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.
When it comes to GMing I have to admit that quite often I cheat with NPCs and enemies. Not with their dice rolls but with their stats. Most of the NPCs and monsters in my games consist of only a fraction of the detail that would be found in a complete write up.
A lot of the time I lean towards the bare minimum, noting attributes and skills on the fly as required. I’ll often have an idea of their competencies in my head but until they come into play they’re just that, ideas. Doing so requires a level of system mastery that I don’t currently have with Legend of the Five Rings, especially given it’s a system where antagonists can easily out-rank the PCs. To help with that I’ve put together a generic NPC cheat sheet, which covers all of the essential components other than the school specific abilities. It’s geared primarily towards bushi and courtiers. For shugenja rings will be slightly higher, skills slightly lower. It’s already proven useful in my current Fallen Mountains campaign, hopefully it’ll be of use to other GMs out there.
While the Oriole Clan is renowned throughout the Emerald Empire for their blacksmiths few realise their talents extend beyond the forge. Tsi Shiori is one such individual who eschews the stereotypes of the Clan and has become widely respected for her dreamlike watercolours and haunting poetry.
Shiori arrived in Bei seeking escape and solitude following the death of her betrothed Doji Okimoto and over the years she has become accepted as the head of the village. Her daughter Momoe, now approaching the traditional coming of age ceremony, is quiet but adventurous and dreams of life outside the Pass.
As the spokesperson for the village Shiori is responsible for welcoming guests and maintaining Bei’s neutral position. Many samurai make the mistake of underestimating Shiori’s quiet nature and soft words, only to find themselves quicjly ostracised by the rest ofthe village. Those that truly offend her find themselves the subject of her poetry, whose subtle admonishments carry great weight in Rokugani society. Persistent rumours say the Scorpion governor of Shirayama Toshi takes great pleasure in ensuring her work is distributed amongst his court. Regardless of the truth Shiori’s words have a habit of discretely finding their way into the upper echelons of the nearby city.
A Lion noble in the White Mountain City has made the mistake of openly disparaging the skills of the Oriole Clan blacksmiths. With the honour of her Clan challenged Shiori must travel to the city to face them in court, backed by delegates from the Crane. She will seek justice. Others, however, seek only to reignite old guess.
Tsi Momoe, the young daughter of Shiori and Okimoto, has absconded from the town with her father’s daisho days before a Crane delegation led by her Grandfather is due to arrive. In an effort to save face her mother has secretly reached out to the party to search the surrounding area, believing that Momoe is likely hiding out in one of the many abandoned peasant huts that dot the mountains.
A spirit claiming to be the deceased Doji Okimoto has been spotted roaming the village, demanding it’s family join it in eternal exile. Doubting the truth of the spirits words Shiori barricades herself and her daughter into the nearest shrine after sending one of her servants to seek assistance. As the spirit grows impatient it begins to claim the life of peasants unfortunate enough to cross it’s path.