Let's establish a running example, because I love examples. Even though today's post is system neutral, I'll use my example story and characters from this post.
The party has returned to the city-state of Radua, having met with Boss Tabitha of the Verdidum rebellion. Tabitha told them she thought that the assassination of the Baron was a false flag operation by the Black Chandlers - the King Pasquale's secret agents - to discredit the rebels to the potentially sympathetic people of Radua and eliminate a noble who opposed the King's growing power over his Lords. The temporary governor of Radua is one of Pasquale's appointees, and the old Baron's retainers are chafing under the new governor and the tyrannical grip of the King.
("Sounds a little like the Star Wars prequels' plot," Denise quips. "Wonder if we'll find Pasquale's secret clone army." Francis makes some notes for future sessions.)
Dogfinger the halfling thief is visiting with a gang of thieves in Radua called the Ravens - the de factor Thieves' Guild of the city. She hopes to find out if they have any information on the Black Chandlers visiting within the last month.
Dogfinger heads off to a shady sailors' bar at the Radua docks called the Mug and Cutlass, where the Radua Ravens linger to gather news about incoming and outgoing shipments so they can bribe the harbormaster and extort the merchants for protection money.
What is Francis going to do with Alphrydd the elf ranger, Bear the goliath warden, Cara the human warlord, and Erebus the human wizard? If you bring a wizard and a bunch of fighters with you to a gang bar, you're no longer subtly gathering information. You're bringing a bunch of muscle and an arcane missile launcher.
If Francis didn't want the party to split up, he might pressure Dogfinger to bring the other PCs as muscle. "Last time you visited, the docks were very dangerous. After the Baron's death, things have only gotten worse. Maybe you should bring the party." If the bar scene were the session climax, it makes sense to hint that nobody should be left out. But it's not. All it does is create a situation where four players sit around "guarding the exit" and "pretending to be just another customer" while Denise has Dogfinger do all the talking. Worse, the other PCs might will step in and start doing their 4/5 of the talking, when this scene really should highlight Dogfinger's shady network of criminal connections.
Francis, the GM, pauses the action: "OK, while Dogfinger is gathering information at the Mug and Cutlass, there are other opportunities in this city for the rest of you. The tower of the Wizards' Council leaves a black shadow across the artisans' quarter. And elves in town are spreading a tale about a druid who's been thrown in jail by the temporary Governor, a cruel woman who was appointed by the King."
Alfred: "I think Bear and Alphrydd should go see about the druid. If the King's governor locked up a druid, maybe the druid knows something. If we can't get in, we'll go talk to the other woodsfolk around town."
Barry, speaking as Bear: "Yeah, dungeons have rats. I can talk to rats. Let's do this."
Francis has a choice. In an alternate reality, he prods Charlotte and Erica:
Francis: "The Wizards' Council tower - another opportunity to see about reinstatement. Erebus, do you want to go?"
Erica: "Oh, good point."
Charlotte: "Can Cara come along? I want to look up King Pasquale's family tree in the library if they'll let me. And the tower is in the artisans' quarter - so we can get an inn and go shopping after."
Erica: "Sounds good."
But what if he doesn't? What if he decides to use them?
Francis: "Charlotte, Erica - can you two take on NPC roles for me?
Now Francis needs to take a five minute break to prepare some NPC cards for them. NPC cards are everything a player needs to take the role of an NPC in a social scene and make it challenging and fun for both the player taking on the NPC role and the PCs who are interacting with the NPC.
An NPC card has to describe the NPC briefly (let the player make up most of the details), explain the NPC's goal, explain what information the NPC has and how it can come out, what might make the NPC escalate the scene into a higher-stakes conflict, and what might make them defer to the PCs' wishes.
- NAME: The NPC's name.
- TRAITS: List a few traits - quirks, Fate-style Aspects, or just personality traits, like in 5th edition D&D.
- GOAL: What does the NPC want? The NPC's goal should never be closely aligned with the PCs' goals, even if the NPC is an ally!
- REVEAL: What the NPC should reveal, either about the plot, or about their escalate/defer conditions. Write down the info that the NPC reveals, and then explain how they might reveal it, either here or in the Goal, Escalate, or Defer sections. Sometimes the NPC's goal is to get the PCs to understand something. Sometimes the NPC will hide information or lie if the conflict escalates. Sometimes an NPC will only reveal information if the PCs win them over.
- ESCALATE: What makes the NPC escalate the conflict, and how might they do so?
- DEFER: What makes the NPC defer to the PC's agenda, and how might they help?
Because "Francis" has sloppy handwriting, here's what the cards say:
First card, Belle:
- Name: Belle
- Traits: Blunt, cocky, aggressive finger-pointer
- Goal: Avoid Chandler spies & informants
- Reveal: When deferring, reveal that just after the Baron's assassination, Chandlers arrested & executed three Ravens.
- Escalate: Throw Dogfinger out if she acts like a spy.
- Defer: Reveal above if she convinces you she hates King Pasquale/Chandlers
Second card, Smith:
- Name: Smith
- Traits: Greedy, shifty, asks too many touchy questions
- Goal: Make 50gp
- Reveal: He and Bryn, Sevens and One-eye sold info to Chandlers re: Baron's castle secret passages. Others all disappeared.
- Escalate: Start a fight if anyone implies you sold out the Baron, YOU DIDN'T KNOW!
- Defer: For 50gp, you'll reveal your info, painting yourself as innocent if not heroic.
Francis hands Belle's card to Erica and Smith's card to Charlotte: "Thanks for helping out. If you achieve the goals on your cards, I'll give you a bennie."
Technically you don't have to bribe your players. In my experience doing this, they're happy for a chance for a little consequence-free, GM-sanctioned PvP! Francis is generous with bennies, though. That's just his style. Here, a bennie could be Inspiration in 5e D&D, a Hero Point in Pathfinder, an XP in World of Darkness, a Fate point, etc. Another way to handle it is to give the re-cast players' usual characters a brief narrated scene that gives them in-game bennies: Francis could have said "While you're playing NPCs, your PCs find one of Erebus' old classmates from the Council University who hooks them up with two invisibility potions."
After giving Erica and Charlotte a chance to read the cards, Francis frames the scene.
Francis: "OK, the Mug and Cutlass is a cramped, dirty bar, packed with sailors. Jostling for space at the bar are two Ravens Dogfinger recognizes. One is Belle, an extortion thug. The other is a shifty information broker whose name you can't remember."
Denise (Dogfinger): "Belle! Long time no see!"
Charlotte (OOC): "Francis, what do I know about Dogfinger?"
Francis: "You decide."
It's important to establish early that the players who've been re-cast as NPCs have the freedom to make up just about anything about their NPC that isn't on the card. If the player opens with a question like Charlotte's, it's easy. Just answer like Francis. If the player is a little bolder, say, making a suggestion... Charlotte: "Can I say Belle knows Dogfinger and thinks she might be a Chandler spy?" Francis: "Yes, absolutely. Make up whatever you want about Belle." This is not a time for "yes, and" -- if you show that you want to have a say in what the NPC says and does, the player will keep turning to you, and it won't be as fun for either of you.
Charlotte: "Belle points her finger accusingly at the thief. 'You're that halfling who disappeared right after the Baron was killed, Dog Crap or something, right?'"
...the scene continues, with the three players bantering back and forth. Once you get the scene going, you don't have to monitor it. Occasionally, the players will come to you with questions. That's natural. But a roleplay scene can run itself, if you're not playing any of the NPCs in it!
Now that Charlotte and Erica are settled in roleplaying with Denise, Francis suggests they move to another room (or to the corner of the room) and roleplay the scene out while he handles the scene with Alphrydd and Bear.
Misreading the Cards
The NPC cards technique is a very, very common adventure style LARP technique (see how it gets used in this example adventure style LARP session agenda). Having run many LARPs, it seemed natural for me to use it in tabletop games. But I'm constantly surprised how few tabletop gamers have tried LARP, and I run into tabletop GMs all the time who don't know about NPC cards (actually, in LARP, they often get a whole packet of info; and sometimes play the NPC for an entire weekend).
So if you're not familiar with this technique, you're probably also not familiar with its biggest drawback. It's not that players will be afraid to start making things up. Once you show them they're free to (as Francis did), they tend to go nuts. The problem is that they often misinterpret what's on the cards. Even in adventure style LARP, where a team of GMs often spent hours crafting a scene and building NPC packets, the cast players still bring their own interpretation to the words the GM wrote. In tabletop, when a GM puts together an NPC card in the hours before game or during a five minute break while improvising at the table, misinterpretation is even more likely.
Usually, you have to just let it go. Remember, nothing is a fact in an RPG until it's come out in game. And once it's out, the only way to take it back is to stop the game, apply "retroactive continuity (retcon)" and talk to the group out of character.
Don't step in just because the NPCs are winning. You can let it get real bad before stepping in. You can even watch gleefully as the re-cast players take sadistic joy in giving the PCs in the scene a serious drubbing.
If Belle and Smith decide that Dogfinger is a Chandler spy, invent the fact that they have a gang of twenty bad-ass thugs to surround her, and have her bound and loaded on the next merchant sloop to the Far Continent... we're still OK.
Yeah, even if they go that far, Francis can roll with it. Looks like a rescue mission to save Dogfinger is in order. And then maybe the ship's captain can supply the important reveal when the other PCs get there.
If they decide Smith would sneak out to sell Dogfinger out to the Chandlers, arrange an ambush, come back, paint her as a Chandler spy to get Belle to throw her out, and have her attacked when she gets bounced... we're still OK. The Chandler is Francis' NPC. Francis will step in as the Chandler and run a one-on-one combat. Dogfinger will probably win, and she'll find the important info in the Chandler's journal, which also includes the info about Smith's earlier information sale about the secret passages. Maybe the Chandler even still has the maps to the secret passages in his journal.
The two situations you want to step in and either change the scene or retcon things are:
- Fixing Stall-Outs
- Repair Continuity
It's one thing to kidnap Dogfinger or sell her out to the bad guys. It's another to just stonewall her. Most players would rather their characters get kidnapped than get stonewalled. When all the players are locked in an impasse, nobody is getting anywhere. The PCs are getting frustrated, and the NPCs are getting bored, since now they've reached what they see as an end-point. The GM should step in, as soon as they realize it.
For example, let's say Denise hasn't caught Erica's subtle hints that Smith wants a bribe, and Charlotte is taking her time having Belle decide if Dogfinger is trustworthy. They go back-and-forth for ten minutes, Denise starts to get frustrated, and Eric starts to get bored. Francis notices and steps in.
Francis: "How's it going?"
Denise: "I don't think I'm getting anywhere."
Francis: "Erica - what might Dogfinger notice or intuit about Smith?"
Francis: "Does Smith seem to want something?"
Erica: "Oh, yeah, he's totally angling for a bribe."
Erica: "Oh, yeah, he's totally angling for a bribe."
Francis: "Dogfinger is pretty savvy when someone's angling for a bribe. She thinks fifty gold would loosen Smith's tongue."
Denise (as Dogfinger): "Smith, maybe there's something you can't remember because your mind's pre-occupied by your debts and poverty. Maybe if I helped you out, as a sister in the struggle?"
Erica (as Smith): "Yeah, I can't think 'bout nuthin' but me debts these days."
Denise: "I slip Smith five platinum."
Francis: "OK, so you're good to proceed?"
Erica: "Oh yeah. 'Wow, sister, it's amazing how being freed of one's concerns jogs the memory. Say we go talk in the corner?' Smith makes sure Belle doesn't see this transaction. Belle's always so suspicious!"
If the cast NPCs invent facts outside of their NPC roles that contradict existing game-world information, you need to step in and either retcon those facts or else remind the players that the NPCs are simply wrong.
For instance, if Charlotte (as Belle) says that the Chandlers moved an army into Radua, well, that simply didn't happen. It may be a few minutes before Francis catches on, especially if he's running a scene in another room! This happens all the time in LARP, and LARP GMs get a lot of practice using minimally disruptive retroactive continuity fixes.
The trick is that the cast NPCs are just people. Their information is always suspect. The players that you've assigned to play them have the authority to make up whatever they want to inform what their NPCs say and do; but in the end, they're just words. And NPCs can be wrong. They can lie, exaggerate, misinterpret, get bad information, mislead, and misspeak.
Back to the example: After the scene, Denise is summarizing what she learned. When Francis hears about the claim that there's an army of Black Chandlers occupying Radua, he has to step in. That contradicts how he framed the session. The Black Chandlers are a subtle spy agency, not an overt army; and King Pasquale appointed a governor - he didn't invade.
Denise: "I'm not sure I get the part about the army. Is Radua occupied by an army of Chandlers? I thought they were spies and assassins."
Francis: "Belle was speaking metaphorically. She suspects there are dozens of Chandler spies in Radua. To her, that feels like the city's been invaded and occupied. Dogfinger would have caught on that it was just a bit of hyperbole that emphasizes her fear and paranoia, not a literal fact."
Caution! If a player invented a fact that doesn't contradict something that's already come out in the game world, it's new information. There is no need for the GM to retcon new information. Let's say Belle told Dogfinger that the Chandlers were under the command of a Horned Devil. That's new to Francis! But it's just something Belle said. The PCs have to investigate more to confirm it. Francis has a lot of great options, using the "yes, and" technique:
- "Horned Devil" is a metaphor. The leader of the Chandlers is a knight, who's secretly a Chandler. Francis decides he has armor with a horned helm. The metaphor is really a clue to help the PCs out the traitor. ("Yes, and not every reference to a 'horned devil' literally refers to the Monster Manual.")
- The Chandlers are evil. Maybe they really are working with a Horned Devil. Francis could take it as a suggestion and incorporate it. ("Yes, and I'm going to make this a part of the Chandler power structure!")
- Belle could be exaggerating again. It's not a Horned Devil. But they do control some undead Shadows. When the PCs investigate, they learn the truth of it. ("Yes, and Belle is prone to hyperbole.")
When the players split the party, one of the worst things that can happen is for one group to get into a fight while another is twiddling their thumbs. Just like you can assign NPC Cards to players, you can assign monsters to them.
Later in the session, Alphrydd and Bear are trapped in an alley fighting undead Shadows. Francis pulls the Shadow stats up on the SRD and sends the link to Charlotte, Denise, and Erica.
Francis: "OK, everyone have the stats up? Real quick, roll your Shadow's hit points and then roll initiative. Alfred and Barry, you too. Let me draw this dark alley on the battlemat..."
Just like NPC Cards, players love an opportunity for a little PvP. Some players relish the opportunity and fight hard against their friends. Others enjoy the opportunity to play GM a bit, and might go a little too easy on their friends. Either extreme is fine, really, as long as everyone's playing fair.