Picture it: Two or three of your player characters are in the middle of a scene tackling a problem. As the gamemaster (and possibly the game designer), you are aware of the right answer to solve the problem. But, as players do, the characters go on a tangent that is not the solution to the problem at hand. There are a few options that a gamemaster has. This article focuses on using NPCs to push the plot forward.
But before we focus on the power of the NPC let’s briefly review a couple other devices the GM has to push the plot forward.
One thing a GM can do is simply tell the players that they are pursuing the wrong avenue to solve the problem. In my opinion, this is the least creative and possibly the most irritating to the players. I like to keep my players in character during gameplay. Stepping out of the game and telling them “That’s not the solution” can break the mood. I do not like to do that.
Another option is spending a lot of threat to create complications that defy players when they pursue an avenue of research that is a dead end. There is an inherent problem with this however. This tactic can create a competition, driving endless momentum and threat spends as GM and players pit Advantages and Complications against each other in a spiraling swirl of frustration and oneupmanship. In other words, this is not my favorite solution to the dead end scenario.
So what is my recommended solution should players get stuck not knowing exactly what to do? What can a GM do when players are pursuing a dead end? Herein lies the power of the non-player character.
This methodology definitely requires the GM to do some brainwork before the gaming session. Which NPCs might be in and around the action during the gaming session? What questions might they ask to prod the PCs in the right direction without coming off as railroading?
Players tend to get excited when presented with a challenge. All it takes is one eager player to create a solution that sounds phenomanal. The next thing you know, your entire group working on a dead end. And when they are in this fervor, they might forget to ask basic questions like “Why?” “Why” is a question that prompts characters to consider motive and a deeper explanation to what’s going on around them. And NPC can ask why at the right time. AN NPC can make a suggestion (perhaps in question form) that the players have overlooked. Alternatively, the NPC can relate a story, illustration, or example that offers a fresh perspective to your players.
Yes, the NPC can come in and make a world of difference. Take for example the conversation between Torres, Kim, and Paris when they were trying to pass the warp threshold. Let’s assume Neelix is the NPC in this scene. Watch how a skilled GM can help steer the players in the right direction:
TORRES: It’s the pylon again. Every time we get close to crossing the threshold, the subspace torque rips a nacelle off the shuttle.
KIM: What about a duranium alloy? We could try using it to reinforce
TORRES: No, I’ve thought about that already. It’s too brittle.
NEELIX: More coffee? Ah, you look like a happy bunch.
KIM: We’ve hit a wall.
NEELIX: Oh. Well, maybe I can help.
PARIS: Great. Do you know anything about quantum warp theory or multi-spectral subspace engine design?
NEELIX: No. But I’m a quick study. What are we working on?
TORRES: Do you have anything to eat?
NEELIX: Sure. There’s some Kalavian biscuits, somewhere in the kitchen.
TORRES: I guess I’ll go find them myself. Fill him in.
KIM: Neelix, it would take too long to
NEELIX: What are you saying? I’m not smart enough? I’ll have you know I did two years as an engineer’s assistant aboard a Trabalian freighter. I’m well-versed in warp theory.
PARIS: Okay, okay. We’ll tell you. We’re trying to break the maximum warp barrier.
KIM: Nothing in the universe can go warp ten. It’s a theoretical impossibility. In principle, if you were ever to reach warp ten, you’d be travelling at infinite velocity.
NEELIX: Infinite velocity. Got it. So that means very fast.
PARIS: It means that you would occupy every point in the universe simultaneously. In theory, you could go any place in the wink of an eye. Time and distance would have no meaning.
KIM: If Voyager achieved warp ten, we could be home in as long as it takes to push a button.
NEELIX: Wow! And you’re working on this?
PARIS: We discovered a new form of dilithium in the asteroid field we surveyed last month. It remains stable at a much higher warp frequency.
KIM: The problem is, every time we simulate crossing the transwarp threshold, the nacelles get torn off the ship.
NEELIX: I remember there was a time when I lost a warp nacelle going through a dark matter nebula.
PARIS: This is a very different problem.
NEELIX: I realise that. I’m just using it as an example. As the ship went through the nebula, it sent out a dark matter bow wave. Eventually so much pressure built up, it tore the nacelle from its housing. Now, maybe the same thing is happening to you.
KIM: No, the simulations don’t indicate any kind of subspace stress on the nacelles.
PARIS: Wait a minute. What about the shuttle itself?
KIM: What do you mean?
PARIS: Maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place. What if the nacelles aren’t being torn from the ship? What if the ship is being torn from the nacelles?
KIM: The hull of the shuttle is made of tritanium alloy. At the speeds we’re talking about, that alloy could depolarise.
PARIS: And create a velocity differential. The fuselage would be travelling at a faster rate of speed than the nacelles.
KIM: That means we just have to set up a depolarisation matrix around the fuselage.
PARIS: That’s it! Neelix, you’re a genius.
(Paris and Kim leave.)
NEELIX: I have no idea what they just said.
An NPC can ask the right questions to get them thinking in the right direction. It takes a skillful GM to have the NPC interject ideas while still allowing the players to have the joy of concocting the solid solution.
Note: Players may activate support characters during the game. GMs can be the voice of these characters and utilize these to ask questions that prompt players toward a solution in a natural way.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some skilled players consistently know the right questions to ask. They look beyond the now and play the long game; search for the bigger picture. They know how to use Obtain Information spends to narrow their options down so that they are spending energy in the right direction.
UPDATE: Star Trek Adventures fan Matt Day responded to this article stating, “There is of course option 4 that seems to get overlooked though—subtly adjust your own plans so that the cool idea the players came up with will work.” This author totally agrees! I have actually been more impressed with the players’ take on the story than my own on one occasion and altered the facts accordingly. Why? Having fun and telling a great story is the ultimate goal of my game. I also like the characters to have the glory in the story. This method is surely for advanced GMs, but all GMs should try their hand at this to really transition into improv storytelling.
On another note, NPCs can help extract values and promote character development.
I notice that some players tend to not really give a damn about their fellow player characters. They kind of sit around waiting for action to happen. During down time, they focus on activities that involve their character but fail to apply the number one rule of any good conversationalist: Focus on others, not yourself.
With that stated, I use NPCs to ask questions to the player characters to help flesh out their characters. For example, I have an Betazoid quartermaster NPC aboard my group’s ship. She is the person resposible for making sure the captain’s quarters are well-appointed and cared for. She will often ask the captain about their preferences. This allows the player to flesh out their character, their likes and dislikes, customs, and such. During especially trying missions this NPC can become the sounding board for the captain, noting the COs stress and inquiring about what they are thinking. This allows the quartermaster to pose questions (perspectives) that the actual player might have missed since they are too emotionally or technically caught up in the story.
I wish that other players would make a habit of engaging with each other in like manner. But just in case they do not, I have the NPC solution. It will take practice for a GM to develop this skill. If it is done well, players will not even notice.
Now, I should note that Star Trek Adventures does have the Scientific Method designed into game mechanics. This is one way that GMs can help players discover the “Right Way” when working on a problem. But I have noticed that there is quite a bit of argument about the usefulness of the Scientific Method. My group has pretty much abandonded that mechanic.
Instead, I utilize the NPC method to drive thought, creativity, interaction, and character development among my players as much as possible. What are your thought on this? What tactics might you use as a GM to get people talking and working toward solutions?