An NPC Improv Trick
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0988
RPT GM Haukur asked me for tips on how to improv better. Here’s one using NPCs in two specific ways to come up with great ideas while under pressure.
Players do not understand how exhausting it is to GM a session.
A friend at work was chatting with one of his players. The player tried GMing for the first time. He said he was totally drained and brain dead after three hours of GMing a three-player party. The player had no idea how much thought and emotional labour goes into running a session.
And then try being great at improv while adjudicating the rules, doing some math, answering multiple player questions at once, thinking up foes’ next moves, and plotting what the next encounter might be.
Your brain meter goes into the red, leaving little power left for improv.
Enter the best tool in our GM Toolbox: NPCs.
To improv better when in the brain red zone, we need to slow the game down for a bit. We need to shepherd our resources and then steam ahead.
There are a few ways to do this, some better than others.
Option 1: Sloth
You go slower as energy flags. You try to power through, but it gets worse. Not a good option.
Option 2: Break
Great option. Do this whenever you need. Get away from the table, too, so players don’t bug you with questions. I defer this option when possible though, because I don’t like gameplay to ever stop as we have five hours to play and we only play once a month.
Option 3: Distraction
Give players something to do. Hand them a prop or puzzle. Send them to town and have them make a shopping list. Introduce a dilemma or situation to create party debate. Great option as it keeps the game going and players engaged while you can rest and observe or do something else while they’re distracted.
Option 4: Roleplay
An NPC enters the scene. This is my favourite option
When players interact with NPCs, it’s still engaging gameplay and you can keep the story moving forward. But the mode is less intense than running an action scene or thinking up a clever new encounter.
If fatigued, don’t worry about accents and over-the-top portrayal. Just casually speak in first-person with the characters.
This gives you two specific ways to come up with great ideas while under pressure….
Your Roleplay Strategy
First, it slows the pace down. You can relax and just roleplay for a bit. Even short pauses before NPC replies helps your brain recover and get you out of stress mode.
So, when roleplaying, add small talk. Get into the flavour of the game. Dig into the details a bit and be present.
Second, have the NPC ask questions. The players will probably pummel you and the NPC with questions to start. Turn the tables. Be the one asking the questions and getting the players thinking and doing more improv.
Small talk questions are great for spotlight play. Ask about character backgrounds. Who they are, where they’re from, who their families are, what they do for work or hobbies.
Half the time I bet your PCs have not had a bath in awhile. So ask about the wounds, scars, dents in armour, and nicks in blood-stained blades. “It’s that an earlobe stuck in your hair? Oh my! How did that get there?”
When you ask questions, start to get strategic. Try to get players to divulge their secrets. Get them to open up and share their stories with the NPC. Flatter the characters or alpha-challenge their egos.
Leverage The Roleplay
One of the best things that can come out of this play is information and rumours leak into your milieu.
The characters are significant actors and change agents in your world. Their actions, when become known, will interest many factions and powers….
And NPCs who get this information out of the PCs don’t always tell the truth. They might misunderstand, forget a key fact, or exaggerate. They’ll definitely apply their own biases and opinions.
Imagine all the false rumours a single conversation could start that riles up foes, rivals, and those with affected concerns.
Ok, that’s one side of the strategy. What happens in the dungeon can’t stay in the dungeon.
The other side is to get the players coming up with ideas for you.
As you sit there like a deflated balloon, stand up and move around. Breathe deeper, from the gut, to get your oxygen-starved brain more fuel and to lower your heart rate.
…And have the NPC ask probing questions to get players creating-out-loud.
Ask what, why, and how a lot.
“What do you think is going on?”
“How do you think the Baron will react to this news?”
“Why is the dragon so upset?”
As you get re-energized with some fun roleplay, note all details and ideas.
If a player talks about her family, ask the player to make up the names for you — and log all those details as she does.
If the group speculates about the villain’s next move — log all those ideas too. (If you already have the villain’s plans and details locked down, assign the players’ ideas to the villain’s minions!)
If characters debate over the meanings of clues — log all their notions for later use as red herrings, twists, and interesting developments.
This is actually one of the main things that triggered me creating Campaign Logger. When so many good details get created during gameplay, you want a fast and accurate tool to capture them all so you don’t have your head buried in the computer screen while trying to roleplay.
Recoup Without Stopping
Recurring and trusted NPCs are perfect for getting players comfortable sharing details and ideas. These NPCs don’t have to be foes or have bad intents. Who can resist telling a great tale or sharing a conspiratorial detail with a friend or loved one later?
And so the news spreads and the rumours begin….
Meanwhile, the roleplay is helping you recover and regain energy so you have the brain cycles to continue to improv. Gameplay does not stop. Players remain engaged. You get new ideas. And maybe things get more interesting with something the characters reveal….