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NPCs Don’t Sit on Fences

After linking to this post last week, I also wanted to feature it here as a guest post. Patrick, who writes Avonia d20 [1], was kind enough to let me do just that — thanks, Patrick!
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There are times when the players aren’t willing to see anything but what they want to see. To illustrate, you introduce an NPC that is down on his luck, being blackmailed, and has trained questionable skills to get by.

You want to display him as someone who is a little misguided but good at his core — the players want to see him as a waste of space and a greedy back-stabber. Try and try as you might, your players won’t see any redeeming value in the poor guy. To them, he is exactly as they peg him.

In cases like these, all of those character perks and thoughts you have about that NPC are wrong. Remember, you have the final say over the exact outcome of things when the rules are involved, but not when it comes to what the players think, say, or do — or how they see NPCs.

You may think this line of reasoning is faulty, but I would argue that unless you are running a game that is heavy on cloak-and-dagger plots, politics, or other mysteries, the GM and the PCs should have similar (not identical) thoughts about each NPC.

At times like this, there are two obvious paths with sometimes not-so-obvious actions behind them.

Your Players are Right: The NPC is what they think he is. Look at what you have written down or what you think makes the NPC and see where it contradicts what the players think about the NPC. Items that are in the gray can stay in, but items that seem to combat what everyone thinks of the NPC need to go.

In the example above there isn’t anything wrong with him being down on his luck per se. Being blackmailed and using questionable skills also seem fine. He may also be misguided, but if the players see him as a snake in the grass, he is more than a little misguided. Also, the only good that this guy wants should be for himself.

Show Your Players What You See: Chances are, if your players point at someone and say “Lying evil cheat,” it’s because the actions that NPC takes are concurrent with what the PCs and players expect a lying evil cheat to act like. If you really want to hold onto the NPC as you have him, you need to show the players the side of him that you see.

So the first thee items are obviously all the players see. Since they see them so much, use them to show his good-hearted nature! Have him give to some street urchins, show his conflict between stealing what is needed and stealing for profit…anything that uses what traits the players see to illuminate what you want them to see. I don’t really find movie quotes credible, but from the film Batman Begins: it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.

It’s worth noting that you shouldn’t give up on each NPC with the first label placed on them. Everyone has stereotypes. If he dresses like a scoundrel and talks like a scoundrel, then the players will think he’s a scoundrel even before they talk to him. It’s when he also acts like a scoundrel but you think he’s a real stand-up guy that crossed signals get sent.
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Thanks, Patrick!

I like Patrick’s post because it provides a solid middle-ground solution to a common problem — one that, in some ways, stems from the difference between your 150 watt bulb [2] and your player’s flashlight [3] when it comes to seeing the game world.

As Telas pointed out [4] in the earlier discussion of this post, you don’t have to choose between mustache-twirling, one-dimensional pulp villains and complex, multi-faceted “I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood” characters (both of which are fine, just not for every group or campaign).

Instead, you can consider what your players will see and plan accordingly, or adjust what you’ve already created on the fly to make the game go more smoothly.

What do you think of Patrick’s approach?

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#1 Comment By Martin On April 1, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

Your link was blank, Scott, so I tied it to the TT post about the Forge thread on “person vs. furniture.” If you meant for it to go somewhere else, let me know and I’ll re-edit it.