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Natural20's Random Thought Table - Deus Ex NPC Print
Written by Brian Nisbet   
Sep 14, 2009 at 05:54 AM
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Natural20's Random Thought Table - Deus Ex NPC
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What happens when your GM likes an NPC just a little bit more than the other NPCs?

Deus Ex NPC

Everyone loves NPCs. In a living universe populated by billions of sentient creatures it'd be a pretty poor show if you only ever interacted with the other PCs (not to mention immensely boring), so NPCs provide every other member of the cast. They're friends, lovers, victims, saviours, villains, local colour, random encounters and everything else you can think of, NPCs are great. Of course, the depth and quality of the NPC depends on who is playing him. In times of yore it would be the GM, or perhaps a guest player/co-GM, however in these modern days of scene-framing and GMless games, all of the NPCs are played by other players. That said, for the purposes of this article we're going to concentrate on GM run NPCs, particularly long running NPCs that the GM might love a little too much.

Long-term NPCs are a great favourite of many GMs. They give them a regular character to play, with whom the party are familiar. This allows for conversation, opportunities to roleplay (especially if the character is a lover or mentor of one of the PCs) and, of course, plot exposition. Well played, well loved, NPCs can become almost like party members, referred to and included in conversations and decision making. Of course the huge catch here is that the player behind such a character is also the source of vast amounts of power and knowledge about the world and must walk a very, very fine line indeed.

It can often be easy to let a cherished NPC (because when you play one for long enough, you get attached, GM or no) assume too much power and status, to take centre-stage when it should always be less important than the PCs. Sure, the NPC might be important in the game world, he might even be more powerful than the PCs (politically, militarily, magically, whatever), but he's not the hero. Note the difference, he may be a hero, but not the hero. Sure, he can know things, even vital, secret things, but if at all possible he shouldn't know all the answers that the PCs are seeking. If he knows them and doesn't tell the party, well, how can they trust him? Why is he around? If he knows and does tell, well, I hope someone brought a board game to fill in the rest of the evening. The same problem can occur with combat. It's all too easy to overshadow the party by turning up and beating the bad guy (it's also kinda like self-harm) while the PCs help, or stand around and watch. The party can very quickly get the feeling that they're just there because the GM has played all of his choose your own adventure books and he'd like some company. Obviously the same issues can arise with any kind of conflict resolution. NPCs should be there to help, nudge, maybe mutter a vital clue out loud, but not provide the solution and never, ever, overshadow the PCs. It gets very boring, very fast, almost as boring as there being an NPC who keeps on getting kidnapped or the like.

Mary Sue characters, in whatever genre or medium, are only ever interesting very briefly, if at all. If as a GM you ever find yourself doing most of the talking, or doing something one of the characters is meant to do (such as researching in a library instead of the PC mage or piloting the starship instead of the hotshot PC) then you probably want to stop and have a think about how big your NPCs are getting. Tone them down a bit, make sure they aren't perfect and make sure that if they're better at things than the PCs (as they likely will be) then there's some reason they don't complete that task or fulfil that vital role. If you don't want to change the NPC then feel free to remove him from constant play. Drop him into the background and make him an occasional source of help to the PCs, or kill him off dramatically and start a whole new quest line. But be assured that if you don't your players are going to think murderous thoughts, out of character at least.

The last point there hints at the one time it is ok to have an overly powerful NPC strut around the place and maybe have one instance of Deus Ex NPC, and that's if you're going for a twist. That twist may be betrayal ("Wait, you knew that the princess had a secret demon lover and you never told us, why?!"), the end of façade ("You killed that vampire by accident 'cos you put too much garlic in the chilli?!") or, as mentioned, death ("Beloved Sister, Devoted Friend, She Saved The World, A Lot"). Depending on the plot in question such an event can take your game off in a variety of directions and, of course, if your players thought you were having too much fun with a powerful NPC, they'll have out of character catharsis as well, which is handy.

Even with all of this in mind, recurring NPCs are great and I firmly believe every game should have them, just remember that they're a GM tool, no matter how much you might love them, and should be treated accordingly and used sparingly, lest familiarity breed contempt or overshadowing breed murderous anger!

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