Watch Out For These Time Travel GM Traps
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0518
- A Brief Word from Johnn
- Watch Out For These Time Travel GM Traps
- For mission-style, run it just like a dungeon
- Know your timeline
- Create your rules for time
- Set time travel parameters
- Create a list of culture seeds
- Time travel resources
- More time travel tips, please
- Dungeon Tile Mastery
- Review: Art of Wor City Tiles
- Super Heroes + Zombies? Book Review: Ex-Heroes
- How-To Game Master Books
- One More Tip
A Brief Word from Johnn
RPG Review #11 Released
Have you heard of RPG Review? Past RPT contributor Lev Lafayette does a great job with this free PDF ezine.
Download RPG Review Issue 11 plus the archives at: RPG Review.
One More Tip
A few issues ago I added a new column to the end of the newsletter called One More Tip. I did not announce it at the time as I wanted to “try it on” a few times first.
The reason behind the column stems from the old Dragon and Dungeon magazines. I always looked forward to the last page in them because it offered a final juicy article or a great comic.
Some years the magazines didn’t do this, and I always felt disappointed when I got to the end. The issue was over, and all that was left were the ads.
I began to wonder if any readers experienced the same thing with RPT. After the reader tips, I usually run one last ad about my GMing books for sale, and then sign off. Is that a letdown? Wouldn’t it be great if the newsletter finished with just one more tip?
As writer and publisher, it is a problem of being too close to the subject, and seeing only d6 trees instead of the forest.
So, I just started adding it in. It’s nice to write one more tip that does not have to be a feature length article. It is also nice to pay homage to old school Dragon and Dungeon magazines by offering a last morsel before that back cover hits the floor.
If you have any feedback about One Last Tip, drop me a note. I always appreciate your opinions and ideas. This issue I talk about a great NPC tip. I hope you find it useful.
Watch Out For These Time Travel GM Traps
Movies and books make time travel stories seem easy. We watch with excitement as characters tackle crazy time paradoxes and puzzles, battle villains in a variety of lush settings, and experience fun twists made possible when authors can play with timelines.
The scam for us poor game masters, however, is we are more prone to railroading with time travel plots. Also, our time bending ideas cause our plots to become rigid and brittle, which make our games likelier to break once players get involved.
Most game genres offer the potential for time travel. Fantasy has magic, be it powerful spells, mysterious artefacts, or one-time wondrous events. Modern day and science fiction settings offer secret technology, alien technology or powers, or supernatural events.
RPT reader Robert M. emailed me recently to ask for tips on time travel:
- What are the traps and pitfalls to avoid when running time travel?
- What are some of the great moments to run in time travel?
- Where can I find out more?
Thanks for the tip request, Robert. Here are some GM tips to consider.
For mission-style, run it just like a dungeon
I lump time travel campaigns into two groups: sandbox and dungeon.
Sandbox means the players can travel to different times, worlds, or even dimensions of their choosing. The whole galaxy (and more) is open to them to poke around in. The PCs might have quests and objectives, but they have the controls to go where they want. Think Dr. Who.
Dungeon style creates linear games. Locations and foes are all constrained by the dungeon map. PCs explore the map, following routes allowed by exits, entrances, and connectors between locations.
The difference between the two styles for time travel is the game master’s pain threshold.
I kid, I kid. However, be warned that if you give the PCs control over time and space, they can go anywhere and anywhen. You will need to make up people and places galore. Are you up for that?
I prefer to run mission-style adventures that you can plan just like a dungeon. Think Stargate.
Locations, events, and NPCs are tied to predictable plot progression. Use standard dungeon design techniques to offer the illusion of choice.
For example, you might choose the nine act format. Each act requires specific things before it can start and end, giving you planning and design control. However:
- Within each act, you design several encounters players can trigger in whatever order they choose
- Players can also ignore or bypass certain encounters
- Players can trigger unplanned encounters that you make up on the fly
- Characters go where they want, do what they want
- But until the act advancement conditions are met, characters stay within an act
Think of each act as a bubble. PCs can bounce around inside each bubble however they want, but they remain in each bubble until they advance the plot, as per your design. Half railroad, half dirt track.
Doing time travel dungeon-style lets you plan some things in advance, keeping your sanity as GM. More advice follows on how to do this in the Set time travel parameters tip below.
Know your timeline
In other campaigns, players will ask, “So tell us about the world.” However, in time travel campaigns, players will ask, “So tell us about history.”
Have a timeline prepared. You can keep it rough, to prevent over-planning and over-detailing. A bullet list with dates is great:
0 IC – First alien settlement
1,500 IC – Second aliens arrive on planet and settle
2,000 IC – Alien war breaks out, first aliens win and enslave second aliens
3,500 IC – Empire formed
5,300 IC – Empire breaks apart, world gels into numerous smaller states
7,800 IC – Holy leader emerges, unifies half the world, creates peace between two alien races
Present Day – cracks emerge in holy empire, racial tensions renewed, conspiracies everywhere between factions who want to save the empire and factions who want it to end
There are countless notable events within that 8,000+ year timeline, which we’ve condensed into just seven points. However, if you were GMing this world, wouldn’t having this give you some peace of mind? A bit of confidence when planning? Some structure to help form your ideas around? It does for me.
I would aim for more bullet points for key adventure locations. Earth in Dr. Who, for example, gets visited often.
If your let the PCs travel to any world, any time, then you should create a larger timeline for the entire area the PCs can travel to. If the characters can go between dimensions, visit alternate timelines, or even go to places outside of normal space, you should have a basic timeline for this whole combined region.
Then splinter off separate timelines for key worlds or areas.
That gives us a big picture of the past and present. What about the future?
The answer depends on the rules of time…
Create your rules for time
As of 2011, we do not yet know how time works. We have ideas, theories, and some growing knowledge, but it’s still all up for grabs. Therefore, any decisions you make about time travel will be fiction. You do not have a body of definitive science and answers with which to create consistent time travel game rules. So, you will need to make your own.
Not having the rules of time laid out in advance could end your campaign early (dare I say, before its time?). As PCs take their actions, various paradoxes and issues will come up. If you do not give them careful thought in advance, then your ad hoc rulings will eventually create a knot so tricky that you cannot smooth things out. The campaign ends as nobody has traction on game reality any longer. You might as well roll on a table to see what happens next.
Key time issues to resolve for yourself
- Why is time travel not present, known, or revealed in history?
- Can you change the present by going backwards in time and causing a difference?
- Is there one timeline or time stream, or more? Explain.
- Can someone from the present or future send messages to someone in the past?
- What happens if someone kills a PC in the past? What happens if PCs meet themselves?
Another key issue is opposition. If there are time travelling villains in your campaign, then why have they not struck first, preventing any interference by the PCs or others?
Set time travel parameters
Put limitations on PCs’ time travel so you steer and pace things better to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
If the full can of worms is open in your campaign, then not only can characters travel to different times, but they can visit unlimited worlds plus the various times in those worlds! If that does not make your head explode, then realize it means the party can also hop genres. Historical, steampunk, modern, cyberpunk, sci-fi. If the laws of your universe allow it, you might even have magic on your hands in the form of spells, supernatural, psionics, magic items, or gods.
All in one campaign! And all at the PCs’ beck and call? Yikes.
If this is your first time travel game, put numerous limitations on time travel so you can keep the game manageable. This also helps the players, for if they have unlimited choices, then they could feel caught in the blinding headlights of a temporal semi-truck.
Use a home base
Avoid giving the PCs a time travel device. Instead, design a home base with time travel capability, such as Stargate has done.
This limits the amount of hopping PCs can do. Depending on how you design the return mechanism (how can the PCs return back to the home base each time?) you create at least one stable game element.
You can also put temporary or permanent restrictions on the home base time travel mechanism, such as:
- Cool down period – PCs must wait before travelling to another time, or possibly returning to home base after each trip
- Fixed number of destinations – only certain worlds, time streams, or dimensions are available
- Timeline blackout periods – parts of the timeline are unreachable
- Charges – a neat way to put an end state in the campaign, unless you opt for quests to recharge the mechanism
- Fuel – require a rare element or fuel source that gets consumed each time travel trip
A clever limitation is creating blackout periods on times the PCs have already visited. This prevents several time logic problems, and prevents abuse of the ability so the campaign does not turn into a Groundhog Day game.
How much matter can travel?
How much can be transported through time – six people, entire armies, or somewhere in between? How much equipment can the characters take with them through time?
This decision gives you key control over the resources and options players have so you can achieve the kind of game balance you want.
For example, if you allow 2,000 pounds maximum to pass through time, that prevents the PCs from hauling tanks, spaceships, and wads of gold with them.
However, in this case, have an answer for potential player attempts to game the system. For example, why can’t they make multiple trips, bringing their spaceship through time in pieces? (The cool down and timeline blackout options are good answers.)
How can history be manipulated?
If you can prevent the villain from being born, can the PCs win the game in the first encounter?
Be careful about how history can change. Be sure to have your rules for historical interaction ruled out.
Even if you run a fantasy setting, where history need not mesh with any kind of Earth reality, the question of abuse still needs an answer so your campaign does not short-circuit by accident.
Remember the TV show Sliders? That show offered dimension travel rather than time travel. You might decide to create one rigid timeline, where history cannot be changed, and if the characters do go back in time and meddle then that just creates splinter timelines. That offers you an easy out on many time paradox issues.
I also favour a blended approach where you give the official time line a strength rating. Any events that change history that do not meet or beat this strength rating mean splinter timelines spawn.
If an event is so powerful or important that it does exceed the official timeline’s strength rating, then official history does indeed change.
Only dramatic situations will cause changes to the PCs’ timeline, which offers great fodder for villains and adventures.
Decide how history works in your game before the players opt to change it.
Create a list of culture seeds
With many potential cultures just a short trip away, you will be pressed to come up with distinct ideas, else risk different locations blending together into a vanilla lump.
Have a list of culture ideas ready. Dig into Wikipedia for inspiration. Research countries, cities, and civilizations. Create a list of at least 12 culture ideas, preferably twice that number.
For each culture seed or idea, use the elevator pitch or X Meets Y format.
An elevator pitch gives you a short period of time to make the sale. In RPG terms, this means writing a paragraph or less that describes why a culture is unique and fun to game. The pitch should be interesting enough to immediately hook players.
The X Meets Y format mashes two ideas together so that you instantly understand the potential and uniqueness of the idea. X is typically a culture reference from real life or fiction. Y is some other idea, possibly a culture, but probably something else like a technology or condition. Then you mash X and Y together to form your culture.
For example, the Gem Society. Roman Empire meets different types of gems (and gem qualities).
Because you are familiar with X and Y, you can describe a cool concept in few words, which means faster preparation!
Create culture clashes
You should also think about creating a conflict within each culture. The PCs will not visit the entire culture. They will just drop into a small number of locations to explore or complete an objective. So, your conflicts should be a combination of environmental and personal to add an extra dimension to each setting.
For example, the group is sent to an asteroid mine to take pictures of alien drawings discovered hundreds of years ago before they were destroyed by careless miners. This is part of a larger plot, and the villain has placed agents at the mine throughout that time period to block any enemies from observing the drawings.
You decide the culture for the mine is Prison meets Rasputin. The prisoners are being led to revolt by a powerful guru.
Such an environment makes the whole encounter or adventure more interesting, adding a new dimension to the standard villain vs. PCs plot.
Time travel resources
Mike Bourke at CampaignMastery.com offers extensive advice on the subject in his excellent three-part series, Time Travel in RPGs.
You might also want to check out GURPS Time Travel.
More time travel tips, please
What about you? What advice do you have for Robert?
- What are the traps and pitfalls to avoid when running time travel?
- What are some of the great moments to run in time travel?
- What are some great time travel resources?
Dungeon Tile Mastery
9 Ways to Get the Most Out of Your Tile Collection
I like the WotC dungeon tiles a lot and have been collecting sets over the years. They offer a number of advantages over other mapping methods.
- They save on your toner bill. Printing out maps is great, but can get expensive.
- Clean. Wet and dry erase ink can make a mess.
- Fast to clean up. No wet clothes or dry brushes – just scoop up your tiles from the table and you’re done.
- More details. Tile art supplies you more features to aid gameplay, description, or flavor than an outline on a battlemat would
- If you are organized, it is faster to map as you go. Just lay tiles down according to plan. The key is being organized, though, else you’re flipping endlessly through tiles looking for the right ones.
However, there are also some challenges with using this game aid.
Following are 9 tips to help you get the most out of your dungeon tiles.
Design with Tiles in Mind
I gave up trying to match tiles to existing maps long ago. There just are not enough tile variations, plus the square corner nature and fixed sizes of dungeon tiles make it impossible to reproduce maps from most published products.
However, the awesomeness of tiles comes into play when you create your map using tiles first. Layout your tiles to suit your encounter and dungeon needs, and then take that arrangement as your map.
It is tempting to whip out a pencil and start drawing while you design encounters. But if you want to use tiles then you are stuck again trying to match tiles to a pre-existing map.
Instead, get into the habit of keeping your tiles nearby and whipping them out as soon as you need to create a map.
Photograph Your Maps
Take a photo of your tile map design and put them on your computer. Use this to help your layout tiles to recreate your maps fast as you GM.
Use your paint program of choice to annotate map photos. Use these versions to help you record and track GM-only details:
- Secret doors
- Pre-planned tactics
Keep Tiles from Moving
Game tables get bumped, players jostle tiles when moving minis around, and GMs nudge tiles out of place when laying new ones down.
One option to prevent moving tiles is shelf liner. You can get this stuff inexpensively at dollar stores and department stores. It grips most table surfaces as well as tiles. As a bonus, you can get different colors to serve as thematic map backgrounds, such as gray for caverns, brown for dungeons, and green for outdoors.
You might consider getting a large piece of cardboard, foam board, or cork board. Lay tiles on the board and use push puns to pinch tiles in place at corners.
A third option is to use non-residue tape to fix tiles in place.
Finally, sticky tack – the kind you use to put stuff up on walls – can hold tiles in place.
I prefer the shelf liner. Pins only work if you have a complete map laid out and can see the best pressure points to pinch. Using the wrong kind of tape and sticky tack can leave residue on your tiles, or rip the top surface off tiles.
And for speed, you can’t beat just laying down tiles on a non-slip surface rather than messing with tag, pins, or putty for every tile.
Use Tiles to Enhance Battle Maps
Instead of drawing the whole map with tiles, use tiles in specific places on your maps for flavor, extra detail, or special areas.
For example, draw out your map on your battlemat like you normally would. Then lay down a couple tiles in spots for special purposes. This offers you the speed and freedom of freeform hand-drawn mapping, plus the special qualities dungeon tiles offer.
Example enhancements using tiles:
- Hazard areas
- Spell effects, magical areas
- Doors and stairs
- Elevated platforms
- Hybrid areas with natural caverns and worked or crafted areas (i.e. a cavern with a temple carved out in the back)
- 3D environments
You can also switch up between hand-drawn areas that would be difficult for tiles to represent, and rooms and corridors perfect for tile use.
Tiles Work with Dry Erase
You can write on tiles to add extra details or modify zones in ways the tiles cannot represent.
For example, you can draw such things as pits, walls, and pools. You can add doors, altars, and furnishings.
When done, just erase before putting tiles away.
A couple caveats with this tip. First, I have not left marks on tiles for more than a few hours. Maybe someone has tested and can let me know if you can leave dry erase on for longer.
I have also only used black and blue markers. Like battlemats, there might be colors that leave stains, such as red. Maybe somebody could advise me on this, as well.
Dry erase particles will get into the tile surface. You will not be able to 100% clean the dry erase marks off tiles. Look close and you can see how the manufacturing process has left bumps in the tile surfaces. Some of the dust will get into these. It is easy to wipe well enough so tiles look clean, but just be aware some dry erase always remains behind.
Use On a Colored Surface
As mentioned above, you can enhance theme and flavor by placing tiles on a colored background. Castles go on gray, forests go on green, dungeons go on black, for example.
Go to a stationery or art supply store to get large sheets of heavy paper or light cardboard colored to suit your needs. Alternatively, you can get felt in a variety of colors. And then there’s shelf liner material that also offers no-skid properties.
As a bonus, the background material can help protect your dining room or kitchen table top, and hide irritating table patterns that break the mood.
Get to Know Your Tiles
One of the most common complaints I have heard about tiles is finding the right pieces for the map you’re using or designing. While part of the problem is tile inventory – if you do not have the right piece then you are out of luck – I feel the main issue is lack of familiarity with what tiles you have.
Tiles offer art on both sides, further complicating the problem. And, after not finding a needed tile in game a few times, you might be inclined to put your tiles away and stop using them altogether.
Before going to that extreme, try getting to know your tiles. Nothing makes tiles more useful than a GM who is familiar with his tile inventory! If you know the shapes and features, plus typical design patterns, tile selection gets faster and easier.
Get your tiles out and start creating maps with them. Do not try to recreate a map. Instead, just freeform it. Make your designs as interesting as possible, which you can do a couple of ways:
- Looks cool. Make maps that are aesthetically pleasing. (I’m too left-brained for this, unfortunately, but you might have an artistic eye to make this possible.)
- Tactical. Make maps that would enhance combats by offering tactical choices. For example, choke points, cover, and sneak attack zones.
- Unique. Avoid big square rooms. Layer tiles on top of each other, and mix up designs so you do not make a bunch of boring spaces.
- Mix sets. At first glance, that wilderness piece might not fight your cavern motif, but experiment anyway. Use your imagination to explain why a forest might be underground, or why there’s a tent in a dungeon.
The purpose is to fiddle with tiles, flip them over, and put them together in different configurations so you become familiar with all the art of each set and what tiles offer what mapping opportunities.
However, as a big bonus to this exercise, after each map is done you should take a picture of it. Why buy a book of map templates when you have a fun map generator at your fingertips? Make 10 maps from a set, take a pic of each, and now you have 10 maps to use any time, any way you want. Best thing is, these maps are digital, printable, and tile-able! Help me with the holy grail
In preparation for this article, I racked my brain trying to think of how you could make a game out of dungeon tiles. Perhaps something like Carcassonne or another tile-based board game. Or maybe something with dice + tiles.
If there was a fun game that involved tiles that also created maps for you when the game was over, you would have the holy grail of GM prep on your hands. Not only would you play the game often because it was fun, but you would learn your tiles inside and out for very easy future tile use. And after several play throughs, you’d have a cool collection of maps (by taking photos after each game) that took no effort to build.
Help me turn dungeon tiles into a short 1, 2 or more player game. Send me your ideas or comment below. Best idea gets a prize!
Combo with Printable Tiles
Combo printable tiles with dungeon tiles to get a whole lot more mileage out of your tile sets.
RPGNow abounds with inexpensive printable tile products, and you can always design your own on your computer with art software.
Use printable tiles to fill dungeon tile layouts with shapes and types missing from your collection.
You can also enhance tiles by stacking them. Take those big area tiles and put printed special-use tiles on top to run more interesting terrain, hazards, and battlefield features for combats.
Accent with Wooden Blocks
From Bill Hein
Invest $20 in two $10 sets of blocks at WalMart. Nothing fancy, just the wood blocks we played with as toddlers. This gives you walls, arches for doors, cylinders for columns, and more.
Combine them with the dungeon tiles. The blocks make the walls, while the tiles are pretty enough to evoke mood. I thought about painting the blocks darker colors, but passed; when they’re bright, it’s obvious from across the table where the wall is.
If you can find the old WizKids Dungeon Tiles for Mage Knight, they’re useful too. I bought mine a long time ago on clearance, but I still stumble across the stuff at rummage sales and flea markets.
Aquarium terrain is good stuff, too. I don’t much like the standard prices, but used stuff on eBay, garage sales, or flea markets works well.
Do you use tiles? If so, you will find my dungeon tiles tips over at Campaign Mastery useful, as well: 8 Easy Ways to Organize Your Dungeon Tiles. http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/tileorg
Review: Art of Wor City Tiles
The Stone Bard Inn
The Stone Bard Inn city tiles by Three Sages Games are seven slick full colour productions designed to enhance tavern brawls and inn encounters.
The tiles are actually letter-sized plastic sheets with anti-skid foam backing. Because of the plastic, you can use wet and dry erase markers on them.
Three sheets combine to offer a large tavern area, replete with a 35′ long bar. The illustrated chandeliers and stair banister will hopefully inspire creative combats in your games.
The other four sheets cover entire floors of the inn. GMs can use them as standalone areas for one or two storey inns, as well. In this way, you can build a few different inn variations, even though the tiles are designed to represent the large Stone Bard Inn.
The 1″ squares for minis use are subtly marked with crosshairs. A pet peeve of mine is grid lines so dark or thick they interfere with mapping. So I’m glad to see the faint crosshair approach on Three Sages’ product.
The maps are fully detailed as well, with graphics for chairs, tables, shelves, beds, and numerous other furnishing.
I give this product a thumbs-up. They save a GM time mapping. The tiles are ideal for a frequently visited inn, however I would also feel comfortable reusing them in a world as standard inn designs.
I like that the tiles support wet and dry erase. The full color and great details are a bonus.
Super Heroes + Zombies? Book Review: Ex-Heroes
From Forrest Elam
I recently read a book that I think you and your readers might appreciate. The name of the book is Ex Heroes by Peter Clines and it is his writing debut. I enjoyed it thoroughly and wanted to pass it on to you.
The book is a blend of super-hero and zombie-apocalypse genres. A wonderfully creative idea that seems so simple one wonders why it has never been done before.
It is a great first offering by the author and an easy read. It combines good storytelling with interesting characters faced by a truly horrific situation. I do not want to give away too much of the plot, but the author does a good job of jumping back and forth between the characters’ past and present, while keeping the reader in suspense.
It is not a great work of literature, but it is such an enjoyable read, with such a good story, that I recommend it wholeheartedly. I guess the highest praise I can give it is that it makes me want to create and play in an RPG campaign based on it!
If you are a fan of either super-heroes or zombies you will not be disappointed, and if you like both then this is a book for you.
The games’ afoot!
More reviews and book details: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/exheroes
How-To Game Master Books
In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:
Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.
Free preview: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/npceprev
Filling the Empty Chair
How to find great gamers fast and easy online with my list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites. Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area. And attract the best players with my tips and advice on how to create the right kind of ads.
Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants
How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, plus several generators and tables: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/url/taverns
Adventure Essentials: Holidays
Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.
One More Tip
Is Fleshing Out NPCs Just a Waste of Time?
For important NPCs such as villains, rivals, sidekicks, and recurring characters, you might wonder whether it is worth the effort developing a detailed history and personality. Isn’t the stat block enough? Can’t you add a couple of quirks and declare the NPC done?
If you want NPCs that make players lean forward and take notice, then the answer is no. And if you want to create a campaign filled with drama, action, and twists, then the answer is no. A little extra time spent fleshing out an NPC at the start, and GMing them a certain way, pays huge campaign dividends. Here’s why.
If you are armed with a fantastic NPC profile, then you GM with the whole picture in mind during scenes and encounters. However, in any given encounter, players will only get a glimpse of this picture. And this offers tremendous roleplaying and plotting opportunities.
An important NPC should have objectives, motives, conflicted history, and a three dimensional personality. In addition, they should not revolve around the player characters. The NPC should make up his or her own mind about things, make decisions consistent with his profile, and take actions that further his needs – and not the PCs’ – by default.
During the game, the players will observe or experience the NPCs taking various actions. The actions could be during encounters or during background events.
On the surface, all these actions might seem random, unusual, or in conflict with the PCs. The players become puzzled and intrigued. The game world seems a bit more mysterious. And the consequences of the actions generate encounter and plot seeds.
In the background, however, you know exactly what’s driving the NPC’s behaviour. The actions are consistent with the profile you created. You see the whole picture. But the players just get a number of glimpses over time. In this way, the NPC is a mystery to your players, but easy to run for you because you have the full picture.
When the pieces start to fall into place, and your players begin to understand the NPC’s pattern (the NPC’s motivations and style), they earn a number of wonderful aha! moments.
The game feels deeper this way, as well. The whole time, you have been dropping clues, making references, and having the NPC take actions without explanation. Once the players start figuring things out, they can think back in your campaign and realize some or all the connections. Your players will call you a genius!
But it is so simple, because you worked out a detailed NPC profile and ran true to it from the start. It is easy for you to roleplay the NPC in-character during encounters, or have the NPC take in-character actions in the background, with consistency to his profile. In a way, you simply followed instructions you gave yourself.
To your players, though, what started out as an enigma, whether friend or foe, now becomes a three dimensional game element.
Even better, once the players finally get inside the NPC’s head after campaign time has passed, you can start a whole new era with this NPC in your game. Now, for the first time, PCs and NPC will have a full measure of each other, and a new dynamic relationship begins.
What started out as seemingly random, unusual, or surface level interactions grow into a compelling chess match. Will PCs and NPC try to manipulate each other, and can they do so effectively now that they have such deep knowledge of each other?
Alternatively, will respect, duty, honor, or other aspects of their deepened relationship result in entertaining game play?
For example, a rival might try to take a bullet for a PC. If this happened at the beginning of the campaign, the PC might have been puzzled over this, but then brushed it off and moved on. It’s just another NPC to them.
However, if this happens later in the campaign, and the player has a deeper understanding of the NPC, they might realize the NPC took the bullet because the NPC respected them, or the NPC was trying to protect the shooter, or the NPC was suicidal due to his relationship with a PC. Now what does the PC do? Think of all the factors the player could mull over now.
For a simpler campaign, such as a dungeon crawl, an NPC profile GM’d this way gives you excellent fodder for plot and encounter twists. The PCs realize the mad mage is not so mad after all, and by the end the party might even want to save the wizard – and not because of a die roll or fleeting impulse. Instead, the NPC has become a deep game element and will probably be the most remembered part of the dungeon.
Yes, it is definitely worth creating a detailed profile for important NPCs. A little work, done once at the start, offers all these benefits and gameplay opportunities.