9 July 2009

The Joker In The Pack

No sooner do I lament the complete lack of anything that makes for a substantial post than KA-BLAM! something amazing socks me in the face; almost literally in this case.

When I was compiling the Core Book I tried to include everything I could think of at the time to make a sourcebook for the budding No Dicer. It is inevitable that things should be missed. Almost everything that's coming in the Random Encounters series is intended to be filled with examples of powerful things that you can do with No Dice principles. So in each adventure we're kind of expanding the toolkit of the prospective Host and also giving a concrete example of potential play.

Last night we play tested the Monster Action Thriller "The Creature of Black Lake" and got off to a rocky start. Basically an incident mentioned in the notes that's supposed to just happen resulted in the death of a player's character before the adventure had even started.

This was notable for several reasons but not least because that's really not supposed to happen. I know that people have been keen to discuss the idea of abitrary character death recently but this basically put someone out of the game in the first forty minutes.

Not only that but I experienced an incident of Host meltdown, a brief autopsy of the situation lead to the conclusion that the wires of communication were badly crossed and for a while there it all looked grim. You see, the whole point of No Dice is that it's supposed to help you sidestep these issues and keep going. If an adventure has a serious hole that relies on a certain series of incidents not happening then it's just not working.

A workable suggestion was put forward by Justin who suggested that when you hit the blind alley you as Host rewind the action to just before everything went pear and then re-explained the situation giving the player an out.

Like I say, this is workable but it's not really all that neat. It means that a player could take a one way trip up diarrhea drive and then like the Prince of Persia just rewind and do it again.

It was Sue who hit on the real answer. Which in a discussion that followed broadened out from a specific instance in that adventure to become a general principle that Core Book is sorely missing. Oh well, for the second edition I suppose.

But for those of you who don't want to wait n years for the 2nd ed here's the idea right now. Treasure this one, it's golden:

Creating NPCs is always a problem. 95% of NPCs are just cyphers of course. They are barkeeps, random wandering citizens and other reasonably easy to scope functionaries.

That other 5% are the important ones. Many of these, probably just over half, are villains and again there isn't really a problem with them. It's that last 2% that can leave the Host scratching their head.

These are the "major friendly NPCs". Don't be fooled, just because they're marked "friendly" doesn't mean they're always happy to see the players, it more or less just means they won't just try to kill the players on sight.

In the Core Book I got as far as advising people to avoid "infoblaster" NPCs who just know everything. And I also advised against making NPCs as powerful or more powerful than the player characters who were supposedly their allies.

Aside from that I just recommended a Host create "real" characters using the Player's Guide notes to make a fully rounded and realised character.

In some cases this might be fine. But in reality players don't really spend all that much time talking to NPCs just for fun. So a lot of the Host's fine character creation work goes by the wall.

Besides, once you've stopped the NPCs being more powerful when they're too friendly you've kind of left yourself in a bit of a bind.

The problem is sometimes you want characters to move the plot on. They are supposed to arrive, do something dramatic and then leave the players to deal with the fall out.

So how does one do this without making them villainous or too powerful? After all a constant parade of utter villainy keeps things busking along but really in a story based RP you want other types of encounter.

This was exactly the problem in Creature. I had an NPC who needed to rather aggressively insert himself into the party and provide useful plot information, in a guarded manner, for the remainder of the adventure (or at least until he died). I had written up notes for this character which were pretty light. I wanted to introduce him and then, in the playtest, develop him in some way into a fully realised character.

So when he came in to the action I kept him neutral. The only problem with this is that he was neutrally holding up the party's boat with AK47s. As I quickly discovered this kind of thing can be misinterpreted as open aggression. Funnily enough, had he gone in with open aggression the accidental adventure ruining bloodbath that resulted from my weak characterisation would have been averted. Then, of course, the players would have had to just follow along on rails.

On rails is not a good place for adventures to be.

So I needed to, rather than render the character neutral and hence weak, render him a little bit charming and crazy and hence allow characters to interact with him even though he was, technically, a bad dude.

This is a really exciting dramatic position, the guy's holding you hostage but he's quite willing to have a conversation with you about begonias (or whatever). As a player you feel you might be able to negotiate or something.

At the same time the Host has someone who can nudge the characters back on task if they look like they're about to commit suicide or whatever.

This guy's a great NPC, not too overpowering but not too floppy either. He's not going to interfere unless you need him too. He's a joy to have involved.

And hence was born the Joker.

You see Creature is not alone in needing a character like this. Every role play session could do with having a Joker to interact with the players, nudging, testing, exploring their characters.

The situation where the Joker is a guy who has technically taken the Players as hostages, but in a polite way, is just one possible scenario. Characters who have vast reserves of information they are unwilling to share, characters who offer money, or professional services desired by the players all of these are ideal Joker characters.

The secret is to always lay on the unthreatening manner on thick. This was my vital mistake last night. Neutrality won't cut it if an NPC has some power over the players. The character has to maintain their power over the character while entertaining the player.

I'm not saying that making them will be easy but there is a way to make it easier. Sue loves poker and she quickly put me on to the old poker trope of trying to find the sucker at the table. Essentially when you come up with an adventure design your job is to try to identify the Joker(s) at the table and then make them around their role in the story.

Some stories, Con of the Dead, Revelation Point, don't really need a Joker character. Then we return to the poker trope: if after ten minutes searching for the Joker in the scenario you still can't find them, it's you.

Yes, in some adventures it is the Host himself who takes this gently tormentative role for the players. Horror splatter scenarios are the most likely to feature these.

So from now on when I'm dealing up a new scenario I will be sure to use a deck comprised of 53 cards. The joker's going to become one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal.

NB: That last sentence was a dramatic article closer. You don't need to actually draw a card to know when to make the Joker NPC, you just kind of look for them after you've finished your notes.

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