is to make sure the NPC already finished anything that needed done. To steal an electrical term, you cap the end so the current has to flow someplace else. This is really only necessary if the PCs try to jump in to use that arc for the NPC as a plot hook.
In the case of Hector, if the PCs offer to go get the guys who did this, then Hector could spout out “Right Mate Thanks en all, but the damage my OR took is only a tadpole compared to wot the blighters who did it got. I sent a shiver up the spine of their whole organization. Might even have hit some of their relatives with that shiver too. Nevertheless, they won’t be bugging me again.” And then the PC’s have no reason to pursue that, as well as some respect for Hektor and wondering of how he got that done. It also strengthens the concept that they aren’t the only “powerful” forces affecting change in the game.
It’s a little harder to do with examples like the coffee shop owner and the college student, but generally PC’s don’t see those kinds of characters as giving them plot hooks. Of course “Help, my baby’s pacifier is missing, and it’s the only one that will calm him down.” or “I have a term paper due tomorrow and the library is closed. The book I need is on the 12th floor and they have really tight security” would be great comedy type adventures.
I do this more often with villainous NPCs; I try to give them motivation and abilities, so they’re constantly making progress or attempting things that interact with the PCs.
While this kind of this has happened surreptitiously with other NPCs, I’ve rarely given it this level of detail. It’s a good idea, one that I’ll try and work in.
A good idea but the presumption kind of hinges on unlimited resources, which, of course, isn’t the case during game prep. That’s just another thing I have to work on in addition to the adventure, statting out encounters, crafting a good story, creating handouts, selecting music, preparing maps and generally reading up on the rules.
And, historically, this is the type of thing that my players probably wouldn’t care about. Very few players care about the NPCs beyond making lesbian jokes about them, etc.
Hard to get motivated to put in this extra effort when the payoff is so low. YMMV, of course, depending on your players and available time.
I’m trying something similar with my new campaign. Major NPCs/organizations get several goals and several steps to acomplish each goal. Minor NPCs however just get a few lines each, nothing detailed, so the innkeeper might have:
1) expand business
2) start a family
3) find the world’s best waffle recipe
a few months into gametime, suddenly the innkeeper isn’t there anymore. If the PCs ask why, they find out he’s getting another inn started up in a closeby town and training the new guy. A little later, and he’s back. Later still, he’s excited because he’s going to be a daddy! etc… etc…. As points get pulled off the list and into play, new ones replace them creating a dynamic character.
That said, it’s one of the first things to get scrapped when I’m short prep time (which is usually always). That level of detail is nice but it’s not the main show so if something has to suffer, it’s it.
Yep, this’d be the first thing I’d scrap if I was short on prep time. As Rick pointed out, though, it makes great pre-campaign prep — get it all out of the way in the beginning, and then devote a very small slice of time to progressing those NPC arcs.
I love the idea of combining this with the world powers idea — that sounds like it would work really well.
For every NPC I create, I make a roll on a table called ‘NPC Situations’. This was taken from Shadis #17, p. 32.
It gives an idea of what kind of things might be going on in that NPCs life right now. An illness in the family, money trouble, etc.
This way every NPC might have something I can bring into the adventure later. Why did the NPC betray you? Because he’s got a sick mother and needs the cash. Things like that.