Your Better Third

Let me be mundane and explain the title.  People often use the term the better half to refer to their life companion, SO, or whatever term is in these days.

How do I see PCs?  This is not in any way scientific and YMMV, but I see the RPG experience for me being:  one third player – I make decisions; one third character sheet – resolution goes off of values; one third world engagement – primarily through NPCs.

“But, what about other PCs?”

As I’ve said before, I rate this as far less significant.  Tangent alert.  Tangent alert.

Why?  First, let’s compare tabletop RPG play to LARPing.  I’m not that into LARPing for so much of it is player versus player, even with such things as gathering information.  I’m really not into human vs. human.  If I play videogames, I want to destroy supercheaty computer opponents.

So, what about tabletop play?  I just care less about other PCs because reasons.  One reason is that the PC already has a spokesperson in the form of the player, but, really, the main reason is probably more that I’m interested in exploring the GM’s world and not another player’s world.

I’ve played in pure storytelling games.  No resolution system beyond “I say this happens”.  Feels hollow to me.  Why do I need other people to make up a story?  I can just write a story that interests me.  I don’t feel like I accomplished anything, overcame any challenges, because the challenges are all self-imposed and/or player vs. player.

Yeah, my 100% storytellerness has always been suspect.  There’s something gamist in the idea that a GM creates a qualitatively different world from another player and that a resolution system is necessary to determine event outcomes.

So, to get on topic.  NPCs.  These are the primary interfaces into a world.  Sure, events happen, locations exist, whatever.  But, how much more engaging is it when those events affect NPCs, those locations are populated with NPCs, whatever with NPCs?

My last post was an example of romance.

Romance

Why do I consider romance the easiest form of NPC interaction?  Read a book.  Watch a movie.  Watch TV.  Love stories are superultramegaubiquitous.

Even when entertainment is about murdering those who murdered your family or crashing helicopters into submarines, you get romantic subplots.  Indiana Jones movies, the better ones, have female character to provide motivation.  Even Doctor Who can’t get away from “this new hobo with a science degree is kind of hawt” anymore.

Let’s not create elephants where room don’t have them.  Sex for sex’s sake amounts to a tiny, little insignificant throwaway.  There’s a reason I don’t normally have characters with some form of lechery disadvantage, even though it’s really hard to avoid chasing loincloths/kimonos/et al.  Anyone can go off … and envision their own fantasies.

To have the meaningful romantic subplot means doing that silly romantic comedy stuff where the couple can’t just be with each other until challenges occur.  I see the aim being more like chivalric romance, where you do crap for your beloved, when you aren’t banging other people because of illusions, love potions, or other things straight out of the Camelot stories because Galahad needs to be born.

Maybe a bit too much of the usual – my example of Junhime and Kidai.  They can’t be together as a couple (no matter how much they horizontally socialize) because one is way higher status than the other.  So, motivation is to do something that results in evening up the status difference, while pining (with nontrivial pinewooding).  As events occur, goal gets closer and closer until … the horrible tragedy occurs that leaves everyone traumatized.  Well, or, you get a GM who doesn’t believe misery is fun and you get a pleasant ending.

Basic writing 101 – the relationship has to have challenges.  Soap operas exist because they screw … over … their characters endlessly.  Basic RPGing 101 – the relationship should actually involve some sort of relating, i.e. just rolling dice is hollow.  Don’t need some full-fleshed NPC, can be things like “I go on quest number 81 for Count whatshisname to prove my eternal devotion.”, though may want to make it a bit more realized than that.

Got to move on.

Business/Economics

I bring this up second because it’s something I constantly think about when thinking about ways to try to interact with NPCs, yet it’s one of the hardest to make work.  Speaking of work, not going to spend time on coworkers for the obvious reason that we play games to get away from real life.

Let’s say I’m playing L5R and am playing that mundane, ole boring character concept – Asako Henshin grain merchant patron.  So, my peasant slaves, I mean, peasants have grain production.  I want to turn that into kites to give away to my besties so that they can gloriously fly them.  This is not something that I find all that challenging.  Yes, weird as it is, Rokugan, where money isn’t supposed to matter and commerce is beneath samurai is a place where I actually not only can see but experience business transactions.  Probably because Rokugan is more real than a lot of worlds.  Instead of “heh heh, give you some gold for your diamonds”, you get “the harbormaster is into sculptures of monkeys” … as a totally I-can-roll-with-this thing.

Where I’ve seen it be painful is in such things as Vampire: The Masquerade or even games that are supposed to have an economic component, like Shadowrun or Traveller.  It’s just way too much effort.  Probably because it’s too modern.  We live in a world where we deal with currency and credit transactions every day, where we shop based on prices, realize monopolies exist, marketing is a thing, and so on.  In gaming, I don’t want to deal with the real world.  It’s the concept of “how do I start a business? maintain a business profitably? ruin my enemies? embezzle enough to run around in a private plane and have tactical headsets for the party?” that we are looking for.

I see dice-rolls being useful to economics.  However, couple of things.  First, don’t want to overdo dice-rolls, then you are just scratching off lottery tickets.  Second, the point of this post is NPCs.  I’m not into NPC interactions where it’s all about who can rip off whom.  Sure, you can get ripped off, but there should be some story reason behind it, not just because you only put two ranks in Commerce and every NPC businessperson has five dots.

There should be some coherent goal with ecomonics.  I had a Ventrue PC who settled in the New World back when it was the wild Colonies, who had to survive Sabbat ownership of territory.  The in game goal was credibility with the other Ventrue and everyone else.  “Yo, yo, yo, I just woke up from a hundred year nap, and Ize got all the banking and lumberyardz under my never diablerized by a Sabbie thumb.”  Then, it was a way to actually interact more with a Giovanni PC – no, I don’t totally ignore other PCs.  I want them to succeed and not be eviscerated and stuff.  It was a way to relate to other NPCs by saying “of course I, Ventrue extraordinaire, not only have bucks but neither work for a living nor get involved in crime”.  It was not a strong enough goal.  Our business endeavors came up like once and was resolved weirdly.  Needed to have something more tangible to abuse with wealth.  Also, there was no specific NPC to interact with.  Without a “face” to put on the challenge or interaction, it is prone to becoming background noise.

The other pitfall I encounter is having to be responsible for something that is constantly being screwed with.  I get incredibly weary of my nightclub being shaken down by the mob, burned down by gangs, etc.  That’s not the point of having economic assets.  We aren’t playing a videogame where economic survival is all you do.  We are playing a game where commerce interacts in enjoyable ways with the PCs – enjoyable involving challenge but also not overriding the importance of murdering people who murdered your family.

A similar “can we just burn everything down and become murderhobos?” situation is when you have incompetent employees.  Employees who could use raises, better health care, getting off drugs, not being stalked by vampires, or the like are far more palatable than what I’m used to.

Rivalry

As someone not into player vs. player, I’m not into PC rivalries.  Oh, sure, there can be a bit of friendly rivalry over who wins at snooker.  But, besides just not getting the appeal of counting up how many goblins you murdered, rivalries over prowess*, rivalries in getting NPCs to favor you, and similar stuff just doesn’t seem fun.

*  A note about prowess.  One reason to never get into prowess competitions with PCs is because then you open up the whole whoever designs better mechanical characters feature of RPGs.  This is pure anti-fun for me.

However, prowess competitions with NPCs is a great way to get someone to either dislike or respect a fellow archer.  When we were at Winter Court in the Princess Police campaign, we had anywhere from a bunch to a ton of competitors for various events.  I was all set to care about some Daidoji dude because he owned me at kyujutsu, though that never happened because I had better things to do, like not-doing a Scorpion.  While the competition was kind of nuts in that dice mechanics do not favor an individual in a large competition who might have some advantage (I ended up at the bottom of the top third – more than 30 competitors – even though I was by far the best archer in the party at the time) as dice explode and stuff, the competition managed to identify certain NPCs as someone to take interest in.  Because – Glory is a thing in L5R and kind of should be in a lot of games (Reputation was a thing in Conan).

If the blind archer dude had done better, I would have been more motivated to “sensei, teach me all of your blind secrets”.

Where I worry about rivalry as a tactic is when it feels forced.  The premise of us having two competing martial arts high schools just doesn’t really engage in the same way that organic rivalry can.  There should be several instances of competing to build things up to a level where you care what happens.

I suppose organic is a good word.  Any sort of NPC relationship gains from organic development.

Enemy (but not that kind)

There are enemies you murder, then there are enemies that you can’t.  Enemies you murder are not what I normally think of when I think of NPCs.  I think of those as antagonists, villains, or some number of hit dice.  Yes, recurring villains should be in every campaign, but …

Let’s talk about not-rivals-but-enemies as present forces.  Someone who just screws with you constantly is obnoxious, so we aren’t talking about “my boss is an elder dragon lich with a crystal ball”.  We are talking about someone who is in opposition to you in a way that still allows for you to interact with the NPC in a variety of ways.

Another key.  Variety of interaction.  The jealous lover can be fun if not nearly as much fun, perhaps, as the “game on, big boy” lover.

HoR2, where I felt like I interacted more with the campaign villains, had some instances where you would hang with someone who didn’t like you, you didn’t like, but you two didn’t do more than play a shogi match.

More compelling are situations that arise where it’s like “Oh crap, we won, but this only makes Heinous Warlock get more souls.” or like “At least poisoning are entire water supply so we are forced to drink imported Tang will mean Heinous Warlock’s microbrewery is shut down.”

Government/Criminal

Might think of this like business/economics, but it usually plays out somewhat differently.  Government is all about authority and the perception of power (where wealth disguises power).

Again, an oppressive government is just annoying.  Far more interesting is having officials that you favor and disfavor and either try to get someone elected or appointed or couped.

I do mean someone.  Government can be a world interaction without involving an individual, but that’s a different topic.  What we want here is someone in government, even possibly a subordinate to a PC who is an official.

Other than get out of jail cards, the official can provide intel, invitations to parties, affect your business, detain someone you want to interrogate.  This all seem obvious?  How often does it come up in your games?  I find that having a specific person I interact with in government is virtually nonexistent.  This may be due to things like traveling the world in Conan or the government being in pure opposition in something like Shadowrun (one of the reasons I don’t like the idea of playing a criminal).

One of my goals in the Princess Police campaign was to promote minor clans.  Trying to get someone appointed in a position of status meant the possibility, if not the actuality, of having that someone nebulously improve the lot of minor clans.  Beyond just playing favorites when it came to clans or personality, there was also the game of trying to get someone into your debt or for swapping political benefits (favorable marriages, for instance, in a world like Rokugan).

Criminals work much like government, suspiciously so …  They get you stuff or they have authority or they rescue you from jail.  I’m not a fan of criminal activity, but, for those genres where it can be better appreciated, can try to have interesting things happen.  Note that “I go to the fence and haggle for 10% more” is a boring activity.

Informants

Assuming some sort of reused locale, informants are a rather common thing to develop.  But, are they interesting?  Is it just a way to progress plot?  I find that I rarely come to care about informants because their roles are so limited.  Again, variety of interactions.

Society

Can overlap with government, especially in a world like Conan.  We are talking about having someone who relates to you in some sort of social way that faces others, rather than a direct relationship.

It didn’t develop much, but I saw potential for this with one of my V:TM campaigns.  My Belgian Tremere was totally willing to French with some Toreador at Elysium.

I’m not much into embarrassing people, so the caustic society of, say, V:TM Harpies doesn’t interest me as much.  But, just like how someone might want to be a successful businessperson, someone might want to run with the in crowd, whether death bikers or parents’ groups or the well known death biker parent group.

Again, what’s the goal?  Just having bigger parties at nicer mansions isn’t much of a goal in our murder those who murdered your family world.  I find society less of a thing in games because most games aren’t oriented to popular-but-not-rich-nor-powerful-nor-more-swordrrific.

Family

I hate thinking about family before playing a character.  Well, not always, just much of the time.  I don’t give a crap who my parents are, who my siblings are, who my children are up until the point that I need to murder someone for murdering them.

Or, up until the point I play for a while and need to flesh out my PC.  I never find parents to work well as actual NPCs.  As hooks, “Emperor Evil hates you because your mother called his painting pedestrian”, that’s fine, troperrific.

Children I see being more of a goal for a campaign.  You not only murdered those who murdered your family but rescued supercutie from their murderous clutches and now breed to create a new family from which your child will survive and lead a life of perpetual vengeance.

Siblings are good for providing contrast.  Sure, everyone can have schoolmates or whatever, but the feeling of connection to such is more limited than someone of your ilk.

What’s the downside of family?  Most of the time, I come up with my own family, rather than the GM.  So, this runs into the “trying to explore GM’s world” problem.  A NPC I create might be fine for interacting with another PC, but it’s awful for interacting with me.

Yeah, the GM can have things happen with family that don’t require you to interact with the family member but with the NPCs or situation that interact with the family member.  This can feel forced or not, depending upon how interesting the situation is for your kin.

Secret family is not something that comes up that often IME, but it is something in our Through the Breach campaign for one of the PCs.

Expertise

This could fall under a bunch of other categories, but let me start with an example.  Because Kidai wanted his novels illustrated, he sought out a painter.  He also developed his painting skills because it was a way to get hot chicks to pose for him, er, a way to bring the beauty of art to the world.

This is a diamond mine for games.  Consider.  PCs tend to be really good at certain things, mostly murdering those who murdered their families, but, occasionally, because of the game mechanics or ancillary needs, also stuff people actually care about, like putting on puppet shows.

Why wouldn’t NPCs seek out expert PCs to help or teach them in the ways of putting on better puppet shows?

Yet, how often does that happen?  Sure, in a supers game, Brainmaster may be found at science-con until Mindrot appears to steal all of the knowledge of the elite scientists in the world.  I don’t play in supers games.  What I play in hardly ever sees NPCs want PCs for anything besides investigations, murder, murder investigations, infiltration, escort duty.

Meanwhile, how often do PCs seek out NPC experts?  Occult ones, all of the time.  In one-shots, seems common.  But, this sort of “can you illustrate a hot chick with a sword and a tiger for me?” thing doesn’t happen enough, probably because players don’t care enough about creating fantasy novels in a fantasy world to get into areas where PCs aren’t already awesomest.  And, if it’s something important, like healing or murdering, players don’t want NPCs to be more awesome.  Where, I’m totally okayish with a NPC teaching me the fullest depths of Lore: Tropical Fish.

The thing about experts is that it’s rarely adversarial.  Instead, we get helpful without “you can’t defeat Emperor Evil, Brainmaster, I, Nuclear Propulsion Champion will send him into the gray hole” levels of players feeling overshadowed by NPCs.

On the other hand, experts are experts.  How much variety can you get out of them?  Kind of similar to informant in that a specific need is addressed, rather than a relationship that could be varietous.  On the other paw, Kidai was quite fond of his painting instructor, without wanting to “brush” her “canvas”.

Guides can make for another form of expert, though I find guides are often either too much into screwing you or too much into running away when the fan cuts your fingers off.  Dangerous worlds should have guides expecting danger.

That’s it, folks.  Ran out of brainvapor to make this longer.

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