Saturday, July 13, 2013

Running Multiple NPC Companions

Running multiple companions can be a daunting task.
Some systems allow players to accumulate multiple companions either through allies, retainers, followers or cohorts.  The trouble is that most games have multiple players in their party which can lead to quite a load on the GM's shoulders.  It does seem quite like a problematic challenge.  They all need rules so that one can roll for them.  They all need to speak and act and fight.  The players need to be able to differentiate between them otherwise, well, what's the point in having several of them?  How do you run them?  Why would you?  Where would you find the time?  Should you even do it?

Well, maybe.

That last question is up to you.  You know your talents and skills as well as the needs of your game and the capabilities of your players.  I can only tell you what works for me. 

Firstly, know your NPC Companions.  They need to feel real to you.  It often helps to come up with a demeanor, coping style, and basic thought processes.  What are the pillars of stability keeping them sane?  What do they believe in?  What are their fears, likes and dislikes?  What do they think of each other?  You need to get to the point where you could comfortable ad hoc the answer to any question asked of them.  Often a lot of tactics used by authors when developing their characters can be used to develop your NPC Companions.

Secondly, ensure that there's plenty of character building time in-game.  There needs to be a purpose to the NPCs other than simply providing 'extra skills'.  The PCs could always hire a private investigator or a caravan guard in the short-term.  Why keep them around?

Because they enrich the story.  These are the pivotal NPCs.  The ones who add heart to the tale.  Whose panic makes the fear feel richer.  Whose sweet aspirations remind the PC what they're fighting for.  Whose humorous asides cut the tension in a way that allows it to rise greater.  They may have secrets, fears, and passions of their own and, being recurring, can develop over the course of the campaign and aid the PCs in doing the same.  In short, they help bring the campaign to life.

So how many can you have?

I've been in a solo game with up to eight NPC Companions on top of my own and I have to say that just like in a television series with a large ensemble cast you don't get as much time to form much of a relationship with them.  If you must have such a large grouping than find out which ones your player prefers and use them whenever possible as though they were major characters in a novel (as opposed to the protagonist) and leave the rest of them as mere secondary characters.

I mean, think about the various games you've played with multiple PCs.  The larger the party the less time everyone has and, more often than not, the more unequal the spotlight distribution becomes as some players consistently demand their 25% cut of the time even when there's only about 15% time available if it were split fairly (and also there are players who demand only 5% of the time regardless).  Think about the kind of party size you could handle and let that be your upper maximum.  Remember that you can't rely on other people to move them forward.  It's all on you.

Therefore unless you think you could handle a party of eight then don't add another four NPC Companions to your cast of four PCs.  If your PCs have retainers or followers then either let the players know they will be minor NPCs mostly in the background but who will nevertheless be part of the recurring cast or ask your player to play them (or see if another player will volunteer).  If you can run the world plus everyone else in it, the player might well be able to run a retainer and themselves.

Personally I doubt there is generally much room for more than one NPC companions in any cast of four or more and they're generally more of the campaign enrichment variety (i.e. adopted orphans, lovers) rather than active participants in the game itself.

With smaller groups, especially solo games, you could potentially have enough NPC companions to have them bicker, flirt, and otherwise engage with each other.  If you can do this (and remember to do this) often enough than marvellous.  If you can't do it then I'd recommend sticking to one or two no matter how few PCs you have and then working your way up as your skill increases.  It gets weird after awhile when the characters only ever talk to the PCs and never to each other.

You don't have to hold long conversations with yourself, mind.  It is all about the PCs, after all.  You don't even have to maintain two different characters in conversation with the PC very often.  Just the occasional aside, reference to the other companion, or short conversation between two or more of them can really help with that immersion.

One other limiter to the number of NPCs you hold ... best to only have as many as you can reasonably distinguish between body language and tone of voice.  It's much easier to run a conversation between Perky Voice and Dour Voice than having to go "Davenport said Blah and then Casey said Blah."

Oh, one more thing: abide by all of the rules of the NPC companion when you do so.  The player should never feel upstaged by them.  Their character is the protagonists.  Yours come secondary.  Always.

What do you guys think?  Ever tried your hand at Multiple NPC Companions?  Did it work out for you?  Why or why not?


  1. Shannon, good post!

    I am running and AD&D 2nd edition game, and I like using a lot of NPCs. I encouraged every player to have a family of some sort. It's odd how many Pc's family and villages have met a tragic end by the hands of orcs... I wanted to discourage that overused background by making relatives and friends useful and adding to the story.

    One player's father is a substantial land holder. The player has an older brother and 5 younger brothers and sister, and a 23 member household staff. Another player chose to be a guardsman for the holding. So the rich player has a PC playing a typically npc role. I am also ready for the roles of the family and staff, as yes, I have been watching Downton Abbey.

    He has a small village on his holding and has yet to fully interact with the people. Character-wise he had known them all his life, but I have 4 personalities ready to go when the party does. I have no motivations for them yet though, but I know what actors are going to play them should they get involved(one is a busybody housewife played by a young Judi Dench...rumors and gossip! :)

    For major NPCs, I think of an actor and a role they played in a movie or tv show to use as the personality. I do use voices, or at least my interpretation of their voices, and enjoy when I can have a conversation with myself (as the npcs) and the players can follow it. And to let the players know that I am speaking in character I usually stand up. I also try and use gestures and mannerisms of the actors. If an npc is talking to a PC, at times I may encourage the player to stand up too. Standing gets them more involved in the conversation/interaction more than remaining seated.

    One barbarian npc was recently accidently killed. Instead of the normal, "Oh he's dead? Let's move on," reaction to an npc dying I got : "What? No! I liked him." PCs caring about a npc = score!

    The game is political, so it has need of a lot of npcs that attend the players. Once their exploration to the new lands starts, I think there will be 6 main pcs, 2-3 secondary pcs, and 12-15+ npcs attending them. I dont have them all mapped out yet but I do have ideas.

    Sometimes if it doesn't make sense to the story for PCs to be at a location, I will give them the roles of npcs to play. That way even though the spotlight is exclusively on a single player, they feel involved as they are playing npcs that they know. It also makes them think of the npcs as more than arrow blocking meat shields.

    I like 3-4 players(5max), but I enjoy big parties and a big scope to the game. I find with a large groups of players it tends to get noisy and there are more distractions. My npcs can shut up whenever I want them to.

    The only thing I can add to the npcs conversation is keep good notes! As long as you can remember a little bit about the npc and what they have done it can really help when the PCs encounter them at later dates.

    David S.
    Minnesota, USA

    1. I'm currently populating a train in my play-by-post The Last Express and will be running a massive FIVE NPC companions in Masks of Nyarlathotep (it's worth repeating as even I'm a little gunshy) so this insight into how you do it is very helpful to me, thank you.

    2. Wow. Those sound fun. I am a Lovecraft/CoC fan but have not gotten too many chances to try it. Masks of Nyarlhotep is one of those epic ones that is on my RPG bucket lists. I would like to get at least one solid CoC campaign in this lifetime.

      Is the Last Express a home brew? Have you ever seen Murder on the Orient Express? How many players are you planning on?


      It's a fun Agatha Christie mystery movie (Hercule Poirot) with a great cast of actors. It's set on a train... You might be able to fit some of their personalities in to an adventure.

      -If you use this idea feel free to delete my post so your players wont see it. Do they read your blog?-

      Something I just remembered when I watched the trailer: I will check youtube for interviews with actors to get their speaking style down. You get more exposure to them speaking in a short amount of time. John Gielgud (butler in Orient Express and Arthur) is the Royal Seneschal in my game. He has a very distinguished and poised manner to him. I have a speech where he lets the players really have it, in a very understated and even pattered way. Sort of a "who do you think you are" dressing down. Interviews from variety shows and clips from the movie Arthur were really valuable!

      That probably wont help in play by post games but might help out with voices in a live game.

      How prominent are the NPCs going to be in the MoN campaign, if I may ask?


    3. It is a home brew, yes, and I've seen the movie and played the videogame. Just need to read the book now. I have five characters but could have many more as just as in a LARP, the more PCs ... the less effort for me. While there are NPCs involved, the sheer amount of intrigue surrounding some of the PCs should keep them second guessing and chatting to each other.

      While actors don't help in play-by-posts, novel characters do, especially ones that have a very distinctively style of speaking.

  2. I've never done this, NPCs have only been temporary allies or DM-run. I don't think I'd want to run more than one or possibly two companions for more than a session, because keeping on top of DM stuff generally takes my full attention. Also I do worry about NPCs taking over the game, particularly with my newer players who aren't as confident (or as likely to call me on it).

    In the right circumstances - say, PCs are escorting a group of NPCs - I'd be inclined to give each one a couple of distinctive characteristics, and run them as a collaborative effort. I already do this with NPCs to some extent, cheerfully taking player suggestions on what they might do (especially those prefaced by "Oh no, I bet...") and it can help with those NPCs where I don't really have detailed ideas about their character or ultimate goals.

    In games where a PC might reasonably attract a genuinely faithful and competent companion, I'd probably allow them to control the companion just as they do a familiar. In other games, I might have a different player control the companion, giving them a bit more independence, and less of the uncanny mental connection. Two players each running the other one's servant sounds fun, for example.