Sunday, 12 December 2010

NPC, the Game Master's Mouthpiece

Hindering game-flow or providing depth?

This is one of those post I just have to write. Tenkar posted a question a few days ago about whether NPCs should be used as a a GM's mouthpiece or not [edit: for future reference, Tenkar's second post on the matter]. In the comments a few people were rather unequivocal about how using such NPC's was sloppy game-mastering. I have to admit that that riled me a little. Since I have a soapbox available, I'll now climb up on it.

In my opinion, NPCs are the bread and butter of game-mastering. They are what makes the setting into more than a pimped up Monopoly-board, with the character sheets filling the role of little cars and fancy top-hats. They are everybody else. And all these people are played by the person sitting at the end of the table - the GM.

Both the GM and the players comes to the table to play a game, and I believe that regardless of the style of play, the above premise holds true.

I acknowledge that the role of the NPCs may vary according to gaming philosophies, but I still think there are certain mechanics inherent in the game. To argue this, I'll start by looking at three major philosophies in modern roleplaying. 

The first I'll address is the Sandbox. In this game, the world is created, be it by the GM or by a third party. NPCs, monster-lairs, dungeons, adventure-locations and cities are placed on the map, and the encounter-tables are stocked. The players then create their characters, and start exploring the world. They hex-crawl, they dungeon-crawl, and they kill monsters, solve puzzles, loot and gain experience. Most hard-line sandboxers I am aware of view any direct leading by the GM as a faux pas, and I am assuming that it is in this camp that most of the most vocal opponents to having NPCs act as GM mouthpieces belong. 

In the other end of the spectrum there is the Railroad. This may not be a philosophy in the strictest sense of the word, but more of a style. It is also commonly viewed as sloppy game-mastering, all across the board. Urban Dictionary defines railroading as, "to coerce, trick, or seduce others into a course of action they would not otherwise choose.[*]" Most roleplayers resent being railroaded, and justly so.

Lastly I'll look at Storytelling. This style of play was made famous with the various White Wolf lines, and builds on a level of trust between the game master and the players. The rules are placed in the back seat, and the focus is placed on the narrative, rather than the game. The game master, or as the technical term is, the Storyteller, is not only advised to, but is expected to overlook any rule that will impede the flow of the story. There are no encounter-tables in Storytelling games.

Before I continue, I should point out that I count myself among the last group, although I started my game-mastering playing AD&D 2nd Ed.

Now to the NPC as the GM's mouthpiece. In Tenkar's post he was referring to characters such as Gandalf being the game master's mouthpiece, had LotR been an RPG campaign, akin to characters such as Elminster of Forgotten Realms. I also surmise that those who spoke against employing such characters were using the same definition. And this is where I don't agree.

As a storyteller, I believe that every single NPC is the game master's mouthpiece, if for no other reason than that the game master speaks through every single NPC. Whenever a PC addresses someone not represented by a given person at the table, the game master will play out that role. If the NPC conveys a rumour about marauding goblins in the Northern Woods, it is in fact the game master speaking. The same goes for any information, or lack thereof, any NPC gives to any player.

I see that in a Sandbox-purist's game, an ancient, powerful, and wise NPC giving advice may be seen as instructing the PCs as to how to proceed, and that this may impede the open nature of the sandbox. In my view, however, removing any such influence say more about the setting than anything Gandalf might come up with. Are there no older, wiser characters in the world? Why so? If they exist, why aren't they taking an interest in what's going on in it? Is it beneath them? Or is it that they are working against whatever side the PCs are on?

As I've said, I view every NPC as a game master's mouthpiece, by virtue of the fact that as a game master, they speak with my mouth. Therefore I try to make sure my NPCs all have their own goals and agendas, and that I know what they know, and from where they learnt it. That way I the players will be able to get different information and advice from different NPCs.

I also believe that without any wiser, older, more powerful, and/or more informed characters inhabiting the world, the world becomes less believable. Even epic PCs will not know everything about the world by virtue of the fact that it is the game master who ultimately decides what lies around the next bend. Asking even the lowliest peasant may reveal information vital to bringing the story to its next stage, and even the lowliest peasant is the game master's mouthpiece. This is not railroading, this is game mastering and storytelling.

Even if the players have access to the source-material, the game master is still the one calling the shots when it comes to which adventure is open for play. My question is, how can the PCs gain any information about the setting, regardless of whether the game is a sandbox, a railroad, or a story, without interacting with the world as presented by the game master?

[Picture source: GameAxis Forums]


  1. I'll reiterate here what I did over there: I think NPCs are very important in a storytelling medium (role-playing games) because it's often very hard to "show" players moving images that can convey valuable bits of information.

    I use the NPCs to enrich the world by always feeding the PCs information about themselves, the setting and so on. While an NPC that blathers on and on would be a dull encounter, an NPC that engages a PC in a lively discussion that yields valuable tidbits of info, well, that's pretty great.

    So I guess I'm pretty much in your camp. The PCs learn quite a bit about the world from a wide array of NPCs who represent various facets of the setting. When the PCs speak with an NPC, that NPC is telling the PCs something about the setting that I want them to know.

  2. I'm glad you got on your soapbox. There is a valid approach here that deserves the kind of spirited defence you put up, especially to that final comment..!

    For me the passage "if for no other reason than that the game master speaks through every single NPC" and the final question sum the argument up well.

    Could any GM play the NPCs as entirely independent of the GM's wider purpose? And how many could say that in some circumstances they wouldn't play the character to drop a hint or move events on in a particular way?

  3. Instead of soapboxing, it might be good to clarify the difference between 'an NPC" (which every DM does use) with a 'DM Mouthpiece' (which is the specific term used over at Tenkar's post.

    I see them as different things, with slightly different functions. I have a feeling that some of the comments over there may be more about such a difference and not an indictment of NPC's/Story handling.

  4. I think scottsz's right and the real argument is a semantic one.

    Using "GM mouthpiece" to mean "deliverer of exposition" I don't see that as a problem at all.

    The problem only comes in when the GM makes the NPC the protagonist, or--if that term offends some sensibilities with suggestion of plot--favors the NPC over the PCs.

  5. @Porky:
    I do not believe that a GM is capable of not letting his/her personal agenda/plan/intention shine through in some way. And if I'm wrong, why should a GM strive to do that? For a game uninfluenced by a human, we have PlayStations.

    @Scottsz & Trey:
    The original post used examples such as Elminster and Gandalf to illustrate the 'mouthpiece', and Tenkar further said, "the NPC that could impart the necessary knowledge to get the PCs on track."

    I agree with you that this is at its core a semantic discussion, and as is often the case, no mutually accepted canon exists to clarify the definition. I do not advocate employing an uber-NPC to strong-arm the players into following a plot, but I do not think that is what Tenkar was referring to.

    As I said in my main post, I believe that every NPC is a GM's mouthpiece in one way or another. Still, even if we agree to separate the two terms, based on Tenkar's definition in the original post I support the use of a GM's mouthpiece.

  6. Perhaps the central issue is to what degree the player characters are secondary.

    A 'mouthpiece'/NPC who knows much more (and/or can do much more) than the player characters has crossed a certain line and is too much a 'foreground' character.

    This might focus the discussion more on characters (NPC or otherwise) and less on the DM/World.

    Alternatively, are there other non-mathematical/statistic measurements or criteria that DM's can use to 'test' an NPC or how much involvement they have in the particular world?

  7. I do not agree with you in that an NPC that knows more, and can do more, than the PCs have crossed any line. That line is only crossed if the GM starts upstaging the players, using his uber-NPC for ownage purposes. That has little to do with anything more sophisticated than poor game mastering.

    Gandalf, to use the example from Tenkar's OP, knew more, and could do more, than the Fellowship, yet he served to further the plot rather than to make the rest of the group look like useless gits.

    Gandalf was a mentor, an ally and a benefactor, and his purpose was to provide hope when there was none. If you are advocating removing all (friendly) NPCs more powerful than the PC, you will then have to scale down or handicap all antagonists, otherwise there is no plausible way for evil not to win every time.

    As for placing the focus on characters, Christian said it best, "I use the NPCs to enrich the world by always feeding the PCs information about themselves, the setting and so on. [...] When the PCs speak with an NPC, that NPC is telling the PCs something about the setting that I want them to know." While I play a bastardised version of the classical Storytelling game, I agree wholeheartedly with this as the overall guideline for any NPC.

    Speaking of statistical measurement of NPCs, I would say that yes, there are certainly an abundance of such data available, should you look for it, especially in my system of choice. First off, there is the raw power, but more importantly, there is the amassed knowledge and influence. In the ST-system, this can be quantified with Merits such as Allies, Resources, Contacts, Boons, Library, etc.

  8. Many thanks for clarifying. I think I understand.

  9. NPCs - There to make the story better for the players and for the DM to have fun showing the players what is in the world. Not IMHO for upstaging the players. I agree with your comments Harold. Great follow up post to Tenkars! You guys are on the ball. I also loved your comment comparing a non interactive game to playstation.

    NPCs, the good ones, should be as fleshed out as a player character so as to not have a cardboard cutout who says "We're sorry princess but your hero is in another castle."