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Not Just XP – How to Tell Your NPC’s Story

October 28, 2013

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A lot of times when you have a published campaign, especially some of the ones I’ve seen from Paizo, there are richly developed NPC villains that may have complex and fascinating motivations…. that the PC’s will probably steamroll right over without ever getting a glimpse of it.

Perhaps one of my favorite examples of this was in the old Living Greyhawk module The Reckoning wherein a party of would-be waylayers are involved in a love triangle that can somewhat irregularly shift the targets of their attacks in mid-combat if you injured their would-be lover.  I ran the combat several times, and only once did anyone figure it out.

So how do you draw this material to the surface?  Sometimes it’s right in the module: a journal, a note, or some box text.  The other tools at your disposal vary depending on the resources you have at the ready, but a few ideas follow that can help tell your module’s story in its richest form.

Clues: Sometimes, present or not in your module, you can take certain liberties to make sure that the party comes into the information and motivations of your NPCs.  Perhaps an infatuated mercenary has sketches he has made of the beautiful mage that has hired him, or a pile of half-burned or crumpled attempts at poetry in the fireplace or behind his bed.  Something you, as the GM, should become used to is the feeling that you are hammering your players over the head with these clues.  In my experience, if you feel like it’s plainly obvious, your players will feel very proud of themselves when they deduce the “secret” after 10 minutes of contemplation.  It’s plain as day from your side of the screen, but they’re dealing with a lot of abstract stimuli.

Monologuing – This is perhaps the worst kind of obvious tripe, but trust me, its a tool in your GM toolkit that you need to use.  An epic boss fight NEEDS to have this happen, so the villain takes on robust character and the PC’s can feel their hate for this guy.  Further, it keeps him from being just a bundle of stats.  I’ve fought several major villains who never said a word, and it amounted to bad GM’ing.  But, the key here is DON’T JUST RESERVE THIS FOR MAJOR NPC’s.  Trash talk happens, and it warms up NPC’s beyond just statistics, especially when they really have something to say.  It needn’t be a speech, but a few words to tell that character’s story.  With the star-crossed lovers, shouting out the name of the love lost as he is struck, or muttering, “I won’t leave her” may seem (again) heavy handed but it’ll be received as just enough for the players to get on the same page as you.

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The Rumor:  Maybe the player hasn’t seen something, but rest assured in a small town, or in a society where information is currency, a barkeep, courtesan, beggar or child may have seen the way one NPC regards another, or perhaps overhears something said in anger or frustration.  This could be delivered naturally as part of some other interaction with the information holder in question, or could be as obvious as a Knowledge (Local) roll, probably depending on how much time you want to spend  on it.

Cutscene:  This can be done live, though it is often hard to do well.  In a game where we rescued the Juliet to the bandit chief’s Romeo, the GM successfully pulled off a complex dialog by making little puppets with his hands.  While hard to take too seriously, we got the story of their lost love that we might not otherwise have noticed, and it changed the fate of the bandit chief when we escaped and had the upper hand.  He eventually evolved into an ally, which made a much better story than another defeated CR 3 encounter left behind in our wake.

It is more easily done through a message group, email, or dedicated site for your game (like the Google sites we discussed in Customized Gaming or, our favorite, Obsidian Portal). Here, you have the opportunity to plan what you’re going to say, describe details and actions, and even let the players read minds (“Milady, there is no Thieves Guild,” the Watch Captain lied, thinking how he might spend the silvers that threatened to burst the seams of his coinpurse.”)

The content of a cutscene is just like we see in a movie.  It is material that the characters do not see but the players are made aware of.  It is not for all players.  Some may not like it, some may not be able to separate what they know from what their characters know.   But showing how they have left behind a clue for a pursuer, for example, may explain to them the unlikely events that follow when the bounty hunter appears on their doorstep, etc.  These take some skill, and some good players.

Now that we have the HOW, the next question is the WHAT.  What do you put in these cutscenes, these hints, these rumors?  The answer is “Just enough.” A few simple guidelines:

  • Never spoil any surprises – You can hint, but don’t solve the mystery.  A cutscene or clue is to bring the player and the character up to speed with story developments, but not to catapult ahead to a conclusion.  Think Empire Strikes Back when Obi-Wan says, “That boy is our last hope” and Yoda’s response, “No, there is another.” Whet their appetite.
  • Know your players – Some people cannot handle knowing something and not using it.  If you’re running a cutscene that contains sensitive information, beware of players that might metagame their way out of a challenge.  Either know they’re good for it, or if not, lock them in before hand, then spring it on them right away, or don’t give them enough in the cutscene to metagame with.
  • Don’t overdo it – This tool may have been around forever, but the way we’re used to seeing it in the 20th and 21st centuries is through film.  Use it to tell your story, but be mindful of pacing, necessity, and its overall influence on your game.

Plan it out, then give this a try next time you read the rich background of someone who is going to die after about 3 rounds of combat.  See if it changes the way the characters deal with that NPC, and check to see if the players do anything differently either.  You might be surprised at the outcome.

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  1. October 30, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    I admit it. Sometimes I just go the super easy route and tell the players what’s going on.

    • Scott D
      October 31, 2013 at 12:04 am

      I’ve done that once or twice but usually my players get frustrated with me. If you have to feed it to them, its best to do it via some in game mechanic no matter how flimsy and transparent, so you maintain consistency and avoid breaking the ‘fourth wall’. Then again, you know your group. Sometimes its more about HOW you kill orcs than WHY you’re killing them. 🙂

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