Saturday, June 16, 2018

NPCs Lie

I want to say as a DM that there is little that frustrates me as much as role-players who must treat every encounter with excessive dramatic importance, that see every NPC like a pantomime villain or themselves as the center of the setting's universe.  Of course, this is trained into players, who are the center of the universe as far as most settings go.  It is no mystery for a player that the king of the country wants to meet with them personally, or that some powerful wizard has taken the time to choose this particular no account group of wanderers for the most important adventuring business imaginable.  The tropes surrounding role-playing are as anvilicious as they are common, particularly in that savvy players ~ most of all ~ come to expect the anvil to be dropped right on their heads, all the time.

So much that they can't help themselves from looking straight up at the DM, waiting for it.

This is a trial and a half if the goal is to run a nuanced, subtle campaign where the NPCs have their own lives, their own agendas, and couldn't care a whit for the party's involvement ... in fact, the party's involvement is often directly not desirable.  Yet with some parties, as the DM sets up the scene where the townspeople all appear to say, "Get out, you're not wanted here," we can count on the players to hear that with a *nudge nudge* *wink wink* no matter what we say or how we say it.

This is probably the hardest issue I have with experienced players.  It is a problem I never have with newcomers.  This tells me that it is a problem that is trained into players, most likely by badly designed adventures, supported by poorly written exposition to enable the most cliched of motivators.  The ever-present MacGuffin, for example, that we cling to as DMs because it's easy and players understand it.

All too often when we don't use a blunt instrument to put the adventure into the player's skulls, it just doesn't get there.

Antoine le Nain's Three Strangers

At the start of my online campaign in 2009, members of the party stepped out of the town of Dachau and into the nearby countryside.  Whereupon I described this simple scene:
DM: You find a small collection of eight cotter's shacks, cotters being landless people allowed to occupy the lord's land in exchange for their perpetual labor. This being Sunday, none are at work in the fields, but are instead commanded to not work at any activity.
Despite your efforts to remain hidden, your darker appearance against the white boughs is noticed rather quickly. Several men, who had been lounging and waiting for the sun to fall, rise now, grasping the nearest club like object to hand and stand staring at you distrustfully.

Here we have a perfectly reasonable reaction on the part of the cottagers.  This is their home.  It is Sunday and they are surrounded by their families.  Strangers show up, armoured and with weapons, in a place where no one with the money to buy armor has any reason to go.  Of course they're going to be distrustful!  Of course they're going to be sure they have hold of a club or two.  Being that its a party, there's no livery on these strangers, no indication that its the guard.  The party could be anyone!

continued elsewhere ...

This is the first of two such posts I will be writing in the month of June for the Tao's Master Class blog, where the rest of this post can be found. Examples on the Tao of D&D blog can be found here and here.

To see the rest of this post, you must pledge at least $3 to my Patreon account. This will enable you to see all material to date on the Master Class, but you must do it soon if you wish to see this post before August 1st.

Because it is difficult to keep track of who is donating $3 to me each month, I am no longer accepting small direct donations for the Master Class blog.


James said...

This was a really interesting post. Since I am one if your players now, I kept wanting to say things that felt either self-interested or like fishing for compliments, so I want to stick with ssying this was well worth thinking about as a player and DM

Homer2101 said...

A real traveler coming upon some cotters has the benefit of about fifty million years of evolution plus a few decades' experience in local social expectations, when intuiting the correct course of action in a particular social situation. A player sitting at a game table has none of those benefits. The player sees an action (NPCs going for weapons) but she cannot reliably divine the reasoning behind it. To her the NPCs are black boxes. The same forces that cause otherwise-normal people to behave like fuckwads on the Internet, make it very difficult for players to intuit the appropriate course of action when interacting with NPCs.
Clever players try to guess what the DM is thinking.

Video games have long recognized that they must provide information on NPCs' reasoning to players, to make up for the absence of in-person interaction and social context. They do so in two ways. One way involves millions of dollars in animation, writing, and voice acting. The other way involves telling players precisely why an NPC has a particular attitude, so that the players can make informed decisions.

For example, Civilization 4 provides all of the modifiers affecting an NPC's attitude towards the player. The player knows exactly why a particular NPC likes or hates them, and so can determine what she should do to alter the NPC's opinion. The player might see that they have a -10 modifier for closed borders, a -20 modifier for wrong religion, and so see some options for improving relations or deciding that it's not worth the bother.

Crusader Kings 2, a medieval people manager, also provides all of the opinion modifiers up-front because unlike the real-world William of Normandy, the player cannot sit down with a vassal and does not have fifty years' knowledge of that vassal's habits and opinions. The player therefore can see that one vassal hates them because they are of different cultures, different religions, and are both ambitious pricks.
In contrast, Civ 5 tried to make NPCs inscrutable and concealed NPC reasoning from the plater. Players saw NPC attitude, but not the reasons behind it. Players were unable to determine the NPCs' logic, and concluded that the NPCs were psychotic.

What if, at the end of your description of the villagers, you told the players that:

"The villagers have a -30 opinion of you (on a scale of -100 to +100), because: -10 for being strangers; -20 for being armed and armored strangers." And provided a list of possibe positive modifiers to offset that. How many players would look for service with a local lord if it granted a +30 opinion bonus and because of that let them stay for free in any village or recruit help?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I don't know if you read the whole post on the MasterClass blog, Homer, but I did offer a solution there somewhat similar, but less technical, to answer the problem that you present.

This, plus nuance, was the point of my lesson. The whole matter can actually be handled easily with the way the DM presents. There's no need for mechanics.

Carl said...

Well done, Alexis. I barely felt the needle.

Please figure out a way to sell one-time access to your Masterclass blog. I'm interested in reading the conclusion here, but I'm not ready to commit to a monthly subscription at this time.

In other words, I'd gladly throw down $3 to read this rest of this post, and this post only, but I'm not inclined to add a $3 monthly recurring charge to my credit card -- yet.


Alexis Smolensk said...


What you ask would require me setting up the one post on a unique site, since the $3 donation also gets you full access, for a month, to all past posts.

The longer I write, the more value you get for your $3.

I suggest that you pledge $3 to Patreon. Then, when the first $3 donation comes out, you cancel your Patreon subscription. That is the best way you have of accessing as much content from me as you possibly can, for the least possible amount of money.

You could even wait four or five more months before you do that, because you'll get eight or ten MORE posts for your $3.

OR ...

You could admit that maybe I'm worth $3 a month.

Ozymandias said...

Oh, he is. He totally is.

Carl said...

I put in my pledge right after I posted. Do I have to wait until the first of the month to get access to the article? I hate to be all "instantly gratify me!" but it's not like you have to mail me a copy.


Vlad Malkav said...

He is worth more, I'd say. But yes, 3$ is totally worth it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you Carl, for pledging. But you do realize it is only a pledge. Patreon will send you a confirmation at the first of the month and you're perfectly free to say no at that time.

You can see, therefore, why this works this way.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you, Ozymandias and Vlad. I am touched by your support.

Carl said...

I can. Which is why I'm willing to fork over $3 for the rest of the article now and if I like it, I will decide whether or not I want to hand over another $3 for the next one that intrigues me.

I prefer a pay-as-you-go model to a subscription. You can charge a premium for the former.

Homer2101 said...

I will able to comment on your suggested solution in about two weeks, assuming everything was done correctly.

Anything can be adjudicated without a numeric mechanic. Combat can be adjudicated on an ad-hoc basis. Character knowledge is usually adjudicated ad-hoc in tabletop D&D games. Travel times and local markets can all be generated on the fly using a DM's accumulated knowledge and experience, or lack thereof. A tabletop game doesn't require mechanics. But distilling ideas into discrete numbers has some advantages, which you are probably aware of. So what makes an NPC's relationship with the players different from combat, trade, and knowledge?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Homer, I can't disagree with any of that. Yes, those things CAN be done. 100% true.

The issue in the post is overthinking. And overthinking is solved by giving MORE information. There. Post ruined for you.

As far a distilling ideas into discrete numbers, I thought I was the one always getting into trouble for making that argument. That aside, I've tried systems with all kinds of modifiers ... and found they just don't work. Not for the effect I'm trying to achieve. I'm getting from that first comment, and from this last comment, that you and I are trying to achieve very different things with our DMing.

You seem concerned with the "NPC's relationship to the players." I'm not. You seem concerned with the players intuiting "the appropriate course of action." I'm not. You seem concerned that "clever players try to guess what the DM is thinking." I think that's an error. I'd like to explain this ... but I think it is going to take a post. Can you be patient and let me write it in the next hour or so?

Alexis Smolensk said...

There, Homer. Answered.