Speaking for the NPCs

Continuing the discussion from Diverse gaming groups:

Conversation between PCs and NPCs is the part of RPGs that I enjoy most, and I have been told that it is what I do best as a GM. PCs are often, perhaps usually, characters with whom the players sympathise and whose values they accept or even share. The conversations that they have with NPCs that get dealt with in direct speech, especially the ones dealt with at length in direct speech, are disproportionately conversations with opponents and with parties who must be persuaded to promote their goals. That is, they include conversations about their goals with characters who do not share them. Thus I often find myself extemporising and delivering dialogue for villains and other characters with whom I profoundly disagree. Anyone who played in one of my games and supposed that the omnicidal maniacs, murderous bigots, kleptocratic egocentrics, fanatical Stalinists, unrepentant former obersturmfĂĽrers and gauleiters, ruthless gangsters, abject authoritarians, priests, dragons, vampires, mining company executives, demons, and minor gods that I play as opponents for the PCs was a mouthpiece for my views would be missing the point entirely.

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I probably do rather less direct conversation with antagonists than you. The thing I try to concentrate on with NPCs is getting the ordinary people right: making them believable in terms of motives and background.

My inspiration for doing this came from a minor H G Wells novel, The War in the Air, which is told through the eyes of two very ordinary Englishmen who get caught up in an attack on the pre-WWI USA by a fleet of German zeppelins. The narrative device works well, and it made me feel that if I could not get the ordinary people right, I had no hope for the exceptional ones.


If my beliefs and preferences are reflected in a game it’s normally that they influence the shape of the world, not that someone gives a speech about them. Authority figures, particularly religious figures, are probably corrupt more often in my games than they would be in the real world, because at heart I am an anarchist (but a practical one; the problem is people, and if you just smash the system you get something worse).

But there are no extras. Sure, probably you won’t talk with the gate guard, but maybe you’ll catch him off duty and try to win his confidence. Or just bribe him. So I need to be able to drop into that personality.

You are far from being alone in that — I am in the right-hand-tail of conversational GMs (though not, I think, an actual outlier).

Perhaps the way in which character-players are slowest to adjust to my GMing style is that it often takes them a long time to learn that the most-fun and often best thing to do is to go and talk to someone.

That seems sort of parallel to the idea of “mooks” that is somewhat prevalent over at SJ Games: Characters who have no role in a scene except to fight the PCs and die, and who thus don’t need actual combat stats. I don’t tend to run things that way (except in games such as Amber Diceless where mookness is built into the game mechanics and the world model!); I try to have stats for the adversaries, even if I have to come up with them on the fly, because they might get lucky in a fight and strike a telling blow.

(And even in Amber Diceless I found those combats of one godlike warrior against a faceless crowd who could only die, one by one, really tedious. Eventually I decided to give a force of mundanes a Strength score, based on their numbers, that could be used against a superhumanly skilled warrior the same way a single superhumanly strong adversary’s Strength could be. That made things more interesting.)

Mookliness is a genre setting, I think: if the fictional model is one in which the heroes regularly carve their way through hordes of adversaries, the game should support that. But it should be fun or rewarding in some way, because obviously it’s harder work than sneaking round the side.

For people who want to play murder hoboes, I think having to slaughter legions of guards is not an obstacle, but a reward.

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Yeah, fair point. When I’m proposing new games I do still use something like the “campaign prospectus” system that I believe you first wrote up, with some description of the sort of adventure I expect to happen; generally there isn’t much of a murder-hoboey option on the list.

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I stipulate that, of course, but also I often play PCs whose beliefs and goals are unlike my own. I mean, aside from the fact that I have things to do that matter more to me than having adventures! They aren’t people I consider ghastly scum; they’re hetero- rather than dys-.

Right, but there is no question of those player-characters being mouthpieces for GM sermons.

Granted. But I have NPCs who hold values different from mine, but who are not there simply as opponents.

  • In Vor, there was the scene where one of the PCs, at the Emperor’s Birthday, took offense at a joke by an older Vor man at his family’s expense and offered to take him outside for a fight (not a duel, which would have been a capital offense); this led to his being invited into the palace for a private conversation with Gregor Vorbarra about why self-righteous anger was an undesirable trait in a possible imperial heir.

  • In The Foam of Perilous Seas, there was Fata Morgana, who was trying to arrange for Arthur’s return to a Britain that desperately needed a true king.

  • In Whispers, there was Rebecca York, who was one of the people behind a whitemail scheme of violating people’s privacy to collect evidence of actions that would destroy their reputations, so that they could be pressured into supporting what her era regarded as progressive goals (specifically, encouraging Montreal to join the European Union so that it would come under regulations against the consumption of real animal flesh); and there was Janine Cohen, a corporate executive with a mercenary firm who wanted the fact that her club held private dinners based on real animal flesh to be kept confidential.

  • In Manse, there was Ludovico, the teenage boy who was the likely heir to the House of Darkness, and who was a foil to the other two teenage boy characters, his main interests being drinking, writing satirical verse, and casual heterosexual liaisons. And there was Luchia, one of whose key roles was as confidante for her PC cousin Salvadora about Salvadora’s romantic attraction to an older man who was secretly Salvadora’s mother’s lover.

I could multiply examples, but I think this makes the point that I often have NPCs who interact significantly with the PCs without being adversaries.