Friday, October 11, 2013

GM's Water Cooler: Those Meddling NPCs - Part One

I have seen a lot of good NPCs over the past 20+ years of gaming, but very few can be elevated to great NPCs. Those characters that created a lasting impact beyond being just simple meat shields and plot devices. Below are some archetypes that would fit in any RPG, regardless of the genre or game system.

He takes great pride in drinking your milkshake.

The "Daniel Plainview" Archetype: The definition of Neutral Evil. An NPC so diabolical and driven to his own ends that he makes the act of campaign meddling an art. It's the villain that you love to hate, often forcing the player to choose between the devil they know versus the devil they don't. 

Mr. Plainview is the closest thing I get to Deus Ex Machina. He keeps the player in check and is the great equalizer when the story line needs a bit of hand holding. I generally reserve him for when the game session is growing stale or when the scene absolutely needs a bookend.

"You don't see them f*cking each other over 
for a g**damn percentage!"

The "Burke" Archetype: The casual NPC deemed irrelevant until he/she completely screws over the party in a fit of self-motivated aggression.

Burke from Aliens is a formidable NPC. He builds trust and presents a certain amount of authenticity to an otherwise incredibly shady proposition. Beware the Burkes and be prepared for a knife in the back, the very least, getting locked into a med-lab with a vicious alien facehugger.

He means well. Really, he does.

The "Pozan" Archetype: A very infamous character from one my previous GMs. Pozan started out as fulfilling the all-too familiar task of "party healer" in a D&D game. The character evolved into a meddlesome person with the uncanny ability to be both burdensome and helpful all within the same turn. Generally benevolent, but at times you really just wanted to push him down the nearest dark hole headed for the center of the planet.

Like the little brother that stole and broke your toys, Pozan is a long-term investment. He's the karmic balance of the universe, never too good or too bad. Also useful in pinch as a reluctant errand boy or meat shield.

"Oooh, that's a bingo! Is that the way you say it? That's a bingo?"

The "Colonel Landa" Archetype: Also self-motivated like Burke, he's a bit charming about screwing the PC over. He'll convince you the wrong thing to do is only right thing to do. This usually involves a large amount of compromise, mostly on the part of the player.

The conniving part of me as GM, ADORES the Colonel Landa NPC. You get what you want in terms of story line progression (usually involving some favorite McGuffin or set piece) while not necessarily giving into player wants or needs. The main caveat to playing the "Landa Card" is that it strays dangerously close to railroading. Tread lightly when deciding to pull ole Hans from your deck.

 "I like to play with things a while before annihilation."

The "Ming the Merciless" Archetype: Not necessarily manifesting themselves so brazenly as Ming himself, but this is the kind of NPC that strikes terror into the hearts of all players upon their reveal. No good can come from this persona, not ever.

Most will say, it's dangerous territory when it comes to using Ming and his various incarnations. The fact is, the diabolical NPC can work as both a motivator and villain, sometimes never truly being either. This archetype'a intent is generally never confused with anything resembling "benevolent" with trust being tenuous at best. Unless you have a written, iron-clad agreement, signed and sealed in blood (careful, as this is NEVER a good deal)...don't ever bargain with Ming unless it's paid upfront and in full.

This is far from an exhaustive list. Expect a Part 2, 3, 5, and probably 35. As you can tell, I really like character building, especially from an impartial NPC point of view. You get to play have both sides of the RPG equation, being both GM and player at the same time. The more interesting you make your NPCs, the more motivated you are as a GM to use them to their fullest.


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