I’ve been using the Principles, Agenda, and Moves I’ve talked about in my other posts for my Star Wars game. Now it’s time to take things to another level. We’ve been keeping things pretty basic (both in the posts and in my sessions). Now it’s time to complicate things.
The Moves Beneath the Moves
The whole point of using this approach to planning and running games is to let player motivation drive the game. We’ve been doing that for about five sessions, now. The players are pushing things forward, and they’re personally interested in the story. This is when it’s the GM’s job to mess with things.
Remember, one of the Agenda Items is: Make the characters’ lives not boring
If you’ve got your basic plotline established, you can expand your Moves to encompass other factions and other agendas. This is something you see a good TV series do all the time. Across the entirety of a season of episodes, good TV takes the basic plot and throws twists and turns in throughout. For the purposes of running a game, this means identifying which NPCs (and their respective Moves) are single-session twists, and which ones will arc throughout your “season.”
For fun, let’s call those two categories by Move names:
- Burn Bright, Burn Hot, Burn Out
- Show Up When it Makes Sense to Mess with Them
Let’s unpack these things, starting with the second one.
Show Up When it Makes Sense to Mess with Them
“Them” in this case is your players and their characters. The NPCs who have this Move are the ones that weave their way in and out of your sessions. They’re the ones that help sometimes, the ones that cause pain, the ones that make your characters’ lives the best kind of not-boring. Also, the word “Mess” doesn’t always mean negative things. Maybe it’s someone’s love interest, or a family that they have to take care of.
When these NPCs show up, they come into a session and everyone knows what they’re about. Or they think they know, anyway. These are the characters that make your players groan or perk up. These are the characters that make your players think “we could go see Ms. Q” and then they remember that Ms. Q has both helped and betrayed their characters by turns.
If you want to have these kinds of NPCs in your game, you need to make them show up often enough to make sense. Think about Occam’s Razor: the simplest solution is most often the correct one. If you’ve got a plotline you want to feature, one away from the main story, and you need to know who’s involved, think of these kinds of NPCs first. Just keep a light touch: do this too often and it becomes too convenient.
The other thing to keep in mind with NPCs like this is that they can also surface and become main plotlines. Keep a stable of them, and bring them in when it both makes sense and you can make use of them to make your game more interesting.
Now, for the first kind:
Burn Bright, Burn Hot, Burn Out
These NPCs are (for me) the gonzo, wacky, scenery-chewing NPCs that you want in your game for any number of reasons. You can use them for comic relief, as unexpected antagonists, or deep sadness. And as soon as I started typing this up about them, I realized the best part about NPCs like this: they’re sticky.
Your most over-the-top characters, the ones you toss in for giggles, or as a temporary break from the main story, these are the characters that often have the most impact. Even if you end up making these folks up on the spot, take a beat, give them a name and at least a Move (assuming you’re using this method). These are the characters your players might gravitate to, and having them around can be a great boon to you and your game.
If the last paragraph didn’t make it clear, all NPCs can be one role or the other, and quite possibly a little bit of both. You can use good characters for all kinds of purposes. Maybe one of your one-shot NPCs sticks around and becomes a regular guest in your games, always with interesting results. And if one of your long-time characters gets a side plot resolved, they can often end up taking a back seat later, cropping up only when it’s convenient and appropriate.
Above all, keep the story in mind. Think about what these NPCs do when the game’s not happening and you’ll end up with all kinds of stuff to throw at your players, as it should be.