Dragon Age 2 wasn't the greatest game ever, but it did do something that I really thought was amazing. Namely, in Dragon Age 2, one of the NPC companions will try to initiate a romance with you. When the game released, Bioware got a lot of flack for this. People felt like they were being held hostage because - mysteriously - there was no way to not enter a romance with this character that didn't involve, at least temporarily, hurting his feelings. The players felt like they had to choose between "100% friendship with everyone" and not entering into a relationship with someone they had no interest in. Other people had issues about being hit on by a character of that gender and the sexuality implications it had, they wanted an option to opt out.
I on the other hand loved every part of it, and I think that the social fall out was something whoever made the decision to have that character be the one to try and initiate a romance wanted to see happen. It also got me thinking a lot about the NPCs in my own games. With my current L5R game, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and make my NPCs more pro-active in their interactions with the players. The results have been phenomenal. Today, I want to talk about what I did, why I did it, what it is causing, and how it is so worth the extra work.
PCs Are Beautiful Snow Flakes
Tyler Durden ranting aside, most PCs are actually quite unique. The players want their characters to stand out, so they make someone who does. Because games focus on the actions and stories of the PCs, they also tend to be the movers and shakers of the world. They cause change. They fight monsters. They are champions in the fight of Good (tm, capital G) vs. Evil (tm, capital E). If people like them existed in the real world they'd have throngs of people throwing themselves on them. They'd have asssassins coming after them. They'd be wanted in multiple countries.
So why, then, does the PC always have to be the one to start things off?
Now, I mean this in both videogames and RPGs, but why is it always on the PC to start the social interaction? Now, sure, some NPCs start interactions (the King may summon adventurers to go on an adventure for example) but usually the initial interaction is determined by the PCs. You have a bard with 18 Charisma and all 3 ranks of "Damn I look good" sitting in a bar and no one is coming up to buy him a drink and maybe see if they can split the room? You have the spear maiden with trophies from her kills on display and none of the warriors are interested in talking to her about fighting techniques or how they fought a Grog once, only it was three times the size of the one that gave her the trophy, and spat acid for blood?
I get the GM has a lot on their plate, But one of the things that makes a world feel alive is NPCs who are also out there telling their own stories. And so...
I Decided To Try It
In my L5R game I have a set, specific - and small - setting. Inspired by my friend's Shadows of Esteren game, and my housemates L5R game, I went all out. I gave all the Samurai in the area names, ages, jobs, genders, and determined who - if anyone - was married. For the visiting clan samurai I even went so far as to make character sheets, give them XP, and figure out their story as if they were a PC I was going to play. They're now seeded into the world with the PCs, and as the GM I keep the focus on my PCs, but I also keep in mind what the NPCs are doing. I'm not shy about letting the NPCs tell their stories in the world, it's just up to the PCs whether or not that story gets screen time.
For example, one of my NPCs is a fire shugenja who in a lot of ways is a personification of fire. They're very passionate, quite clever, tend to obsess over whatever has their attention, and are very much into consuming the things that they fancy whether it be new knowledge, new spells, or just new experiences.
Because of this, this NPC has approached a couple of PCs who have things that they desire and has instigated relationships with those PCs.
Another NPC is assigned to the PC Shugenja as a yojimbo, but despite being a yojimbo and quite calm all the time, the NPC also has Heart of Vengeance for another clan. In the background of the last couple sessions has been a growing tension between the Yojimbo and the members of the clan that the yojimbo hates. Eventually this is going to explode into issues, and the Shugenja PC may have to get involved lest they get wrapped up in the furball as well.
What This Does
In both situations the actions of the NPCs have added to the story, and are causing drama. They're testing the PCs in ways that PCs in my game are not usually tested. It creates tension and drama because even though the PC has stuff they want to do (and they are working towards those goals) the world is also moving around them. More to the point, the world isn't afraid to grab them or poke them with a stick. The world doesn't have a pre-set transition that happens unless the PCs do something. The stories are going on around them.
Better yet, my players are picking up on it and running with it. One of the PCs wants to be the social guy that people go to - as opposed to having to go to them - and with the NPCs being more proactive he is getting bites on this in a meaningful way just by playing his cards right. Other PCs aren't left out though, because they also are having chance encounters with PCs.
A PC went to the dojo in the middle of the night to try and train alone, but another NPC also just happened to train there. The PC then had to deal with training with the NPC and possibly revealing their secret, or going somewhere else. A minor thing, but now that PC is also on the alert for other NPC schedules and what they do.
The stories the NPCs tell are not more interesting than the PC's stories, but they still have an impact, and it's beginning to show results. My PCs are reacting to NPCs with more care. They're being careful with their planned actions, because being off doing thing A means you can't be available if thing B shows up. In general, it makes the world more dynamic and more alive for the PCs to be a part of.
The challenge in doing this is that it takes a lot of time. Effectively I am role playing 25+ NPCs every session, regardless of whether or not they're on screen. If no one goes to speak to Isawa Katako on sunday, that doesn't mean Katako does nothing. It means no one sees what she does, but she still makes progress on her goals.
It also means that when I am planning the session out, I need to figure out what all the NPCs are doing - and then figure out how they could react if the PCs get involved.
However, when weighed against the benefits I see in my game? It's totally worth it.