Tuesday, April 21, 2015

LARP Advice: Quality NPCs A Bad Thing?

Think of your favourite television show.  Think about the character you adore as you watch them swanning around the television screen.  They entertain you thoroughly.  You can empathise with them and regardless of whether you like them, you like watching them so much they're a major draw for the show.  Now imagine there's fifteen other people who're also watching the same television show and, for varying reasons, any one of them can push a button and your favourite character dies right in front of you or is stolen away to another television show.

You, as the GM, are the director of this channel that is full of characters starring in other television shows and spin-off programs (as, let's face it, each player is the protagonist of their own story).  You use a handful of your best NPCs that have clear resonance with the players and you notice that the players are experiencing genuine feelings surrounding that character - joy, fear of loss, irritation, entertainment, sadness.  If you're lucky, you figure this out early on when folks rave about how much they love them.  If you're unlucky, you kill them off without knowing of their adoration and the players are gutted and frustrated at their inability to save what you thought was either a one-note character or a character that they didn't like.

HANDY HINT: Players can become attached to characters that their own characters don't like.

Imagine if Lister (from Red Dwarf) was shot in the third season by some first time character who felt insulted and considered themselves (rightfully) the protagonist of the show.  Imagine if Dean Winchester (from Supernatural) had almost decided to accept you as an awesome hunter but was convinced otherwise by some other character's mind magic.  Imagine if Daryl (The Walking Dead) ended up a zombie because of a random bite because there'd been too many complaints that he was *too awesome* by other PCs.  Imagine if Ellie (from the Last of Us) became the blood bound servant of a supernatural monster when you just wanted to keep her alive.

Sure, that might be awesome (especially for players seeking catharsis).

It could also well and truly suck.  It could even ruin the story for you.

 How often have people been turned off entire television series because of the events that affect a single character?  How often have people cried over dead characters?  Or raged at the ones who brutalised their favourites?

This tension, this conflict, makes for great plot but the emotional forces that drive them can cause emotional pain to those attached to them that makes it difficult to decide what to do with them.

NOTE: Beloved NPC means "Beloved to the Players AS Players."  This article isn't about the GM's feelings.

Check out the possible issues that can come up when a GM finds themselves with a Beloved NPC on their hands.
  • Beloved NPC suffers from a critical success on a gunshot wound.  Let them die or fudge the dice?
  • Beloved NPC has suffered enough and as a three-dimensional character (part of why they're loved), they should react poorly to an event or even reject the PC.  How realistically can you play the character before it becomes unfun?  If you fudge the NPC's motivations too often, will you damage what the player got out of them in the first place?
  • Beloved NPC enjoys a long behind-the-scenes relationship arc with one PC only to encounter another PC and due to plot or personal reasons causes a fracas large enough that the two PCs are put at loggerheads. 
  • The player with the attachment has some significant personal issues in the background but this is a LARP and their Beloved NPC is in contested territory.  Should the GM encourage everyone to let the NPC go for now until they're on steadier ground or come to a compromise?  Should it just be played out?
  • Beloved NPC is adored by some but other players see them as a needless spotlight hog and no amount of moving them away from the spotlight helps because their devotees keep dragging them back into the light.
  • Beloved NPC is an antagonist to the group and while half the players enjoy the slow and deliberate aspects of the take down, the others just want the NPC to die already.  Giving in to one will leave the other half feeling frustrated and irritable.  NOTE: Always survey the players before assuming that this is the case as there's a chance that everyone would like the plot to end soon.
  • Beloved NPC should logically be written out of the game - gone on holiday, returned to the kids, etc. - but the players keep trying to pull them back.  There's not much time to involve them in the situation.
  • Beloved NPC could be involved in a very logical and sensible action that seems the logical conclusion for their character arc - but it'd be messy and involve their death.  Go through with the action for a memorable conclusion or err on the side of caution and avoid the plot?
  • Beloved NPC has become so beloved that the player grows frustrated or despondent when anything bad happens to said NPC.  If the NPC isn't involved in any form of conflict, however, there's no reason for them to be on-screen except for rare Rest and Recreation scenes.
  • Beloved NPC is shared by two, or more, players who each have their own ideas for where that NPC should go and what experiences should be drawn from them.
What do you think?  Ever landed in this situation?  Naturally the examples above have no right or wrong answer (all depends on the variables), but do any variables and options immediately step out at you that might not be considered by all GMs?  Is it sometimes better to keep the NPCs that little bit less interesting so that players don't attach too strongly to them?  *Is* there a way to reduce attachment to an NPC, or prevent it from happening, without damaging the integrity of the game?  Should we even want to?

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