Friday 20 May 2011

Running a Call of Cthulhu pbem - Part Eight

Other People – they’re everywhere. When you pass somebody in the street and barely look at them, they’re Adventure Dressing but when you stop and interact with them, they become NPCs. And of course, without wishing to sound like a certain Justice Secretary, there are different types of NPC, depending on the function that they are intended to perform within an adventure. Some get perhaps one line of description, others have the privilege of an entire stat block plus back story.

That, of course, is the state of affairs in a conventional published Call of Cthulhu adventure. With the less sandbox-oriented game, NPCs need information because they do indeed perform a specific function – either antagonists for the party in which case their conflict potential needs to be quantified so that they can give our hapless heroes a run for their money or as sources of information, in which case both the information that they will be called upon to impart and the conditions under which they will do so have to be detailed so that the party have hoops through which to jump.

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, otherwise known as Occam’s Razor is a principle which should hold true in gaming as well as life. I’m taking it to indicate that NPCs should only be detailed as far as is necessary to give flavour to the game and no further.

There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, to do otherwise is making work for a Keeper when it’s not necessary. There’s enough record keeping and information to manage without making any extra. We’ve already discussed only staying two steps ahead of the players and this should hold true for NPCs as well. There really is no need (unless you’re a glutton for punishment) to start working out precise skill distribution for the antique shop owner in Amsterdam if the chances of the party actually meeting him, let alone him using any of the skills you’re writing down are going to be next to nil for the following six months. The point at which an NPC’s skill levels are worked out should be the point at which the party actually meet him or her and they actually use that skill. It may be that some skill slots are never filled, because they’re never called for. That’s fine – the curator of the museum’s Drive Auto skill is irrelevant if he goes everywhere by subway.

Secondly, there is always the danger, unless the Keeper is particularly dispassionate, that if an NPC begins to acquire detail, they may also begin to gain a personality and start to be thought of by the Keeper as more important than they actually are. We’ve all been there – a set of numbers on a page takes on a life and before you know it, you actually care about the NPC. After all, investing in a sheet of paper and some numbers is what the game is all about, so why should it be so odd if the Keeper starts to do it as well? He’s probably been a player too. It happens. Unfortunately, when it does happen, it’s only natural, either consciously or subconsciously, to take steps to preserve the NPC and that runs the very real danger of violating the development of the game.

However, it may be that in the course of the developing adventure, an NPC attaches themselves to the party and starts to play a particular role. If this is the case, the only skills that need setting up are those which relate to the role that they are playing. Again, keep it simple and worry about that which is absolutely necessary. A rough rule of thumb would probably be that skills in their area of expertise would weigh in at 50 – 60% and other skills anywhere from 20 – 30%. That having been said, to avoid the party being outgunned if they take on someone like that, I tend to set weapons skills generally at about 40-50% or so.

I’m now going to discuss an aspect of the pbem which only really applies if, like my group, you use rotating Keepers. When the mantle of Keeper passes to the next person in the group, what happens to the PC that they were playing (assuming that said PC survived reasonably intact)? I’ve worked it that the PC becomes an NPC run by the Keeper but still very much in the style that they operated previously. Of course, this NPC does, in theory, possess access to the knowledge of the Keeper as regards the forthcoming events and secrets that the party don’t have. This is why the now GMPC should be used as a nudger and hinter but always very sparingly. I used my GMPC in the Majestic adventure sometimes to advance an erroneous opinion or point of view to serve as a stimulus for the party to work their way to the correct solution. It takes a certain mental discipline not to turn the GMPC into a Mary Sue, solving problems and overcoming challenges without fail, but such a character played as a fallible, normal, realistic person can add to the feeling of an adventure. If the Keeper doesn’t feel as if they can carry this off, it’s better to have their character go on a sabbatical for the duration of the adventure. They can always return with some tantalising hints about the next adventure – provided the party hasn’t been wiped out in the meantime. And even if they have, there is now one survivor, determined to find out what happened and, if necessary, avenge them. Voila! The perfect hook for the next game!

Next time, I’ll be discussing research – how much is too much and when to stop before an adventure becomes a history lesson.

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