How to NPC Well
(originally from the Second Stand NPC packet)
- by Sam Sherry
The following document was written with new and inexperienced NPCs in mind. A lot of it is pretty basic stuff for those that have NPC'ed a lot. However, we encourage even experienced NPCs to read through this material. It may highlight a few things that you've never really thought about, and it will give you an idea of what the GM staff will expect of you.
So, you have read the plot summary, you have been given a part and you have been handed a costume. The question for you is what to do from here. No matter how easily the more experienced NPCs may walk through their roles and deal with problems, you should remember that NPCing is quite difficult and you shouldn't worry if it takes a little while to get the hang of it.
Hardships you can't avoid and have to deal with:Disorganized GMing: Some GMs are disorganized during the entirety of the game. Some GMs only occasionally submit to the forces of chaos that are ripping at them from all directions. Unfortunately, at almost every game, you will eventually find yourself either on your own or with a few other NPCs, far away from the GMs or without any useful GM assistance, and will have to make your own decisions. This guide is designed to give you an idea of the types of decisions that you will have to face and help you make better ones.
What NPCs do: Crunching, Plot Pushing and Hanging Out:One of the first questions many new NPCs ask is "What I am going to be doing?" To help give you a better notion of what to expect, NPCs perform many different functions during the game. However, nearly all of these can be summed up into three general tasks.
- The most visible responsibility of an NPC is to provide obstacles for the players to overcome. While this is often done by picking up a sword and going out as a monster or enemy soldier (called "Crunching"), this is also done by providing challenging role-playing scenes and difficult puzzles. When crunching, the object is to provide an obstacle to defeat. Under normal circumstances, the somewhat random fighting that crunchies represent might not be very interesting. However, many people find fighting in a LARP (Live-Action Role Playing) situation to be a lot of fun, and thus we try to provide a reasonably steady stream of opponents to defeat. More details on crunching will be explained later.
- The next major task of NPCs is to move the plot of the game forward. When writing the game, the GMs write a story that goes along with and encompasses the obstacles that the PCs have to overcome. Since the PCs don't actually know what the story is ahead of time, the NPCs have to help them through it. The central challenge to "pushing plot" is to tell the story while making the PCs feel as if they are a part of it instead of just watching it. Fortunately for the NPCs, that particular element is more of the GM's task than the individual NPC's.
- The final task of the NPCs is to provide atmosphere and theme for the game. NPCs can do this in an uncountable number of ways, based on their role-playing. Speaking in funny accents, wearing thematic costumes and spreading background rumors ("Ever since that new sheriff came, people have started disappearing mysteriously") are all ways that NPCs do this. The key to helping the theme of the game is to get a good idea from the GMs of what these themes are. Once you have a good idea of what the GMs want to convey, you merely use your personal strengths as a role-player, actor or storyteller to move the general theme across.
Things that you can do that will make you a better NPC:Read the rules. Read the plot summary. If you are a new NPC, you should read the rules several times. They are fairly long, but make a lot of sense after you see them in action. If you have questions, remember that there are rules marshals who are there to answer rules questions and settle disputes. The rules marshals are both PCs and NPCs and are all experienced players who can be very helpful with any rules issues you may have. If you are an experienced NPC, read the rules, as well, since they change over time.
While it is quite important to play your characters well and understand the rules as much as possible, the single thing that will make the average new NPC become a better NPC is to act as a good obstacle. The primary purpose of an obstacle is to create something that can be overcome, but with enough difficulty that the PCs will be proud of overcoming it. Sometimes obstacles are created that can not be defeated, but this is only done with great care and at the discretion of the GMs. Most obstacles can be overcome at some cost. If the PCs are particularly clever, the NPCs should allow themselves to be defeated more easily. If the PCs are particularly stupid, the NPCs should extract a higher price. In either case, the object is to pay attention to the PCs and reward or penalize them commensurately with their skill, cleverness, and effort. Make sure the players have as much fun as possible even if their characters don't necessarily enjoy it. To do this effectively, you have to make obstacles harder if the players breeze through them and seem bored. On the other hand, you want to give the players hints or some help if they seem frustrated and stymied. In either case, feel free to communicate with the players out-of-game to see how they feel (good role-players may show their characters' anguish even when the players are having a great time).
Communicating well with both the PCs and NPCs, as well as making good use of the other NPCs, is also very important. While you should listen to the GMs as much as possible, most of what they have to say during the game involves last-minute corrections. The majority of plot and background is written down in the NPC packet. Naturally, you should ask questions when you are confused; however, the GMs are very busy during the game itself, so you may be better off asking other, more experienced NPCs the questions that come up during the game. In addition to asking questions, the other side of communication is to tell the GM staff what is going on in the game. Remember that while most Questies would love to hear war stories of everything that has happened, there isn't time to regale the GM staff with stories until after the game. The important thing that you need to tell the GMs during the game is how the PCs are feeling, how many resources such as spell points and magic potions the PCs are using, and any improvisations you've encountered that might change the plot. Lastly, you should know that many PCs will assume you are an experienced Quest player because you are an NPC. If they ask questions of you that you either can't answer or aren't sure you should answer, feel free to send them to a GM or AGM.
Things that you want to avoid doing as a NPC:Many people who NPC for the first time have a lot of theatrical experience not associated with live role-playing. Because these people are really good at getting into character but don't have a lot of experience with how games work, they frequently fall into the trap of putting character over plot. There may be certain times during the game where you think your character would do something drastic. But before you do something that is going to shape the course of the game in a major way, you have to think about the effects that your character's actions will have. If these actions will disrupt the plot, it is important to put the overall quality of the game above your interpretation of your character's motivations. Doing this can prove very frustrating, but learning when you should act as the character and when you should act as someone trying to further the course of the game is one of the most important skills a Quest NPC can possess.
A similar trap is putting the guidelines of a particular obstacle above the course of the game. You will receive sets of instructions that tell you how to play certain obstacles, whether they be people that have to be convinced of something, puzzles that must be solved, or monsters that must be defeated. In any case, it is important that the PCs not be overly frustrated. It is extremely desirable to challenge the players, but frustrating them merely makes them have less fun at the game. The general way to avoid excessive frustration is to pay attention to the PCs and allow them to win on the next reasonably clever idea they get. Of course, particularly clever ideas should be allowed to succeed from the beginning.
Another difficult area to deal with is when you, as an NPC, have to make decisions that affect the capabilities of PCs. Whether you are giving them a magic sword or extracting a portion of their soul, you affect the way PCs play their characters. The most important guideline is that you don't want to permanently mess up a PC unless the player has given his or her consent. It is very cool when a PC gets a chance to make a big sacrifice for a noble cause; it is very uncool when a PC has something brutally taken away from them and the player has no control over the matter. On the other hand, you don't want to reward PCs with strong magic unless they are particularly clever. Furthermore, even if they are clever you have to be careful, since making one PC too powerful can ruin the fun for other PCs who become jealous (sometimes rightfully so) and don't like being pushed around by other players.
How to be a good crunchie:One of the tasks that nearly every NPC performs at a game is that of a crunchie. While it may seem somewhat confusing at times, crunching is really quite simple. First, you find the correct costume for whatever soldier or monster you will be playing. Second, you find out that crunchie's statistics. Those statistics should include:
- The will of the crunchie. (Used when PCs cast spells on you.)
- The awareness of the crunchie. (Used to see PCs when they try to hide.)
- The number of weapon points. (This determines how many weapons you should use as the crunchie.)
- The fighting ability of the crunchie. (This is an abstract measure of how hard you should fight when playing the crunchie. More experienced fighters often need to fight below their top form when acting as a less skilled monster. It is unlikely that you will have to do this.)
- Any special abilities the crunchie might have such as: Stealth, Mage or Cleric magic, extra hits, or natural abilities (abilities that you have and aren't necessarily magical but still work like spells.)
Once you figure out what abilities your crunchie has, you need to get the appropriate props. Find a weapon style that you feel comfortable with and fits within the number of weapon points the crunchie has. (You can find rules for this in your rulebook.) If you have Stealth, get yourself a Stealth card. If you have Magic, get yourself a whistle and a spellbook. (If you are a cleric, get yourself a bell, too.) If you have natural abilities, you should get a whistle but don't need a spellbook. (You should, however, find out what the ability is and either ask someone the effect or look it up in the rules.) This preparation may seem quite complicated, but there are a lot of NPCs around you who have been to games before and will help you get everything together.
If you are uncomfortable fighting with boffer weapons, make sure you let the GMs know. Hopefully you will be sent on crunchie duty infrequently, but when the GMs do send you, they will know to send you as a spell caster. If this is a likely scenario, please familiarize yourself with the Quest spells before the game. Pay special attention to the lower level spells, particularly focusing on the Mage spells. Before heading out, make sure you know what Mage or Cleric level you may cast at and how many spell points you have.
Once you get out into the field, there will be fewer people to help you and there are some tips that will make you crunch better. Most of the time, crunchies try to make themselves as even a match as possible for the PCs they are fighting. Also, make sure you find out the goal of the encounter before heading into combat. Sometimes you'll want to try to trap the PCs and do some real damage. Sometimes you'll attack so that the PCs can slaughter you. Sometimes you'll attack in small waves to build tension and make the PCs hurry.
The GM staff does not expect new players to be familiar with effective melee tactics, but there are a few tips that may help you a lot:
- If you see an exposed target like an unprotected mage, an archer without an arrow nocked, or a back to you, attack if you can do so. (Remember that you should use the Courtesy Strike rule when you do this.)
- If there is a large group of you, find someone to act as a squad leader and stay near that person. A group of two or three is far more effective than someone by themselves.
- Don't worry too much about dying. Often it is OK if you die and only inflict a limb wound on a PC. Remember that crunchies are supposed to die and cause excitement. If you worry a lot, you fight too defensively and don't have as much fun. Take advantage of crunching as a great excuse to relieve tension. When PCs fight, they have to worry about dying. You don't have a worry in the world.