Beware the Universal Panacea

By | July 11, 2015

“Surefire” ways to make players react certain ways to NPCs, aren’t. Articles like “Ten villains your players will hate!” or “Five NPCs your players will love” often contain good examples of bad advice for running a game.

These start with the best of intentions — the desire to create a game that is more engaging and memorable. But poor guides encourage gamemasters to rely on tricks for cheap payoffs instead of presenting a world where players decide who or what looks interesting.

So why does such advice continue to be shared? Because it can work … once.

Here’s a classic example: have an NPC steal from the players. Not only will the PCs hate the NPC, but they’ll follow that NPC to the ends of the earth. You can lead the PCs to pretty much any adventure location that way, even if it’s a place they normally wouldn’t go.

That’s bad advice, but not because the players should be immune to robbery. Offending the thieves’ guild should result in something or someone going missing. That’s bad advice because it’s a crutch that quickly loses its impact.

Ignore anything that suggests using an NPC to provoke a specific emotional response in a player. These tips ultimately train GMs to push specific outcomes rather than letting results flow from character interactions. The attempts often fall flat because the rush to reach the good parts skips over genuine developments in the game.

I remember talking with someone at a gaming convention who joked that he never trusted any female characters found in a dungeon because every single one of them was actually a monster meant to catch the players off guard. That’s because those adventures presented NPCs designed solely to manipulate the players rather than interact with the characters.

Bad advice turns NPCs into tools that exist to serve a specific purpose, often as part of a predetermined plot. Think of it as part of the Joss Whedon School of NPC Design — the goofy shopkeep the players care about died not because it made sense at the time but because it was “dramatic.”

This sort of design is a secondary spur of railroading that persists when GMs chase the highs that accompany the times these events happen on their own. The urge to chase that same high is destructive to everyone’s immersion in the game. Events that are engaging the first time can be forgettable the second. Just take a look at the deaths in the first versus second Avengers movies to see what I mean.

Don’t worry about making NPCs likable or unlikable. Just present them as people with their own goals. These can be as simple as getting home safe each night for a guard or raising a prize-winning hog for a farmer. Then pay attention to which NPCs draw the players’ interest.

If you describe an NPC and no one cares, then move on. If you mention an NPC and the players want to know more, pile on the details. Never introduce an NPC by explaining what mechanical benefits the character can provide. That’s treating the character like an object, and it encourages the players to do the same thing.

Remember, the gamemaster isn’t the only one who can shine a spotlight. The players help decide which NPCs are important in a game by spending time, effort and energy interacting with them. This goes for allies and enemies alike.

Exploration isn’t just confined to dungeons. Finding out more about NPCs can be just as engaging and dangerous if you don’t shortcut the search to get to “the good parts.”