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PC Goals and NPCs/DNPCs - What's the point?

A bit of GM thought rambling generated by our Session 1 of M-Hero/The Victors (Champs Now beta)...

So... first sessions are always awkward for me as a Gm, even when playing with long time partnerns in crime. I still feel stressed and like I'm groping in the dark to have something "stick" that will make the session work. (By "make" I don't mean GM sole decision, but more my ability to properly respond to what the players generate and and sew the discordant sounds into some kind of melody.)

Assuming players and characters have a few sessions under their belt, the ability to bubble some order out of the chaos becomes easier, because I learn what 'hooks' to jump on and feed back to the players. First sessions, that isn't there, yet. Often this bubbling happens in play via the NPCs and DNPCs of the players.

Before our Session 1, the PCs didn't have too many specific "people" named in the lives of their PCs. I asked them to each just give me one name, and a relationship... friend/lover/partner/rival/enemy, whatever. Specifically prompted, they all came up with something clear to start with... their key business partner who knows a lot, but not everything... the best friend and confidante... the lab rival who may or may not be an asset... the coach who might have a hidden past, etc. Good outlines... but I still had no idea what to do with them. They made sense why they would be "in the story" but not how they would be meaningful. I had an NPC I was introducing (young super heroine looking to connect, but on the run) that I had a strong voice for, but I felt stuck trying to figure out to bring the others into play. Only one had a cameo at the end, evoked by the player who created her, as a classic NPC handles the annoying paperwork moment. Not wrong, but hardly a momentous introduction.

Now, nothing went critically wrong here, and such NPCs can easily take on life in further sessions, but I was wondering about a more rule/mechanic based way to encourage the invocation of NPCs that drives eventing. I felt I would have liked a way to give me more of a nudge from the players on how I should use the NPCs.

I'm thinking that there could be something tied to an NPC/DNPC on the sheet that acted as some kind of "bennie" in the game. The player can "bring the NPC into play" for an advantage of some kind (gets them a key piece of information, access, resource, whatever) but this also signals the NPC is in play for GM plot.

Now, I realize this can be done by just urging the players to do this, but I find that mechanics as simple as chits/bennies/extra dice, whatever that are physical and represent "here... i'm using this game resource to activate this forward motion/eventing" tends to get a powerful and positive table response. Players 'lean in' when another throws a Luck chit in our other RDU Hero System games. The idea that such bennies could be tied to a DNPC, which encourages having one, letting them be seen as important to the PC, and getting a group reaction of "Ok... this character is in play now" can be very visceral and satisfying.

I think that such a thing could apply to any Disad in Champs Now/Hero or other system that does something similar... not just DNPCs. "Ok... I'm using contacting my old criminal buddy to find out where the arms deal is going down, but this will make me pop up on VIPER's radar, so..." 

Thoughts? I know that I personally was hoping for this kind of thing from Champs Now... a very, very different approach to story telling wrapped arond the genius that is the classic Hero 3d6 task resolution bell-curve.

Actual Play


Storn Cook's picture

The classic DNPCs are Aunt May and Lois Lane.  Damsels in distress that complicate matters for the Heroes, and that is why they are worth Disadvantage points in Champions.  But with #MeToo and trying to come out of the male dominated era of comics, I question what DNPCs should be as emulation of comics AND how they impact a Champions table.  

So can complications from DNPC be more than "somebody to be rescued"?  Are those complications, other than freeing said DNPC from railroad tracks, worth how many points?  Is social danger equal to actually putting your Hero in harm's way to rescue buddy/love interest/mentor?

I made my DNPC (Carlos) a teammate on the U of M Wolverines football squad.  In my mind, this is a very competent person (as most football players tend to be, we are talking about some of the best athletes in the world).  But I made him more from a place of "who is Darius Driver's best friend in Ann Arbor?" more than "How can I hand plot hooks to RDU Neil"?  

In doing so, I might have made a piss-poor DNPC.  

Of course, the timely subplot that comes to my mind, is drug use by modern atheletes.  Carlos is on the fast track to the NFL after college.  What drugs does he start doing to mitigate pain?  To get an edge?  And this being a super hero world, the possiblity of drugs bringing on powers and personality change are standard operating procedure of many a villain origin in comics.  But here I am getting into "What If" territory instead of handing RDU Neil really clear leverage from the get go from the 2 sentences that intitally created the DNPC Carlos.  

When juggling 4 players, all with supporting casts, finding the space to do those subplots can get difficult and overly busy.  If a Disad doesn't get used, is it worth the points?

Here is one area where I think DNPCs can really pay off.... in what is called by our group as "Bluebooking"- based on Aaron Allston's Strike Force GM notes.  The idea of having some structure to the "down" time of super heroes that still drives plots forward and creates new plot hooks.  I would love to see some love given to Bluebooking in Champions Now.  

Ron Edwards's picture

I think "who's my best friend here" is a better NPC than "how do I provide plot hooks," but I also think unpacking that will take more time than I have right now. The very brief version which may cause more trouble than it solves is that there is no "plot" therefore no hooks are needed. Or maybe it will just be best to see what happens in the games I'm playing, and finding the right words for that.

I do agree with you that NPCs in general, and DNPCs as a subset, bear reflection. Tell me more about Carlos. Did you make him according to the file's rules? They are built very differently from how they used to be.

Regarding bluebooking, I have a lot of contact with the play culture that produced them, so that to me, they aren't Aaron Allston's but K. C. Ryan's and similar groups. The one thing that will help me now - and nothing else will, no speculation, no text reference, no recommendation - is for you to try it and tell me what happened.

Storn Cook's picture

I have not statted Carlos out or anything, I just went by the Champs Now DNPC disad costs.. and originally he was this:  Rotating DNPC, rotating U of M Student in trouble           10....  as I was thinking a way to slowly create a cast of student characters is that there could be a different one in trouble each week.. sorta Veronica Mars approach to an DNPC.

RDU Neil wanted something more succinct than that.... so I gave him Carlos on the spot.  Don't know if I answered your question. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Not quite, or at least, I'm not sure I understand. I think you mean you wrote "rotating student" and set it at 10 points, but (i) is that right, and (ii) that doesn't tell me what the 10 points were. Did you conceive of having different Disadvantages per student?

Is there any reason not to get "Carlos, student athlete, substance abuse problem, Dependent: ordinary substance [10]," for 10 points? That's how the rule is supposed to work. You name a person, you give him or her Disadvantages, and the Disadvantage for you is the total of those. A good way to look at it is that this person's problems are your "own," for whatever in-fiction reason works, maybe only because you care a lot.

That seems to me to satisfy both your desire for a DNPC who's more than just a dummy that gets tied to railroad tracks, and some fairly rich plot-potential for the GM, especially if Neil were to play him as reasonably sympathetic.

Does that help or make sense, assuming I read your description correctly?

RDU Neil's picture

I do think "Their problems are your problems" is really important phrasing. That really helps me to grok what you intend for DNPCs, as opposed to NPCs that just arise through play.

Storn Cook's picture

>>>Is there any reason not to get "Carlos, student athlete, substance abuse problem, Dependent: ordinary substance [10]," for 10 points? That's how the rule is supposed to work. You name a person, you give him or her Disadvantages, and the Disadvantage for you is the total of those. <<<

The reason being I was trying to fight my sense of disbelief of getting 10 points of problem from one roomate....when I was thinking more of monster of the week type tv trope of rotating cast member in trouble... ala Supernatural.  My expectation was that maybe RDU Neil would say, "hey, remember Debbie? She hasn't been in class all week and her roomate can't find her for the last 4 days."-- then maybe a session later; "Duc has blown up the chem lab.  He insists it is not his fault.  Saying something interrupted him in a flash of light."  --blammo, plothook.  

I also feel that NPCs are not create equal.  Sometimes the evolve in play and become a better candidate for DNPC than ones that are created from the get-go on the character sheet.  This has happened enough in my long association with Hero to have taken note of that.  Lastly, it was prompting my RDU Neil that fired off my synapses on create more of Carlos.  I simply needed a sounding board at that moment.  And I feel no shame in that.  I've created thousands of characters over the decades and to have momentary blank cipher of an DNPC doesn't bother me in the least.  It is in the blank spots that creativity often grows.  

I agree with RDU Neil... "Their problems are your problems" is a really cool way of looking at it.  


Ron Edwards's picture

No shame intended! I was interested in whether the mechanic itself (the Disadvantage of Disadvantages, I guess) was working or whether it related to the "student of the week" idea.

There are a lot of different variables in the DNPC/NPC discussion. One of them is, "why this person rather than any other," especially when we all know that different NPCs catch fire or fail to do so, and you simply can't tell which. The way I see it is that the starting DNPCs are like the first few issues of the comic, in old-school newsstand terms. If they make sense, i.e., are fun to play and to see develop, if their relationship with the hero creates attention and enthusiasm, then they get to stay that way; otherwise, one can change them out for someone else.

That's related to my more general rules about rewriting or re-valuing Disadvantages, which I don't think should be whenever and however, but organized in some way.

Another variable is whether a DNPC is a plot hook or not, and whether that term even means anything in my intended context or aesthetic for playing this thing. I really don't think it is. The DNPC is a much stronger concept when play is not about "who do we fight this week," with why and where being locked-down by prep. You can see exactly how I do it - and maybe that's better than me trying to describe it - in my posts about the Defiants game, especially the latest one ("Defiant to the end").

Another good example is the prep session for the Legacy game, in which one of the players has a big "oh!" moment when he realizes that if he gives his hero's DNPC a Psychological Limitation, that doesn't mean the person has to be neurotic or otherwise behaviorally messed up. It works fine if the content of the Psych Lim is actually something admirable which they are intense about. Heh - it's like saying, "your DNPC's problems are your hero's problem, but none of that is your problem, instead, it's the opposite, you have someone to care about."

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