Monday, February 11, 2013

How Social Politics Can Help With Running Large NPC Groups

One of the difficulties in any form of media involving a large cast is that screen time breeds familiarity and familiarity breeds attachment (if not actual liking) and attachment breeds concern.  The larger the cast, the harder it is to give everyone meaningful moments so people start fading into the background and out of sight, becoming extras no matter how hard you work on it.  Sure you could introduce them slowly, but that just means that they slowly become less and less important to the overall plot.  On the plus side for slow one-by-one introductions, at least your Players will remember them when they come back onto the stage for their brief moments.

I'm very aware of this at present as I'm running a solo campaign with twelve expedition members but the additional player.  It's even harder in roleplaying games because it's one thing to act out one person faithfully, another to have whole conversations between yourself with two to three people which means that the screen time is generally a mere spotlight on one person at a time.  It's also a shame because often we learn a lot of people by seeing how they interact with different types of people.  We all wear different faces, at least slightly different, when dealing with others.  The simple addition or subtraction of a single group member can change conversations and social interactions quite dramatically.

So what to do?

Well, I've sat down and picked out three traits for each of the twelve NPCs and then I turned those three traits into three lines and that's helped a bit.  I killed off two NPCs, which means I only have to deal with eleven now, and their deaths have also given me a chance to flesh a few NPCs out through their reactions.  Another one was reduced by 8 Constitution by moving plants (plants can be terrifying in Pathfinder, great horror fodder) and his wife has been trying to keep him alive although she had lost 5 Constitution.  That man would have died if not for the PC providing him with a Cloak of Endure Elements and that gave a slight dimension to the two characters that would otherwise be in the background.

Still, Game of Thrones and, to a much lesser extent, the Walking Dead handle large casts reasonably well.  How do they do that?

In a word: Politics.

Maybe you're groaning right now because you want an action-packed expedition with multiple members (like I'm doing) or you want to highlight a hamlet's population or survivors of a sinking ship and you don't want to resort to ... ugh ... politics.  This isn't a political game, after all.

Umm, actually, it is.

The moment you get large groups of people in a room you get social politics.  Their clashing and competing motivations and personalities will lead to a web of mixed feelings and considerations.  The simple difference of 'who likes/dislikes who' can make as much of a difference to the group dynamics as creating a person who has a weak/strong temper.  People are more likely to trust those they like and have mixed feelings if they do happen to trust someone they don't like very much (such as if they're good at their job).  Also, when two people who don't like each other clash, it can add some extra spice to an otherwise boring scene.

That impatient and brittle character you created?  Yeah, you'll reveal them more and in a dynamic and more memorable way when the brash character brings them close to tears.  Even if you talk about the clash in third person rather than play acting it out, it'll *still* have a big impact.  People naturally take note of social interplay and since it comes up more rarely in roleplaying games they're more likely to notice it, even if it's about as tangential to the plot as the blacksmith bitching to the player characters about how they can't trust anything they buy at the general store because the owner doesn't understand good workmanship (because he doesn't like the blacksmith's wares and said so once).

So yes, think about how the different characters relate.  Pick any two characters and ask yourself what they think of each other.  Create at least three options and pick the most interesting one.  Consider reversing the connection or having their own feelings clash without realising it. 

Billy thinks Tom is a brash idiot who'll get them all killed but Tom thinks Billy is his friend because he listens.

Or perhaps:

Tom thinks Billy hesitates and is too cowardly but Billy actually likes Tom because he gets things done and believes they complement each other's styles quite well.

Then while you're roleplaying, figure out how the characters might reveal their feelings.  Even if they're trying not to reveal anything, they're bound to have noncommital responses where others might enthuse or they might visibly grit their teeth or roll their eyes when the other person speaks.  Sometimes it's incredibly subtle and is in what they don't say and the facial expressions they don't make when talking about that other person.

In short:
  • Social politics allows for dramatic moments between combats
  • People can be revealed for who they are by what/who they like/dislike
  • People can be revealed through how they respond to each other
  • People can have different relationships with each other (one likes the other who dislikes them)
  • People behave differently when around different people and that can round out the character
  • Seeing interactions between other people can help the PCs get a better impression of them, but you don't need to act it out by swapping roles in an conversation with yourself.  You can just summarise the encounter.  That works as well.


  1. Zombie Apocalypse has a huge cast of characters (several dozen at last count), and I've been using social politics unconsciously throughout the game. Each character is pregenerated and comes with his or her own secrets and agendas, which often come in conflict with each other. Too often characters fade into the background, but I've had opportunities to showcase characters by playing them off against each other. The high school setting works very well with this, as high schools are hotbeds of social politics, and the characters there have built-in cliques. The recent antagonism between Heather and Lisa is a good example of how I've used it

    1. This is also one of the benefits of a forum game as well as you can nip through dozens of minds in dealing with dozens of characters simultaneously. I did quite like the interplay between the gang that was recently broken up by poor Samuel and his vigilante pals.

  2. Is your game at a table or online? I can see this being manageable if playing online as long as you kept copious notes but I can't see anyone keeping things on track with a dozen+ NPCs while dealing with the chaos of tabletop play.

    I guess I shouldn't say "i can't see it happening," I just see it being an enormous pain in the butt. Phew, 12 active NPCs per adventure is a lot to handle!

    You are definitely on the right track with short character summaries. Have you considered setting up some kind of "relations index"?

    On each NPC's sheet you could include a list of the other NPC's names (including the player) with symbols indicating relationship status (hostile, friendly, romantic, etc). That way you have a quick reference guide on-hand. Just a thought.

    1. That's a good idea actually. Mr. Handy's is online, in a forum game no less, so easier to keep track of. I once ran a LARP with about 20 recurring ones but I only played one at a time and had relational charts and goal lists and all sorts of things.

      I have 10 NPCs now to manage which is certainly a bit tricky. I don't mind if they're not all getting much spotlight, I just want to make them interesting enough that the PC can choose the ones he wants to be spotlighted rather than being surrounded by interchangeable silhouettes.

      I must admit that I'm unduly excited at the chance to kill the odd one here and there.

      A relations index is a really good idea. I've already gotten some of the way with their character sheets since Pathfinder, unlike World of Darkness, really requires referencable sheets.

  3. Yes, I couldn't imagine trying to run Zombie Apocalypse as a tabletop game. I'd go crazy in short order. Even as a LARP it would be too unwieldy, and that's not even counting the zombies.

    I also know the joy of killing off excess characters in Zombie Apocalypse. Part of the reason is that for each NPC that dies, that's less work for me.

    Another good use for social politics is among groups of antagonists. The Jamaican drug posse you mentioned above were non-playable NPCs. Doug and Lisa Marley, the kingpin's children, were playable, but nobody had chosen to play them. Individualizing enemies makes them human (or whatever they happen to be) rather than cannon fodder. In addition, it provides an avenue for clever players to discover and exploit divisions among their foes and play them off against each other. I also try to give descriptions even of zombies, such as the postman zombie in his uniform with the mailbag still slung over his shoulder early on in the game.

    I've also used social politics in my Doctor Who/Call of Cthulhu campaign, though there are fewer characters involved. In The Terror Out of Time, the cultists were all unique individuals with their own character sheets. However, that group was rather tightly knit and would have been impossible to divide without destroying the leadership. Social politics (with a big dose of actual politics) played a prominent role in The Ninth Planet, which took place on humanity's first base on Pluto in the year 2112. Like in Zombie Apocalypse, the characters were mostly pregenerated with built-in secrets and agendas. In this case, they were all part of a militaristic authoritarian regime that ruled the solar system, and division and paranoia are rampant. Throw the Mi-Go and a group of space/time travelers into the mix and things get even more interesting. The base had a crew of fourteen, of which four were non-playable NPCs and the other ten were playable (all of them had players at some point). Eventually things came down to a mutiny, and the PCs had to choose sides - and later had reason to regret their choices. Fatalities were surprisingly low, but then again the Mi-Go plan did not involve killing people...