A Framework of Faces

We played another round of the cold war game on Monday. It was a slightly compressed session, but it ended up going pretty well. It also ended up cementing my understanding of what had been the stumbling block for me with espionage, and it reinforced some baseline realities of how I look at games, things that it’s important for me to remember.

I’m a pretty good GM, but I’m at my best when I have a fairly rich tableau populated with well-motivated NPCs who feel as alive as possible to the players. This is difficult to establish instantly – it requires introducing the NPCs, letting the players develop opinions and relationships, then allowing the NPCs to “settle in” to the setting in sch a way that they feel like a natural part of it. Once this has been accomplished with enough NPCs (what I think of as critical mass), then the game will round a corner for me where things get both easier and better.

With this critical mass of NPCs, I can worry far less about plots and sessions and approach things far more improvisationally. By keeping the NPCs in mind and in play, their interests and actions (and their intersection with PCs interests and actions) combined with a decent sense of the dramatic can very easily maintain a near-constant stream of interesting, meaningful play. Meaningful is kind of a key word here, as the meaning in question hinges upon the “reality” of the setting – for the NPCs (who in many ways really _are_ the setting) dynamics to be a driving force, then players need to be invested in them for this to work.

This means that this approach works much better for certain games than others. Specifically, games that abstract the process, or lay bare the NPCs as constructs, tend to be a mismatch for this approach. They can still be great games, but I definitely approach them differently. But mechanics are only part of the equation – setting and tone can both have a huge impact on how well this model works and how quickly critical mass is achieved.

Without realizing it, this was exactly problem I’d been encountering with my Cold War game, the problem that was creating a vague sense of frustration that I couldn’t pin down. The problem is that because I was trying to enforce the “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side” theme of the game, I tended to use NPCs very shallowly rather than allow them to form relationships. At this point in the game I have perhaps six or eight NPCs established that i can work with, and that’s pretty anemic. And tellingly, the past two sessions (both of which have been fantastic) were basically a result of me cheating and putting five of them in play and letting the ball roll.

A great point of contrast for this is the Amber DRPG, which more or less starts play at or near critical mass. It’s setting is really a list of about 20+ characters with strong and weak ties to the PCs who are an excellent mix of familiar (from the books and other games) and mysterious (since the loose framework leaves the question of GM interpretation of character specifics on the table) which allow for dynamic play to begin very quickly. This is, in many ways, one of the reasons Amber remains such a potent touchpoint for me.

What’s more interesting is that this distinction, between my cold war game and Amber, has nothing to do with mechanics. I could very easily run either game in the other system (quite seriously) and the problems and benefits would remain Identical.

This is not to say mechanics can’t help with this. Aspects and similar mechanics can help provide pointers to NPCs to help build to critical mass faster. Heck, one of my favorite things about Leverage is that is quickly builds a similar dynamic for a given job – it’s not as deep as a full NPC mesh, but it’s usable in a lot of the same ways. But for me, the thing I need to remember is my own advice: everything in the game has faces. Bring those faces to life, and the game takes care of itself.

8 thoughts on “A Framework of Faces

  1. Paul Tevis

    Would it work for the NPCs to have relationships, but have them largely unrevealed to the players? Not secret per se, but just the sort of things that only are visible through second-order effects?

  2. Rob Donoghue

    @morgan Out of curiosity, what was your opinion on the aspect invocation pushback? The “Choice have consequences” play sticks in my mind as mechanically awkward, but much better in its outcome, but I’m not sure how it looked from the toher side.

    @paul That was my question to myself in the shower this morning, and I think the answer is a limited yes. You have to do it to some extent, since that’s a necessary part of giving the NPCs some real depth, but it’s easy to get too wrapped up in the NPC web and turn PCs into observers. As a rule of thumb, I don’t think EVERY NPC-NPC relationships needs to be documented, but it’s definitely worth noting the big ones (loves, hates, rivalries and such). If you were assigning numerical values to the relationships, I’d say only track the high-number ones.

  3. Jim

    On the NPC web getting to self-sealed, the last time I thought about running Amber, I lay down until the thought went away. 😉 But BEFORE that, I thought about stealing the bit in DITV where you ask “What do they want from the Dogs” of each NPC who matters. You don’t even have to assign a number to it – just lay out the desire. And it can be a corporate or an individual want. e.g. “Random wants the youngers to accept offices and responsibilities.” “Bleys wants Ramon (PC) to die.” “Fiona wants her daughter (PC) to become Amber’s first ruling Queen.” “Benedict wants Alexander to conquer Shadow X.”

  4. Morgan

    @Rob I think that your handling of it was fine, but it also just reinforced my opinion that I need a better aspect. Good idea that more underscores bad player ideas rather than a tool that should consistently get used, as in the usage last night it filled the roll of what a mitigated success normally would, which feels off given invocation.


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