How To GM Genius NPCs
I wrote this Bonus Musing for you on the weekend in response to a question from RPT GM and Patron Andy Fundinger.
Andy asked me how you draw on an antagonist’s high IQ to build clever plans.
Here are three ways.
I was talking to folks at work about a plan they were developing. I asked, “Ok, what happens if it succeeds too well or if it under-performs by a lot?”
These are great questions to consider before you deploy your clever plan.
First, thinking ahead is free. It doesn’t cost you anything except a little time and glucose.
Second, it removes panic should the unfortunate happen, because you have already anticipated things.
Third, you know what countermeasures to put in place. Being reactive means you are reacting to the past. Being proactive means you are acting before something becomes a crisis.
Bend the Spoon
By thinking ahead and anticipating possible pit traps you can often avoid treading where pit traps lie in the first place.
For example, what are the lowest and highest saving throws of the genius NPC? Let’s say strength is worst and willpower is highest.
This means the NPC needs to avoid situations where their strength is required.
How can you position them in encounters where no strength is required? By position, I mean not just physical placement but strategic placement as well.
For example, the easiest way to avoid having to lose a strength save is to use someone else’s. Create those minions and put them on the spear tip of gameplay.
Another option might be buying buffs, equipment, or magic to boost the save. Another idea might be using distance — so giving them speed or flight or blink.
We want to examine the NPC’s highest save or best ability because that’s where they can bear the most risk. Tweak their plan so it relies not on strength saves but willpower.
For example, in general and at scale, it takes magic to beat magic. Our antagonist should avoid the armies and personal combat approach (strength type situations). Instead, they could take the magic guild approach (more willpower based).
In this way, the NPC avoids putting themselves into weak positions by the very nature of their plans.
Go on the Defensive
Back to thinking ahead.
It’s like chess. When you plot a move you think how your opponent might react. Then you plot moves in reaction to their potential decisions. And so on.
Try to think three steps ahead. More becomes difficult because in RPGs players and characters do a lot of chaotic stuff and gameplay isn’t constrained to a simple chessboard.
If this seems intimidating, then try to picture the choices and consequences like a tree or like the node diagram above.
The NPC’s overall objective is the trunk or centre node.
Parts of the strategy are the branches.
Specific tactics are the leaves or nodes.
Start with the initial situation created by the NPC. Make that a branch.
What are possible failure outcomes? For example, death, retreat, loss of a key ally or item, losing control of a location.
Each answer becomes a leaf on the end of the branch.
Then ask what would have to happen for each potential leaf-node to happen.
Would the NPC need to lose a battle? Would the PCs need to set fire to the place? Would the PCs need to capture a key item or NPC beforehand?
With each cause of potential failure identified, have the NPC plan mitigations.
What could the genius NPC do to prevent each possible failure from happening?
Those become new branches. Each option might need further mitigation or additional efforts to support.
Focus on One Leaf at a Time
Our heads spin when we do this kind of thinking.
That’s where the diagram approach can help. Focus only on one branch and leaf at a time.
And consider each on its own.
For any given situation, how could it fail on its own? Don’t try to keep the whole tree in your head.
By thinking one leaf at a time and creating branches of possibilities, you pre-empt costly situations by thinking ahead. This works well because players often only think one roll ahead.
And so it appears like the NPC is always anticipating the party and foiling them.
It appears like the NPC is a genius.
Go on the Offensive
Once you’ve got probable causes of failure figured out and gameplay tuned, assume the NPC’s plans keep succeeding.
Think ahead three successes.
Repeat the type of thinking you did for imagining failures and mitigations.
What would have to happen for each planned action to succeed?
Then, what would that success give the NPC? Is it worth the risk? Is it worth the cost? Does the success bring the NPC close to the next leaf of success?
Go as far ahead in your success planning as you like.
Then for each success leaf, starting with the ones closest to happening next game session, do some failure planning and mitigation. Do some Loopy Planning.
Build Sessions From Your Plans
This all sounds complicated on paper. But in reality it only takes a couple minutes to think up possible failures and successes.
Mitigations might take you longer.
But here’s the thing.
All this thinking drives gameplay!
We want our plots to be thrilling, danger-filled, mysterious, and twisty, right?
And you’ve told me in emails and surveys you want players engaged. You want to keep them eager to push forward and always guessing.
With this approach of thinking ahead you set up an awesome game of cat and mouse.
Instead of shaking the arbitrary GM stick and railroading the players into difficult situations set up by the genius NPC, you instead give players the rope by which they can hang.
You have already tightened the noose with NPC actions designed to put the NPC into positions of strength. And what risks can’t be mitigated have defenses ready.
So your planning itself makes the NPC smarter.
In addition, you can turn leaves on your planning tree into 5 Room Dungeons!
Game the plan out.
I hate it when I do a ton of planning and brainstorming and then come to the question, “So, what am I going to do next session?”
By turning your plan into encounters and 5 Room Dungeons you will always have at least one adventure ready to run. There’s always the next step in the genius NPC’s plan.
Sorry, I didn’t get to all the tips on how to GM genius NPCs in today’s Musing. I will cover those in upcoming Musings.