audience, GM to player.
As the idea passes from premise to production, we need to understand how the idea unfolds and how characters can personify the unfolding. Character interaction reflecting real world machinations in a way that draws our attention to the details and why any particular scenario has relevance. This recognition of realized ideas intimately expresses the story with communicability and plausibility. Why do bad guys wear black hats in westerns? Because we expect them to. Why do bad guys in westerns not wear black hats? Because we expect them to and it's a plot device to make the black hat more interesting. Point is, enough of us know what a black hat in a western is supposed to represent. A basic representation of “badness” common enough to us all, acting as a pillar of recognition within a genre of stories. The actors that wear those black hats become part of the representation if the actor plays the part well. The image takes on an iconic quality that lends itself to the story and its telling. These characters become stars that we can all see as a result of effective story communication. The more stars we see and the more often they wear whatever type of hat it is they wear, the character will take on a more relevant connotation. This connective establishment is vital to the creation and delivery of any story.
Traditional types of stories have characters written into a plot that neatly ties at the end. All questions are answered and all puzzles solved because the author said, “so”. The production works because the characters and their stories are premeditated for the benefit of the ticket holder. A benefit of concept cohesion; idea control maintained over the precise details of character interaction giving relevance to the plot by turning the story idea into a communicable experience.
Cooperative stories, in contrast, have a more difficult time reaching “so”. The questions and puzzles are not of a singular vision. While the core story premise is laid out by the game master, every main character is independently motivated by its respective ticket holder - - each with their own ideas of unfolding the plot. Gamemasters can compensate with this expected variable by applying good direction and dramatic license. As characters convey the story, there exists a need to understand how NPC’s may be used most effectively as a component of the story.
A Theory or Relativity
A good game experience is more than coming to a table and forcing player characters through a cast-in-place, dog and pony show with no variance. There must be a perceivable quantity of interactive cooperation or the experience is drained of its purpose. Players lose their reason for being at the table and the story’s direction becomes a gamemasters wet dream. Maintain the integrity of game flow and the plot idea with a trained army of non-player characters. NPC’s are the voices of the story and the only points of interaction available to the players and will represent the majority of game play that is the dialogue of the story - - Lifeblood conversation that is the idea as characters are its expression.
Since story development has been elevated to group status, the focus of good story direction should be applied through the NPC’s as much as possible. This approach contributes to a higher quality of game play in terms of story continuity, character development, and player involvement. Once the golden plan is laid out, it becomes possible to design an NPC Strategy. An NPC strategy enables a GM to approach a game plot situations with a preexisting level of controllability tied in with expected potential. I.e. In a murder mystery, the audience expects to see law enforcers, detectives, and a plethora of suspects. These characters wear hats that we need to see in order to identify the situational parameters and mentally recreate the image. By founding a story setting on that which is cooperatively agreed to, literally and expectationally, NPC’s become the story heralds. Their presence intrigues us and their hats connotation story context and subtext. NPC’s must have character depth and story application - - interactive potential and presence plausibility - - if they are to be considered viable game tools. By developing an NPC strategy, usage of individual NPC’s and their designs will support an overall control of story and delivery. A good NPC strategy should be minimally based on the following criteria:
NPC Quality: How black are their hats and how quickly can they be recognized by the players? Characters that are poorly designed will reduce the potential for player involvement and overall story presentation. Don’t insult players by making them interact with B-movie rejects (unless that’s the expected theme).
NPC Presence: What types of characters make up the plot and why? Overall character presence can greatly affect a story’s context and subtext which can, in turn change the theme and mood of the story. Increase a story’s plausibility and presentation by including an all-star cast that can embody the story concept.
NPC Application: Define the nature, frequency, and maintenance of PC/NPC interaction. Simple story environments need a cogent plan to drive a story to its end and complex story environments rely on characters that can go the distance. Populating a story environment with meaningless characters makes game sessions harder to control because of a lack of connection between the dynamics of GM/Characters and Player/Story. Even “random” PC/NPC encounters should be planned to some degree.
NPC’s are more than “yes men” planted in a story to usher players down a garden path to the villain's lair. They should represent the story from conflict to resolution as agents of the goal and anti-goal. NPC’s should inspire players to role play their characters and take part in the cooperative plot. Open up story possibilities by designing NPC’s that can interact with player characters on a level playing field. Regardless of mechanical considerations, NPC’s must be able to engage players and their characters in a “living” environment capable of supporting the story illusion.
The first consideration of NPC design should be purpose. Is the character going to be a single scene cameo or a campaign control character? The more often an NPC comes into contact with PC’s creates a need for detail. Story details built into character design that will support the illusion of the characters existence within the setting. Create answers for player questions by writing up quality characters that can withstand repeated player character interrogation. Give NPC"s creeds and backgrounds to meet player actions with equitable reactions. Include enough story and campaign relevance to justify both the character’s presence and the time it took to write it up. If a character has little or no purpose, story cohesion and player attention will break down.
The next important design consideration to account for is ability. All NPC’s are role-played by the game master. Don’t reduce GM run characters to the status of mental finger puppets. Write up characters that are exciting to role play. Use character types that are familiar and can be adequately run to drive a story to its resolution. Bring the character to life for the player - - give the troupe another actor on the stage that will promote story dialogue. Use props and strong characterizations that will illustrate the NPC with dramatic flair. Write up characters that have a fictional body of information strong enough to support its presence in the plot and/or campaign.
Lastly is design - - NPC’s must have a mechanical translation for skilled game interaction to occur. Not only must there be an adequate body of fictional information, but that information must have mechanical justification. The spontaneous nature of role playing demands that characters are reconcilable according to ability. For example, a player character’s sidekick needs considerably more mechanical detail than a mysterious deep throat divulging secret information on a single occasion. At the very least, an NPC should have written characteristics and a paragraph or two on background information. If that information changes as a result of initial story involvement, or the NPC is generated on-the-fly, keep track of all characters aspects used in the scenario. The written record of the game and its characters are vital to the structure and success of the game. A character’s purpose within a story dictates design based on a need to resolve conflict. The more adversarial or helpful any NPC becomes, its design must be justified for accurate encounter resolution.
A Need to Know
Gamemasters have a considerable task set before them when running each non- player character. Their presentation must mentally illustrate, to the entire troupe, enough of the setting and story needed to reach the troupe’s expected potential. Draw players into the story with intriguing characters - - characters whose actions not only define the plot but draws players into its very progression. Use NPC’s to drive story momentum on the “need to know” principle: any and every type of relevant information should be told through the voices of non-player characters. Creating a setting that reaches its potential will depend on a chorus of characters whose presence projects a purpose and an agenda that will sustain dialogue and plausible story involvement throughout the game experience. More than just the carefully selected words of a prose character poised on impeccable timing and impossible circumstance, role playing characters are adaptive literary constructs capable of weaving together the eclectic threads of a cooperative plot.
Start with direct involvement; who are the main players and why? PC’s make up the list of protagonists, so square it off with some interesting antagonists. Give the plot momentum by making sure all main characters have a plot motivation. Endow them with an agenda to follow over the course of the adventure until they are either overcome or victorious. Inspire your Moriarty with enough drive to confound the PC Sherlock.
A stage should complement the actors, not detract from their presence. In role playing, secondary characters are as much a part of the stage as its description. The support cast and setting NPC’s are what will bring a story setting to mental life by giving it a truly interactive potential. Focus on the genre and premise. Begin to formulate the various types of character categories that could be present in the established story idea and how they might be used to maintain plot direction. Try to have NPC indexes of “typicals”, handy for various expected situations; law enforcement, street people, and any group having a sphere of influence that could influence goal/anti-goal agendas. Use memory to your advantage. The more often certain types of characters wander onto the troupe’s stage, the more ingrained they will be in the player’s perception of the setting. This establishment of familiar characters will not only support a great setting illusion, but will help to orchestrate tightly presented adventure stories by insuring that plot movement is driven by relevant (and available) characters. One way to adequately handle a game environment while building in potential for good story development is by organizing NPC’s into a few basic classifications:
Part of any good storytelling needs a character strategy. A story teller often shifts point of view to the characters inside the story to enhance conviction and communicate story ideas. With "person on the street" opinions, the story takes on a more personal aspect. RPG's rely on character interaction because the GM isn't just telling a story, she's facilitating the experience. The story happens as a result of character interaction - - literary creations acting as story agents; a chorus of voices to be recognized as aspects of the story idea. Each character becoming a facet of a fictional experience that can be recognized as the tale is being told. Each one is a point of internalized connection between the story teller and the
All Star Cast
Antagonists: Stories need black hats. Plots and settings start with the big lineup of wacky nonconformists that will be the bane of our heroes. Make sure there are shadows that go bump in the night and give help to other bad guys in need. Associate bad guys with networks and organizations within the setting for good depth and “Plan Bs”. Create perceivable, independent agendas that can be used for quick plots and/or campaign integration.
Support Cast: Key NPC’s are the sole source of center stage role playing interaction and plot development. They are the player’s connections to the game world and a support cast represents the inherent involvement of PC “life” within the
environment. They are the contacts and dependents that players pay character points or resources to justify the connection, either by allotting actual character points or disadvantage leveraging. Any type of plot involvement that breaks the connection (ala villain capturing a sidekick) must be well justified and some sort of compensation is usually offered to the player for the duration of the encounter (which is a resource loss).
Setting NPC’s: Setting NPC’s are the police officers and garbage collectors, the innkeepers and merchants that add another level of almost casual character involvement to strengthen environmental interaction. Since player resources are not spent on these types of NPC contacts, keep their motivations and agendas separate from direct plot agendas and pay close attention to their involvement with the PC’s. Any one setting NPC could have a desire to advance the hero’s goal, the anti-goal, or an independent agenda built into the characters creed. They are the everyday people that give a game setting a “neighborhood” feel. Every setting NPC won’t be used in every adventure as they are shadows walking into the spotlight as needed. Their need stems from PC interaction with the setting, so this type of NPC should be concerned with its own agenda. Affect a setting NPC’s agenda actively or passively as the need arises, contingent on the needs of the plot. Setting NPC’s are the “goalies” - - they keep the PC’s from wandering off the map. Their repeated and bubbling reoccurrences in their familiar locations are the detail anchors that will maintain the setting illusion.
Cameo NPC’s: Cameo NPC’s are used primarily for emotional impact. From the red shirts to the superstar to the wild eyed bag lady, these one shot characters can be used to underscore plot ideas and campaign themes by personifying strong moments; intense ideas or clues delivered in flash point situations - - situations that are very PC reactionary, leaving behind flashes of peculiarity that will echo story communications.
Everyday People: Sitting in front of the game master, behind the screen of power, is a collection of paper that represents available NPC’s. NPC’s that will be moved forward into the light to progress the story and sought by PC’s to advance their own agendas. Once the plot starts moving, PC’s will scramble to find information and resources to overcome the challenge set before them. Rushing into the story environment, PC’s will grill every character they come in contact with and concoct every possible scheme to shortcut the challenge. Without having at least some idea of which NPC’s to use and how to use them, the story idea will get skewered as improvised NPC’s and their interaction with player characters obfuscate the issue at hand.
Crowds and Mobs: A unique thing occurs when enough everyday people get together in one spot. Action and reaction interplay as events unfold. Crowds gather to see strange things and mobs gather when all the cameos are afraid of some impending story catastrophe. Help the PC's perceive more of the stage than is contained by their characters when circumstances allow. Handling crowd reaction makes scenes big and necessitate more support material, but when the wicked witch of the west terrorize the village, the villagers band as a mob, when she gets squashed by mysterious falling houses, people gather to see what happened and then to have a party.
The Snowball Effect
Role playing stories quickly bog down into confusion if game sessions consist of nothing but new ways to deliver story material and GM techniques. Troupes can suffer if a GM delivers too many new game aspects before the group catches on. Players will be concentrating so much on trying to understand what's going on that character content and interaction can suffer. Don't make players feel like every session is their first time playing. Institute new game techniques progressively over time evolve your storytelling technique with the old snowball effect. Add one or two techniques at first and then progressively insinuate new deliveries when the players are familiar with each new storytelling approach. Allow time for yourself and the players an acclimating period, then make new techniques part of new stories, using the approach to accent the game. This way allows time for the troupe to soak in the functional nuances and players can develop an understanding of each new technique. Mechanics and delivery will mesh into experiential familiarity both in precedence and pattern that will help the troupe bridge the gap of understanding. This intimates a more cultivated mechanical environment cooperatively, enabling troupe participation in the story creation from beginning to end.
The flow of information in a role playing game is unique and complex. Players run their characters through the story to overcome the climax challenge and so half as author, telling their character's stories and negotiating game challenges and half as audience, enjoying the overall experiences of game and story. The main pitfall is also its greatest asset: group involvement. Gamemasters overcome these challenges by passing notes and conducting off-stage scenes away from the group. Arron Allston perfected note passing in the days of Strikeforce with Blue Booking.
Blue booking is simply a more organized way to handle note passing by using a small notebook to pass around instead of scribbling questions and secret clues on fast-food napkins. Blue booking is more than just an organized approach; it justifies GM judgment and intensifies story delivery with the luxury of greater information control. It is also a useful tool for gauging player intent by watching the other player's reactions as the mysterious communiqué are delivered. Story details can be doled out a little at a time with precision delivery, causing curiosity. Mounting secrets will inspire investigations and inquiries over contrasting or contradicting story information can, deliver confounding challenges and subtle character maneuvers that will always improve game play.
Storyteller Tips: Perspective
Story perspective, or point-of-view (POV), is a powerful and effective tool for telling stories. It facilitates perceptual shifting of story material by presenting it from a different "mental view". Perspective is illuminating an idea or story element from a specific understanding that illustrates the focal relationship within the whole idea. Imagine how a director uses a camera to intensify suspense and surprise or change a character's impression on the audience by changing angles. POV in a role playing game is controlled by the GM as part of a story's telling. Stories can be told from a POV inside the story as NPC's to validate PC actions and reactions for dramatic license or pique curiosity. The story can shift outside of the story perspective to remind players of story ideas their characters would normally be aware of but haven't come up in game discussion. Perspective can shift as player and in-character conversations from the first person to highlight personal sensibilities or to third person to instigate exclusion or to cue players that their characters aren't privy to the conversation. Perspective can also descriptively shift as an expression of story telling particular ideas or images that aren't normally conceptualized. As a way to control the presentation of creative content, ideas uniquely fit stories and their telling and can be one of the most powerful tools available to the storyteller.
Storyteller Tips: Plot Devices
Plot devices are schemes or plans to make the plot work; plots within plots to deliver a story with artistic effect. Use this list of plot devices to polish your golden plan and put a game plan together with an NPC strategy to make the devices work to a story's benefit:
Rhetorical Question: Spice up story transitions and endings with a rhetorical question; a question with no answer, only a thoughtful effect: reflection. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Escape literalism and ask the occasional philosophical question. Better yet, role play it in-character.
Monologue: A monologue is a composed speech, soliloquy or recitation given by a main character that sets the tone of the story. It introduces contact and delivers interesting elements of a story's status-quo as the story's foundation. This can be done from the narrators POV (as GM or player) or in-character (as NPC or character).
Dilemma: Heat up a plot situation by putting characters between a rock and a hard place. At the beginning of a story, a dilemma is the beginning of a really bad day for the characters and at the end a dilemma can be the humiliating loss or the hail-Mary three point basket at the last second. Leave players a choice between bad and bad but not impossible. Help character with a little script protection, but make them earn their silver linings.
Foreshadow: Let the power of prophecy work for you. Foreshadowing is a sign of things to come. When an NPC says, "It looks like rain", it's going to rain at some point in the story. Give hints and clues in and out of character about upcoming story events. Help players connect the dots so they can enjoy increasingly complicated and interesting story developments without having to spell out every detail.
Rule of Three: In scenes, plot stages or single in-character lines, use the Rule of Three. Goldie Locks and the 3 bears, The Three Pigs and Three Billy Goats Gruff are all good examples of this time honored plot device. The rule of three draws in attention, validates the attention, and then surprises the attention even though an audience knows what coming next. The first story happening lays the foundation: pigs houses are easily knocked down. The second story happening validates the statement: pigs houses are easily knocked down. The third and last story happening is the surprise. The hero's house can't be knocked down, someone is still in this bad and the troll ends up the butt of his own joke.
Contrast: Set up scene or story elements in a "one-two" punch so that the first situation sets the mood or tone and the second is completely opposite. All the points of a story event are accented by being so closely presented that the device function is a comparison of idea differences. The focus is the contrast and enhances the delivery of subtle ideas in an interactive environment.
Allegory: Allegories can take any form from a sentence to an entire story or campaign. Allegory is a presentation of story ideas with a hidden meaning or moral. Example allegories are fairy tales or myth whose story closure underscores the symbolic meaning without directly stating it. If you decide to use allegory in your story telling, don't be too preachy and be sure you know what you are talking about. Turn, turn, turn wheel of morality...
Storyteller Tips: Mood
Adding atmosphere to the mental disposition of the general plot premise, mood helps establish the spirit of the story and outline storyteller delivery. As theme is a story’s structure, mood is its expression, and descriptive language is the medium. Mood is the story's "state of mind". Mood conveys theme, giving the story emotional depth. Descriptively, mood should manifest as a prevailing trend of fictionally based emotional responses to PC involvement, delivered to the players by a chorus of non-player characters along with GM narratives. Insinuate mood into a game story by sketching out an NPC strategy of PC involvement. As player characters interact with story characters, use mood to simulate NPC attitudes to the environmental conditions of thread and theme. Let it act as the reactionary baseline for NPC responses as players navigate their way through the story environment from conflict to resolution. This strategy of NPC usage will help keep player involvement focused by a maintained perspective over the course of information interchange.
Use mood to direct a story by controlling the type of perception and description by reflecting the setting’s atmosphere in the emoting of NPC’s. For instance, the stage is set for a fantasy hero setting under a metaphoric theme. The heroes are questing for objects and the current mood is rainy day angst. The heroes are on an open plain just outside of a walled city. A party representative has been chosen to go inside while the others wait outside. Let the mood to help establish atmosphere: make it rainy. Make the characters wallow in cold mud with few provisions and let a subplot be based on them passing the time away in a miserable downpour. Before the adventure is over, a simple boasting of party archers could turn into a raucous mud-fight and even put a few smiles on the characters...and their players. Use different ways of telling mood to accent the story:
Indicative Mood: Description of something as a "known fact" by an NPC, whether it is or isn't, passively effects the story with an emotional landscape, such as, "It's a known fact that buying this book can improve your health." The fact is fiction and it indicates what's going on with the subject.
Subjunctive Mood: Using basic "If I were you, I would buy the book" comments can insinuate a mood that leads story content. Subjunctive mood is a more manipulative NPC interaction that works well with control characters and GM-DNPC's.
Imperative Mood: "If you don't buy the book, you will suffer an ancient Egyptian curse!" This example of Imperative Mood is a direct source of conflict as NPC's threaten and bark at the PC's and compel them to action one way or the other.
Constituent Mood: These are the necessary descriptions of dependable representation. The constituents are the characters and their mood must reflect the story. "We've just learned that John and Joan Q Public feel the book is important."
Syllogistic Mood: Two logical statements are reasoned to a logical conclusion. It's a flow of sound reasoning from the general premise to the specific premise as deductive logic. Mammals are warm blooded (general premise); Role players are mostly warm blooded (minor premise), therefore role players are mostly warm blooded. As story fact, these two points can be delivered by the same or different characters to produce strong story moods.
Rhetorical Mood: This showy and elaborate use of descriptive language is the art of artificial eloquence. Saying little, but meaning much, use rhetorical mood as the poetic lyrics of the NPC chorus used to ask the unanswerable questions.
Storyteller's Tips: Source Material
Stories perceived as events told are never so tidy as to fit into a mold and although this is actually a benefit for creative expression, it isn't any help to novice troupes that want stories with more depth than the lust for gold. Look to familiar inspirations for source material:
Fairest of Them All: Romance is a great way to cause story interest. NPC crushes, DNPC domestics and hero/villain romances are always source for introducing mountains and valleys to a story environment.
Family Ties: Prodigal children showing up on a PC's doorstep, curious relationships with siblings and parents, crazy aunts and uncles are all sorts of attention getting plot lines. Be sensitive to players personal lives out of a "professional" respect but never overlook the character potentials (if its a dramatic oriented) Playing a pivotal role in every characters life, family ties are a rich source of plot developments.
Morbid Curiosity: To most of us, the traffic slow downs as passersby ogle at the twisted wreckage is annoying, but still, most everyone slows down to sneak a peak at the gruesome situation. They look with morbid curiosity. Use foreshadowing or a scene introduction with a gruesome accident or event and your players will be asking, "Hey, what's going on?"
Daily Life: No matter the story, there is always an oppressive boss, an explosive mail person or a cranky butler to complicate the lives of protagonists. Whether it's haggling over the price of a well crafted sword or missing work because the world needed saving, daily life has enough examples of plot complications for us all.
For the Love of a Child: By using ideas that every one can relate to, such as children in a well bringing people together to save a child, many story ideas can be drawn from the many trials and tribulations we are all familiar with. Wrap it up in story context and serve generously.
Reruns: Recycle old game supplements and resource materials by retrofitting plot content and game write-ups that a worth role playing. For those of us in the know, there is always an opportunity to run something from the Zodiac Conspiracy or Ravenloft?
Storyteller Tips: Subplots and Side Stories
The decision to complicate story and storytelling with subplot is one of depth. Character actions intermingling as subordinate plots within plots affecting the outcome of the story. Subplots add a depth perception to a game environment. In an RPG, use of subplot can become opportunity. Opportunity to handle the outcomes of various story events and make sure the story stays on track with its intentions. Important encounters can be accounted for regardless of success or fail.
Recover the failed attempts by using subplots and side stories to redirect content so it occurs as it needs to for story integrity. When you write out adventure notes, finish that exercise by planning for contingencies and linking them back to the main story events. In this manner, a GM can handle player-random events, character-random events and all the unforeseen events that challenge a GM's ability to get things done fairly. Story outcomes can be linked to back stories, side stories, subplots, bluebook plots, background material surprises and behind-the-scenes events in the main story. subplots can also offer wider character developments and fill in extra game sessions for the one player who didn't leave to go get dinner or can't get enough and wants to role play their character in less than "main event" conditions for a more casual and personal exploration of character possibilities. These small story "fragments" can be run as a solo or short game session with a small group or to fill in game sessions on those nights when there are more "no shows" than "shows". The show can go on and everybody isn't needed to play the game.
Side Stories are another type of story fragment. Events sometimes occur co-incidentally. They occur simultaneously without necessarily affecting each other, but the information is comparable because of the timing in which they take place. Mini-plots that resolve before the main plot resolves without affecting it and yet allowing a character development that has impact on the experience.