Running NPC heavy scenes can be very challenging for both GMs and players, in this episode we’re offering some tips to help lighten the load a little.Continue reading “5 Tips for Running NPC Heavy Scenes”
GM Tips articles offer advice and ideas for gamesmasters to help hone their techniques and run their games, these lists are not exhaustive but provide some tips to point a GM in the right direction.
In this article we offer five tips to help with that most important of all GM skills: describing a scene.
1. Make liberal use of adjectives
Adjectives are words that describe a noun or object (for example: ancient, bleak and deserted), using a slightly different term to the usual can help to reinforce your description of a scene.
For example: Rather than saying
You approach the old house.
You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion.
The second example has far more impact and builds more of a picture in the player’s minds, if you need some samples to get you going you can click here for a handy list of adjectives.
2. Don’t neglect the other senses
Although vision is a keep sense for most of us and features greatly in our descriptions, do not neglect the other senses, how does a place feel? What is the temperature like? Are there any sounds? Is there a taste in the air? All of these sense can help to boost your description, to use our abandoned mansion example
You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion, the air feels cold and there is a coppery tang to the air.
3. Show, don’t tell
If it’s possible, rather than telling someone that a building is old or that a pathway is much used, show this using the environment; perhaps if the town is abandoned then buildings are literally falling down or plants have overgrow much of the architecture, or perhaps the cobbles of the path are worn smooth by the passage of many feet.
You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building.
4. Encourage your players to fill in some of the details
When you’re describing a scene, if possible ask the players some questions to have them fill in some of the finer details, this can take a bit of getting used to if you are accustomed to a more GM-heavy style of game, but it not only saves you some work, it also gets the players more invested in the scene. That said, if the player seems to be struggling for an idea, don’t hold up the game waiting for them, tell them not to worry about it and move on, either throwing it open to the group or making up a detail for yourself.
You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling sign on the lawn, Micheal what does the sign say?
5. Have your NPCs and events reinforce the theme of the description
If NPCs are really at odds with their surroundings this can be quite jarring, for example if a bouncy young estate agent came skipping out of our abandoned mansion; if that’s the effect you want then great (perhaps the building is due for renovation and the estate agent represents progress or the gentrification of the area), however, if you want to reinforce your description then the NPCs and encounter should reflect it.
You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling for sale sign on the lawn, sitting in a rocking chair on the veranda is an ancient man with a wrinkled face and a white beard running down past his knees.
Picture is part of a Doré wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy labeled for reuse on Google Image Search, the original image can be found here.
I’ve spent the last few hours writing up notes on the NPCs for my Changeling one-shot; I don’t want to post too much up at this point (although I do intend to put all the material up via Google Drive links after the game has run) so as not to spoil anything for my players but below is a taster of the sort of notes I’ve been making.
As many of you may be aware, I’m currently prepping a Changeling: the Lost one-off game; I’ve just got to the point in my planning where I’m starting to actually put the stats down for the NPCs.
One of the things I like about Fate (okay look, I’ve done well, I got a whole sentence out before I mentioned it ;)) is that important NPCs are genned up like normal characters, but minor characters have a quicker method of creating NPCs where you basically note down a couple of descriptive terms for them and then jot down a few things they are good at and a couple they are bad at. Everything else they are considered to be average at.
I wondered whether this could be applied to NWOD; the corebook defines attributes and skills like this:
So for the game I’m running (certainly for minor NPCs) I’m going to use the following dice pool ratings:
Bad at: dice pool 2
Average at: dice pool 4
Good at: dice pool 6
This should hopefully allow me to quickly create some minor NPCs without needing to have a cribsheet for them all.
Corrupt Beat Cop
Description: Uphold the law, willing to look the other way for the right incentive.
Good at: Shooting, driving
Bad at: Resisting a bribe, working out when they are being tricked, resisting mental coersion.
The NPC will be assumed to be ‘average’ at anything not mentioned in the above description (dice pool 4).
Fate is people asking how to implement magic using the system; there are
a number of suggestions and possibilities (I offered one such suggestion in my previous possibly the worlds simplest Fate magic system post); recently I downloaded copies of the 1st and 2nd edition of the Fate RPG out of curiosity to see how the system had evolved, and one thing in particular caught my eye in the first edtion, it was a system for improvisational magic.
aspect that explains either their magical training or innate talent, this aspect can also be invoked/compelled as normal.
- Boost (gives the caster a temporary aspect that can be invoked free once and then disappears) +0
- Situation aspect (lasts only for a scene) +2
- Consequence (inflicting harm on a target) +2 (mild consequence) +4 (moderate consequence) +6 (severe consequence) +0 (if the target is a mook) +2 (if the target is a significant NPC) +4 (if the target is a PC)
- Character aspect +4 (permanent but only applies to one PC or NPC) +0 (if the target is a mook) +2 (if the target is a significant NPC) +4 (if the target is a PC)
- Game aspect (a permanent fixture of the campaign world) +8
- Target of the spell is the caster only -2
- Spell takes a single action to cast +2
- Spell takes a scene to cast +0
- Spell takes a session to cast -2
- Spell takes several sessions to cast -4
- Spell requires no components +2
- Spell requires easy to obtain components +0
- Spell requires difficult to obtain components -2
- Spell requires extremely difficult to obtain/unique components -4
I’m sure we’ve all been in this situation at one point or another in our lives, you’ve got a game to prepare for the end of the week, you’ve been staring at your notes while the seconds tick by and waiting for some sort of inspiration to strike; given all the other pressures in life that can pile up and demand our attention it can be sometimes very difficult to get over that initial hurdle and get the ideas flowing to create a session. I’m a big fan of anything that either jump starts this process or helps give the GM a little creative boost to get the mind working.
- Coming up with adventure ideas
- Herd animals are dying across the world in a deadly plague that is spreading in an unknown fashion, leaving animals twisted and mutilated, people have begun to whisper that perhaps more than a simple disease is behind the deaths.
- A strange mask has been discovered locked in a seal compartment within the fortress of an ancient and noble race whom no longer walk the world, all those who discovered the mask died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards.
- An ailing noble has discovered a reference amongst some ancient papers that he purchased at auction to a wizard having unlocked the secret of immortality, he now seeks people brave (or foolhardy) enough to venture to the desert ruins of the sorceror’s previous lair to recover the elixir of life.
- World Events
- Strange creatures that hunt only by the dark of night have been hunting along stretches of river that supply several kingdoms with water.
- The unsolved murders of several prominant citizens, all reputedly linked to the founding families of the kingdom has lead to an increasing city guard presence and further draconian laws being introduced in the kingdom.
- Seismic activity amongst a local mountain range has caused several herds of animals and more dangerous denizens to venture down into populated areas, panicked town authorities are currently looking for a way to deal with the unwanted animals whilst fearfully eyeing the smoking mountain tops.
Action – “Oh I was just here looking for a friend of mine.”Occupation – Scout.
Action – Looking for someone to stash something important.Occupation – Builder.
Action – Travelling to a nearby well to fetch water.Occupation – Alchemist or apothecary.
Campaign Idea: Putting a twist on transport circles
Background: Transport circles are one of the most convenient forms of transportation for those who have either the magical know-how or the money to pay someone who does, allowing for almost instantaneous transportation from one circle to another, no matter the intervening distance. Occcasionally people feel a little nauseous or dislocated for a few moments after transport, but it quickly passes and the effects are harmless.
To the lay-person it seems as though powerful mages and articifers are capable of creating transport circles wherever they wish, however, the truth is a little more complex, normally the innate reality of the word resists transport magic, making it very taxing to cast such spells, however, there are spots in the world (that can be identified by the those with the appropriate arcane learning) where the reality of the world is weaker, allowing for construction of transport circles with far less effort and expense, large cities tend to build up around these areas as wizards and those seeking to benefit from the circles flock to such sites.
The campaign begins: Below is the suggested sequence of events for a campaign using this model, feel free to intersperse events and adventures not related to this plot between the suggested points otherwise it will feel like everything is connected somehow to the transport circle and it may seem a little laboured or forced.
- Have a few adventures reference the use of transport circles in very minor ways, perhaps have the PCs use them or an ally use them, but make them seem very much like a convenient plot device or background element trying not to draw too much attention to them.
- A notable mage vanishes whilst attempting to create a new transport circle.
- If there are any mages in the party perhaps have them make a couple of rolls to determine some basic facts about transport circles, such as the weak points in reality that allow them to be easily constructed.
- Over the course of the next half dozen sessions a number of people are found brutally murdered and torn apart near transport circles.
- The bodies of the murdered people appear to have been slashed to pieces by extremely sharp and thin blades (infact two-dimensional claws).
- In the area where the murders took place, both existing transport circles and any magic dealing with transportation or planar travel is easier to cast and lasts for far longer (this is due to the fact that reality has been weakened by the appearance of the creatures from beyond the circles).
The weakened points of reality that allow for the construction of transport circles are actually areas where creatures from another dimension have broken through into ours; normally these creatures do not appear in our world, however occasionally the conditions are just right (the stars align, ley-lines converge, or whatever is suitable for your game) to allow these creatures to enter our reality and hunt the people and animals that live there (whom they see as particularly favoured prey). When these creatures arrive they shred reality in the surrounding area as they pierce the invisible membrane between our world and theirs, weakening it to such an extent that magic can be used in our world to travel from one location to another.
Messing around with transport magic in the areas of weakened reality eventually attracts the attention of the creatures who hunt, attack and eventually kill their quarry; inevitably the creatures will eventually catch wind of the PCs and will attack them. Unfortunately the creatures (which resemble two dimensional hounds made of shadow) are very difficult to destroy since they are capable of instinctively using transport circles themselves, however, any effect that prevents magic or stops a transport circle working binds them to our dimension for it’s duration making them easier to deal with. The creatures are intelligent hunters who are fully capable of withdrawing if they seem outmatched (aided by their ability to instinctively use transport circles or just fade back into their own dimenion) and using pack tactics; a party who believes they have successfully seen off the hounds may find themselves menaced again by shadowy creatures from transport circles in the future.
Perhaps the PCs eventually find a way to enter the Hounds own dimension and take the fight to them or perhaps there is some way to poison/proof transport circles and magic against the attention of the Hounds.
This post is for the RPG Blog Carnival about December’s subject of ‘With a Twist’; the original post (written by Mike Bourke) can be found on the Campaign Mastery website here.
- Playing with Character Identity
Using this method the very identity of the player characters may be called into question; I used this recently in my Numenera game (session video playlist can be viewed here) where the players slowly discovered that they were not who they thought they were but were in fact duplicates or replicants created from the memories of possibly the last original living human, using a powerful machine. This idea was originally suggested by one of the players and was expanded to encompass all of them; when using this suggestion you need to be extremely careful, messing with someone’s character can result in tension and bad feelings if you’re not sensitive about it.
You also want to make sure that at some point the players can start figuring out that they are not who they originally thought, odd incongruities or discrepancies that hint at the truth being different from what they believed are one method, depending on their true nature then biological discrepancies/differences may also become a factor. Above all try to make it clear that the PC not being who they thought they were, does not invalidate the work that the player has put into creating it and don’t just use something like this without a very solid reason behind it, trying to wing a plot when you have revelations like this involved can be a disaster.
Generally this sort of thing works extremely well for personal horror, since we all like to think that our identities are pretty untouchable and that we know who we are, done carefully, revealing that this is not the case can be a good way to not only unsettle/scare players but also to get them to cling more tightly to those things that they know are real (like each other).
- Playing with the Established Reality
Related to the point above but expanded to encompass the game world rather than just the players, in my own game the town that the PCs believed they had grown up in was actually an artifical creation built on top of a huge machine that had fabricated the whole place as a way of saving part of world already destroyed.
Again a word of caution if you decide to do this, playing too much with the established reality can result in the players becoming frustrated and not knowing what they can and cannot reasonably accomplish in the game; if the very fundamental laws of nature (gravity, etc) are not constant then it can be difficult to get a handle on how your character should be reacting; however discovering that the ancient manor house on the hill is actually a cunningly disguised space vessel does not change the basic laws of the setting but it does add a twist when the players pierce the disguise.
- Throwing a different light on established facts
Mike makes the very valid point in his post that the GM should not lie to the players or out and out contradict themselves and I think that this is a good point, even in a game where a lot of things are called into question the players need to be able to trust what the GM says to a certain extent; one way to create an interesting twist on established facts in a game without changing them is to present a different viewpoint from the one that the player characters currently hold.
I find that a good way to do this is via flashbacks; for example, if we are running a cyberpunk game and the PCs are all set to raid the warehouse of an evil corporation who are producing illegal drugs for distribution then perhaps running a scene where the players take control of the production level line workers of the corporation, who know very little about the evil schemes behind the drugs, they’re just working to get money for their families or something similar makes it a bit less cut and dried for the players. This shouldn’t be overused but a few scenes like this, scattered throughout a game can help prevent the players viewing world as being split into simply goodies and baddies.