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How Your Players See NPCs, and a Bad Metaphor

Over on Avonia d20 [1], Patrick (who is Patrick [2] on the TT forums [3], too) has recently written two excellent GMing advice articles: NPCs Don’t Sit on Fences [4] and Bad Metaphor, Part 1 [5].

NPCs Don’t Sit on Fences [4] makes the point that it doesn’t matter how you intended your players to perceive a particular NPC — what matters is how they actually see them. It’s simple, cogent advice for creating useful NPCs — good stuff.

Bad Metaphor, Part 1 [5] argues that while the process for creating an RPG plot and the plot of a novel are similar, comparing the two after that point is a bad idea (and a poor metaphor) — and one that can get you, as the GM, into trouble.

(And for d20 System GMs, many of Patrick’s other posts — like this in-depth look at trapfinding [6] — may be right up your alley.)

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#1 Comment By Tricky On March 23, 2007 @ 6:40 am

NPCs can sit on fences (although I highly recommend that they avoid razor wire). The key for a GM is to understand why the PCs perceive the NPC as they do, and then do a good hard look at their role-playing of the NPC. Is the down on his luck thief with a heart of gold seen as a worthless vagabond? If the only interaction that the PCs have with him is that he steals their stuff, then they’ll see it that way. Is that bad? Not if he’s stealing from them to feed his starving children. However, if your aforementioned thief steals PC’s gear and keeps it to make himself Uber, then you are not playing him by the guidelines you have set forth, and should either change your perception of him, or change your role-play of him. This difference in perception vs. reality is actually beneficial to role-play in many cases – i.e. when your do-gooder crusader realizes that he just killed the man who steals in order to provide for his sick wife and 3 children because his livelihood was ruined when the royal navy commandeered his fishing boat.
I personally use this in almost all my adventures/campaigns. It could best be described as “motive based.” It helps me build a more consistent and deep game world, but it treads in the “advanced” realm of gaming that goes beyond good and evil. It just seems to me that most real-life BBEGs don’t wake up in the morning and plot evil. In their own minds, they are simply plotting to reach a goal.

#2 Comment By Telas On March 23, 2007 @ 8:02 am

Maybe it’s me, but I find that NPCs who are as complex as a “real person” are nearly impossible to play… think of all the times you’ve gotten into a knock-down drag-out with your significant other over silly stuff. Now think about portraying that in game…

I strive for two-dimensional NPCs. Not one-dimensional caricatures like 18th century melodramas, but not complex “morally gray” characters like modern “intellectual” cinema, either.

#3 Comment By Patrick On March 23, 2007 @ 8:04 am

Tricky Says:
If the only interaction that the PCs have with him is that he steals their stuff, then they’ll see it that way. Is that bad? Not if he’s stealing from them to feed his starving children.

If the ONLY interaction the PCs have with a thief is when he takes their stuff, that’s a low-tier throw-away NPC. You can do the same thing with out an NPC – Oh, look, your swords gone; someone stole it!

If the players then later saw the sword at a pawn shop, then traced the seller back to the thief, they would then have the chance to see him feeding starving children. Heck, you can even have a not-so-starving-anymore child vouch for the thief.

What I’m getting at is you say that NPCs can sit on fences, but you didn’t give an example of an NPC that really does. If you arn’t showing the PCs a whole NPC (ie, if the ONLY interaction is with lost goods), then you really arn’t showing anything at all; at that point, what does it matter what the thief did with the sword?

A thief who steals for the good of another has purpose. Sure, it’s unlawful to steal, and just because he feeds a child doesn’t mean he’s a saint, but his actions alone give him purpose. He isn’t sitting anywhere – he’s defiantly on one side of the fence or the other, bringing your world to life.

#4 Comment By Tricky On March 23, 2007 @ 2:43 pm

WARNING: Long Post Ahead

First off, I want to apologize for the use of the term “advanced” in my last post – I am not trying to say that one style of play is any better than others – the best play style is the one that makes the most enjoyment. Personally, I find type of campaign I mentioned more fun. No offense intended to anyone who likes Good vs. Evil or any other sort of play.

Patrick – I believe that you’ve changed the way that you are using the term “fence.” In your original post, you talk of NPCs who cannot be thought of one way by a GM and another way by the PCs, which is the point I disagree with. It’s truly up to the players to decide whether they want to take the time to get to know the NPC. You give a perfectly good example of how they can get to know the NPC with your pawn shop/tracing example. But, if the PC simply buys the sword back, shrugs it off as the price you pay for living in a city and walks away, then that NPC will remain on the “fence” between GM and PC perception, unless you go out of your way to change it.

Your second post seems to change the meaning of the “fence.” In that post, the new fence is something that has to do with purpose – and I agree with your feelings on this wholeheartedly. Why would an NPC just steal a sword? You can only have so many kleptomaniacs in your game world. Much better that if you think it would be good for a player to have his sword stolen, that you have a person with a motive be the one to do it.

To ignore all the “fences,” the point that I’m trying to make is something that you touch on in your original post – That if you think you’re role-playing a stand-up guy, but everyone else sees him as a schmuck, you need to understand why – is it A)due to lack of PC knowledge and/or interest in the NPC, or B)is it a fault in your role-play? If the answer is B), change either your perception or role-play. If the answer is A), keep playing him the same way, and if the players pursue it, maybe their perceptions will change. If your campaign is Story-Driven, and you need the players to see the “heart of gold,” then arrange it – PCs in story-driven campaigns understand that sometimes they have to be shown things to advance the GM’s plot.

#5 Comment By VV_GM On March 23, 2007 @ 3:12 pm

I think the posts were good. Adjusting to your players, whether it be by letting their input influence the story heavily (always a good approach :)) or just by scrapping a preconception or two of how an encouter will go when your players react in a way you hadn’t intended are both practices that I would reccomend to a new GM. And I agree that the only way a player will know what you intended to present is by actually presenting it to the player. Keeping aspects of a character to yourself is foolish if you want the PCs to act upon those aspects.

I do side a little with Telas though on the portrayal of three-dimensional characters in game. Key NPCs you may want to flesh out fully and play the dynamic qualities of them openly. But you still need to think of what point they serve in the game. If the NPC is s key character then you probably have an agenda for him/her/it regardless of how dynamic a character you roleplay. That agenda is usually a plot device and a good GM gets that out in front of the characters quickly in my opinoin.

#6 Comment By Patrick On March 23, 2007 @ 5:29 pm

Telas – I think I see what you are getting at – and it doesn’t help that I did alter what I referred to as a fence 🙂

Let me visualize what the fence is. Imagine a… well… fence. Paint the name of an NPC on the fence. You, as GM, are on one side of the fence; the side of the fence that represents the NPC. Now drop your PCs into the picture. If all of them stay on the opposite side of the fence for a few encounters, then I’m suggesting that the GM either step up with what the NPC represents, or the GM needs to adjust the NPC to fit the roll the players have placed him in.

This isn’t good advice, as I very very briefly allude to, if you are intentionally trying to cloak the character in mystery – if you are playing a political-style game, or a game with a megaton helping of RP, tear down the fence and build something more useful to you. Additionally, as I was saying earlier, if the players don’t interact with someone for more than 1 or 2 encounters, that’s not long enough to give an NPC a chance – first impressions are important but can often be wrong.

Oh, and sorry if I seemed to go off a bit earlier. I haven’t talked about game stuffisis for a while now.