Jul 222013
 

I understand that it is widely known, understood, and lamented in games mastering circles that plans do not survive first contact with players. True, it makes for an interesting game, keeps us on our toes, and means we rarely run the risk of being thought of as predictable, because we’re often just making it up as we go along, but it can be a little tiresome at times. After many years as a GM, this is something I have not only come to accept though, but to look forward to. At it’s absolute worst, it can be highly frustrating, and today I want to talk about one facet of this issue that has struck me twice in succession; never knowing who the players are going to trust.

When I create NPCs, I don’t just make up a bunch of antagonists. At the start of any campaign, it’s quite nice to know that there’s at least one person who has the best interest of the player characters at heart, and might just be able to keep them out of trouble for a while. This isn’t some catch all plot device to steer them away from mistakes; they are more than entitled to make as many as they would like. This is the person who gets them an early contract, maybe even gets put on retainer by their boss to help keep them supplied. Not every trip down to Guns & Ammo needs to be part of the adventure, so having a valet or some such to nip down and pick up things that could eat up adventuring time should be a good thing.

Since I also like creating interesting NPCs just for the fun of it, I tend to make them more than just two dimensional caricatures, but instead give them a reason to be involved in the plot for more than because someone higher up tells them to be. This has in the past been because of a desire to find answers about a missing relative – that the PCs have some information on already – or the need to get a particular voting block on side in time for a Presidential Primary. On both of these occasions, the NPCs in question went above and beyond the call of duty in assisting the player characters in any way they could.

So of course, the players thought they must be up to something, and promptly began to suspect their every action as having sinister undertones. *sigh*

Not the end of the world though, as I got to role play out some rather righteous indignation, and storm off – figuratively, as I was still the GM – when the players continued to call into question the motives of one of the these NPCs. While admittedly fun, it can get in the way, and cause massive delays to the game, which sucks when you GM on a yearly schedule. What is there that can be done about this situation then?

Well, the simplest seems to be to stop using friendly NPCs and let the players flounder around without help, as that is exactly what they deserve. Yeah, read that back and realise just how petty it sounds, so we won’t be doing that will we? We’ve all (hopefully) moved away from a generally antagonistic relationship between players and GMs by now. What we can do though is cut down how important these friendly and helpful NPCs are, and it shouldn’t make too much of a difference. But as I mentioned earlier, that could mean missing out on some great opportunities to role play while GMing, and also run the risk of these characters being the two dimensional puppets we were hoping to avoid.

Instead, I think it could be time to subvert the players expectations, by giving them almost exactly what they expect. Let the NPC get mad, let them storm off with the players feeling proud of themselves for getting one up on their presumed enemy. An enemy who will now be looking for ways to strike back at them, but subtly. Let the NPC maintain the charade of a good working relationship after apologising for leaving in a bad mood, and continue to have them help out wherever possible. But things start happening a little later than the players would like, and substandard help is all that is now provided. The players will soon complain again, that much is a certainty but now the NPC just meekly apologises, biding their time.

They have been inside the machine of the player character’s organisation, and could jam any number of spanners into the works, all while being the most contrite bugger in the world. And when enough damage has been done, and the PCs really need some help to get their arses out of the fire, the friendly NPC who wanted to help is nowhere to be seen.

That’s just one idea of course, and I imagine that this has happened to a lot of the readers of this blog, so why don’t you share those stories below, either from a Gm stand point, or what any payers out there might think about this.

  3 Responses to “The curse of the helpful NPC”

  1. Actually, I’ve had the opposite problem with players being too trusting and reliant on NPCs. As a GM, I always give control of allied NPCs to the players because it’s boring watching me roll the dice and it can lead to Mary Sue syndrome. I still get narrative control over them and can take over the character whenever I want, but when it comes to beating up some orcs, I let the players make the decision of which one they will attack.

    The problem then comes if I have the NPC betray the characters, especially if it is for reasons that the characters didn’t fully understand. For instance, we had one undercover spy that joined for a bit. The players relied on her a bit too much and this unfortunately left them feeling dissatisfied with the plot when I turned her to the other side. I suppose that this is because they thought that by me giving them control, that meant the character shared their mindset.

    • The last game I ran – the one involving the election – the players totally trusted the villain NPC and refused to believe that nice one was anything but a nasty selfish piece of work.

      I tend to only let the players control NPCs during combat, as you say, just for dice rolling and the like. Everything else I play as close to my chest as I can.

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