Counting Noses

Want a quick litmus test for the health of your game? Ask one of your players how many NPCs they can name. If that number can be counted on one hand, that’s a red flag.

This may seem counterintuitive at first – after all, games are about the characters, and we all know the dangers of the GM falling in love with her NPCs – but it’s never quite so simple as that. NPCs are a necessary part of the landscape for a healthy game for a number of reasons.

First, and perhaps most simply, if you only have one or two NPCs, then they’re more likely to be the worst kind of NPCs: Elminster style blunt instruments used to beat the players down the path chosen by the GM.

Beyond that though, NPCs are important because they are the anchor points for motivations. Consider almost any motivation powerful enough to drive a character in play, and try to imagine how that works without other characters. Even seemingly internal goals, like growing stronger, need people to be tested against. Enemies provide competition and anger. Allies provide opportunity to prove yourself and sympathy. More complicated relationships spawn more complicated inspiration.

NPCs also provide handles for players to grab onto when they are looking for direction. It’s not uncommon for players to find themselves at loose ends, either between adventures or at a point of frustration, and having NPCs on top of mind give an easy way to address that. Enemies can be pursued, allies can be consulted – for players, a known NPC is like a door in a dungeon room. They can open it at their leisure.

They also provide a point of comparison. NPCs can give a sense of how the world works, and give the players a sense of how they’re doing. Fighting someone once doesn’t tell you much, but fight them twice, and you have a story. Admittedly, this is a dangerous point, since this element of NPCs also contains the “Drizzt will always kick your ass” school of thought, but it’s an unfortunate possibility, not a necessity.

So, here’s the thing. I just spend some number of words defending the necessity of NPCs[1], which seems like it should be utterly necessary. Every GM knows this, after all – NPCs are one of the key building blocks of the world. Your game is, I do not doubt, utterly teaming with NPCs. You could probably name a dozen without even checking your notes.

But that’s why the litmus test isn’t about you. The number of NPCs you _have_ in the game is almost irrelevant. What matters is how many NPCs in your game have registered on your player’s radar as anything more than “That guy from that one thing that time.” No matter how crystal clear your NPCs are to you, if they’re not in your players’ minds, they’re not helping the game.[2]

[back] 1 – I’m leaving out the very important question of how many of these roles can be filled by other PCs for the simple reason that it’s a bit of a doozy. Short answer, yes, other PCs can fill a lot of these roles, but it creates a very different feel for play. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is uterly a function of taste.

[back] 2 – This is, of course, also true of almost every other plot element. I’ve known far too many GMs to gnash their teeth at their players ‘not wanting to role-play’ because they don’t realize that they haven’t actually provided anything to role-play *with*.

8 thoughts on “Counting Noses

  1. B.Mooney

    Good post, as always. For my current Mage game, I’m trying to parcel out my ongoing NPCs one or two a session so they are memorable, but I worry that they’ll bleed into the background.

    BTW, it might be me, but it looks like whatever text editor you’re using for your footnotes is screwing up the punctuation.

  2. Kit

    I’m not sure I agree. It depends very heavily on the style of game. One of the best games I ever ran was a Promethean game which had two recurring NPCs, one of whom the PCs accidentally killed at an important and crucial moment, leaving one NPC, who didn’t show up until the end.

    Of course, this game happened to be shaped like the core of Of Mice and Men, and all the important interaction was between the two (yes, only two) PCs.

    But I unequivocally agree with your underlying point, which is that there must be something for the players to, well, engage with. I just think that NPCs aren’t the only way.

    (OK, now that I think about it, the fact that they killed Eric didn’t make him less of an NPC—in fact, their reactions to his death colored everything that came afterwards, and drove the story. So, one NPC per PC is still a high ratio. Maybe I do agree.)

  3. Rob Donoghue

    @kit You raise a good point though – the right number depends a lot on the game. Promethean has such an essential backbone of isolation and alienation that I would expect a game to have many fewer NPCs than a game of, say, Vampire.

    And the reality is, of course, that the number is far less important than what you do with them. A small number of NPCs is a flag, but is not automatically a problem (as your example illustrates). I figure this is one of those jazz things: If you really know your business, it’s exactly the kind of rule of thumb to discard. But if things aren’t working, then it’s maybe something to look at.

  4. John Adamus

    Do NPCs show adherence to plot and linear play? At the start, aren’t the NPCs there to signpost for the players, to show them the way from starting move to endgame?

    I guess I’m asking if NPCs are characters that aren’t players (built to the same depths and richness) or if they’re plot automatons…and numbers over substance is better?

    In my Kalamar campaign, I can name….4 NPCs out of maybe the 10 named ones we’ve encountered, but those 4 really stand out, and we haven’t even tried robbing or killing them yet. That’s not a bad thing.

  5. A.L.

    Man, thank you. I’ve been trying to put these thoughts into words for a while, and you nailed it. It is also something I’m trying to address in my games as well. More NPCs that are memorable and stand out, giving the PCs something to work around and with.

    It can be done, but you do have to take the time to do it. Show them, hide them, see who resonates and who doesn’t.

  6. Rob Donoghue

    @John Not intrinsically. They can absolutely be used that way, but there’s nothing demanding it be so.

    NPCs can be any and all of those things. Generally, I see three types:

    1. Those that serve a need of the moment (Mooks, disposables)
    2. Those that serve a need to the game (so called “plot” NPCs)
    3. Those who serve their own needs.

    None of these is the right sort of NPC, but the proportion that you mix these will say a lot about your game.

    (The #3’s are a whole subject of their own, since there’s an argument that NPCs never -really- have their own motives, and while that’s a strong argument on paper, it’s disprovable in play. Well fleshed out, responsive NPCs with their own agendas are play drivers, but in a completely different way than “plot” NPCs).

  7. Daniel Dover

    I just asked one of my players to name as many NPCs as he can off the top of his head without checking any notes and he zipped off twenty-one of them. So I guess I’m doing well, but I’m of the school of thought that NPCs are vital to a good game, for many of the reasons outlined above.

    Incidentally, I’ve seen other people cargo-cult this idea, come up with like 50 NPCs, put them all in a book, hand them to the players and expect them to remember it all. That doesn’t work. The point is not to have lots of NPCs, it’s to create lots of NPCs that the players have a connection with, who matter to them one way or another. Much of this is organic, and as a result, you need to be willing to “slay your darlings.” That innocent kung-fu nun not working out with the group? Let her fade. That minor geisha whom you hadn’t even bothered to name really striking a chord with your players? Give her a name and a background and bring her more to the fore.

    (Oh, he came up with 6 more and two additional that he couldn’t remember the names of off the top of his head)


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