Monday, 2 September 2013

Memorable NPCs

Back in days of yore, when I was young and, in all likelihood, you were even younger (if you were even born...), the main RPG I ran was Marvel Superheroes Advanced by TSR (now Wizards of the Coast). At the time the company's house magazine was "Dragon" and while I wasn't a big D&D player I'd often fork out the cash to get it for ideas, especially if there was a Marvel related article.

One particular article, which I cut out and kept* to this day was all about making memorable NPCs.  The arguement was simple - the players could potentially meet hundreds of concerned citizens, scientific experts, pushy cops etc all of which could be cookie cutter stereotypes and easily forgotten but a simple way to lift your game above the usual is it make those pieces of mobile scenery or plot vehicles memorable.  I took this to heart and personally I use the following as simple benchmarks:

  1. Use memorable names - Stan Lee used alliteration when he named characters simply to help him remember his own creations names, if that works for you, great! Personally I tend to use plays on words (often I'm the only one who gets the joke...) or a reference to the role the character plays or some other aspect of the character. e.g the two contacts that the crew will be meeting for their first story will be Alphonse & Howerd Toestep - a pair of father & son salvagers directly based on the UK comedy characters "Steptoe & son".  
  2. Give each NPC a memorable trait - it doesn't have to be much, it doesn't have to be earth shattering but just something "different" - The dock hand who constantly has a lit smoke in hand, the war vet with the filligree'd brass cyberarm, when the rest of his replacement bionics are greasy brushed steel, the crime boss who always bows in the presence of a lady.  Don't overdo it though - just a single element can give a distinction to set the person out from the crowd but load them up with attributes and they become a parody which will detract from the overall story and flow of the game
  3. Act it - I'm a GM who tends to try to give his all; I tend to run games standing up, I move about, strike poses, rub my hands together gleefully as a scrap dealer, always hold a cup or glass in my hand when I'm slurring out the drunken commands of a gin-soaked pirate.  My players know me for my "memorable" character voices (when one of our guys first watched "The Phantom Menace" he was alledgedly heard to say "That's a Ben voice!" when Watto first spoke) I'm not good at impressions (my "John Peel" is abysmal) but they are memorable.  Voice conveys alot of character - it's a great shorthand for helping players get a gauge for what are otherwise just numbers and words rather than living people - the same with actions and body language. It doesn't need to be an oscar winning performnce just something that the players will remember for the next time they meet the character, or simply when they are relating the stories about the game to friends.  Now I know that there may be some reading this who will find this the hardest advice to take on board and implement but believe me once you start the easier it becomes and the more involved you will find the players becoming.  
An immediate question might be why bother?  These are after all the supporting cast, not the heroes of our tales.  I'd suggest the reasons are threefold:
  1. It helps the players - Bless 'em, there's a lot going on in plots and games - especially when you are sat on the player side and haven't got the advantage of seeing the "big picture" plot.  You'll probably have heard of the phrase "Putting a face to the name" - this is a way of doing that in game without having a cast of hundreds sat in your living room.  Having these memorable "tags" that the players can use to associate with NPCs will help them order the flow of events in their minds and keep abrest of what's going on, to who, where and when.
  2. It helps the GM - Memorable traits are as much a shorthand and aid memoir for a GM as for players.  You have a whole 'verse to run! If knowing that the arms dealer they last spoke in Persephone had a peg leg and clockwork parrot it's a mnemonic that will help trigger a whole bunch of other recollections about the character and what happened last time they met.
  3. It makes it a little more real - We know this is all a game. This is a fantasy setting where spaceships filled with gravity drives and atmosphere capable shuttlecraft are sailed through an ocean of black by a motley assortment of gunslingers, shepherds, bermuda shirt wearing pilots, psychics and ne'er do wells...this is by no means real.  However, in my personal experience rpgs are at their best when the players and GM have some sort of emotional investment in the game, something which is very hard to create when it is "only a game".  Having memorable NPCs can help to do that; you are adding a touch of uniqueness to these faceless characters just a small touch of individuality.  It will add a hint of realism to the campaign and it does pay off.
To be completely honest I think that trying to apply these techniques has been the source some of the success of my own games and I'll ahave a few specifics in forthcoming posts...
*Yes kids, there was a time before scanning and digital media...