Monday, June 28, 2021

Semi-Player Characters

One of the burdens of being a Game Master is maintaining the juggling act of: Running the game; Maintaining the flow of the action/adventure/plot/story-flow and readjusting the flow due to players always coming up with out-of-left-field actions/ideas; Playing the part of every single NPC, from the major antagonists and supporting characters, to the random one-note-joke "spear carrier" extra who is just there to make a Warren Ellis-styled joke about a Farmer who brags about fucking pigs. There is so much effort in running a game that I find that I have to scale back on things for the sake of speed and efficiency.

To deal with the game system, I try to use simple, rules-lite game engines. For example, I find it easier to broaden skills into the category of what a character archetype (Soldier, Thief, Barbarian, Technician, Cowboy, etc.) could do then to compile a long-ass list of skill areas (Melee Weapons, Rifles, Survival, Pick-Pockets, Fashion, Mechanics, Electronics, etc., etc.), each with their own set of sub-rules. This is the approach Barbarians of Lemuria did with Heroic Careers. If you want to intimidate someone, you can use Barbarian or Torturer. If you want to hide-in-plan-sight within an urban area, you can use Beggar, Thief or Slave. Its all open-ended, and subject to GM's approval. Also, the use of quick-and-simple combat mechanic, that gives you a good amount of options, without dropping a D20-styled grapple rules on you in the middle of the action, goes a long way into resolving the mechanics quickly so we can focus more on role-playing the action.

Dealing with the herculean task of maintaining the flow of the game without holding the players by their noses into a railroad adventure is a whole topic into itself, and not the topic I want to focus on right now.

To deal with having to play each an every NPC the players would run across, I use SPCs, or Semi-Player Characters. I first did this with intelligent magic items and magical familiars. Instead of acting the part of the magic item or critter, I would have one of the players do that for me, and not the player who is handing the item/critter, but another player as to get more social interaction between them, and without the innate bias that could occur with, let say: A morally questionable Fighter character wielding an intelligent Holy Avenger sword. Outside of intelligent magic items and magical familiars (or high-tech equipment/drones with AI), I can use this for minor NPCs during non-critical social encounters. To do this, I ether slip players index cards with normal NPC notes on them (name, job, personality, motivation, quirks, etc.), or I can allow players, within reason, to write their own SPC notes, then allowing them to "go ham" with it.

SPCs are also good back-up or auxiliary PCs. That is, lets say that Steve plays Dominique, a human cleric, as his main PC and also plays Valerian, a half-orc Bouncer at the local pub. Steve only created Dominique as the party really needed a healer, and he end up playing Valerian so he could still be in the action during scenes that takes place at the local pub -- the hangout of the PCs between adventures --as Dominique's duties do not allow him to go boozing. On top of that, Steve is starting to get board with Dominique and really enjoys the loud snarkness of Valerian. When the group got a new player, Sarah, who really wants to play Cordelia, a Sea-elf Priestess of a water-based healing goddess, Steven asked if he could retire Dominique and play Valerian as his primary character (as a Fighter equal in level to Dominique), the DM agreed and allowed Dominique to remain, now tied to the temple or some other task, as a reoccurring SPC.