Episode 109: Eccentrics and Lunatics and Fanatics

This month, Mike and Roger wonder whether they’re indulging in NPCs too much, while considering what the late Stephen Sondheim can tell us about game design.

We mentioned:

The Hero 5e Bundle of Holding (until 10 January) though not the two Champions 5e bundles (also until 10 January) because we didn’t officially know about them when we were recording, Bunnies and Burrows, Santo vs the Vampire Women; Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, CSI, Twilight 2000, Traveller 2300/2300 AD, Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, Fail Safe (novel and film), Arkhipov, Dread; The Glass Bead Game, Torg, QuestWorlds (formerly HeroQuest), and Reign.

Here’s our tip jar. (Please email or leave a comment as well; they don’t always tell me when money’s gone in.)

Music by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com.


To me, the game in roleplaying game refers to activity engaged in for diversion or amusement 2 a (1). Roleplaying games are like game of make-believe with some added rules structure and a set of tools to determine what happens. Dice are one of those tools. You can have an RPG without them (or without any randomizer), but I find them a useful tool to offload the decision making; running without dice is mentally taxing. Plus, the dice add variety and suspense that the players and GM may not be able to muster on their own.

The method by which the rules come about their decisions will shape the type of stories told and the type of experience the players will have. Some games are focused on the narrative aspects of crafting a compelling story. Others care more about being true to a genre and have tools built around the tropes of the genre. Some games focus more on the tactical challenges related to combat, not unlike a miniatures game or adventure board game.

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Regarding GMs roleplaying NPCs:

  1. While some GMs can hog screen time playing their NPCs, if the players aren’t complaining, then they are probably being entertained by it. If you question whether or not your antics are bothering them, ask them. The fact that you worry about such things is a sign that you’re a conscientious GM.
  2. As limited humans playing without a script, I think we all fall into a few stock characters for NPCs, especially those we have to make on the fly. To break out of any ruts, you can pre-determine, perhaps randomly, some character quirk or hook (I forget the word used in the podcast) to anchor how your play the NPC. It might be helpful to have d20- or d100-based chart within easy reach or use an online resource such as Personality Generator
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Regarding the use of the Tarot in character definition; one should probably mention Everway, though I’m not sure if the shiny new edition is in the shops yet. (I backed it on Kickstarter.) That makes heavy use of its own pseudo-Tarot “Fortune Deck” - all PCs are required to have a three card spread (Virtue, Fault, and Fate), and NPCs, locations, and scenarios could actually be developed from six-card spreads (which add Past, Present, and Future) or even ten-card spreads (adding Questioner, Family, Community, and External Forces), or by playing around with the Season Deck (basically the minor arcana equivalent).

I could be tempted to try using the decks to drive a campaign, especially a fantasy game, even if I was using another rule set for game play.

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Does the concept of a “non-game” help?

Non-games are a class of software on the border between video games and toys. The original term “non-game game” was coined by late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, who describes it as “a form of entertainment that really doesn’t have a winner, or even a real conclusion”. Will Wright had previously used the term “software toy” for the same purpose. The main difference between non-games and traditional video games is the lack of structured goals, objectives, and challenges. This allows the player a greater degree of self-expression through freeform play, since they can set up their own goals to achieve.


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(And apologies for the weird effect of the preview from Wikipedia in combination with my block quote.)

Calling something in terms of what it’s not is problematic. “This is a roleplaying non-game.” “Oh, like The Ungame?” “Oh, gods no!”

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I’ve met this in computer games (arguably The Sims, certainly Trip-a-Tron) and boardgames (generally they get called “activities” at that point), but not in RPGs I think.

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Yes, I first encountered it in an interview with Will Wright (Mr. “Sims”), sometime in the mid to late noughties. I think he called it a “software toy.” Can’t track down the interview, right now. I was reading a lot of Salon DOT com, at the time ( :roll_eyes: :flushed:), so I think it was somewhere in there.

I may be misremembering, but I think Will Wright is currently working on a game centred around NFTs. Hopefully I’m not slandering the chap but… ugh.

Edit: sadly, I’m not misremembering.



There’s a lot of it about. (Sadly.)