Monday, September 23, 2013

Vampire 30 Day Challenge Day 15 NPC’s

So, this post was supposed to be entitled “Favorite NPC”—but honestly, that just sounds boring. I could either focus on iconic or published NPC’s, but I’m not a huge fan of most of them (well, except for Modius), or a particularly cool NPC I came up with. But, in that case, you’d have to take my word that they were cool.

Instead, I want to talk about what I do to create NPC’s for my games. While vivid and well-defined NPC’s are key to pretty much any RPG, they tend to be even more critical in a game like Vampire. In other games, the mass of NPC’s can be categorized as “shop owners,” “quest givers” or “dudes to be stabbed in the face.” While there are plenty of dudes who need to be stabbed in the face in Vampire, of course, the setting and concept of the game doesn't really allow for this to be the “standard.”

See, you have this world populated by supernatural killers, who would really only feel safe and secure if they were the only supernatural killer they had ever met. But, there are these damn “rules” and “Traditions” that say you can’t just up and murder someone who pisses you off, so instead you have to be more cunning and treacherous than the next guy just to protect yourself.  As a result, the natural conflicts and territoriality that erupt when you have a bunch of vampires living in close proximity to one another gets turned from direct conflict into something more subtle and Machiavellian. As such, it’s far more important to know exactly who these people are, what they’re capable of, and what they’re after than it is in a game like D&D.

On top of that, I find the write-up’s of NPC’s in the by Night series to be less than impressive. They generally spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the character’s tragic back-story, often all the way back in their mortal days. Now, granted, knowing someone’s history is useful in knowing who they are, but it is not the end-all, be-all of a character. When I run an NPC, I want to know who they are NOW and what they are up to. So, I came up with a little template I use to detail NPC’s for my Chronicles.

Name—the character’s name, specifically the name he goes by in Kindred circles. Most don’t have full names, like “John Smith.” They go by either a single name (“John,” “Jack,” “Johnny”) or a nickname (“Twitch” or “Joker.”)

Other Name—their mortal birth name and/or the name they use for their Personal Masquerade.

Personal Masquerade—The Masquerade is the key element to vampire society—there’s a reason it’s in the title of the game, after all. Per the Traditions, mortals must never find out about the existence of the undead predators in their midst, and any who reveal themselves face brutal and immediate punishment. Maintaining this Tradition is more than just a job for the Prince—it is the primary duty of every single vampire in the world. To do this takes more than killing witnesses and squashing police investigations—each Kindred must blend into the mass of mortals and disappear.
As such, each NPC needs to have their own Masquerade—what do they pretend to be? What do mortals, both neighbors and the cold impersonal agents of the government, see them as? Obviously, those that excuse a “sleep all day, up all night” lifestyle, particularly those that explain a lack of obvious income, tend to be the go-to for most kindred. “Internet Millionaire,” “Real Housewife,” or “Trust Fund Baby” are common, but for those with less ready access to cash, so are “freelance artist/programmer” or “professional gambler.”

Even those that have cut themselves off from most of mortal life need to be careful with their appearance, and what others think of them. A wandering Gangrel still needs to have a driver’s license and insurance (even if it’s fake), and still presents himself as something. There is a world of difference between “nomadic biker come to town to raise hell and have some fun” and “business traveler here for a big meeting.”
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. When I created my Charleston setting, I defined the Prince (whose role was “Prince of Charleston”) as “Meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss.” Something that quickly sums up his history and nature as a former rebel who overthrew the last Prince, but now finds himself succumbing to the same corruption, temptations, and “system” that destroyed the old one.  The Theme helps me to remember what this character’s deal really is, and what beats to hit while I’m playing him.
Perceived Goal & Actual Goal—everybody has goals--no one moves through their lives without desiring something, even if its just as simple as “be left alone.” Naturally, some are more ambitious than others, but everyone is trying to pull off something. These goals can range from “Become Prince” or “Diablerize Caine” to “Get their new haven in order” or “find the bastard who’s been feeding from my herd.” Perceived is what is most apparent about the character, what people think he’s up to, 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. 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. Time wise, it takes me generally 5 to 10 minutes to write all this down. This one page summary combined with one of Mr. Gone’s excellent sheets gives me everything I need to run a character.
Naturally, it takes me more than 10 minutes to make a character, but spending time thinking about a character, who they are, what their deal is, and what they want is one of the pleasures of Storytelling.
The virtue to having this information really comes up in game, though. Too many games I've been part of have ended up being “kill fests” as the players solve all their problems with brutal, lethal violence. Unfortunately, this tends to be boring after a while, and really does not play to Vampire’s strengths. But, if the players don’t have the option to engage the world through manipulation and intrigue, then killing everyone becomes their default plan.
So, after I make a couple of NPC’s, I look them over and see where they can bump up against one another. Is one looking to expand his drug trade, which might lead him to targeting another kindred’s herd as consumers? Is someone trying to find who murdered one of their coterie mates, which happens to be the mentor of another? No matter how calm a city may appear, there should be numerous minor struggles happening every night, as various Kindred inevitably cause problems for another.
Having this knowledge allows the players to find out this knowledge, either through social ties or gossip or by just paying attention. They can then leverage this as weapons against their foes, by making it appear another kindred did something, allying with the enemy of their enemy, or manipulating the situation in another way.
One of the frequent complaints I hear about Vampire games is the tendency of players to engage in wanton violence. Sometimes this is due to players just not “getting” the game or just enjoying being disruptive and psychopathic for kicks. And I get that, I really do. Hell, I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy playing GTA and seeing how quickly I can get five stars and how long I can survive the subsequent police hunt. But the thing is, when I see players lash out in Vampire, it’s only rarely caused by such urges. Often, it’s the result of boredom and frustration.

Given that one of the tropes of Vampire is “ancient and cunning supernatural entities are secretly pulling all the strings in the world, including the PC’s,” it is very easy as a Storyteller to make your NPCs be always one step ahead of your players, no matter what. So, it doesn’t matter how clever of a plan they come up, the elders will always have a contingency in place and the players can never get one over on them. The thing is, as a player, this is boring and frustrating as hell. If none of your schemes and intrigues will ever work, then the players quite rightly will fall back on violence and explosions to get the job done.

I want my players to scheme and intrigue, and I want such tactics to be their “first” and “best” option. Hell, even when their plans are questionable I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt just because its more fun that way. Using this template helps me create what I like to call a “social sandbox” type game. And much like an actual sandbox, it only works if the players have a map and some rumors to point them towards areas of interest. Their mentors and sires can provide the basic map, and keep up on the rumor mill will let them know which way to “explore.”
Now, I've been accused by some other storytellers of being a tad too lenient when it comes to my players plots and schemes. After all, the World of Darkness is a harsh and unforgiving place, and only the most cunning and ruthless survive for long. They feel that the elders SHOULD be one step ahead of the neonates, and I should “force” the players to come up with only the best of plans--anything less is doomed to failure. And yes, I admit, some of the ideas that the players have come up with have been...well, let’s just say it. INANE. FOOLISH. WHY WOULD YOU EVEN THINK THAT WOULD EVER WORK?

But in D&D, I wouldn't send a 1st level character up against an ancient red dragon because “hey, the world is a dangerous place,” and I don’t want to smack down every “out of the box” idea that my players have--because all I end up doing is teaching them that “trying to be clever is doomed to failure, so max out your Celerity and hope to take them in a straight fight, since that’s the only thing that will work.” Instead, I want to work with them. I’ll try to give them a benefit of the doubt, or have them give me a roll of some sort to try to pull off their intrigue. Or, I’ll take off my Storyteller-hat and put on my part-of-the-group-hat and ask them “what are you trying to accomplish here, exactly?” Obviously, I don’t want to feed them the “correct” thing to do, but a lot of times I can help encourage them to think about what they’re doing, and why, and how they hope to achieve that. And then, a number of times, what  they are able to come up with is a HELL of a lot better scheme than I ever could have.

So, basically, if you want your players to kill NPC’s, write up combat stats. If you want them to socialize with them and scheme against them, you need to write up THOSE stats--and this template gives me those stats.

(oh, and I’ve talked about this before, but not in context of the 30 Day Challenge--I’m sure it’s a tad gauche to quote yourself, but I really like this template!)

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