NPC vs NPC – narration and the unexpected

Earlier this week a panel on the latest (and excellent) Up to Four Players webcomic got me thinking about NPC vs NPC actions, specifically during combat. A short discussion over twitter inspired Eran to put out the following today:

That article got the wheels turning a bit further though. In general, when it comes to NPC actions I try to minimise the amount of time involving a second NPC. I hand wave rolls, narrate overall outcomes rather than detailed actions and actively try to avoid lengthy discussions.

Primarily this comes from wanting to minimise the amount of time where the players are sitting waiting. Nobody likes to sit and listen to the GM monologue, especially when they’re trying to portray multiple individuals (doubly so when, like me, you’re bad at accents so NPCs rarely have distinct voices). I also want to avoid having to reference multiple character sheets/abilities, especially with games that are more complex than the Savage Worlds system used in the comic.

The second reason is that of narrative. As a GM I want to keep the PCs front and centre, not being overshadowed by a minor companion who just happened to roll well that session. I speak here from experience. The first campaign I ran was Torg, using published adventures. During one particular section, the group had encountered an over the top superhero who was meant to obtain what they were after while in the Nile Empire. During their daring escape in a plane they came under attack from fighter planes and throughout the resulting combat their NPC companion was useless. Right up until he rolled amazingly and stole the final kill from the PCs.

If it had been a PC in that position, of constantly missing then rolling big right when it mattered it would have been an amazing moment. Instead it felt, to me, like a let down. As a new GM I wasn’t at the point of knowing when to fudge the rolls (a debate in and of itself) so instead I worked to minimise the chance of that occurring again by avoiding NPC vs NPC rolls.

The Up to Four Players strip got me thinking though – do I sometimes take things to far. In trying to keep the PCs in the spotlight is it to the detriment of the game. Gone are the unexpected moment, such as where a weak and feable King gets the upper hand against the expert assassin or a trusted ally is unexpectedly convinced to take up arms against the PCs. Dice add randomness to the game, not only for the players but for the GM as well and maybe it is time I started to add that back in to my games.

So long as it doesn’t take too long.

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