Sunday, March 18, 2012

Non-Player Characters and Conventional Wisdom

Our Saint Patrick's game-day fittingly featured the Franco-Irish - Hiberno-French, really - King's Musketeer, Riordan O'Neill, in a five-against-five cavalry duel before the walls of the fortress city of Casale in Monferrato. It turned out to be a wild melee of flashing rapiers and sabers, blazing pistols, dropped and broken swords, chokeholds, and trampling by horses. In the end the French were victorious, killing three of the Imperial soldiers and capturing one, escaping under a hail of musket fire - in one round I rolled twenty-four twenty-siders for the musketeers' attacks - from Spanish troops on the far side of the Po River.

Riordan was the best swordsman on a field of good swordsmen, with no less than five masters among the ten combatants, and the Musketeer aquitted himself bravely and resourcefully, having two swords shattered during the duel - and stabbing a hulking Cossack in the throat with the broken end of one of them - rescuing two of his comrades who found themselves in dangerous straits, and single-handedly carrying the captured Neapolitan cuirassier from the field.

But it was perhaps the comte de Challons, Riordan's commander during the campaign in Savoy these last six months, who emerged from the duel "covered in glory," as Riordan's player eloquently put it. Shot three times with pistols, Challons nonetheless gravely wounded both the graf von Hentzau, the Imperial officer who issued the challenge to the comte and his men, and the cuirassier - both of whom were better swordsmen than Challons, in fact - and though both men would fight on for a time, this would prove decisive in the battle.

During the duel, our other player character, the physician and polymath Guillaume Sébastien, observed from a small rise overlooking the battlefield, guarded by three Monferini soldiers. Noticing that the sergeant in charge of the other two was eyeing him and his surgical case, Guillaume rashly decided to try to sneak out the dagger he concealed in it before the duel began. The sergeant spotted the doctor's attempt at sleight-of-hand and disarmed him instead, then, as the musketballs began to fly, the soldier turned and shot the doctor in the chest. The ball entered the armhole of the doctor's cuirass and would've ended a lesser man's life, but the sturdy Guillaume survived the shot; left for dead by the soldiers who then stole his instrument case and supplies, he was rescued after the battle by another Frenchman from inside Casale.

According to some, this makes me a lousy referee.

First, one of the player characters spent most of the duel on the sidelines, and his small part in the action of the day ended ignominiously, disarmed and then shot and left for dead.

And second, a non-player character was allowed to overshadow the contributions of a player character.

If I listened to the conventional wisdom, offered over and over from game designers and gamers, in game books, on blogs and on forums, this is one of the unpardonable sins of refereeing. It's the player characters who are the 'stars of the show,' they say, and non-player characters exist either as foils to be defeated or as support for the heroics of the adventurers.

The devil with that, says I.

I'll tell you why I think I get away with thumbing my nose at the conventional wisdom. First, I'm told by players that I do a good job running the non-player characters in the game-world. One gamer called it a rare gift, that my npcs were people he wanted to meet and get to know. I make a concerted effort to present non-player characters as individuals with talents and quirks and flaws and opinions and agendas, even when they are heavily archetypal, and who truly inhabit the game-world, fitting into the context of the setting. As a result, what I've found is, rather than seeing npcs as resources to be exploited or threats to be avoided, the adventurers are more likely to respond to them as real people in the game-world rather than metagame constructs. One of my greatest pleasures as a referee comes from the players' characters seeking out npcs for help or advice or even just to hang out together.

I think the advice that many referees offer is that npc allies in particular should have little to say, so as not to unduly influence the players decision-making, is backwards. Non-player characters should have opinions, strong ones at times, and npcs should be able to disagree with the adventurers and one another - yes, npcs should interact with each other as well as the player chaacters, and no, this doesn't mean the referee need engage in a lengthy monologue while the players stare at their character sheets or stack dice and wish they were home playingAssassin's Creed instead. One of the prime skills a good referee should develop is the ability to put aside the omniscient view of the game master and put one's self in the mind of a non-player chaacter, to see the game-world from that character's perspective. This is the key to avoiding metagaming.

Second, I roll in the open, for everything. The players know that when an non-player character succeeds where they fail, it's right there on the table in front of them. At least one forum denizen I know dismisses this, observing that as the referee still makes up the stats for the non-player character which is ultimately more important than the dice rolls themselves. I can see how he comes by this opinion, particularly with respect to games with significant differences in relative power between player and non-player characters. With most of the games I play, the range between the novice and the master is more recognizably human, but even when I played games like Dungeons and Dragons, I avoided the perception of a world full of Mary Sues by presenting engaging, believable npcs who made sense in the context of the game-world.

Third, I have the good fortune - and the good sense - to play with gamers who have the emotional maturity and the patience to accept an ebb-and-flow of events in the course of the campaign. I believe this comes from having a stake in the campaign that goes beyond what happens to one's character at any given moment - it extends out-of-game to the other players and me as the referee, and in-game to the relationships between the adventurers and to the non-player characters in whom they're invested.

Today the doctor had a rough day, sidelined both by circumstance and by poor luck to be mostly an observer of the action. Nonetheless Guillaume's player remained engaged throughout the complex, three hour battle - by far our most epic to date - despite the mishaps of today's game. A few months ago, it was the doctor's day to shine, during the investigation of a disappearance - that same day found everything Riordan touched turning to lead, as a combination of bad rolls and poor choices conspired against him. The players exhibit the good grace to accept that sometimes their characters shine by virtue of their failures as well as their achievements. Gamers who take a short view, that every game day must offer an immediate payoff, seem to struggle with this. It's also why I think the campaign structure of traditional roleplaying games is an important part of what makes them work, that setbacks are an integral part of a larger experience.

So non-player characters may have their day in the sun as well in my campaign, and the players are pleased with their successes and failures rather than threatened by them, conventional wisdom be damned.


  1. I've had characters sidelined and I usually don't find it boring because I get to watch what the others do (and the duel sounds immensely enjoyable to watch) and most times, it happened because of something I did with the character. That's life. There will be another day.

    NPCs, in my opinion, must have a good story and must lead a life on their own. Only the it becomes interesting to interact with them and often, side stories develop from that. If that causes them to sometimes overshadow PCs, so be it.

    So, yeah, conventional wisdom can go cry in the corner.

    1. I think the fifteen-minutes-of-fun-in-four-hours-of-gaming meme has warped expectations about pacing, that your character must be under the kleig light every second or you're being short-changed. It reflects a sense of impatience which I think is antithetical to the flow of a campaign. In my experience, a good campaign is a marathon, not a sprint.

      And yeah, the duel really was epic. One of the things I like about Flashing Blades is that the brawling rules blend seamlessly with the fencing rules, giving combat the feel of the Lester Musketeers movies.

    2. I had an evening with a sidelined character yesterday. It was tons of fun. Wrote about it here and linked to this post because of synchronicity :)

      A mix of brawling and fencing sounds brilliant. I miss that sometimes with 7th Sea. You can do awesome stuff with the rules there, but at times it's a bit hard to get creative with weapons and stuff just lying around during a fight. But we invoke the Rule of Awesome and do it anyway.

    3. I'm the GM who sidelined Jedediahs character, well in fact I was not the one who sidelined her, it was more that the storyline did it and I tried just to play the NPC as if they were some real people. I really like people to give me persons to play, parts of their backgrounds, I even try to give each of their spirits they summon a specific character for example. And I let them talk to each other, have own agendas and a modus operandi, their own way to look at the world. It's quite experimental I admit and is costing a lot more time for preparation but I guess it's worth it. It's a lot of fun. Maybe it's true that you get of something what you put into something.

    4. @Jedediah - Yeah, parrying your opponent's blade and then kicking him in the junk is a staple of the genre, and I love that FB makes that possible.

      @BasicCypher - I found that the time I invest in playing each npc as a person with a history and an agenda pays off big time at the table.

  2. Bravo; it takes an old school courage and pluck to be willing to fully inhabit NPCs. I have never even paused to think what modern game-theory would say about NPC advice-giving, since I frequently allow my NPC characters to give misleading, incomplete, or bad advice if they are lacking all the information—or good, sound advice, if they are well versed in the subject at hand.

    1. The more non-player characters are presented with a personal perspective on the game-world, the more real they seem to the players, and the more fun they are to play.

  3. This is exactly why theory and practice are very separate things and 'never the twain shall meet'. Experience beats theory every day of the week; experience takes time to accumulate and is rooted in reality, whereas theory...

    1. I read gamers who write stuff like, 'half the party is bored' when one or two of the adventurers is engaged in something, and I can't help but wonder where this impatience and lack of interest in others' experiences comes from.

  4. I had a wonderful experience illustrating all of these various perspectives last night: the party had just found itself stuck between a "civilized" npc faction willing to pay money for jobs done and a group of "barbarians" against whom they had initially been acting.

    Due almost entirely to their interaction with one of the barbarians, a member of the party found himself wanting to switch allegiances basically mid-assignment. He was turned off by the attitude of the civilized representative he was working with and just found himself trusting the barbarian more, and wanting to know more about their side of the story in the conflict.

    Ultimately they ended up selling the barbarians up the river, but it was against his strong protests and actually provided a great character-development moment for everyone as their mercenary leanings became transparent to all.

    Of course, in the middle of this drama and budding conflict (all in the form of conversation), the youngest player's character wandered out into the wilderness because he was "bored that nothing was happening" (i.e. nothing was happening directly to his character that he felt invested in) in order to find something to kill.

    Great post--definitely hits close to home today :)