Friday, April 5, 2013

Ideas on creating NPC's

Now that I've got the city in a rough but decent format, it’s time to move on to section 3—NPC’s. Obviously, it is here that the city will start to come to life, with a variety of characters attempting to accomplish their own goals, running afoul of each other, and falling inevitably into conflict with one another.  A few good NPC’s can mean more to making to city come to life than the most detailed maps or lovingly described setting.

Given this, I want to spend a bit of time first discussing my general philosophy when it comes to creating NPC’s, especially those for Vampire. In general, the “stats” of the character are the least important part of them. I feel comfortable enough with my knowledge of the game to wing it for most NPC’s, and while I will stat out some, knowing their skill in Etiquette won’t really help me make the character come to life, or to help me create and drive plots.

I’m also not a huge fan of how they handled NPC’s in the By Night series of books. Most of them would have incredibly detailed back stories, with the focus often on their mortal lives. While knowing where someone comes from certainly helps in playing them, most of this information is comparatively useless in determining what the character is doing now. This is not to mention that some of them would have this information be presented as a “first person” account, which was not only incredibly painful to read, but also made it completely unusable for in-game purposes.

Instead, I want to focus on who the character is now, and what they’re up to. I came up with a rather basic NPC sheet a while ago for a game that never quite took off (there was a not-insignificant amount of personal drama going around among my players at the time), but I want to give it whirl. I think it’s a good starting point, but I’d obviously need to see how well it actually works in game.

So, for each major NPC, I focus on the following:

Name—this should be obvious. In general, most Vampires go by a single name, even if sometimes it’s a nickname. So, a Vampire isn’t known as “John Smith”—he’s called “John” or “Jack” or “Smith” or a nickname, something like “Twich” or “Joker” or the like. For most Vampires, they only know him as “Smith” and it would actually require a bit of digging to find their “real name.”

Real Name—the name they were born with, if it matters

Personal Masquerade—how does the character present himself to mortals? Maintaining the Masquerade is the entire point of Vampiric society, and is why it has so many rules. It’s more than just hiding murders or squashing news stories’; each Kindred is expected to maintain a personal one, to blend in mortal society as much as possible. Not surprising, those that don’t require jobs to maintain—such as “retired tech millionaire,” “trust fund baby,” or “Real Housewife”—tend to be quite popular.

Role—NPC’s aren’t “real characters,” they are there to fill a need in the story or setting, and this sums up the characters position in the game, as a game. “Prince,” “Traitorous Advisor” “hapless newbie” are some examples of descriptions.

Theme—if Role describes their position in terms of the GAME, then Theme describes their role in the STORY. For example, I’m already thinking a bit about the Prince for Charleston. His Role would be “Prince of Charleston,” but his Theme might be something like “Meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss,” something that quickly sums up his history and nature as a former rebel who over threw the last Prince, but now finds himself succumbing to the same corruption, temptations, and “system” that destroyed the old one.

Perceived Goal & Actual Goal—everybody has goals, no one moves through their lives without desiring something. Some are more ambitious than others (“Become Prince” or “Diablerize Caine” to “Get their new haven in order” or “find the bastard who’s been feeding from my herd”), but everyone is doing something. Perceived is what is most apparent about the character, and the type of thing you can find with just a bit of asking around (or even talking to the NPC). Actual is a bit more hidden, and is generally loftier than the Perceived. Sometimes these are pretty much the same, other times they are completely different. In some cases I could describe the “Perceived” as “immediate” and “Actual” as “long term” but the point is to have some notes on what the hell the character is up to.

Haven—where does the NPC sleep, how secure is it, and how hard is it to find? Finding out where a Vampire rests his head is a critical advantage to young Kindred.

Herd—not everyone has a “Herd” background; this is more to think about whom the character feeds on, why they feed on them, and how they conduct their hunting. As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to focus pretty heavily on the “Vampire” element of being a Vampire, and this is where it comes to light. Knowing where and how a Vampire hunts helps to understand his place in the world, and how he interacts with it.

Base of Operations—some Vampires are quite likely to be found in one or two particular locations on any given night. Maybe it’s a funeral parlor that they use as a front for their drug trade, or a particular club or bar they like to frequent. IF the character has such a place, this is where the players can find them.

Influence—it is a natural side effect of their powers and hunting that Vampires will somehow affect the world around them. Some merely influence the local neighborhood, while others can sway national politics—this area is where I come up with a general idea of what kind of sway the character has in both mortal and undead circles.

Notes—this is basically for any other random thoughts or ideas for the character that don’t fit into any of the above categories.

Plots—for any NPC warranting this kind of write up, I should be able to come up with at least 2 or 3 story ideas that can come from them. Some of these will directly involve the PC’s, while others could just be things they are up to on a particular night. It’s more of an inspiration source on how to use the character, since I’m sure that better ideas will come up in game.

It may seem like a lot, but all this tends to take up less than a page, and is something I can easily keep with the printed character sheet (if any), or skim through during game prep. Most of the information I need for the character I can find at a glance.

The reason I focus on this information is not just for me, however. Vampire is game of vicious, violent assholes who are not supposed to straight up murder each other, so they instead focus on fucking each other subtlety and indirectly. I hate games when the players are solely on the receiving end of this crap—it’s repetitive and boring, and nothing kills a game better than an NPC out-playing a PC just because the Storyteller said so.

Worse, if you shut down the option of the players to hit back at their foes through such means, then all you leave them with is “wanton violence” to get back at people. And, let’s be honest, as much fun as gleeful and over the top violence can be, you run enough gas trucks into enough night clubs and empty enough clips of phosphate rounds into said trucks…well, eventually the game just starts to fall apart. If I want the players to play the “game,” they need to be able to. Having this information available to me makes it easier to play in that game. Once it’s there, hopefully the players can pick up on it one way or another and realize “hey, this guy is pissing me off. I know who he likes to eat, so I’m going to do X, Y, and Z to his herd—good luck eating now, fucker!”

Maybe I'm weird, but I think that’s a lot cooler than “I blow up his club.”

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about the idea of “mirror” characters. I mentioned this in my outline, but I haven’t really done something like this before. Basically, the idea of “mirror” characters is to create NPC’s based on the PC’s. It’s not a radical thought that when players create their characters, they are going to pick and decide things they find interesting about the world, and things they want to see or do. So, I want to use this information to flesh out the NPC’s in my setting and to make it more personalized for the characters that are actually playing the game.

Note that I use the term “mirror” rather than “dark mirror” or something similar. I don’t intend these to “the PC’s, but evil.” They're intended to just be part of the world. They could be enemies, true, but could also be rivals, friends, allies, even patrons or the like. When creating these, I want to look at two aspects of the characters—Concept and Skills.

With Concept I will be looking at the character as a whole, and what their “thing” is. One of the virtues of the Storyteller character creation system is that it tends to reward more balanced characters than purely specialized ones. Generally, you can describe a character as “X, but also Y” based on how they were made. Some examples of characters from a previous Chronicle are “Club owner, but also political player,” “Bad ass killer, but also a stripper,” or “Magical scholar, but also a detective.” With this, I can easily create two NPC’s based on each character, one for both “X” and “Y.” So, the Club Owner/Politician will have a rival club owner (allowing me to tell stories of these two competing together, stealing each other’s shows and bands, out doing each other in spectacle, etc.) while also having someone else who is roughly on the characters level also messing around in politics. The Mage/Detective might have another Tremere who is looking for ancient books and lore and trying to one up her in the clan, but also a different character who is also a PI. If she is a “low rent/noir” detective, he might be the “corporate PI,” taking cases she wants, or on different sides of various cases, or whatever.

Skills is for all the other stuff. If a PC spends a lot of points in a particular skill, it clearly means they want to use it in the game. Some of them might be things like “alertness” which doesn’t really lend itself to mirroring, but most of the others should generate ideas, especially if they’re not directly tied to the concept. Let’s say a character has a really high Drive skill—clearly they want to use that skill. So, when I create stories or run the game, I need to be on the lookout for chances to have high speed chases and the like. Also, the character should get an edge in things like recognizing the car out front of Elysium is the same car they saw near the anarchs meeting place. Or, that the beat up mid-sized sedan has actually been tricked out—it may look like crap, but it is going to move fast and handle well based on the modifications. On the other hand, a player might want a really high skill in Melee. This is both immediately useful, but also means they probably want to get involved in a lot of sword fights, so I need to be aware of that.

It also means that I want to create NPC’s for them to interact with based on their skills. For the driver, I might create an NPC who is also really skilled at driving, and the two of them can have long, crazy chases (whereas the PC is so good that he easily bests most other people). I also might create an underground racing circuit that the player can play with. Likewise, for the melee master, I might create an even better swordsman for him to take down, or do a general thing of “yeah, most Vampires use swords to fight each other” or create a circle of fencing schools or dojos for them to be involved in.

Obviously, I can’t create these “mirror” characters until after the players create their characters, but they will be a key element in bringing the game to life.

Next up, I work on creating the Prince, how the Kindred of the city are organized, and who his key supporters are.

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