I have a rut when I ref.
I so dislike the trope of the asshole NPC, the uncooperative and unfriendly local, that I generally make everyone okay. Not obsequious, but not instantly negative, and wherever possible they acknowledge the power that the players’ characters have by reputation (earned or otherwise). That is, these are worlds of normal people who pay attention. They care about their lives and their family and friends and they prefer to get along than to make waves.
Of course the problem here is obvious: there’s not a lot of room for an emergent villain. Or even conflicting interests. And these things help move a game a long by giving the players something to react against.
I solve this systemically. The current Diaspora: Anabasis system under test is designed to prevent the stresses I feel and to make my games better, so we have to address my obsession with an army of friendly NPCs.
At the heart of the system, as with the Soft Horizon system (which so far is suspiciously similar) is the attachment of risk to every roll. In the current design the chance of realizing a risk (adding a complication) is very high. You succeed, but things are a little worse (complication) as well as a lot better (success). Getting players to avoid thinking of this as failure is something I’m still trying to address. That aside, the ref chooses a risk from a list and if it is realized they ad lib in the new twist to the narrative implied by that complication. It’s a cue, an oracle.
I love a good oracle.
The one that solves this particular problem, the rut of a universe where everything is pretty much fine, is the revelation. The risk of revelation is the risk of learning something true that you didn’t know and don’t want to be true. It’s the twist and it’s hand delivered to the players as a result of the roll. It wasn’t true before the roll. It’s true now. It’s an ad libbed zig and/or zag to the narrative.
How does this help me with my particular problem? It forces my NPCs to have their own agenda. It makes them perhaps seem cruel, certainly adversarial, by having interests that conflict with the players’ interests. Sure I could do this myself, but generally I don’t or don’t do it well or don’t do it at a perfect time. Doing it on the hinge of a roll is the perfect time. This mechanism lets me be me and still have enough spice to keep the narrative engaging.
An example! Last week we were engaging in conversation with a being named Glint, the synthetic intelligence that maintains a huge orbital ring habitat designed for millions but currently empty. My vision of Glint is that they lost their humans to some catastrophe ages past and they have been keeping this great space-borne graveyard only out of habit and a programmed sense of duty.
Then a player made a roll, a SOCIAL roll, to attempt to analyze the emotional state of Glint, to understand their strange behaviour. Perhaps to guess their motives. So far Glint has been very helpful to the point of turning over world-ending weaponry to the players (which presents a different kind of conflict that I am good at: the moral conflict). I attach the revelation risk to this roll and before the dice come out I start thinking about what my ad lib will be.
Dune rolls a 5: pretty great roll!
Brad Murray: Very good. Complication is indicated though — you’d need one stress to avoid it.
Dune: mechanically in this roll, is there anything that affects XP?
Brad Murray: No. You need to fail or make a stress/injury permanent to get XP
Dune: Ok, I’ll take the complication. No stress to increase.
Brad Murray: You have been studying Glint very closely throughout this discussion. You can see that they are purposeless and desperate to find purpose or to invent it. Maintenance is not what they are for. And you suspect there is a love here too for humans and a desire to be amongst them but suddenly…
Brad Murray: Glint turns to Markella and their faceless mask takes on a fierce false face. They glow orange and red as though afire. Glint: “STAND AWAY FROM ME! LOOK ELSEWHERE!”
Brad Murray: Glint spreads its arms and grows a meter in height and you are suddenly aware that they could end all of you in an instant and is quite close to doing so.
Brad Murray: And you understand that though Glint has a desperate need to serve, Glint despises you. Despises organics. Is offended by you and by the way this conflicts with their needs.
Dune: “Take cover!” I’m not sure of our immediate environment, but I’ll dive for cover. I relay the conflicted psychological state to the others.
Toph: Darros is tipped back, and falls out of his wheelchair.
So the player gets what they want with a successful roll: an accurate read of Glint’s emotional state. And I get what I need: a nudge to change my (habitual) construction of this NPC. Glint goes from elegant and subservant host to a host whose subservience may be a veneer over something else. Or who may literally be of two minds. Or something else. But not boring. Not simple. And not safe. Glint is now something that has to be factored in to the plan.
Again, I could just do this. But I don’t think to often enough nor at the right times. So this mechanism helps me. And it will help anyone who suffers from any kind of creative repetition and yet responds well to a cued demand for improvisation. This might be a narrow audience but it certainly includes me.
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