Non-Protagonist Characters

First off, I’m not trying to redefine the “non-player character” Cougartown-style. I’ve seen the term “Non-Protagonist Character” in several games, and it fits how I consider NPCs better than “non-player character” does. If you don’t like it, there are extensions for Chrome such as Word Filter and similar ones for Firefox (and I’m sure others) that can replace words in a live webpage. Have a field day.
NPCs have always been somewhat hit or miss for me. They’re arguably the most valuable means for the players to interact with the game world (aside from the PCs themselves). When NPCs are done well, they can bring the game to life. When they’re not, they can turn the whole thing into a parody of itself. The unfortunate thing is that, as a GM or player, I’m a poor actor. I suck at voices and I suck at portraying mannerisms. I can do expressions okay because I do have a face. Overall I’m in this gig for storytelling, not drama club.
This means I fall back on something that I am (or think I am) much better at – writing. I tend to describe things in narrative terms and seldom take on the direct role of the NPC. Instead of sternly saying, “Not in my courtroom!” I’ll say, “The judge sternly says, ‘Not in my courtroom!'”. I’m not quite sure it makes my games better or worse, but I’ve gotten few complaints. It goes along with the very astute advice, “No silly voices.” To me playing the NPC is not much different than describing the scene, or narrating the action.
Describing the NPCs in this manner, rather than “playing” them, means a constant tightrope act between making the NPCs “pop out” from the background and having them just be part of the scenery, forgotten as soon as I stop talking about them. By the way, I suffer from this as the GM, and I’m sure if I was trying to “be the NPC” it might not happen so much. Because of this, I’m always on the lookout for ways to improve my NPCS. Having key mannerisms or phrases are pretty much part of GMing 101. Just as I do when writing fiction, I usually draw inspiration from real people that I know. I can loosely mimic their behavior, speech patterns, etc. and hope that the character comes across as more than a cardboard cutout. Sometimes just Googling for a general image gives me an idea for how to portray the NPC off of.
But I think have a new technique, or at least a way of looking at NPCs, that I’m itching to start using. It may have originally showed up in the Dresden Files rpg, and is also a part of the Spark rpg. They are called Faces. Essentially, a Face is an NPC that is the essence of a particular location or faction. I’d actually extend that out to include scenes, concepts, themes or moods. For example, a tavern where the PCs frequent might be populated with dozens of NPCs – only one of them is the Face of the tavern. It doesn’t even have to be the barkeep, either. It could be that old man who’s always sitting by himself, mumbling to himself with odd random outbursts. Or the hulking Northerner who is always challenging people to arm wrestling matches. The Face might change with the night of the week, or the season. By making the NPC tied to something else,    I think it would help cement the NPC in my head and improve the portrayal.
You know, that guy
Luckily for some games, like Tribe 8, this is an extremely easy thing to do. Various characters have already been created that are the Faces of their outlook, tribe, faction, sect, etc. That doesn’t mean they’re the only NPCs for each of those, but it helps anchor them a bit and increases the chances that I’d use them in the game (especially, as I pointed out in yesterday’s post on Metaplot, I now know which characters are important and which aren’t). One way to look at it is a form of “What’s my motivation?” (although that is a remarkably good method too). Instead, it’s “What am I giving a face to?”. Once I get this game up and running, I’m certainly going to give it a try.

4 thoughts on “Non-Protagonist Characters

  1. I don't think saying “The judge says 'Not in my courtroom,' is inherently inferior to saying “Not in my courtroom.” It does need to be tied to the style of play. If the players' speak in character, or you'd prefer that they speak in character, then I think you should do the same.Third-person narration of NPCs is the way that I always played, but after taking many improv classes, I'd be very tempted to speak in character as the NPCs.I like the concept of a Face for the locales. It does lend a tone to the place and gives the players someone to look for when they return to that location.


  2. Good characterization doesn’t really come from accents, funny voices or gestures. I think you were on the right track with increasing the verbosity of the description. I can describe a character in detail. Like this:“Within a recess in the wall, partially obscured was what appears, at first to be a gargoyle figure. You search for your sword or pistol, finding neither, as your eyes begin to focus. It becomes apparent that before you lay the figure of an old and decrepit man, whose deeply furrowed face was made more dramatic by the sinister shadows of the dim campfire light. His wispy beard hangs off his withered and worn face like moss off a twisted oak. All he bore upon his small and fragile frame was a filthy turban and woolen loin cloth, bare-chested and unshod. The man’s eyes were set deep into the recesses of his emaciated skull as the light from the fire danced upon the large black orbs which stared unblinking at your prone forms. If he notices you stirring, you would never have known as he sits there on his haunches, immobile as the guardian statue of gothic architecture whose image his form had conjured upon your semi-conscious imagination.”I don’t need to make an old man voice for my players to instantly identify the NPC. If the picture is painted well at the beginning you can draw the players into the NPC’s reality without need for theatrics. The character pops like you said and colors everything you have the character do or say.I guess what I am trying to say is that when you have a well written description it will put a filter on anything you do with that character. It sets a basis for what the characters will imagine the character to sound like and act. That will serve as an anchor for the mind’s eye. As long as you don’t describe the character as doing something that falls too far outside this original characterization you can use that description as a puppet and just pull the strings.


  3. this style is adult, and good for people who are not impaired by drinking or other vices. I have gotten flak from the “silly Voice” camp of gms but ultimately, my players preferred to be informed then be given a comedy routine for the night. Course, That same group of people preferred players not know any rules and just guess at outcomes… Not something that should happen in a serious game.


  4. I think your approach is the correct way for “Adult” gaming. I had to much experience with the Silly voice crowd of Gming and ultimately many preferred to be informed and given Options, versus the Keep things silly and Vague, and give players only the worse way out. Lot of this has to do with getting players to Read the setting and play within it, instead of Playing themselves in a fictional world.


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