Badass Larp Talk #4: The NPC Commandments
Welcome back, everyone! This week’s Badass Larp Trick is another “by request” feature, where I’ll talk a little about what makes a good NPC. There’s a tremendous variety of rules and settings out there, but system variations aside, there are a few basic rules that I’ve seen apply to most good NPCs no matter what game they come from. So, with no further ado, I give you the five most important NPC commandments:
NPC Commandment #1: You Are Not the Star
Let’s get this out of the way early. A dear friend of mine had a speech he liked to give to his NPC crew before they kicked off one of his weekends, which went something like this: You are not a hero. You are a lamp. You are a painted backdrop. You are a rubber sword from the prop department. You are not here to beat the PCs, or fall down for them, you are here to entertain them. Not the other way around. A simple notion, really, and yet you would not believe how many people get this one wrong either by accident or design. So let’s restate it a bit more directly – if you want to NPC because you want to beat down PCs, to show how badass you are, or most of all to “win”, you’re doing it wrong. Period. End of story. I know I usually say there aren’t many “wrong” ways to larp, but this in fact is one of them, and if you catch yourself doing it, take yourself out of the mix until you get your priorities right again. When you play an NPC role, whether it’s the main villain of a weekend or Faceless Zombie #457, your top priority at all times is entertaining the players. Not winning. Not showing how clever you are. Not beating them down. Entertaining them. Say it until it’s like a meditative mantra: An NPC is there to entertain the PCs.
NPC Commandment #2: Don’t Drop Character
Think about how much a player’s imagination has to work to keep themselves immersed in game – they have to accept the reality of being in another world, as another person, and that all these other people around them are different people too, and that all those weapons are real and dangerous instead of foam and plumbing supplies, and so on. That’s really hard. Dropping character is like rolling a reality grenade at their feet on top of it all. It blows a big damn hole in the middle of the pretend world we’re all creating, and it affects everyone who sees it happening. That’s right – you might think that dropping character is just between you and one other person, but it’s not. Everyone who sees you put your hand to your forehead or hears you say “Out of character” gets a big ol’ shock of reality right in the middle of their roleplaying experience. Avoid it at all costs. Even if you really want to tell someone how badass that combat was, save it for the diner after game. If it’s good, it’ll keep; if not, it wasn’t worth breaking game anyway.
NPC Commandment #3: Stay On Script
Improvisation is the core of larp, but as an NPC, you have to be careful about the details you add to make sure they don’t inadvertently lead the plot off-track. When you get an NPC role, chances are that you’re getting a sketch of a person – after all, you might only need to exist for an hour or two. However, it’s inevitable that sooner or later players will ask you questions that weren’t covered in your briefing, but which you feel are necessary to answer. Here’s where the balancing act comes in – you want to add details to the character that flesh them out realistically so that the PCs don’t run into the invisible wall of “Uh, no, I don’t know where I was born”, but at the same time you have to be careful not to create problems for the story or connections where none are supposed to exist. My advice for making this work? Improvise on a small scale. Don’t create sweeping backstories that leave a lot open for the players to make connections; give little answers that are entertaining but still don’t volunteer much beyond what the players asked. If the players seem to be asking questions about a plot your NPC isn’t involved in – usually indicated by a persistent line of questioning – don’t make connections you weren’t explicitly told to make. Remember, most of the time PCs accept what NPCs say as gospel – they have to or a lot of the reality of the game really starts to break down as they question each and every thing they’re told. So even if you think it’s just funny to make up some crazy stories that “obviously” aren’t true from your perspective, remember that PCs will generally assume what you’re saying is true. Use that power very carefully, and when in doubt, stay on script.
NPC Commandment #4: Don’t Argue With the PCs
This is another facet of not playing to win – don’t argue with the PCs. If the rules are unclear, and it’s not a vital rules call – and by vital I mean “a character’s life and/or the outcome of a major story arc is hanging in the balance” – let the tie go to the PC and figure it out later. Note carefully that I’m not saying that you should let the PCs use rules you know are incorrect, just that if the situation seems unclear rules-wise, don’t let the game stall out in rules argument and speculation – let it fall in favor of the PCs and get an official ruling later. When in doubt, always try to err in the PCs’ favor. If you’re wrong, it’s a lot easier to come back to them later and say “Hey, you know how that worked out for you back there? We got it wrong, so this time you’re good, but in the future it wouldn’t go that way” rather than saying “Hey, sorry you guys got screwed, turns out I was wrong.” Small but important distinction. If you do know that a rule is being used incorrectly, point it out calmly and directly (off to the side if possible), and avoid being confrontational, sarcastic or condescending. Even good players can get caught up in an intense moment and be a little hot-blooded, so you need to keep your cool and keep the situation calm and respectful. If a player insists on being confrontational, as an NPC it is your job to take the high road and be the bigger person – walk away and get a marshal, storyteller or director to handle it from there. I’m not saying you need to suffer their abuse – if they’re breaking the rules and showing poor sportsmanship, absolutely report them! But getting into shouting matches in the middle of a scene never ends well for anyone.
Remember, an NPC should never have to argue rules with a player. Either you’re a storyteller/marshal/director, and players have no authority to argue with your decisions (at least in the field), or you’re not a staff member authorized to make rulings, in which case you have no authority to argue with the players. Either way, there’s no argument!
NPC Commandment #5: Build Up, Don’t Tear Down
Be a fan of the players, and always look for chances to let them shine. One reason gamers play games is because they love what their characters can do, so it’s always awesome to give them a chance to show off those skills. If your NPC is a humble farmer with no fighting ability and some glowering badass in head to toe armor and weapons growls at you to move aside, don’t act like you don’t care – give a frightened little yelp as you get out of their way! That little extra detail takes nothing for you but it will absolutely make their day. Not that you have to let them win – that gets boring fast, and easy victories make for terrible stories as a rule. But if you beat down the PCs, or take their items, or spill their secrets, or otherwise shake up their world, it should never be just because you can. Of course you can. You’re an NPC. You can make up powers, give yourself amazing items, call on infinite backup and otherwise cheat with both hands if all you want to do is trounce the players. (You shouldn’t do any of those things, by the way, I’m just saying they’re possible if you’re a jerk with no sportsmanship and an over-developed need to “win” at games with no actual win condition.) No, if you hurt them, if you take from them, it should be because it makes for a great story. Some of my favorite larp events were times my characters were completely defeated or even killed – but I loved them because those losses and setbacks weren’t arbitrary, they were part of a great story. I lost fair and square, and I loved it.
I still remember an adventure a long time back where the NPC guide refused to let the players use their own tracking and knowledge skills as we investigated the mysterious trail in the forest, forcing us to sit back and watch as this super NPC pulled us along down a pre-written path. He even ran to the forefront in fights and took down monsters, his assistance unasked for and very anticlimactic. He was having a great time, completely oblivious to the fact that we were bored out of our minds as we waited for the plot train to pull into the next station. It was one of the worst, longest adventures I’ve ever been on, and probably the worst part about it was that he had no idea he was boring us. Why would he? He got to be a badass! Which would be fine, except that it took all our fun for himself.
Addendum #1: It might seem like some of these rules encourage NPCs to let the PCs walk all over them. That’s not the case at all. But there is a bit of judo to being an NPC. You put the plot out there, true, but then you have to take what the PCs throw at you and redirect it in ways that keep them off balance, ways that surprise, challenge, engage and entertain them. Remember, they don’t have access to the big picture like you do, so sometimes their actions and reactions will seem rash or inexplicable. Be patient, stay in character, tell the story you’ve been told to tell and remember you can always came back with another face and another approach if this one’s not working. Or if the players decide to lure you in the woods and eat you, or teleport you to the surface of the moon, or re-write your mind so that you’re convinced you’re an opera singer from the 1920s (all of which have been done to NPCs of mine for no reason I ever really determined in any of those games). That’s the blessing of an NPC, after all – an NPC has a thousand lives, while the PC has but one. (Ish).
Addendum #2 (thanks Reddit!): It has been pointed out that I don’t really mention NPCs having fun, which is a pretty glaring oversight. Of course you should be having fun! A crew that isn’t having much fun often isn’t making much fun either. But the key is remembering that as an NPC, your fun is going to be a bit different from the PC definition, at least sometimes: You may be asked to fail, to fall, to screw up, to be tricked or trapped, to enter situations where you know you probably won’t win and have fun doing it. (PCs can and in fact do all of these things as well, but the difference is that you might be basically ordered to, whereas they do it naturally.) One old maxim of great game runners I know is that “If you’re entertaining others, you’ll have fun yourself” and it is pretty much dead on. When you play only to entertain yourself, chances are that’s the only audience who will appreciate it. Which is fine as a PC – after all, you paid your money, it’s your time in game to do with as you like. As an NPC, though, you can’t afford the luxury of self-indulgence – while you’re on-shift you need to think about entertaining everyone you come across. So don’t hide from it – embrace it! Throw yourself out there and be the best possible, um, whatever the hell you are at the moment. Play it up, dive in, really commit – and I guarantee you’ll not only entertain the players, you’ll have a hell of a lot of fun yourself.
So next time you go on your NPC shift, remember that the woods the players walk are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
And that you are the “who” when they call “Who’s there?”
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!