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Author Topic: Play prep and NPC's  (Read 12498 times)
contracycle
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« on: July 02, 2007, 05:26:49 AM »

I was asked to discuss the kind of prep I do and had some thoughts on the prior thread about NPC's which I wanted to mention.

I thought I had of a PDF to link of an adventure I did some time back or Con-X but I appear to have lost the file.  It was not radically different from existing scenarios or modules, although I do do a few things differently.  All the physical locations were listed separately and did not appear in the main text, amid the plot or action, as they often do, and which I dislike.  I can't necessarily predict how the players will approach a location, so I need to know about it whatever approach they try, as a quite distinct track for their reasons for doing so. 

More generally, the approach that has worked best for the longest periods of sustained play is essentially a mission-based framework, on the understanding that "mission" refers to quite a wide range of activities that may not be formal missions.  In fact I have found it very hard to work with strongly mission-framed settings, a difficulty I don't entirely understand.  But anyway, the essence of this prep is what the task of the day is and what requirements there are for its performance. This is usually not stat-heavy, in that usually I will know a system well enough not to need to record these values, and the reasons for choosing them will be situation driven.  Its more figuring out that situation, how, as it were, to hit one ball with the cue such that the rest of the balls fall in the pockets.

Its also about having Enough stuff to do and interact with, so one might say, its about building an obstacle course.  It is pretty boring to solve all your problems the same way, and so having different types of challenges, or at least ones which differ in significant detail, is the spice of life.  I also look for opportunities for characters to demonstrate their specialties or things that have "tourist" value for the setting.

So what I aim for is, I guess, several interesting problems in several interesting places.  The purpose of "plot" is to link them together in a naturalistic manner, integrated with elements of setting exposition.  Its not that hard to do for a single character, but multiple characters make it much more complicated.  Motivations sufficient for one might exclude others and so forth, and many motivations might work once or only temporarily and have the long term effect of fragmentation, and so this is the hard part.

In terms of places, I will try to take play to interesting locations in the setting if possible, and think about these both in terms of what they actually are and how they will be first encountered, the literal first sight I describe to the players.  Again this is something I do not like to improvise; it works better if I have such a piece of exposition prepared.  When players wander off the beaten path it gets bland and dull quite rapidly.  When improvising I often resort to what is typical, but what is typical is typically repetitive.

Anyway, as you can see I have not mentioned NPC's yet, which is why they are in the title.  I think that may be a significant difference here between what Sydney and others describe as their use of NPC's.  I will very seldom have an NPC (other than crowds and extras) on stage for a significant amount of time,  and have never used a character who was like a member of the party (and don't approve of the idea either).  I do not play NPC's much like I play characters myself, although the actual physical portrayal is much the same.  If I am playing such a major NPC, that will be all that I am doing at that time, and interacting with that NPC is what is Happening Now, but this will not usually comprise a large portion of actual play time. NPC's are a role, a costume and some lines, usually aimed at a specific effect.  "Mingling" with NPC's is not really what the characters are there to do.  NPC's certainly have lives of their own and motivations, but those are reverse engineered from their function, and playing NPC's is not for me the point, or even particularly interesting.  They will have their own back-stories, but those back-stories will not contain elements like being religiously conflicted unless this is relevant to the action; that is they do not have such things in their own right, but in service of the game.

Unless play is About interacting with NPC's, such as conducting shuttle diplomacy or police interviews, interacting with NPC's is not usually a primary element of play.  Nor do I find it particularly entertaining to do, in and of itself.  Hence the absence of any pseudo-PC characters, I feel no particular need to have a character of my own in play.  Sometimes such characters can be used as conduits for information and missions and so forth but I found it was easier to structure the party so as to have that single point of contact instead of using an NPC; I also find this engages the players more and puts them in the driving seat.

So for all these reasons preparation is not primarily about NPC's either.  I choose NPC's to portray based on whether a scene would be interesting or important or momentous to the characters, and will concentrate on that portrayal for that scene.  You could say that I prepare conversations rather than NPC's as such, although thats probably a little extreme.  I generally dislike playing NPC's for an extended period of time as IME the characterisation gets weaker and weaker over time.  I regard players inability to remember an NPC identity as a clear danger sign and so would much rather deliver a short and impactful performance that leaves 'em wanting more than have an NPC's mannerisms decay into the commonalities of my own voice, body language, and thought patterns.

So I hope that explains what you wanted to know, but if not feel free to ask for clarification.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #1 on: July 02, 2007, 09:12:14 AM »

When you're not roleplaying a character, what are you doing instead?

I ask what probably sounds like a stupid question because in games I've played in, basically since college, the majority of of the GM's time is spent roleplaying a character in interaction with the players' characters: Even if it's a fight scene, characters are usually talking too. The only other GM activities I can think of are describing the environment and running combat with nameless mooks or monsters who don't talk while they fight.

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Its also about having Enough stuff to do and interact with, so one might say, its about building an obstacle course.

I think this sentence is probably the key to what you do, but I'm not really getting it. What kind of obstacles? What kinds of "stuff" to interact with -- presumably not interacting with GM characters socially, because you said that's not the point of your games.
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contracycle
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« Reply #2 on: July 03, 2007, 03:59:59 AM »

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When you're not roleplaying a character, what are you doing instead?

I ask what probably sounds like a stupid question because in games I've played in, basically since college, the majority of of the GM's time is spent roleplaying a character in interaction with the players' characters: Even if it's a fight scene, characters are usually talking too. The only other GM activities I can think of are describing the environment and running combat with nameless mooks or monsters who don't talk while they fight.

That was kind of the impression I was getting.  In the Cyberpunk game I ran for a while, I would guesstimate that it averaged about 1 hour of PC-NPC chat, 1 hour of PC-GM chat, and a couple of hours for "the run", which had little chat.  I don't think I can remember an instance of characters speaking while in combat.

Otherwise, I spend my time watching the players and listening to their plans.  I don't exactly use the moving clue, but keeping track of player understandings and plans allows me to adapt my own in a suitable manner.  I am very aware of the fragility of the IS and the ease with which visions diverge, so thats another thing I look for.  I am happiest when the players are talking to each other, not to me.

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I think this sentence is probably the key to what you do, but I'm not really getting it. What kind of obstacles? What kinds of "stuff" to interact with -- presumably not interacting with GM characters socially, because you said that's not the point of your games.

Well, exciting or representative things.  I was once congratulated on a cavalry charge, which the players really enjoyed not least because they had all spent years playing knights or similar and this was the first time they engaged in what knights really do.  So although this was "combat", 90% of what occurred was my narration, of the horns and the pounding hooves etc. The made a hit roll and we resolved this, obviously, but what distinguished this from a run of the mill fight was the setup and the presentation.

The AP account I gave of the raid on the BNP was heavily driven by the idea of the VTOL extraction from the side of a building; all the rest of the plot was created to bring that event about.  The same game later had the players attempting to extract a resurrected mammoth from a secure facility, because I thought the logistical problems of moving a mammoth around would be entertaining.

Representative things include architecture and landscapes, my approach is very much to look for things that would make a good movie set.  If the setting includes such things then I will try to move play so as to incorporate them, otherwise I might invent some, or do something about the social mores and so forth.  Show off the setting, make it richer, make it a distinct place.  So the Cyber game again went to the semi-submerged office blocks of New York simply because they were there to be seen, and I used them to stage a kind of sniper duel for one of the players, that is, I gave him an opportunity to enjoy his niche specialty as well.

I have described before how I ask players for "images" and then try to incorporate them in some manner.  That is part of this process and an attempt to determine and meet player expectations.  I am also a great enthusiast for preparing for a game in a given genre by getting the group together and watching movies in that genre before hand, this helps synchronise such expectations IMO.
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Rob Alexander
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Posts: 76


« Reply #3 on: July 03, 2007, 09:33:29 AM »

Can I clarify a few things? Am I right in thinking that:

Gareth:

  • Your missions/adventures/sessions are primarily linear affairs, and you think of them as a series of events or encounters
  • You use make heavily use of pre-written descriptions (i.e. you may your own "boxed text")
  • Your NPCs are primarily events that happen ("David threatens the king"), rather than characters that have goals and an ongoing state ("David wants be named heir and is currently recruiting people to lead a revolution")

Sydney:

  • None of the above apply to the way you normally play


rob
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #4 on: July 03, 2007, 10:32:09 AM »

Rob, you're characterizing me correctly. Let me add one thing to the list for Gareth that I think is true and would like him to confirm:

* The players' interactions with the GM primarily concern physical actions the player-characters take, either towards inanimate obstacles or towards animate opponents (mooks, monsters, etc.) with which they do not interact socially in any way.
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contracycle
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« Reply #5 on: July 04, 2007, 12:49:45 AM »

Rob, yes but I quibble slightly with the wording.

Quote
   * Your missions/adventures/sessions are primarily linear affairs, and you think of them as a series of events or encounters

Mostly, but not exactly.  That is I may not require or expect a particular strict sequence of events, but that is the general framework

Quote
     * You use make heavily use of pre-written descriptions (i.e. you may your own "boxed text")

Yes.    Things like location introductions will be pre-written, but I do not read from the page.  Discussions with NPC's etc are conceptualised rather than written, and I might have some characteristic turns of phrase prepared.

Quote
    * Your NPCs are primarily events that happen ("David threatens the king"), rather than characters that have goals and an ongoing state ("David wants be named heir and is currently recruiting people to lead a revolution")

Things get a bit trickier here because my approach to NPC's is that they are elements of the setting.  So if an NPC has some agenda that arises from their place in the setting, then they would implicitly have an off-screen life pursuing that goal.  But I do not myself worry about them in that case, they are just in never never land.

I suppose it would be fair to say that NPC's are events for me, in that they have no independent existence as such.  It would be entirely possible that at a given moment I think it would be appropriate for David to threaten the king as an emergent property of play, but more likely David would have been created, with that motive, in order to issue the threat.

I don't really consider NPC's to truly have an ongoing state because like any character they do not really exist, and "what my NPC would do" is not sufficient explanation for any given decision.

Quote

* The players' interactions with the GM primarily concern physical actions the player-characters take, either towards inanimate obstacles or towards animate opponents (mooks, monsters, etc.) with which they do not interact socially in any way.

Again yes and no, in that I think you have the right idea, but some of the mooks and monsters may actually be people with whom the PC's interact socially, but probably in an exploitative or mechanical way.  That is there may be guards to be bluffed or persuaded and the like, so the dividing line is not quite that clear cut.  Also, as the local game world encyclopedia, a fair proportion of my interactions are about the world but not about physical actions. So there may be interactions that concern NPC's, even socially, but largely in their capacity as objects in the game world.  The Con-X game was a police investigation, but even so speaking-part NPC's were present for probably only about one third of play time.
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Rob Alexander
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« Reply #6 on: July 05, 2007, 11:59:16 AM »

Hi Gareth,

What are you looking for out of this thread? In http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=24175.msg236313#msg236313 you were complaining about trouble sustaining campaigns because of prep-related problems. If you're interested in scratching out some ideas for getting around that, it would help I think if you answered the questions I asked in this post: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=24175.msg236392#msg236392

Looking at your posts above, I can see how you're setting yourself up for very heavy prep, and little opportunity for players to contribute to the game (other than by tackling the challenges you present them with). I can remember using that style in the past - it was hard work and required pretty obedient players.

I'm a little bemused by the "NPCs don't exist" comment... do they exist less than anything else in the game world?


rob


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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #7 on: July 05, 2007, 12:52:19 PM »

I'm particularly struck by this observation of Gareth's in the parent thread:

left to their own devices the players do not seek out high adventure or dramatic experience, they make mundane arrangements and solve mundane problems.

Because in my experience, players tend to dive screaming like Stukas towards doing interesting stuff, either plotting and intriguing to gain power in the game-world or, in more Forge-y games, gleefully tying their characters' lives in soap-operatic knots. My last few sessions of our Burning Empires repacked as The Shadows of Yesterday game, I've had Ron Edwards-style "bangs" prepared and rarely get to use all of them because the players make so much trouble for themselves, on purpose, that most of my job as GM is reactive.
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Callan S.
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« Reply #8 on: July 05, 2007, 02:54:38 PM »

I'm tentatively looking at the thread from a certain perspective, which may not be the right one. And for players in that perspective, it wouldn't be make sense to go tearing off into the world to do interesting stuff. Unless there happens to be...let's call it a 'finishing line' built into where you go, then there is no 'finishing line' there of course. That means you can only lose by going there. That's it. So you don't go there.

Play which pivots on the uncertainty of a characters choices is quite a different kettle of fish. The player can head out any old where and still be fairly uncertain of what his character will do when push comes to shove. While play that pivots on whether you can pass the finish line requires a finish line to be there before you go at all. Unless you just want the GM or yourself to decide this (ugh). 'Before you go there' is a relative term - the player could indicate he's going somewhere, the GM stalls him a bit with various techniques while he thinks up a finish line, then yah, the player goes there. However, the sort of thing you can think up in that time is unlikely to meet the average difficulty you intended the campaign to challenge with, thus making it less of an object of pride to complete. That's quite an issue, where the initiator of the campaign is laying down a challenge, but the mechanics and tools used eat away at it.

Finally, 'players contributing to the game', which some take so much for granted, kills the usual pivotal sources of uncertainty for this play. There's not much to guessing which cup the peas under, when the player himself was shuffling the cups, if you get my analogy.

That's another perspective to view this under along with the rest.
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contracycle
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« Reply #9 on: July 06, 2007, 01:00:25 AM »

What are you looking for out of this thread?

You tell me.  I am responding to a request to explain my style of play; why did you want to know these things?

My only point that RP advice that amounts to "just make it up as you go along" is not actually advice at all.

 In http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=24175.msg236313#msg236313 you were complaining about trouble sustaining campaigns because of prep-related problems. If you're interested in scratching out some ideas for getting around that, it would help I think if you answered the questions I asked in this post: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=24175.msg236392#msg236392

Quote
Looking at your posts above, I can see how you're setting yourself up for very heavy prep, and little opportunity for players to contribute to the game (other than by tackling the challenges you present them with). I can remember using that style in the past - it was hard work and required pretty obedient players.

No, if they were OBEDIENT, then there wouldn't need to be any WORK involved, I'd just tell them I wanted them to do and they would do it, wouldn't they?  Its precisely this sort of insulting moralistic assumption that drives sort conversation off the rails. 

Quote
I'm a little bemused by the "NPCs don't exist" comment... do they exist less than anything else in the game world?

Characters don't exist; they are imaginary.  I cannot claim the character made me do it, because the character is an artifact of my creation, it has no properties I do not give it.  To say "this is what the NPOC wants" is to say nothing more than "this is

rob



[/quote]
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contracycle
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« Reply #10 on: July 06, 2007, 02:15:21 AM »

Proper version:

What are you looking for out of this thread?

Well I'm just answering questions, it was proposed to make a new thread.  More generally my only point that RP advice that amounts to "just make it up as you go along" is not actually advice at all, at least not for me.

[
Quote
In http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=24175.msg236313#msg236313 you were complaining about trouble sustaining campaigns because of prep-related problems. If you're interested in scratching out some ideas for getting around that, it would help I think if you answered the questions I asked in this post: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=24175.msg236392#msg236392

...
Quote
What does "never go anywhere" involve in practice, though? For example, how did the Celtic game come to an end? Did you pull the plug or did your players demand it?

In that case, I pulled the plug because it was directionless, and because things had already gone wrong and created precedents I did not like;  and this occurred because I was trying to improvise.  This only ran for about 6 sessions or so; I had planned the first couple pretty strongly (this is where the cav charge comes from) and though I could rely on my implicit knowledge of the setting for the rest.  That happened in practice was, with little material on hand we sped through what material I did have much much faster than I had anticipated.  Also I had not exercised sufficient control over character design in this case, and the combination of bad results and a bad (absent) party relationship meant I thought it was unsalvageable.

Quote
Am I right in thinking that you've got an established player group (who are the ones that are tired of this)?

Yes and no; I have access to some old players from my highschool group, some new players I met in a games club, and several people I have introduced to gaming.  Its not only the old guard who are annoyed, also the RPers from the local club have much the same view.  The new players merely regretted the failure of the game, where that occurred.

Quote
Were there NPCs in the setting who might have caused trouble for the PCs? Or at least provide trouble that the PCs might have become involved in?

They had a sort of patron who should have been the contact point who provided them with future problems, but as above, I thought I would be able to just improvise this relationship. The stuff I had planned was inadequate; in short order I was running to keep up and things got even flakier.  I didn't really have sufficient motivations in place for an informal relationship between the PC's and the NPC, and so they fell into the formal one.

Quote
For example, in the wake of the bandit attacks one of the older NPC warriors might have challenged the chieftan (or whatever) for leadership of the tribe, forcing the PCs to take sides. This the kind of thing I'm trying to do in my games, have NPCs do things that put the PCs in difficult situations (if not always successfully - I'll try to find time to post an AP of my last TSOY session).

Sure, that was precisely the kind of direction I had wanted to go in.  Unfortunately I didn't have that kind of stuff prepared, and if I had, the staging of the fight itself would probably have been a little different, I would have made an effort to bring this dispute on screen right then.  And what I find is that if I am in play mode, doing stuff and answering questions, this kind of thing does not naturally just come to me.

There was another NPC they were interacting with, a kinda magician, but he was in there mainly for setting exposition., although I guess they both were, one political and one metaphysical.  Again, the set-piece scene I had planned for the magician worked well; improvising the relationship with the PC's went less well.

Quote
Looking at your posts above, I can see how you're setting yourself up for very heavy prep, and little opportunity for players to contribute to the game (other than by tackling the challenges you present them with). I can remember using that style in the past - it was hard work and required pretty obedient players.

No, if they were OBEDIENT, then there wouldn't need to be any WORK involved, I'd just tell them I wanted them to do and they would do it.  Its this sort of moralistic tone which really gets up my nose; then social contract I have used may not be yours but it is not compelled nor is there a power relationship involved.

Quote
I'm a little bemused by the "NPCs don't exist" comment... do they exist less than anything else in the game world?

Characters don't exist; they are imaginary.  I cannot claim the character made me do it, because the character is an artifact of my creation, it has no properties I do not give it.  To say "this is what the NPC wants" is to say nothing more than "this is what I choose the NPC should want right now".  I cannot abdicate my responsibility for the NPC's action to something that doesn't really exist.

---

Sydney wrote:
Quote
Because in my experience, players tend to dive screaming like Stukas towards doing interesting stuff, either plotting and intriguing to gain power in the game-world or, in more Forge-y games, gleefully tying their characters' lives in soap-operatic knots. My last few sessions of our Burning Empires  repacked as The Shadows of Yesterday game, I've had Ron Edwards-style "bangs" prepared and rarely get to use all of them because the players make so much trouble for themselves, on purpose, that most of my job as GM is reactive.

Well it depends, you see.  If you anticipate getting into a gunfight, you might go dig a trench and fill some sandbags; no doubt the gunfight will be exciting but the preparation is be dull.  So in the context in which I made the remark, I was referring to periods of play in which neither a push or a pull is operating; in those cases the players do things they think will be useful or interesting, including interacting with NPC's and so forth.  But none of this was generating or is likely to IME, any actual action.  These 'fallow' periods are not inherently bad and are part of the pacing, but thats pretty much I feel about improvising, that it borders on not playing at all.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #11 on: July 06, 2007, 06:15:07 AM »

If I were GM'ing and players started doing stuff that bored me, personally, I'd try to nudge them with "yeah, okay, you do that. It works. Now what?" Let them make, say, one roll for the two weeks of ditch-digging that determines how big a positive modifier (or whatever) they get for the gunfight.

And if they don't want to skip over the boring stuff, that might mean it's not boring to them.
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contracycle
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« Reply #12 on: July 06, 2007, 06:33:50 AM »

Yes agreed.  But thats precisely how you can end up with players being active and interactive, but going nowhere, even in a world that is detailed, and populated by NPC's.  And hence the reasons for producing motivations, events and NPC's that can kick the action into a higher gear.
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Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #13 on: July 06, 2007, 07:12:14 AM »

That is, if you let the players just do stuff that they find interesting, no story or larger sequence of actions may emerge? If that's what you're saying, I'd agree; but I also would argue that your style's much more about enjoying the details of being in the imagined world than about The Plot or Drama. And when it works, it really, really works (viz. your old Actual Play thread at http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=20798.msg216136#msg216136). Maybe you need to embrace the strengths of what you're already doing and not worry about producing effects that your technique isn't suited for.
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Rob Alexander
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« Reply #14 on: July 07, 2007, 12:15:26 PM »

Finally, 'players contributing to the game', which some take so much for granted, kills the usual pivotal sources of uncertainty for this play.

"contribute" was a bad choice of word on my part. I should have said something like "be proactive and choose their own direction". I.e. I didn't mean "Let's make there be cave in that hill", I meant "Let's see if there are any caves up in those hills near the town".


rob
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